by Mary Rakow
FURTHER INTRODUCTION TO THIS COLUMN
As we saw in the first and second posts, we can find inspiration for secular writing in religious art, and inspiration for religious writing in secular art. Why? Because great art crosses all boundaries and categories.
We also saw that once we write a text it starts to behave like a magnet and draws other images to itself. Then we have a family of images that all, in some way, talk to us about our text and talk to each other. Over time we make more and more of these image–text families, like weaving a very personal, very beautiful tapestry from the threads of conversation between them. Eventually we start to see how the work and the images resonate with each other even across these families. This is deeply, deeply pleasing, totally invigorating for us as writers! I think all artists do this in one way or another.
In this post we’ll learn that we can be inspired by a small detail in a work of art. We don’t need to be inspired by the whole painting or sculpture. We don’t even have to like the larger artwork. But we can love a detail. There are no rules.
PART 1: WHEN I LOOKED AT THIS PAINTING
The above image is a very small but extraordinary detail in a very complicated painting. It speaks to me of a person entirely stricken with grief. It appears in a very famous religious painting of the Renaissance titled The Descent of Christ from the Cross painted by the great Flemish painter Rogier van der Weyden in 1435. Here is that painting:
I don’t have this painting around me except in my van der Weyden art book. But this detail of the eye and the tear is always near me. This grief caused by the death of someone loved is rendered so intense and pure.
The tear is falling from the eye of the figure of John, called in the Bible “The Beloved Disciple,” who bends over to catch Mary, the mother of Jesus, as she swoons in grief. John the Beloved Disciple is to the left of the Cross, wearing a red robe.
PART 2: THE CHAPTER THAT RESULTED
I am writing this post on the Thursday of what Christians call “Holy Week” which leads up to Easter Sunday. Several things happen on this Thursday each year, starting with a commemoration of darkness itself, called “Tenebrae” which means darkness in Latin. All the candles in the church are extinguished, one by one.
As writers, we experience darkness and we write about characters who do as well.
This year Holy Week coincides with the Jewish celebration of Passover. In these feasts, both religions are remembering death and darkness but also the deliverance from death. For Christians, the resurrection of the One crucified. For Jews, that the sparing their firstborn on the eve of their exodus out of slavery. These celebrations of death followed by life are central in each religion and always occur in the Spring.
This detail of the tear inspired several chapters in This Is Why I Came where I was exploring the relationship between Jesus and John. Why was he called “The Beloved” a title not given to anyone else? Why was he the only male disciple who watched as Jesus was executed? What was their bond? Why was John the only one of the original twelve who did not suffer martyrdom? In those days, people reclined to eat a meal. At the Last Supper why was John the one reclining on the chest of Jesus? Why hasn’t the relationship between Jesus and John the Beloved been explored more extensively by the LGBTQ community?
I wrestled with these questions and suggested some answers in the John–Jesus chapters of This Is Why I Came. My reading of these chapters and the Q&A that followed can be seen in this video “The Jesus and John Chapters”.
I was also thinking about Mary, the mother of Jesus. She also witnessed the execution of her son and lived years after his death. I was thinking of her courage and fidelity but also her utter helplessness. I have close friends and editing clients who have known profound helplessness in regard to the suffering of their young and adult children. When I volunteered at the Aids Project Los Angeles, mothers who had lost their adult sons spoke not only of the grief but of how unnatural it was to die after their child. Sometimes we write about these things. The writing I have edited is not religious. But it is powerful and beautiful. We do this as writers.
I came to love the detail below. It is from the same painting. What moves me is the proximity of the two hands. So close, but not touching. Not able to help. I keep this detail around me always. It distills so much.
In art, then, we can focus on one detail. It can clarify what we are struggling to understand. And we can just lift it from its context and take it to ourselves. Treasure it. We can write what the detail says to us for the lives of our characters. We can make something around this detail that is entirely our own. And we can make something that speaks to others who aren’t yet born, as van der Weyden speaks to us, 400 years after completing this work.
There are several chapters that this detail inspired in This Is Why I Came. Here is one of them: “The Place of the Skull”
A detail, like an entire painting, can also draw other artwork to itself.
In writing about the relationship of Jesus and John the Beloved and the love and helplessness of Mary, I was brought back to the reason Jews and Christians pause at this time each year to feel death, to make room for it, to give death bandwidth. It’s because in both faiths, death does not have the final word. It’s to commemorate and to celebrate anew, each year, that life asserts itself and is more powerful than death. This is why it is celebrated always in the Spring. To remember and to experience anew that life overshadows death, overcomes death, destroys the power of death over and over again. Life, love, deliverance, freedom and joy are, in both faiths, more powerful than every form of suffering, even death. This is the extraordinary assertion.
And for this reason, near the tear and the two hands images I keep the image below, a third detail. To me, they belong together, as do the texts I’ve written from them. It’s a family. And it will grow over time.
This small detail of three birds is also from a religious painting, an altarpiece painted around 1345. In other words, about 100 years before the van der Weyden. But time doesn’t matter. It is a kind of answer to the Descent from the Cross.
Here is the detail that I treasure and keep close at hand, always:Though the altarpiece is, of course, a religious artwork, this detail is basically secular. But it converses with the two details above that I also love.
This morning, thinking about what to say in this post, in the middle of the city where I live, I heard the high-pitched sound of young, newly hatched song birds chirping in the tree just beyond my fire escape. I often see sea gulls flying high overhead, heading north to the ocean to do their morning task, but I do not usually hear song birds. It seemed a fitting answer to the candles extinguished in churches around the globe today. Nature asserting itself, saying that what we all hope is true really is true. That in the end life wins. That in the end, what remains is love.
PART 3: WRITING PROMPTS
1. When has your character experienced a rotation inside from despair to hope? It can be a very small moment. Write the scene, the paragraph, the story.
2. When did your character feel helpless in regard to the suffering of another? What was the defining moment? Write the scene, the paragraph, the story.
3. Bring the large van der Weyden painting into our time. People have gathered on a street somewhere. Someone has died. Your character is there. A witness. Write the scene, the paragraph, the story.
4. What about the tear? What happened to cause your character to such pure grief? Write the scene, the paragraph, the story.
5. Your character notices something in nature. A sound, a smell. And feels changed. What was the darkness that now seems like light? Write the scene, paragraph, story.
PART 4: TODAY’S TIP
Collect details. Add them to your image collection. Add them to the growing families of text and image groups as they emerge. Tape them on the wall over your laptop. Put them on your refrigerator. In your wallet. Keep what you love near. Love what you love.
Art museums and galleries are starting to open again, gradually. Visit when you can!
And when again possible, visit living contemporary artists in their studios. Such tours are often organized, and can be found online researching things to do in your city or town. Artists open their studios occasionally because they want to!
Our writing spaces don’t tell as much. Our art isn’t basically a visible medium. But a painter’s studio says tons!
The first time I visited the studio of Enrique Martínez Celaya I was super intimidated. But I’d visited his show in Venice, California, every day until it closed, and he invited me. This began a treasured friendship and an invitation to write the first book length work about his creative process.
Some artists give lectures in their studios. Even if you can’t afford to buy work, it’s still okay to go. Be respectful. And quiet. Go to learn. See work in progress. Remember… we are all trying to do the same thing. We are all trying to make objects of meaning.
See you next time!
A freelance editor living in the Bay Area, Mary Rakow, Ph.D. works with clients who are both local and global. She is both rigorous and encouraging, insightful and kind.
A theologian with graduate degrees from Harvard Divinity School and Boston College, Mary writes with deep feeling and a questioning faith. This Is Why I Came earned outstanding reviews in The Boston Globe, The Atlantic, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Commonweal, Christian Century, O Magazine, Ploughshares. It appeared on reading lists for courses at both Princeton and Yale.
Graduating magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from UC Riverside, inducted into Alpha Sigma Nu for her doctoral work, Rakow is a Lannan Foundation Literary Fellow. She received two Lannan residencies and two residencies at Whale & Star, in the studio of visual artist Enrique Martinez Celaya, where she wrote the first book-length treatment of his work, Martinez Celaya, Working Methods (2014).
Rakow’s debut novel, The Memory Room, received outstanding reviews and was shortlisted for the Stanford University International Saroyan Prize in Literature, a PEN USA/West Finalist in Fiction and was listed among the Best Books of the West by The Los Angeles Times.
Mary is a beloved editor and writing coach. She is constantly on the lookout for new writers, both those who are just starting out and those with publications and writing accolades.
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© Mary Rakow, 2021