Blessed Margaret of Castello is the patron saint of unwanted and disabled children. Born in 14th century Italy, she was disfigured and neglected from birth by her wealthy parents. She was taken in by Dominican nuns when she was sixteen and became a third order Dominican. Her story is both harrowing and inspiring: harrowing because of the suffering and cruelty she experienced; and inspiring because of her joy in life, which arose from her faith and transcended that suffering. Here is an account of her life from the website of the Dominican sisters at Nashville. As I read this story it occured to me that if this had been today and her parents had had access sonogram prior to her birth she would surely have become another abortion statistic.
A friend of mine, Gina Switzer, told me that she had been commissioned to paint her and we were discussing how artists might represent human disfigurement in saints so that they retain the dignity of the human person. So this week, I thought I'd write about this - for those who are looking for the continuation of the series, we'll come back to the series of architecture videos next week.
The first point is that it is not immediately clear that human imperfections should be portrayed in holy images. One might assume that these are absent in heaven and so to the degree that we show the redeemed person, argue that they should not be there at all. I was reminded that Denis McNamara told me recently that when they were designing the stained glass windows for the new John Paul II chapel at Mundelein, they thought about this and deliberately left out St Maximilian Kolbe's spectacles for just this reason.
The counter to this is that in order to make an image worthy of veneration, according to the theology of holy images established by St Theodore the Studite in the 9th century, two things need to be present: first the name should be written on the image; and second it should portray the essential visual characteristics of the saint. This last criterion refers to those aspects of the saint that together give the person his unique identity. This can include a physical likeness, although a rigid application of physical likeness is not appropriate - a holy image is not a portrait. We are thinking here of those things that characterize the person and his story, for example, St Paul's baldness, the tongs containing hot coal for Isaias. With this in mind, to use the example of the JPII chapel again, Denis told me that for Blessed Teresa of Calcutta they did want to show her deformed feet because it symbolized her charity - this disfigurment arose because she always chose the worst shoes for herself from those donated to the order. We thought that for St Margaret, in this age of the culture of death, the portrayal of her joyful but with her physical imperfections would be particularly important.
One ideas was to look for inspiration at the dwarfs painted by Velazquez from the court of Philip IV of Spain, who have great dignity and bearing. This idea was rejected, firstly because they can also have an imappropriate haughtiness about them which would have to be changed. And second, because to incorporate all of these considerations into a naturalistic style and be able to pull it off would be very difficult indeed - it might almost require a Velazquez to do it. Even in naturalistic styles there should always be a degree of symbilism (or idealism) and this is notoriously difficult for contemporary Catholic artists to get right even for easier subjects. (Below you see his portrait of Sebastien de Morro.)
In the light of all these considerations I thought that I would probably paint an image in a gothic or iconographic style in which her natural physical characteristics were shown, retained but nevertheless redeemed in some way. The first thing I always do is, as I was taught, look first at existing images and if I can find one that is appropriate, just copy it. The aim to change as little as possible. If there is no perfect image to copy then I look at other images from which I can use the particular characteristics that appear to be missing from my desired image and patch them together into a single image. Only if I can find nothing that has already been painted do I attempt something original. I create drawings made from observation of nature and onto those I impose the stylistic form of the tradition that I am working in.
I found this picture of this sculpture of St Margaret.
I thought that a painting in egg tempera based upon this would work. A change I would make, I though, would be to change the face to one that is more joyful. I like the ones that I see in a series of Aidan Hart's icons, such as St Winifride or St Hilda of Whitby or St Melangell, which look to me as though they are based on an ancient icon of St Theodosia which is at Mt Sinai. You can see images of each below. One thing that I would do is close her eyes to indicate St Margaret's blindness: