Issue 1 Commentary » Art & Architecture Quarterly
Each picture selected for this portfolio has a significant relationship with the text that inspired it. Because my long-standing appreciation for Medieval Books of Hours has been the main inspiration for much of my work, I’ve included some explanatory background in this introduction. Medieval illuminations often use words as both object and subject–so, accordingly–they rarely contain only one perspective. I am very interested in the moments when what is read and deciphered can transform the visual and create new levels of narrative possibilities. My work with medieval and contemporary writing reflects these compositional generosities.
BACKGROUND and STRUCTURE
The term ‘the hours’ refers to an eight part cycle of prayer practiced daily in medieval monasteries and abbeys. This schedule, adapted in Books of Hours, became central to the order and type of prayers practiced at home by the lay population–most especially by women.
Beginning with Matins, which commenced pre-dawn, the canon continues through the day with Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, Nones, Vespers and finally closing at Compline before sleep. The imagery accompanying each hour came to be associated with a particular set of painted scenarios–most commonly corresponding to events in the life of the Virgin.
Books of Hours have been credited with a transfer of power from the institutional church by instigating an emergence of private prayer and meditation. The medieval innovation of private, silent reading parallels the rise of literacy and the printing press. Most likely the only book owned by a family or even available in an entire village, these volumes often became the sole sources for lessons in reading and writing as well as placeholders for family dates and records. The emergence of a middle class allowed Books of Hours pride of place in heralding the infinite possibilities made available by opening the cover of a book.
Borders and frames, especially when they occur in illuminated pages, have certain specific tasks: they outline the site of a key story and separate it into a singular space.
In Watching Tower, the tall blue tower is framed by the perimeters of the page and then hinged firmly to it. The architectural structure, pictured as simultaneously flat and three dimensional, contains the housing for an early model camera. The nested camera is really a rebus–a clue to the engine of the painting–where a closed-off dark place (in Latin camera means a chamber) paradoxically provides the space where the wide world might be seen and defined by light.
Knots and hardware attach a scroll curling towards us from the back of the field. Much like the exercise of an optometrist’s eye chart, only steady looking reveals what is written there. As in the action of a camera, the visual field must be perceptually dislodged and rearranged to be apprehended. The text reads, in Hebrew, “…for the commandment is a lamp and the Torah is light.”
Morse and Fractal was designed as a double-page spread and is a subjective interpretation of some of the ideas associated with the hour of Lauds. Called ‘the visitation’, Lauds describes Mary holding a cloth-wrapped book in front her pregnant belly while speaking with her older and more experienced cousin Elizabeth.
Coming second in the cycle of eight hours, I envisioned Lauds as a trope for the gift of inherited wisdom between women. The shiplines for constructing a sloop are shown as a means of transport into a new day. The edges of the wineglass-keel and hull are picked out with dots of red Morse code, spelling out the very condition the hours might address and correct: a feeling of being ‘lost at sea’.
My understanding of Lauds suggests a prescription for living that combines elements of labor with intellectual probity–qualities to be used in tandem as points on a living moral compass. A diagrammed carbon atom is joined to the ship with an X in the center of the two panels, while in the maps below, a 15th century rendering of the known world is transformed into a fractal pattern.
Red Letters is a conceptual collage. It combines phrases from the Penitential Psalms and hand-printed transfers from notes and drawings I made during a residency at the Holy Cross Monastery up on the Hudson River. The monks there were kind enough to allow me to draw in the back of their chapel while they performed daily chants. Following their schedule of imposed silences and singing gave me a look into the experience of pattern in their lives, especially as they cycled through the Hours based on the old medieval template.
These drawings were transposed into a still life–what I thought of as their ‘cards’ voiced and exposed ‘on the table’. The psalms are those songs traditionally believed to have been composed by King David, who is also the harpist portrayed on the King of Spades. The title, Red Letters, comes from the phrase ‘a red letter day’, which denotes a saint’s day on the Christian calendar. These particular dates were originally painted into calendars with red lead, minium–which gave its name to our word miniature. The palette of the painting came from a sense of the color red’s capacity to set a memorable glow around words.
It’s usually an honest child who asks the relevant question about this accordion book: “How long did it take to make that?” It is a long drawing, 130 inches, and though it fits neatly into an 8” x 6” cover, the reveal is, if nothing else, a record of time spent.
The connection I see to illuminations–compilations of sheer amounts of days evident in stroke after tiny stroke–is not an obsession, as contemporary artists might tend to see it, but rather, a devotional activity. Part of the power of medieval painted pages derives from the actual time so evident in their making.
When I encountered Andrew Joron’s poem on the Internet (hooray for Poem-A-Day, from the American Academy of Poets) I’d been working from the landscapes of Durer and Altdorfer. In order to relate cohesive stories in my artist books, I began by seriously considering the mantra: ‘once upon a time’. So many tales that begin this way lead to walks in the woods, where, on the outskirts of the civil, events occur that fundamentally transform the wanderer. I saw Joron’s poem as being placed in this mythic forest setting: blue, dense and faintly scored with classical harp music. The printed ink landscapes in German engravings have that same piled-up mark-on-mark effect. Each line is a record both of the shape portrayed and the energy spent charting it.
For full text of poem, click here.
When I received my free calendar from the oil company in January 2013, it came with a picture of a log cabin dangling from a rich S-shaped column of smoke. It was served up as a cliché of time and place that resembles nothing I’ve seen on the North Fork of Long Island where I live.
The most famous medieval calendar–The Tres Riche Heurs du le Duc de Berry of 1412-14–was also painted with a nostalgic eye in an era when an already antique feudal hierarchy was being swept aside by the emergence of urban centers.
Everything that might be said about a calendar, medieval or modern, where each rectangular day is an imminent souvenir, can be intuited from the mesmerizing comfort of its typical grid. This residence, our home among the boxes, is where order prevails and the promise of the future is safe and intact. The erratic qualities of the time we actually inhabit, with it’s wild stretching during trauma and its habit of shortening celebrations, is put aside for the common good.
Red Thread is from a series of works considering the calendar section of Books of Hours. The fluid red line weaves through fractured space and delineates a Conservatory, the ruins of commemorative architecture, and stacks of discarded newspapers. It takes the shapes of Islamic geometry, fishing nets, the spokes of a birdcage and finally resolves into red ink script spelling out names under a roof labeled Solomon’s House.
I’ve used phrases from Ranier Maria Rilke and Gerard Manley Hopkins as ways of deciphering and enhancing the vignettes in this map. Thickets, stacks of books and commemorative sculpture are pictured. Fragments of drawing and writing are linked in a narrative that travels across bordering circles, which are spread next to each other as halves of a globe. Like adding shadow to a flat form, the phrases and their inherent spoken rhythm encourage an added level of looking and a different assessment of the relationships between the literary and pictorial elements.
In the upper right, a poem by Rilke, from his collection of poems called Book of Hours says: “Our hands shake as we try to construct you, block on block.”
Hopkins used the invented word ‘inscape’ to define his own intense way of looking. Paraphrased here from his journal entry of July, 1867, he considers the essential geometries of nature and records them with observations so keen they’ve been compared to a spiritual practice: “I have now found the law of oak leaves. It is of platter shaped stars together; the leaves lie close like pages, packed and drawn tightly. They lie at the end of their twigs looking like bright keys.”
I appreciated putting the building imagery from the Rilke poem next to the deconstruction of a leaf from the Hopkins journal. So much of painting involves these same time-consuming tasks–making, unmaking and repeated reconstruction. The activity of mapmaking, in plotting every poem and in painting any picture, is the real topography charted here.
Ellen Wiener’s paintings, prints, illuminated alphabet and accordion books have been exhibited nationwide at galleries, universities and libraries. She frequently collaborates with poets and writers–her work has appeared on over a dozen book and magazine covers. This summer a portfolio of her drawings will be published in the literary journal, The Ocean State Review, as well as being featured in Central Booking Magazine, published in New York. She lives on the North Fork of Long Island and is currently a Visiting Artist at Stony Brook University.