|Illuminated Manuscript - The Agony in the Garden 2015|
(9.5" x 6.25")
adapted from work by unknown artists from the Middle Ages
Watercolor on Vellum
by jojo sabalvaro tan
What do you do when you are grieving? I find myself painting. I lost my dear friend Tessie just a few days ago and although she had been ill with cancer for more than two years now, the news that she was close to the end proved unbearable. We met in high school when we were just 10 or 11 years old. All her life, she had been kind and generous in her affection, amity, allegiance and care; and even in her death, she left us a rare gift - an example of complete trust in God which allowed her to accept the inevitable with dignity, grace, courage and even good humor. Her passing saddened me deeply and I fell into lassitude until I realized this is not what she would have wanted. It is important to her that life is enjoyed to the fullest every minute of the day. So I abandoned my funk and decided to paint something in her honor. I usually use my painting time for meditation and prayer especially when I am working on my Madonnas or religious themes and this time I would reflect on the life of my friend.
|Detail on border work|
For the painting, I chose the theme of The Agony in the Garden since my daddy would often paint or sculpt this subject whenever someone he loves passed away. It was his coping mechanism. When my grandfather died, he painted a large Agony in the Garden mural (fresco) on one of the walls of our terrace at home. I also decided that I would be adapting my painting from an illuminated manuscript from the Middle Ages. Parchment and vellum were typical materials used for Illuminated Manuscripts so I decided to use vellum as my paper for a more 'authentic' feel. It is a leap of faith since I have never painted on vellum before. I quickly found that the thin and translucent vellum is a difficult surface to paint on. Blending colors and glazing is almost impossible since the layer underneath will almost always be lifted off. The colors sat on the paper with minimal absorption so I had to be careful that each layer was absolutely dry before I proceed. Vellum also crinkles when wet and taping was no help at all. Crinkling was a little less of a problem when I was working on the border since each motif was small. When I got to the actual Agony in the Garden image and had to apply larger washes, the crinkling problem became worse. What to do, what to do???? Frustration sets in.
Ok, this is the time I need to place myself in the woven leather sandals of the monks in the Middle Ages who were working on illuminated manuscripts. I imagine them painting surrounded by cold, damp stone walls, crouched on a stool bent over on a table with very little light, probably one dim candle perched on the table. To make the blue for the sky or the gown of the Virgin Mary, they had to make their own by grinding lapis lazuli with a mortar and pestle into fine powder and mix it with egg yolks. They also made their own brushes from the hair of the goat or boar in their livestock pen or the tail of a badger or squirrel scurrying in the woods surrounding the monastery. They probably could hear Brother Alwinus and his fellow brothers chanting some prayers in the chapel. Working from dawn to dusk, they stop only for the occasional meals and daily prayers such as matins, lauds and vespers. My 21st century reality is quite different - I am in my studio, with three bright lamps pointing at my painting, in a comfortably temperature controlled room and use paint and brushes bought online delivered to my doorstep by the postal service. Oh yeah, I do have to take care of mundane tasks from time to time such as cooking so my husband and I can eat. For music, I listen to Gregorian chants on my IPad for a simulated ambiance. And let's not forget that monks were producing manuscript pages of about 5.5" x 3" where my page is 9.5" x 6.25", about double the size. Painting those miniatures in great detail and in low light with their hands numb from the cold had to be unbearable but, because the monks are doing God's work, they were happy and content. Even with all the 21st century comfort and gizmos , my work can not hold a candle to the work of the medieval monks. So, in the scheme of things, there is no cause for me to be distressed.
|Monk writing an Illuminated Manuscript|
Working on an illuminated manuscript requires a contemplative, meditative and prayerful mindset. Each leaf or flower represents the beauty of God's creation and each subject matter a reflection on Jesus' life. One of the most common Latin inscriptions one will find on illuminated manuscripts is from Psalm 70, "Deus in adjutorium meum intende and Domine ad adjuvandum me festina ( O God, come to my assistance. O Lord, make haste to help me") which I repeatedly invoked as I worked on this project.
|Completed border work|
I started the painting the day my friend died and, with what I am sure is divine inspiration and guidance, I completed it two days after she was buried. The crinkles on the paper are there, many, many more than when I started and now to me they like the chinks in our life or wrinkles on our faces that give us character and embodies our experiences and lessons learned. While working on this project, I cried and laughed as I reflected on Tessie's life, especially the times we spent together and I prayed fervently, not just for her and her family but also for my family and friends, especially my classmates. I thought that the Agony in the Garden theme is perfect for Tessie since like Jesus who knew what was going to happen to Him when He was praying at the garden of Gethsemane, she surrendered her will to God. This painting which is dedicated to my dear Tess is a cathartic release. Tessie, you will always be in my heart.
|What do I do when I am grieving. I paint.|