In 1381, the statue of the Madonna at Tir Briúin began miraculously to speak. The words transformed all the horrors lingering after a black death had killed thousands, especially people west of the Shannon. Other mirabile followed. A pig gave birth to a lamb and a woman who went to the well for water on the night of the Epiphany pulled her bucket up to find it full of wine. The Madonna was on their side.
The lands of Tir Briúin cover parts of contemporary Roscommon where Cléa van der Grijn now lives and works. Franciscan monks who built a community there are long gone, yet their absence speaks through strands of van der Grijns current practice and uncannily through questions raised about the place and the status of the Madonna they so cherished.
Mary’s role for the Franciscans and others was to intercede, to protect ordinary souls from divine wrath and punishment. When the Franciscan order introduced the Angelus prayer to Europe in 1269, monumentalising the union of human with God, its refrains were taken up fervently in Ireland which had already which had already melded the image of the Madonna with the best of St. Brigid, herself a substitute for earlier Gods.
Every sinner needed her, everyone was a sinner, ergo her status was sacrosanct. Litanies were composed in her honour. Her name was invoked day and night because her intercession might help women in childbirth, heal headaches, toothaches and tummy-aches – and stop God sending you to hells fires.
She was indispensable to poets. Shorn of carnal associations, she came to represent the ideal of courtly love, a gold standard among women that stripped all the dirty bits such as blood and sexuality away.
“No wonder I love that delicate mouth charming me, that white-toothed lady so modest, never angering anyone,” wrote Pilib Bocht O hUiginn, a Franciscan friar/bard in Co. Clare, “curling in her hair, soft her lap, small her foot.”
Once the Madonna was the Mother with the ultimate guarantee – she’d protect her children from eternal pain and suffering. Then her image became banalised and her role as intercessor was cut off. She wasn’t privileged anymore.
This picture of perfection, the image that anchored Gothic and Renaissance art, lost its symbolic value when modernity suspended religious and aesthetic ideals. Despite having a theological revival, the image of the Madonna generally failed to thrill post-modern, and post-Catholic, generations seeking acknowledgement of the reality of being female and male, of being gendered. Yet without someone to intercede on their behalf, ordinary men and women were on their own. Without the guarantee, there was no one to intervene between each solitary human and the grounds of his and her being, no one to soften the landing between life and death.
The lack of guarantee had other implications too. The very notion of community became fragile. Etymologically, the word ‘religare’, which led to the word ‘religion’, was to bind, to make a community, as the Franciscans had tried to do. Something was gained in terms of personal autonomy, but something else was lost deep down.
Van der Grijn problematises representations of the Madonna both in art historical and religious senses. Hers is a leftover Madonna, her practice a sustained attack on the icon to see what, if any grains remain when the work is done. The carnality repressed in traditional iconography returns through the hand-made, layer upon layer, grain upon grain process of painting.
She pulverises images of the Madonna, hiding her once white teeth, burning out her legendary blue eyes, shaving her curling hair, sticking bits of matter onto an icon to whom matter never stuck.
Doing and undoing the image, again and again, provokes an ironic truthfulness: the more that the received image of the Madonna decomposes, the more the artist engages in a dialogue with the tradition of art history, from Duccio di Buoninsegna to Rubens and Titian, towards Tapies and Louis Bourgeois. While the images are worked into representations capable of suspending a sense of past in the present the method of composition builds on the labour of decomposing the Madonna’s age-old gaze.
This is fracture, not synthesis, no matter how the repetitions function or how often they are rotated as though on a spit. The truth value of painting itself is at stake. How to represent the intolerable condition of being without a guarantee, or the unbearable betrayal of finding the guarantee withdrawn and yourself on the outside, now and forever? How to mark the moment of transition between the Madonna who was muse to Pilib Bocht and the post- Catholic, post-Mary culture clamouring all around? Hose undulating repetitions create a temporary aesthetic harmony, which covers up an underlying sense of malaise. The malaise touches the reworked litanies that transform the Madonna’s names as Star of the Sea or ivory tower into Her, or Her Again. The artist does not seal off this malaise or ignore it in the interest of unity but stays close to it, literally throwing materials at each piece to see if the mud – or gold leaf – sticks.
Something partly beautiful, partly unsayable and partly intolerable is happening. An eerie beauty emerges, born of temporary harmony between history and horror, between the blissfulness of an all embracing guarantee and the stark truth of having nothing to fall back on, except for a leftover Madonna and a place the faithful have left.