Excerpt from Disturbed Soils:
Madonna of Humility

I was dreaming in the language of earth when the Madonna of the rocks appeared, set in a thick citrus orchard on a moss carpet. Above the slice of her gold glory, the high holy days of palatine hills and castles receded in spirals. Glory, not as sanctimony, but as the thin flakes of metal leaf now patchy with a red orange layer peeking through in the aureole around her head. Her cloak was not made of fabric, but of a huge hinged mussel. Its black and ultramarine folds, slick with the silt of the river floor, contained an inner orange tongue. Algal grime shaded her jaw and the offering of her child’s concave belly. They formed a visceral mass, the composite term for mollusk organs. The calcified shell protecting the life functions of digestive, circulatory, respiratory concealed leakages of flesh. Ochre and peach folds spilled from the cavities at her center and sides. Sighing with the wild strawberries and dandelions, her foot exchanged atmosphere with the wet plant world. Stories of origin and original sin whirled above the coil of her yellow hair in the tiers of ascending mountains and agrarian plots. The August humidity is preserved in the hardened layers of tempera paint and egg yolk that makes the air and breath of the image. Cycles of respiration between the plants and she remains intact in the lamination of paint built to resist the shrinking and expanding that comes of the ages.

I dreamed a dream of a common language, which would wrap around the contours of life and death, across species, inside the earth.

Crete Senesi, the clay hills south of Siena, roll for miles in their grey fallow state, punctuated by hamlets and parallel efforts toward cultivation. Each plot an organization, an institution, wherein the unruliness of seasonal ebbing is made tame by the straightened rows of production. But the fruits from the hills of the artificial heavens fall, landing in the valley of the vegetal existence where the rabbits and meadowsweet await its ripeness. The terrestrial orchards are dark green questions, whispering abundance in their shadows. All around the discarded myths of primal origins crawl the snails of the damp earth, the excrement of worm language aerating the soil, charging it with the fecundities of a dream interrupted, a dormant future. The clay hills of pigments: Terra di Siena, Burnt Siena, Dark Siena. The colors of the city itself as well as its paintings.

Giovanni di Paolo was born in 1399. Siena had already fallen out of the immense economic and political power it had amassed prior to the devastation of the Black Death plague in the 1340s. While other painters of his time were marching toward linear perspective and naturalistic representation under Florentine influence, di Paolo committed himself to rigorous training in the Sienese manner under the influence of Sassetta (Stefano di Giovanni).[1]Di Paolo held a mystical conception of the spiritual world in tandem with an earthiness in his depictions of laborers, ground, stones, and plants.[2]From his small but prolific studio in the poggio dei Malavolti, he continued painting in tempera after oil began to circulate in the Southern low countries due to its popularity in the Northern Renaissance.[3]

His Madonna of Humility is a double painting. The earlier version from 1435 hangs in the quiet wings of the Siena Pinacoteca, where the city’s aunts and grandmothers keep watch over the galleries from their folding chairs and space heaters. The later version stored at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts has grander application of gold leaf and more refined plant illustrations. The fruits and flowers are more dimensional, brimming with fullness, the Madonna’s features are less strained. Two sides of the same shell, with the cartilage of di Paolo between them.

I learned the traditional method of devotional tempera painting from a nun in Orvieto. The studio was strewn with empty scallop shells, mussels, and clams, which were used as the mixing containers for small batches of color. Because tempera hardens quickly, it must be applied in short strokes and thin layers to prevent crackling in the matte surface. Piles of glassine pouches of pigment held pure color, the powders of minerals, stones, roots, and plants. A corner cauldron of rabbit’s skin glue was surrounded by clotheslines of cheesecloth awaiting their application to the surface of wood panels. Egg tempera hardens as an armor to the support ground of the painting rather than absorbing into the surface. As such, the image and covering are one.

On top of the reproduction of the Madonna of Humility I’ve placed two scallop shells in an effort to collapse image and nature. Their blue black and ruddy ridges pick up the warmth of the Madonna’s orange inner cloak, on the circles of red in the strawberries at her feet. I examine their concavities, once containers for a living being. Bivalves have an open circulatory system that bathes their organs in hemolymph, a blood like fluid which remains always on the surface without breaking contact with the organs it supports. It is both medium and skin. I wonder if “their” is an appropriate pronoun for a creature in possession of organs. A word that they and I can share without differentiating species or gender.

I could be a they, in this instance, or at least as many I’s as madonnas and mollusks, plants and creatures, bacteria, and mineral. Oil and air am I and they; their and my then-ness hold each other.

[1] John Pope-Hennessy, Giovanni di Paolo: 1403-1483(New York: Oxford University Press, 1938), 27-28.

[2] Giovanni di Paolo, The Flight into Egypt, 1427.

Pope-Hennessy, Giovanni di Paolo, 36.

[3] Susan Jones, “Painting in Oil in the Low Countries and Its Spread to Southern Europe,” in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History(New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2002).