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Some colour has been introduced into the sky above the acropolis. Karen Cropper has brought to my attention a theory that there was no word for blue in ancient Greek. Homer’s wine dark sea etc…. She will elaborate one day.
I have reworked the face of Zeus using the face from a famous bronze sculpture. There is a cruelty of the lip that seems appropriate.
I have used a Roman mosaic as the source for Prometheus driving in a chariot drawn by sea horses.
The figure of Prometheus has been developed showing a cascade of fire and hot ash falling from his hand.
I am beginning to plot out a diagram that is rapidly becoming preposterously complicated. As it outlines the Greek’s mythic view of the world, I suppose that is not surprising.
Using a combination of sources including Ovid, to whom this painting is dedicated, Stephen Fry, Robert Graves, Homer and a life time of fascination with all things Greek, I am trying to assemble an image that reflects the mass of interwoven stories from antique origins that pictures some part of the mythic world of those brilliant people.
We find a world story, pieced together from many threads, containing a cornucopia (another Greek invention) of Titans, Gods, Elemental forces, Naiads, Dryads, Furies, Muses, Powers of night, darkness, doom, hubris and so on. I have come across the Hekatonkheires for the first time, so ugly to Ouranos that he thrust them back into Gaia’s womb. As I listen to the stories I have been scribbling on the board that may or may not end up being the painted surface.
Once again the painting is turning into a research document.
So we have the sleeping figure of Ovid at the top of the inner rectangle (I have begun by following the pattern of the earlier two panels, with 8×4 inner panel, and outer framing panels. I see him asleep in his lonely exile overlooking the wastes of the black sea on the northern borders the empire. Around him are the stories of the titans and the gods that he wove into his Metamorphosis.
Below in the lower part of the painting there is another dreamer. Homer sleeps the dream of the Trojan wars, of the Illiad and the Oddesey, and the world of man is linked to the Gods.
There must be reference to the city state, the polis, the development of the academies of philosophy, the mystical dionysian and orphic sects and the many connections that link this extraordinary flowering of culture to ancient lineages and the following military might of Rome.
I ask myself as I begin this picture what the mythic and spiritual world was like for a Greek.
I’ve had a lot of interruptions lately, and now the season of visitors and guest exhibitions begins, but gradually I have to have some long evening with the painting, and even some days lately.
You will see a lot of detail has changed, a lot of new calligraphy, much of the detail has been tidied and overpainted. I have returned to a favourite painting medium comprising of dammer varnish, stand oil and fine quality turps, and it has given more fluidity to the painting. I’ve been using liquin over the winter, but on the whole I dislike using oils that are manufactured by big companies. No one knows the formula.
Gradually, as I work, I am listening to Myths of Greece, the next panel that I am planning to begin. I have been listening to Ovid’s Metamorphosis, and Stephen Fry’s ‘Mythos’.
The next panel ‘the greek mythic dreamer’ is being prepared here,
A studio for the ceiling paintings has been created within the gallery
In the region of the arab costume I have begun adding arabic. Already I have added a trace of Hebrew, but this must be greatly increased.
The subtle traces of Egyptian influence has been augmented in the painting, as has the cuneiform alphabet decorating the rabbi’s head shawl. In this way I allude to the preceding myths of mesopotamia that became incorporated into the old testament.
I’m beginning to develop a frieze of events that describe the birth stories of these three religions. All agree on Adam and Eve, the trouble in the garden of eden and the subsequent outcasting. Cain and Abel fight, the first murder, and the flood where only Noah survives. So far, so good, but it wont all fit in.
Overall it is at this stage. Still much to do, especially the missing strip along the bottom.
I am at the stage now when I am adding text to the images. Each of the Semitic religions places great emphasis on the written word. Each believe that their sacred text has been divinely inspired, and contains instructions for living that every believer should follow. They are ‘doctrinaire’ religions that require obedience and belief.
This small image on one corner of the main panel shows an angel looking over the shoulder of a writer.
I am beginning to introduce Hebrew into the gown of the rabbi figure, Greek into the christian’s gown and Arabic into that of the Muslim. As I do so I am exploring the relationship between the three texts. I find, for example, that the Hebrew we are familiar with in Jewish texts developed in Babylon during the exiles starting in 587BC. Old Hebrew or Samaritan Hebrew has been included in the writing because it links the early Jews to a larger linguistic group that included the Phoenicians. It is thought that their spoken language was nearly identical.
This small area contains examples of the old Hebrew. This is almost identical with written Phoenician, and may have influenced, or been influenced by Greek.
In this same spirit I will add some cuneiform script to reference the fact that some of the ancient stories in the old testament, the Torah, are much older. The story of Noah, for example, has counterparts throughout Mesopotamia and many references has been found in cuneiform libraries that are much older than the hebrew texts.
The Christian has text written in Greek, because the earliest extant bibles were written in that language. I have imitated the text of the Codex Sinaiticus, now one of the treasures of the National Library. The Hebrew text is also included in this region because of the huge debt owed by the Christian sacred text to the Torah.
Likewise the Hebrew, and a little Greek, must be included in the robes of the Muslim, referencing the influences of both earlier roots.
Most of the elements of the picture are in place. There is more work to be done on the left of the picture, and I must add a strip to the bottom, part of which may obstruct the window. I am thinking of some kind of fretwork solution to this area.
I am planning to introduce calligraphy into the image now. The written word developed great importance in the Jewish world and I will emphasise this by covering the rabbi with hebrew, as he sleeps.
I have been preparing the overall image for this stage by introducing perturbations in the painted surface, breaking the flat surface so that it takes on the appearance of hanging cloth or folded paper in many parts of the picture.
On this undulated and twisted surface I will introduce the calligraphy – Hebrew, Greek and Arabic. I want to introduce Hebrew into the Christian area of text to reflect the fact that much of the Christian scriptures were taken over from the Jewish. The Arabic text likewise owes much to Jewish thought, so that must be reflected, together with some Greek influence.
Notice that Noah and his ark appear here. Not only do all the Semitic religions tell this same story, but so do many other ancient cultures of Mesopotamia. There appears to be archaeological evidence of great inundations in many parts of the region. Moses too is a figure spoken of in all three religions. He is the most mentioned figure in the Quran.
I have long been fascinated by the way the Christian scriptural tradition took its present form. There is a group of books by Charles Freeman, in particular one that describes the council of 381:
“In AD 381, Theodosius, emperor of the eastern Roman empire, issued a decree in which all his subjects were required to subscribe to a belief in the Trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This edict defined Christian orthodoxy and brought to an end a lively and wide-ranging debate about the nature of the Godhead; all other interpretations were now declared heretical. Moreover, for the first time in a thousand years of Greco-Roman civilization free thought was unambiguously suppressed. Yet surprisingly this political revolution, intended to bring inner cohesion to an empire under threat from the outside, has been airbrushed from the historical record. Instead, it has been claimed that the Christian Church had reached a consensus on the Trinity which was promulgated at the Council of Constantinople in AD 381. In this groundbreaking new book, Freeman argues that Theodosius’s edict and the subsequent suppression of paganism not only brought an end to the diversity of religious and philosophical beliefs throughout the empire but created numerous theological problems for the Church, which have remained unsolved. The year AD 381, Freeman concludes, marked ‘a turning point which time forgot’.”
The codex Sinaiticus, the earliest version of the New Testament (plus a lot of the old) was written about the time of 381 council, and the many scratchings out and revisions that appear in its pages testifies to the malleable nature of Christian doctrine at this time.
I shall use this codex as part of the text that will be added to the image.
In all three of these Semitic religions there is a smell of sulphur in the air as well as perfume. All three believe in an end time characterised by violence, rapine, war, famine. Each of these family branches anticipate a violent future. Some of them look forward to a violent future, for for them it was the moment of rapture,
In this part of the painting I am representing a common thread in all three in welcoming a rapturous event when the ‘good’ are caught up to God.
At the same time the bad and the damned are cast down into darkness.
Listening to the news this last week has been good stimulus for these armageddon paintings.
What began as a medieval chasm into which the tormented souls were cast, I find myself painting towers burning and collapsing, and everywhere there are falling people.
I was once invited to a meeting of evangelical christians to hear a converted Jewess from the cathartic movement in Israel speak about her take on the world. She described the end of the world as occurring during a nuclear exchange. It was a chilly thing to hear.
On the other hand i’ve always enjoyed painting dramatic events. I remember engulfing Barmouth in a simultaneous tsunami and mud slide, probably in a period of pique. I am reminded of the paintings by ‘mad John Martin’ who specialised in extravogent (they have to be) paints of the apocalypse, one of which was in the news recently after being restored from a terrible flood.
I was brought up on these eschatological predictions, and mingled with extreme believers in my formative years. When most of my peers were listening to pop music I was singing hymns, and jolly good ones they were/ are.
Hell fire was almost casually preached at all our meetings. When you are in a world of believers, it is easy to believe in anything provided everyone else does. It is like a form of mesmerism.
All three religions have an eschatological myth involving the end of all things. In each there is a prophesy of terrible war, mass death and the return of one who puts a stop to it. There is to be division between the righteous, who will exist in a sort of paradise, and the wicked and unbelievers who will suffer a variety of hideous tortures, for evermore. Therefore I have begun to sketch out the structure, dividing the panel into two long verticals, paradise to the left and gehenna to the right.
Of the three faiths, the Jewish view that the world will continue and prosper, with them at the helm, is the most benign. The book of Revelations is the most extreme. Its all very fascinating.
The painting is becoming, as do all of these ceiling paintings, a research document made in oil paint. I seem to take a long time assembling the fragments, each a separate idea, into a comprehensive overview of its subject. Then these finally become arranged into a satisfactory arrangement.
It is from this point that the painting will really get going. I need an overview, and that can only be obtained when the design is complete.
Even the design is not set in stone, but from now on other factors start to become important, to do with texture, aesthetics, and visual techniques. My inclination is always to break the prosaic norm into structures and panels, even to single points. I am paying brush service (that is an artist’s lip service) to a universe of events invisible and unknown that fills that scene. I use the passage of elementary particles at the speed of light as a cable on which to hang the scenery of everyday life. I use shadow to suggest a change of plane, of dimension, in a world of facets and reflection. Everyone’s time is different.
I have been discussing, with my friend Avon, who knows a lot about a mystical branch of Judaism the possibility of making a short video where he tells us a little of what he knows about the way this mystical sect might symbolize the divine being. He describes it as Hermetic philosophy which emerged from Egypt, they were enslaved there in the time of Moses. Hermes is the Roman name for Mercury, so here we seem to have a connection between Greek, roman, Egyptian and Jewish thought.
For anyone with an interest in these subjects I will publish both of Avon’s replies to by communication with him, setting up the interview, because they contain a lot of insight into his point of view, and illumination of an obscure and esoteric world.
email from Avon, opening out the subject somewhat:
I am happy to go along with whatever approach is useful and helpful. It is probably a good idea to have an informal talk soon to discuss where this can and needs to go.
For myself, life is one big project and process of discovery into which I try to integrate smaller projects.
A question that has always been central in my mind and has recently come into sharp focus is: What has gone wrong in the modern world and what ideas and actions are needed for rectification or the best possible outcome? What can people do? Obvious symptoms of the malaise include social inequality, the damage being done by humanity to its natural environment, and geopolitical conflict.
My thinking is that it can be understood at a fundamental level in terms of the struggles and dialectical processes involved in the evolution of human social structures: that we are around a point where cooperation and respect for the natural environment must supersede competition and exploitation — if we are to continue and prosper as a civilization.
These are of course not new ideas in themselves but what some people have already said or are saying. The more I study and learn about the work of others who have tried to understand the problems of humanity and the world and worked out potential solutions, the more I realize that the world does not work in the way one is led to believe, and that powerful forces seem to work is clandestine ways to oppose any change in direction towards a better way of being.
For example, the studies documented in a book called “The Limits of Growth” in the early 1970s concluded that humanity would be in trouble by the mid 21st century unless appropriate measures were taken. Little known follow-up studies have shown the worrying predictions of the original study to be surprisingly accurate. A similar theme presents itself in more recent times as concern about the environment and global warming as if these problems had only become known in the 1990s.
An irrefutable truth that should be confronted (by the economists, politicians and industrialists) and discussed more in the mainstream media is that the consumption of fossil fuels for energy and plastics is fundamental to modern societal infrastructure and is also a common denominator to the various harms being inflicted on the earth by human civilization. That is a key problem we must solve on a practical level to stop the march towards inevitable self-destruction. Perhaps we should entertain a variation of the journalist’s favourite question (cui bono?): “Who’s power would be diminished?”
But what does any of this have to do with a conversation that is supposed to be relevant to the painting you are working on? There is a line of thinking in the alternative and truth communities that the dominant power of the church and priesthood (basically the elite) gradually reinvested itself into what became, over the course of the centuries between the time of Galileo and the 20th century, the scientific priesthood and its “religion” of scientism.
One can assume that Jesus was deeply concerned with what people needed to do to bring about a better world and way of being. Only later under the Roman empire did a selection of his teachings become institutionalized into the church and its dogma which would inflict evils upon humanity (the Crusades, the Inquisition, persecution of the Cathars and suppression of early scientists) which was surely the opposite of what Christ was about.
Similarly, from being primarily a method of enquiry into natural phenomena, science seems to have been taken up as a powerful means of dominating nature, suppressing dissent, and inflicting all manners of evil upon the world (atom bomb, hi-tech weaponry, dominance of oil and pharmaceutical industries etc.) to the point now where artificial intelligence and transhumanism are becoming or may soon become central features of our reality. Just as monotheism was in the beginning a tool for good which later became institutionalized and corrupted into a formidable power of evil, so it seems to be with science. Nevertheless, religion and science still have their proper and good use. Religion seems to be about bringing people together (synthesis) whereas science excels in the opposite: taking things apart (analysis).
This pattern/process of long duration and multiple iterations does not seem to find any particularly satisfying explanation within the framework of the inductive and deductive logic used in the sciences. The religious explanation that it is evil or the work of the devil seems too simplistic to be an effective countermeasure for the modern mind. The scientific explanation of nihilism or human nature is no more helpful. A method of thinking that might lead to a deeper understanding is that of the Hegelian dialectic which, I have recently realized, is similar to the use of the binary and the ternary in hermetic thinking (the tarot) which we can probably trace back at least to Pythagoras who studied the metaphysical properties of numbers.
Let me know a few days in advance when you would like to conduct the first talk. I can do informal talks without preparation. As I have not done much public speaking, I would need some idea of questions or issues before a formal or public discussion. Any day other than Monday or Friday is good but I can still do those if necessary with advance notice.
Best regards, Avon.