Thursday, April 13, 2023



  1. 1.
    an unfilled space; a gap.
    "the journal has filled a lacuna in Middle Eastern studies"
  2. 2.
    cavity or depression, especially in bone

Area of consolidated losses from one of the Giotto frescos in the 
Lower Basilica of St Francis at Assisi, without any reintegration of the image. 
The 'minimalist' approach to restoration that does not disguise a visible lacuna. 

Traditional paper advertising hoarding in Perugia revealing multiple layers of
 'archeological' time through space in the shallow surface. 

In February I was in Rome, Perugia and Assisi for the spring break. I wanted to see Giotto's fresco cycle of the Life of Saint Francis in the Basilica as well as soak up some spring sunshine in Umbria. Images have miraculous agency in the legend of the life of St. Francis. It was the icon cross of San Damiano, that now hangs in Santa Chiara, which instructed him to, "repair my house, which, as you can see, is falling completely to ruin.” The restoration of buildings and images is about consolidating and strengthing, replacing missing parts and filling in gaps or lacuna. 

“The Miracle of the Crucifix,” Giotto,  Life of St. Francis cycle in the Upper Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi

 Thomas of Celano's 'Life of Saint Francis' records how the saint was devoted to his 'Lady Poverty' embracing radical poverty and simplicity over richness and complexity. It is ironic that the ostentatious and triumphalist Basilica of Saint Mary of the Angels at Porziuncola envelops the simpler tiny church that Francis knew and of which he said, after he returned one day to discover the brothers embellishing it and began to tear down what they had added,

'... that anything in that place that looked too ostentatious would immediately be heard about throughout the Order and taken as an example. And he would have destroyed the house from its very foundations if some soldiers who were present had not stopped him in his zeal by declaring the house belonged to the city and not to the brothers'  

Imagine something in stone, roughly the size of Thoreau's cabin at Walden Pond, inserted like the tiniest Russian doll into the heart of the massive baroque basilica seen in section in Vignoli's drawing below, and you have some sense of the extreme visual polarity, and surreal architectural and philosophical contradiction inherent in the relationship between the diminutive and grandiose forms 

Seventeenth-century drawing of the dome (Porziuncola Museum, Vignoli 1989).

 Reconstruction of Henry David Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond in Concord,

Francis, like Henry David Thoreau centuries later, seems to have discovered an abundance rather than a lack in his love for poverty, and to have created an 'aesthetic' of simple sufficiency that might find a parallel in another tradition like that of Japanese wabi sabi, embodied in crafts like boro patchwork fabrics or kintsugi ceramics. 

'Wabi-sabi is the view or thought of finding beauty in every aspect of imperfection in nature. It is about the aesthetic of things in existence, that are “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete”

Traditional boro kimono 

                         The actual patched robe of Saint Francis of Assisi which powerfully 
                            evokes his tangible bodily presence precisely because of it's absence   
In this aesthetic less can be as meaningful as more, emptiness contain as much significance as fullness, silence be as audable as sound, absence as evocative as presence, and negative space as equal in value to positive shape.  

       Empty art gallery window and wall in Knokke, Belgium, with moving shadows and reflections from the sun. 

In my own work with collage and oil painting for the 'Fugitive Images' series I was fascinated by the mystery of what is simultaneously 'something' and 'nothing', an image of 'no image, or a picture of 'no picture', a trompe l'oiel or illusion of something real which is perhaps a 'true lie' in visual terms, so to speak. Which is the 'original' and which the 'copy', since both are made by the artist as part of the same creative process and are interdependent ?  Seeing is believing, but seeing is also an act of creation, a perceptual construction and perhaps an illusion. In the mirrored reflection of light and shadowy forms, glimpst momentarily by the eye, only a fraction of these fragments are formulated into meaningful pictures and narratives in the mind of the viewer. 

Paper collage made to work from direct observation for painting below

                               Oil painting on wood panel. Trompe l' oeil paintng of the collage above.  

Giovanni Battista Cima da Conegliano. The incredulty of Saint Thomas.

In 'The incredulity of Saint Thomas', with its vanishing point and interlocking geometry of circles and squares, the artist very clearly juxtaposes the figure of doubting Thomas inserting his finger into the wound made by the spear to convince himself of the reality of the risen Christ, with the truncated view of the landscape with a pathway leading to a hilltop castle or town set amidst trees against a blue sky with drifting clouds. This landscape is seen framed like a pair of matching pictures, through the two symetrically balanced arched windows in the otherwise blank wall behind the main figures. The artist seems to be inviting us to engage with the illusion of the flat surface of the painted image itself by making us question if the landscape really continues behind the wall or whether the viewer fills in the lacuna created by the blank space in his imagination, seeing in his mind's eye the completed  image of the landcape. Now you see it, now you don't. The painting and the story is about credulity and belief, about reality and what the mind constructs from the tactile, optical and perceptual operation of the senses. Even whilst the sceptical Thomas is testing the material evidence, finding proof with his senses of the veracity of the risen Christ in his tangible bodily, physical presence. 'Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” ' John 20:29. Now I am here, now I am not. The artist also seems to be saying that seeing in this picture is not necessarily believing, since appearance and reality are not always the same thing. Reality and illusion are inextricably linked through the lacuna. Is he warning us to 'mind the gap' between the way things are and the way we think we see them? Is he asserting that doubt is concomitant on belief ? 

Point, line and circle begin the process of creating, through geometry, a superabundance of created forms 'ad infinitum' that can be returned by the same process to the point of origin that has no dimensions and is both everywhere and nowhere to be found. 
Sacred geometry can be found in the facade and rose window of the Upper Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi. This abstract architectural structure, in medieval and early renaissance theological context, could be said to be metaphorically an 'incarnation in stone' of the 'Mystical Body of Christ', his church.  The facade 'squares the circle', bringing time and space, human and divine, absolute and conditional into unity and equlibrium, in a relationship of balance, harmony and beauty. A similar sacred geometry and spirituality is to be found in the Islamic art that Francis may have encountered in the peaceful and respective dialogue he initiated with Islam in his meeting with the Sultan of Egypt, al-Malik al-Kamiland during the 5th crusade.  Keith Critchlow has written about this sacred geometry in his book, 'Islamic Patterns' with its illuminating introduction by Seyyed Hossein Nasr. 

Quranic calligraphy issues at once from the Islamic revelation and represents the response of the soul of the Islamic peoples to the Divine Message. The points traced by the Divine Pen created at once the celestial archetype of Quranic calligraphy as well as the lines and volumes of which the cosmic order is constituted and from which issues not only natural space, but also the space of Islamic architecture. In the mystery of the Point, represented by the diacritical point under the first letter which opens the Noble Quran, namely the letter ba', 1 is to be found the principle of both Islamic calligraphy and Islamic architecture, the principle of both the sonoral and plastic arts, the root of both of which is to be found in the Sacred Book. The points and lines of Islamic calligraphy with their inexhaustible diversity of forms and rhythms are related to that Supreme Divine Precinct at whose centre resides the first Point which is none other than His Exalted Word. The Master of Illumination, Shihab al-Din Suhrawardi, begins one of his prayers with these words: 'O Master of the Supreme Circle from which issue all circles, with which terminate all lines, and from which is manifested the First Point which is Thy Exalted Word cast upon Thy Universal Form.'

Islamic Art and Spirituality. Seyyed Hossein Nasr. State University of New York Press. 

St. Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata, fresco attributed to Giotto di Bondone, c. 1300; in the upper church of San Francesco, Assisi. 

It is possible to see a cosmic circularity in the cycles of time and space indicted by the sun and moon, and the square in the four elements of earth, air, fire and water, in the structure of Francis's famous 'Laudes Creaturarum'. It reflects an ancient and medieval view of the universe and acknowledges Francis's 'Altissimu, omnipotente bon Signore', whom he praises; the invisible God, whose image and likeness is 'personalised' in the incarnated Christ, (and whose crucified image Francis himself 'copies' when it is literally projected onto his body as he miraculously recieves the stimata), and who is reflected in the unity and diversity of the whole 'family' of the created universe including human, animate and inanimate forms.

The Ptolemaic universe from Andrew Borde's 
The First Book of the Introduction of Knoweledge, 1542

Ultimate reality is percieved only indirectly by the senses, like the shadows cast on the wall of the cave by sunlight falling across the real forms outside the entrance, in Plato's famous allegory. The real forms that lie outside the frame of direct vision can be apprehended by reason alone. One finds the truth by a process of elimination that points ultimately to the lacuna in our knowledge and understanding. Completing it requires all our mental faculties to 'fill in the gap'.  

                                 Giotto, Legend of St. Francis preaching to the birds. Fresco Upper Basilica

The present life of man upon earth, O king, seems to me in comparison with that time which is unknown to us, like the swift flight of a sparrow through the house wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your ealdormen and thegns, while the fire blazes in the midst, and the hall is warmed, but the wintry storms of rain or snow are raging abroad. the sparrow, flying in at one door and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry tempest; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, passing from winter into winter again. So this life of man appears for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all. 

Bede's Ecclesiastical History of England, ed. by A.M. Sellar, 1907 

Thus, by means of a lacuna, the mystery of the unknowable is hidden in full view.  

Laudes Creaturarum

Original text in Umbrian dialect:

Altissimu, omnipotente bon Signore,
Tue so le laude, la gloria e l'honore et onne benedictione.

Ad Te solo, Altissimo, se konfano,
et nullu homo ène dignu te mentouare.

Laudato sie, mi Signore cum tucte le Tue creature,
spetialmente messor lo frate Sole,
lo qual è iorno, et allumini noi per lui.
Et ellu è bellu e radiante cum grande splendore:
de Te, Altissimo, porta significatione.

Laudato si, mi Signore, per sora Luna e le stelle:
in celu l'ài formate clarite et pretiose et belle.

Laudato si, mi Signore, per frate Uento
et per aere et nubilo et sereno et onne tempo,
per lo quale, a le Tue creature dài sustentamento.

Laudato si, mi Signore, per sor'Acqua,
la quale è multo utile et humile et pretiosa et casta.

Laudato si, mi Signore, per frate Focu,
per lo quale ennallumini la nocte:
ed ello è bello et iucundo et robustoso et forte.

Laudato si, mi Signore, per sora nostra matre Terra,
la quale ne sustenta et gouerna,
et produce diuersi fructi con coloriti fior et herba.

Laudato si, mi Signore, per quelli ke perdonano per lo Tuo amore
et sostengono infirmitate et tribulatione.

Beati quelli ke 'l sosterranno in pace,
ka da Te, Altissimo, sirano incoronati.

Laudato si mi Signore, per sora nostra Morte corporale,
da la quale nullu homo uiuente pò skappare:
guai a quelli ke morrano ne le peccata mortali;
beati quelli ke trouarà ne le Tue sanctissime uoluntati,
ka la morte secunda no 'l farrà male.

Laudate et benedicete mi Signore et rengratiate
e seruiteli cum grande humilitate.

Notes: so=sono, si=sii (be!), mi=mio, ka=perché, u and v are both written as u, sirano=saranno

English Translation:

Most High, all powerful, good Lord,
Yours are the praises, the glory, the honour, and all blessing.

To You alone, Most High, do they belong,
and no man is worthy to mention Your name.

Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and you give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendour!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars,
in heaven you formed them clear and precious and beautiful.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Wind,
and through the air, cloudy and serene,
and every kind of weather through which you give sustenance to Your creatures.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Water,
which is very useful and humble and precious and chaste.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom you light the night and he is beautiful
and playful and robust and strong.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Mother Earth,
who sustains us and governs us and who produces
varied fruits with coloured flowers and herbs.

Praised be You, my Lord, through those who give pardon for Your love,
and bear infirmity and tribulation.

Blessed are those who endure in peace
for by You, Most High, they shall be crowned.

Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death,
from whom no living man can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin.
Blessed are those who will find Your most holy will,
for the second death shall do them no harm.

Praise and bless my Lord, and give Him thanks
and serve Him with great humility.[3]

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Icons of Sacred and Profane Love, Real and Illusory Images.

unfinished work in progress ...........

 I am working on this oil painting based on a collage which includes a small ‘holy picture’ of the Sacred Heart.

This damaged, faded and fragile fragment of card, cheaply printed with an image of the Sacred Heart, now stained, cracked and creased with torn and broken edges, and yellowed sellotape repairs, belonged to my maternal Irish great grandmother ‘Ninny Grimes’, who had arrived in Liverpool as a migrant from the last Irish famine of 1879, where she managed to scrape a living by selling fruit and vegetables from a street barrow. Despite its ephemeral and transitory nature, it was an image onto which she clearly projected strong emotions, and its battered and worn condition is a testament to years of cherished handling from where she kept in in her missal or prayer book. 

Holy pictures or cards, like this cheap mass manufactured reproduction, were offered for pennies at piety stalls and other religious places as souvenirs or exchanged between the devout with supplicatory prayers for their particular needs for which divine intercession was sought. Along with the saints, churches or shrines with which they were associated, they represented the devotional art of the poor or dispossessed who placed their faith in what these images represented, and they must have been popular with many of the Irish Catholic refugees who swelled the ranks of Liverpool’s city slums in the 19th century and early 20th century. 

The original painting on which this cheap printed reproduction was based is a painting by Pompeo Batoni made in 1767 which forms the central focus of an altarpiece placed in the northern side chapel of the church of the Gesu in Rome. It became popular as the official image for the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus based on the supposed apparition of Jesus to St Margaret Alacoque in 1673

 "The Divine Heart was presented to me in a throne of flames, more resplendent than a sun, transparent as crystal, with this adorable wound. And it was surrounded with a crown of thorns, signifying the punctures made in it by our sins, and a cross above signifying that from the first instant of His Incarnation, [...] the cross was implanted into it [...]."

The fragile rectangle of paper with this printed image made a strong impression on me when my mother discovering it one afternoon, showed it to me and shared the story of her grandmother whose son, Tony Grimes, my mother’s uncle, was lost at sea during the second world war; a loss Ninny Grimes never fully recovered from.  According to family legend, she would sit on the doorstep of the house and look down the street with unfulfilled longing towards the horizon from where she was always expecting him to finally appear on his way home from sea. I tried to imagine what the mother of a young son lost at sea might feel on seeing this emotional, loving, beckoning image of an ethereal, beautiful, vulnerable and suffering Christ. This tactile paper relic of my maternal great grandmother, made a tangible link for me across time to her existential angst, and her feelings of love and loss, death and the desire to be reunited.

What struck me, apart from the visceral image of a burning heart, presented to the viewer by Christ’s delicate fingers pointing to the rays of light emanating from center of his chest, was the feminized or androgynous nature of the figure itself, long before rock star David Bowie evolved his iconic alter ego ‘Ziggy Stardust’, his pre-apocalyptic fallen savior from outer space. Christ’s long hair, fair complexion and gentle wounded gaze invites us into the secret mystery he appears to be revealing, with anatomical literalness at the ‘heart’ of the image, a very corporeal spirituality derived from the Baroque original and the theology of the Incarnation.  

The gaze of the androgenous Christ figure seems to invite a reciprocal personal and intimate engagement from the viewer of whatever gender. Like the mystical poetry of St John of the Cross, inspired from the biblical ‘Song of Songs’, it seems to invite the devout soul with its longing, beckoning gaze towards the burning heart of Christ himself, the metaphorical ‘beloved bridegroom’, with all the potential ambiguities this might have for an intended viewer, either a male or female. It is an image that is simultaneously both reassuring and disturbing on a number of levels.

There is a resemblance between the Pompeo painting of the Sacred Heart to the Jack or Knave of Hearts playing card in it’s familiar modern style derived from 16th or 17th century patterns, which is the third picture card who accompanies the King or Queen in each deck.  A ‘Jack’ is a generic term for any young fellow, whilst a ‘Knave’ is potentially a more derogatory term for a courtier in a royal household without any particular skill who might make a nuisance of himself. Clearly this image suggests a more obviously secular or profane symbolism loaded with similar meanings and ambiguous in different context. Card games often involve chance, fate or gambolling where fickle fortune determines loss or gain. In The Tarot the Jack of Hearts can be interpreted as a person who is in love with being in love, a romantic suitor or a short-term love affair.

Objects, images or icons, despite their apparent inanimate nature, have agency.  They have a way of insinuating themselves into our lives coincidently as they pass from one hand to another across time and space carrying their own coded secrets and charged with potential meanings or significance. Like a seed they can lie hidden and dormant until they are rediscovered and planted in the fertile soil of a new owner or viewer’s imagination, where they are re-animated. The liminal nature of small paper fragments, the accumulated detritus of time, constitutes a kind of archaeology of the ephemeral. The viral power of the small and insignificant to transmit mysterious or profound meanings should never be underestimated. 

‘Tromp l’oeil’ means literarly, ‘to deceive the eye’. All illusionistic painting is of the nature of a mirror, the more real it seems to be, the more it is, in fact, an illusion. Since vision itself is a picture according to Kepler, things perceived and things represented, things in their true nature and illusions are of the same basic substance.

Sunday, July 17, 2022



 Filling the gaps around newly installed windows with lime mortar is a very satisfying process. The material, with the right precautions against inhaling dust or getting it in your eyes, is easy to handle with a small trowel, is sticky and has enough body, with sand and additional fibres, to paste and model into the gaps around the edges of the brick and wood. 

Making good the dry split edges and cracked spines of some of my old books is an equally satisfying process. Whilst the materials, comprising Japanese Kozo papers, rice starch paste and PVC bookbinders glue, are more delicate than brick, wood, sand and lime, the process itself is similar. Reinforcing corners and spines, filling gaps and blending these minor interventions into the yellowed paper and battered leather, and massaging with bookbinders wax will help to extend the life of these already well worn books. 

Dry skins and old spines and creaky joints sound like human medical conditions. Books like bodies suffer similar problems along with the aging process. The animate and the inanimate, the articulate and the inarticulate show the effects of time with remarkable affinities. Indeed I have just started to take tumeric again in tablet form to counter the effects to rheumatoid arthritis, although I doubt I will last as long as the books I have been reparing. 

In the work below I am attempting to explore such affinities. Wood and gesso, paper and oil, collage and painting, frame and image, are all elements of recollection, reassemblage and reconstruction. Patterns of personal memory, fragments of collective history, imagination, association and recognition, can help to generate both aesthetic order and provide clues to potential meanings alongside the debris of loss, decay and destruction. The work below, comprising both the collage and the unfinished oil painting, is entitled 'Affinities'. It is one of a series of works painted in oil on oak panels, alluding to both 15th and 17th century panel painting techniques and shallow relief trompe l'oeil.  There is still some way to go before its starts to be as much about the paint and its visceral qualities, of light, texture and colour and before the abstract relationships between the forms and shapes are fully resolved.  

Thursday, July 7, 2022

Living on the edge ........


Emblemata Horatiana: Otto Van Veen 1683

Chacun suit son genie en l'Art, ou la Science
L'un n'a pour un metier que de l'indifference 
Pendant que pour un autre il sent un doux attrait,
L'un s'estudie aux Vers, et l'autre a la Peinture,
Un autre veut passer pour Medecin parfait,
Nous suivons en cela l'instinct de la Nature  

recently had several antiquarian books repaired by a restorer in Brussels who used Japanese paper to repair the split hinges rather than replacement leather.  Healing the joints in this way with carefully attached Kozo papers made from natural fibers, rice starch paste and PVA bookbinders glue, resembles a surgical procedure and seems to mimic the natural healing process of a skin graft. The pictures below from West Dean College conservation department reveal a before and after repair to the corner of a book spine that is deeply satisfying to see.  This 1981 video about a Dublin book binder  shows a similar process with the critical edges of the pages or cover of the book located at the joints of the spine and the corners, like the frame of a picture, occupying the focus of attention.

Having recently had my windows replaced with new approved ‘old’ wooden replicas (with double glazing) I was struck by the way the masonry, plaster and wooden frame itself crucially defines the way we experience light and space which they contextualize.  Using a ready mixed lime plaster, Tubag NHL-P historiche kalkpleister from Tintelijn in Gent, to ‘heal’ the wall where the earlier lime plaster was broken off to mount the windows recalled the more delicate procedures undertaken by the book conservationist.

Matching up the edges of the broken fragments and reassembling them, filling the gaps and then attempting to make them invisible, is also something I have also had to do in a recent porcelain restoration I attempted when I accidently dropped an 18th century 'Chinese' blue and white Caughley bowl which I have had for over 30 years since I bought it in Ironbridge in Shropshire near to the long  defunct factory in Coalbrookdale, the origin of William Blake's, 'Dark Satanic Mills'.  These places are now archeological sites which mark the beginning of the industrial revolution with Abraham Darby's coke blast furnace, and the famous iron bridge itself, locations seminal to the changes and transformations brought about through science, technology, industry and commerce and its subsequent abandonment and decay until recent years, when many of these sites themselves were curated, conserved, restored, and opened as museums.     

These processes, which speak so eloquently about the passage of time, of ageing and decay, and the possibility of restoration, of healing and making whole again through caring for what is precious and repairing and conserving objects or places which are valued, help to preserve a living memory of people and a tangible link to the material past.

In my own work with collage and oil paint, (for instance in the example above, entitled 'Exiles', which is a work in progress, and the example below) I try to evoke the same sense of both the ravages of time and the attempt to freeze or capture its fragile and fugitive nature, contrasting the ephemeral delicacy of the paper and it's relatively more permanent or monumental trompe l’oeil illusion using wood, linen, gesso, oil paint and other traditional materials of the painter’s craft. I am concerned not only with the realism of the illusion based on careful observation of light and shadow form and shape, space and colour, but also on the formal abstract qualities of the work, and the gestural, visceral quality of the oil paint medium itself. It seems to me that the edges of the picture, the liminal space between where the picture begins and ends, both inside and outside border of the frame, is the most ambiguous, challenging and highly charged area; the one which is often overlooked when the focus of attention is the subject of the picture, or the view through the frame.  In the work below, which is an oil painting on wood, the recessed mount with its fragment of paper is also part of the painted illusion.