A year or so ago, my family and I took a day trip to Fatima Shrine in Lewiston, near Niagara Falls New York. I had gone there with them when I was a small child, and of course memories tend to fade from you. I had gotten up that morning to do some painting down the street from my home, it was early, and a cool blue had cast shadows up and down the street. I settled for a café building with an overhanging tree, and after less then an hour I venture back home. We drive to Fatima, complete with a gigantic basilica Plexiglas dome that has a giant garnet statue of the virgin Mother sitting atop it, the highest point in the sanctuary. Here we have gardens and a rosary bead pool around spotlights. I set up near the greeting center on a bench and pull out my travelling easel, lay out my colors and begin work on crafting an impression of the dome.
Let us observe this curious act known as “plein air” or “in the open air” painting as it is known in French. The Plein air landscape or cityscape painter acts quickly to capture an immediate impression of a location, editing the site as you go along, all whilst trying to chase the changing light and shadows in a limited amount of time. The Plein air artist immerses one’s self in the environment to de-center the self, getting caught up in a gestural rhythm of things, to paint from a position of immediate recondition of nature as one sees it. This perspectival experience is enhanced by the sacredness and feminine spiritual nature of the basilica sanctuary. I go through the normal procedures of laying down a sketch on painting panel, going through the major shapes, intuitively mixing color since there is no time to fret over realism and color matching, then slowly building up detail and interest in the piece. I navigate the lights and the darks, changing up the foreground, eliminating certain parts, grinding and shuffling on building texture with the pallet knife etc. the whole time I work away and then I pause to look up at the willow trees swaying in a gentle wind. There is an odd serenity to this place, few people walk by and do not make a sound or even pay attention to what I am doing, unlike the passersby on a busy sidewalk. In that moment, I cease to consciously think about what I am doing, and absorb myself in this moment. I quickly finish off the piece and move my attention to a back pond that has a statue of the Virgin Mary holding a slumped over Jesus. A simple composition that is also abstract in nature (you usually never paint a focal point directly in the middle). I quickly lay down the basic impression, a few heavy strokes of tinted white among a mess of broken color foliage, and there I have an abstract mass of dry brush strokes, that with a certain context, is a perceived vision of Mary holding Jesus in his mortal coil.
I then back up, feeling drained from the experience. It is an odd feeling a landscape painter has after doing a piece in nature, “Alla-Prima” as they say (which means “all at once” a painting completed in a short amount of time). You feel a sense of accomplishment, but you feel this odd coming down from being totally focused on one subject at a time. I go inside to eat with the family at the cafeteria area, we are the only ones in there around this time of the day, and once again I am greeted with this odd silent feeling. I have time to look outside the glass windows that make up a whole wall of the cafeteria. It is then I find myself contemplating what I just painted, a few strokes, and there it is, mother Mary holding Christ the redeemer. Art and religion both have been such integral accompaniments to one another. Where one goes, the other is sure to follow in its wake. I think that my experience of painting at Fatima opens an interesting set of relations between traditional religious art, with its elaborate iconography and Abstract, essence-bound features (the rings of angels ascending to the heavens in a Raphael painting for example), and the landscape. The landscape is often missing as a central focus in sacred art, or at the minimum, is a background stage for the great Christian genre paintings. The famed Kramskoy painting “Jesus in the Wilderness” depicts a dishevelled and gaunt Christ in the desert, tempted by the Devil, persisting onwards never the less. The pastel sunset beaming off His back, the intricate layers of rocks and gravel Christ is sitting on, with a focus on detail, and accomplished with quick and rough brush strokes and perhaps palette knife swipes that give them that jagged look. Here the landscape is no longer a background filler, a set piece, but is engaged in a series of relations with the main focal point of the piece, that being the withered away depiction of Christ; the whole barren desert, the grey and sun-bleached rocks that are depicted, this is what sets up the drama of this biblical story. Jesus is alone in the wilderness, the wilderness is the metaphor for His longing and suffering, and is personified as the main catalyst for the necessary transmigration of Christ’s suffering as such.
I chose to depict the shrine to Fatima from the view of a nearby pond and trees, here nature dwarfs the giant shrine from this perspective, although I had not thought of it that way at the time I was being caught up in that original artistic moment. The central question that I believe artists who are more in tune with a spiritual reality should be asking themselves is what exactly is the purpose of art in a religious context? This is certainly an old question, so old is the link between religion and art that it almost goes without anyone noticing. The artist is the supreme conveyor of a deeper reality of things, a deeper seat of experience that artists envelop themselves in. therefore, in my experience, landscape painters, especially those acutely aware of and engaged within the endless variety and glory of heavenly nature directly (the Plein air painters) do not realize the endless potential in their art to express the divine reality. Of course there is the depiction of beauty, a primordial beauty, a beauty that is primal and most innately attuned to our inner being precisely because it is evanescent the way music is. A painting becomes evanescent, changing, filled with impermanence and temporal-momentary affection because it is the attempt to capture that precise moment under changing conditions. Life is fleeting, life is the transition between light and dark, and so the landscape painter must take these moments of particular light, dark, shadows, shapes, etc. and try to and (in a way) ultimately fail at capturing a moment in time. But this failure is one of supreme motivation, for it is trying to capture what is all around us, who God has given, in God’s infinite graciousness and charitableness. For it is a miracle we can even appreciate such sights to begin with.
But still, the question of the legitimacy of the landscape in its own right is called into question as a way of servicing the depiction of divine beauty. The impressionists rebelled against tradition and made the landscape a stand-alone subject, rather than just a background for the great genre paintings and religious symbolist paintings of old. Of course, this was a natural development, symbolist painters started to abstract and extrapolate more and more of the landscape. The Chinese Taoist painters have no problem feeling the divinity of the landscape, but in the west, landscape painting is a celebration of nature, a way of distancing the calling of art from the old masters and genre painters whom saw the image of the divine and heavenly beauty as almost exclusively in the human figure. But given this trajectory of “honoring the earth” (to quote Zarathustra) I think it should be the job of landscape artists to head in the opposite direction, to stay true to the landscape as its own genre but at the same time, venerate the divine within nature, and the glories of creation. As our lady of Fatima said, “the Church has no Fashions, The Lord is always the same”, so too the landscape is a representation of the Lord. It is “the same” but ever-changing, It is a fount of creativity, endless beauty and infinite complexity that any painter can only at best simplify, be in awe of, and tirelessly try to render its vastness within a series of strokes and colors. So this is the mission of the plein air artist, to sink within the changing dynamics of nature, and to realize the beauty of Creation through their otherwise pastoral and pleasing or “nice” genre of art.
This article was published originally in Demetrios Press, Spring, 2017.