Miriam and Mary paintings commentary

I am currently studying at the University of Winchester for an M.Phil/PhD entitled The Very Flesh of Spirit (Levinas): painting as visual theology in the Abrahamic Traditions. The main part of this study uses my own paintings as the basis for theological commentary or midrash. The Bible addresses universal themes through storytelling. These tell of the experiences of the Jewish people spanning several generations of their history. Although the gospels came to be written in Greek, they describe the life of a Jewish family, Mary, Joseph and Jesus and there is great unity and inter-weaving between the two testaments, First and Second: Hebrew Bible and Greek Gospels.

The genius of the whole Bible – Jewish and Christian – is that it transcends both the communities which produced it and times in which it was written. It has the capacity to be endlessly re-interpreted and re-imagined, that includes for us, now. As the Bible, so paintings. I base my paintings on traditional images which are re-imagined in my Here and Now. I use traditional painting techniques: egg tempera and oil on linen. Here are some brief midrashim on these works:

Miriam the Prophet (oil on linen)

Miriam is a prophetess (neviah. She is also endowed with the gift of song and sings after the people escape from slavery and pass through the Sea of Reeds to safety and freedom. The Hebrew word for prophet (navi) means exalted, elevated and to bubble up, to bring forth, as well as to speak or announce. The lips, tongue and mouth of the prophet are often mentioned to emphasise the verbal passage of their gifts - the word of the Eternal on my tongue (2 Samuel 23.2) like a holy lozenge. The prophet is a mouth-piece for the Eternal. Miriam belongs to our world and not heaven.  She is down to earth and an ordinary person. Her ‘halo’ expresses not her divinisation but her humanity expanding to a greater potential.

 The Sacrifice: a pair of turtle doves or two young pigeons (oil on linen)

Throughout the Bible, angels substitute for the Eternal. The angel –malakh (Hebrew) – is a messenger and often portrayed in icons and in the early Italian tradition with wings. The spirit of the Eternal is also pictured as a bird. Mary is ‘greatly troubled’ by her encounter with an angel and after the birth of the baby ‘…Mary kept all these things, pondering [sumballousa] them in her heart’ (Luke 1.29 and 2.19). Sumballo (Greek) means ‘to throw together’. While she did not understand all the troubling things which had been thrown together in her heart, she nevertheless held them there. When the time came, the family went to Jerusalem ‘to offer a sacrifice’, ‘a pair of turtle doves, or two young pigeons’, ‘according to what is said in the law of the Lord’ (Luke 2.22-24). This is the offering prescribed in Leviticus (12.8) for those who cannot afford a sheep.

Mary: Winchester 1253 (oil on linen)

This painting is based on the icon type known as Our Lady of the Sign. In the tradition, the burning bush, a receptacle of the Divine Presence (imagined as fire which is never consumed), is taken as a type for Mary, theotokos, God-bearer, who is also a receptacle of the Divine Presence embodied as the baby Jesus in her womb. In this version, Mary (the Jew) appears in the burning bush as an apparition in Winchester in 1253. From this time, the Jews of Winchester had to identify themselves, not with a yellow Star of David as in the Nazi Era, but with a yellow felt cloth measuring 6 inches by 3 inches, shaped in the form of the two stone tablets of Moses.

Miriam’s Well (oil on linen)

According to rabbinic tradition, B’ein Miryam, the Well of Miriam, accompanied the Israelites throughout their wilderness journeying providing the people with life-giving waters. When Mary thinks back to her own tradition and forward to what Christians will do in their traditions about her, she remembers her maternal ancestor and namesake.