Pilgrimage of the heart

Regan O'Callaghan altar, Gruenwald, Jesus, Colmar

Sometimes there is an artwork which stays  in your heart and mind.  The Isenheim Altar piece is for me one one such work.

My first degree was in Religious Studies and Art.  For my dissertation I studied the Isenheim Altarpiece attributed to Mathias Gruenwald and painted in 1506 - 1515. Originally painted for the Monastery of Saint Anthony in Isenheim it is now on display in the Unterlinden Museum in Colmar, France.  The monks at the monastery were known for their work with people with skin diseases and from the Altarpiece's tortured figure of Christ on the Cross you can see the artist had this in mind.

I don't have a copy of my dissertation but I certainly remember writing it.  It was during Lent 1996. I was staying in the house of a Franciscan Nun (third order) who was away.  In Dove Cottage there was no television and few disruptions so I could focus on the task at hand. For hours I meditated on the crucifixion and explored its symbolism, form and theological meaning and of course the house was full of other religious imagery. Deep stuff but also quite poignant as I was myself going through a period of grief and suffering.  I can remember stuffing the stove with wood to keep warm and huddling beside it giving thanks that I wasn't called to be a monk!  My suffering though was not caused by the cold but rather was an ailment of the heart.

I wrote of the arms of the crucified figure of Christ being stretched out to the cosmos distorted by the hatred of man.  Hands that had once been the hands of a carpenter, hands that created. I reflected on the feet of Jesus so disfigured and grotesque a large nail tearing them apart.  It was all very disturbing.  I wrote a letter to Sister Wendy Beckett a famous art critic to ask her thoughts about images of the crucifixion.  She very kindly wrote back saying she found it to painful to spend time meditating on such images.  I cherish this letter. Fifteen years later I travelled to Colmar to see for the first time in real life the Isenheim Altarpiece.  Travelling through beautiful countryside on the train from Paris I shared with a friend memories of my time in the cold little house of the Franciscan nun, my need for warmth and of my inner turmoil at the time.  Memories flooded back. I remembered a retreat to a Franciscan Monastery in Dorset not long after my stay at Dove Cottage. Sitting in the chapel I gazed at the Franciscan Cross. Unlike the Isenheim Triptych the Jesus on this cross is sleek and beautiful. For a moment I visualised him leaning over and surrounding me with his arms in a warm embrace followed by the cross which enveloped us both.  I felt a mixture of love and empathy mixed with a little fear. I wondered about the significance of this vision (if I can be allowed to call it that). Is love never experienced without suffering?

Standing in front of the Isenheim triptych I gave thanks for past lessons. Lessons learnt? Well thats another blog entry but I certainly stood as someone without regrets.  I was also pleased to see the altarpiece had been displayed so that all the panels could be seen. The beauty and vibrancy of Gruenwald's resurrection stood in stark contrast to his crucifixion.  Here Christ dances in the air in a flamboyant display of joy and victory swathed in beautiful colours and divine light.  Fifteen years is a long time to wait to see the resurrection but I was happy.

For the remainder of my time in France I stayed with my friend's uncle and aunt who showed wonderful hospitality.  I sat in their garden feeling the warmth of the sun, ate great food  and listened to my friend play the piano while we sang songs of love and memories. www.musee-unterlinden.com/isenheim-altarpiece.html

Mary Magdalene

Regan O'Callaghan Mary Magdalene religious icon, easter story, blood egg

The story behind this icon is an interesting one. Mary Magdalene goes early in the morning to the tomb of Jesus. She arrives to discover the tomb empty and in shock drops a basket of eggs.  Jesus appears to her and tells her to go back to the disciples to tell them he has risen from the dead.  Mary gathers up her basket of eggs and runs to tell everyone the good news, but she is met with confusion and doubt.  She recounts the story of finding the tomb empty and then meeting with Jesus who at first she didn't recognise. The Lord has risen it is a miracle. Mary holds up the eggs for the disciples to see.......they have all turned blood red!

This icon was exhibited at Wallspace Gallery in 2007 for the Epiphany exhibition a collection of contemporary icons. An orthodox nun who had beautiful icons also exhibited was rather sniffy about mine.  She said it showed the absence of God because I had used black. This made me laugh as I hadn't used black but indigo for the background. (I wouldn't have a problem with using black either). Still even with this¬†criticism my icon was the first to sell!

For me writing icons is an act of prayer and encouragement.

Saint Saviour

 Regan O'Callaghan saint Saviour's Pimlico, London church, religious icon, egg tempera, gold leaf, church entranceI am based in a studio at Saint Saviour's Church Pimlico. Last year the Church Council commissioned me to write an icon for the church and it was completed and dedicated this Easter.  Here is a description of the icon.

The nails of the crucifixion are being carried off by the rose vine. They no longer pierce and maim but are being transformed by the creative power of the Divine.  The arch is based on the front entrance of Saint Saviour's Church. In this icon it is the entrance to the tomb.  Above Jesus's head is a crown of thorns which has also been redeemed. Jesus's hands are held out as if to say "look these hands which have been stretched and deformed by torture still bear the marks of that torture".  In the Gospel of John, Mary Magdalene goes to embrace the risen Jesus when she recognises him outside the tomb. He says to her " Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father". I understand this as meaning Jesus is still in a period of transition. The flowing patterns or Koru on his robes begin to show the change from linear masculine lines of dogma to creative shapes and patterns more associated with the feminine. A balance between the two states of being reflecting the true likeness of God.