Monday, May 20, 2013

Designing God/dess

The original design of the 'Trinity' that I created in 1981 featured three triangles within a central triangle. This design was the basis for the mural at St. Mary's Basilica in Halifax, N.S. that I presented as an 'unlovely' pencil sketch to the Archbishop of the day, James Hayes. My design was 'approved' with a minimum of fuss at the time and I took that as a good sign that I was on the right track with my imagery and symbolism.

I decided in my first draft that it would be inappropriate to presume that my puny human intellect could deign to present an 'image' of 'God', so I elected to use a symbolic approach...the two hands seen on top in the uppermost triangle that pierce through the ethereal clouds to proclaim "I am." This was as far as I was willing to go in my presentation of that entity. 

'God' is represented symbolically with two human hands piercing celestial clouds over the curvature of planet Earth.
It was only after I was hired by the Liturgical Design Firm Desmarais and Robitaille in Montreal shortly after the unveiling of 'Trinity 1981' and was in the employ of (the late) Father Toby McIvern -renowned Church Architect and Interior Designer- that I was informed of a very interesting anomaly which was intrinsic to my design concept. Fr. Toby told me that I had inadvertently used an 'incorrect' symbolic reference to the Catholic idea of the 'Trinity' by utilizing and inverted triangle as the 'central motif'. That is, the outer triangle mentioned earlier was situated with the base at the top and the apex down. Toby explained that this was in fact a direct reference to the 'devil' and 'hell', as the triangle in this particular configuration symbolizes the female vulva, ergo terms of the patriarchal hierarchy of images that he was well-versed in as a Liturgical Architect and scholar of religious symbolism.

The late Fr. Toby McIvern was a world-renowned Church Architect/Interior Designer who illuminated the true meaning behind the inverted triangle of 'Trinity 1981'.
Well, you can imagine my consternation at the time when it was revealed to me that I had unwittingly created a symbol of the female vulva incorporated into the very essence of the patriarchal 'trinity' (the Father, Son and Holy Spirit) and that this glaring mis-step was now evident in my mural at the basilica. My reaction was a great belly laugh at the time, as I was intrigued that somehow the female aspect had wiled its way into my design seamlessly for all to see, that had the understanding. It was a lesson that I would never forget...and I was mighty thankful that the Archbishop had not deemed the inverted triangle an abomination when I first presented my concept to him! If he had been alert to the deeper symbolic meaning of the offending triangle, the entire design would have ended up being shunted into utter obscurity and the mural would have never been authorized to proceed. Sometimes ignorance really is bliss!

Fast forward 30 years to the hallowed halls of Sacred Heart Chaldean Catholic Church in Saskatoon, SK. The Chaldean Catholics had recently immigrated en masse from war-torn Iraq, where they had been ruthless persecuted for their religious beliefs by the regime of the day. The parish priest, Father Sabah Kamoura had several foiled attempts on his life prior to his exodus out of Iraq to Western Canada, where he was free to establish his parish in a relatively safe and tolerant society.

One of the first orders of business upon purchasing the former St. Timothy's Anglican Church property was to upgrade and beautify the austere interior with an ambitious mural that would cover the entire sanctuary wall. Fr. Sabah was adamant that this project must proceed as a top priority so that the interior space could reflect the power and majesty of the Chaldean liturgy. It was Fr. Sabah's belief that a visual testament to the scriptural aspects of his liturgy must be of paramount importance at the outset to enhance the spiritual lives of his flock. 

The first inclination of the parish council was to recruit a muralist from the USA, as it was their understanding that this was a very specialized field and they must have nothing but the most qualified expert to take on such an important project. As fate would have it, I had recently completed a fairly ambitious mural for the owner of a Saskatoon sports bar who happened to be a parishioner at Sacred Heart. He recommended my services as a muralist to the parish council and they contacted me shortly after. 

Father Sabah stands with Ilara Stefaniuk-Gaudet in front of the fabricated uppermost panels before they were mounted at the apex of the mural.

One of the first things I found out about the Chaldean Catholic faith is that the clergy is permitted to marry! This came as a revelation to me as I was born and raised in the Roman Catholic tradition. I was always mystified as to why priests may not marry and have a legitimate relationship with the partner of their choice. Surely this deficit has lead to a catastrophe of scandalous proportions throughout the history of the RC church as we are all acutely and painfully aware of. But alas, this is not the case for the Chaldeans, so you can imagine my relief and profound appreciation at this realization! Father Sabah has a wonderful, loving wife that he clearly respects and adores. 

Father Sabah and his wife were recruited to model their hands, respectively representing both the male and female aspects of God for my Trinity design.
So it was not much of a stretch when I suggested to him that I would like to represent the symbol of 'God' in my representation of the 'trinity' as a male AND female aspect. My concept was to include a male and female 'hand of God' to honor both healthy aspects of a complete Godhead.  My aim was to include a powerful reference to the feminine nature of God alongside the masculine nature. Rather than use a generic photo reference, I elected to recruit Father Sabah and his wife to pose as 'hand models' for the mural. Without hesitation they both agreed and we created a dossier of images. Fr. Sabah suggested that the male aspect be shown 'blessing' creation while the female aspect would be shown 'molding creation into being'. What an enlightened and profound approach!

The original mock-up that shows the male and female 'hands of God'.

As a matter of protocol, the early draft of my design was forwarded to the Archbishop's office and from there to the Vatican for 'approval'. Fr. Sabah and I were innocently ignorant of the repercussions that were to immediately come crashing down on us! We received a curt response from the Archbishop's office that the inclusion of the 'female aspect' in my rendition of the 'hands of God' was a HERESY and would not be permitted to grace the sanctuary of Sacred Heart Church. We were to cease and desist in our delusions of a unisex God. God forbid! We were told in no uncertain terms that this reprehensible act must not be allowed and that the design must be altered or the blessing of the Holy See for the project would be retracted.

Revised design shows two 'male' hands of God.
Not to be so easily dissuaded from our commitment to show the male and female aspect of the Godhead, Fr. Sabah and I made an executive decision to eliminate the offensive female hand from my design while maintaining the symbolic reference to the left hand 'blessing creation into being' and the right hand 'molding creation into being'. In addition, I had decided early on to flip the triangle onto its base, as this symbolizes a 'pointing to heaven' or simply 'God'.

The revisited rendering of the 'Trinity' at Sacred Heart.
As a brief aside, I incorporated the three 'primary colors' ie: red, yellow and green into the inner triangles to honor and respect the 'visual arts', as these are the three colors that when combined potentially create all of the colors of the spectrum. Without the primaries, there can be no visual art. But I digress. Something about the very idea of the 'powers-that-be' of the Vatican hierarchy demanding that the female aspect of the Godhead be banished from the mural design did not sit well with me as an artist presumably working in a free society. 

Mary is shown as a Goddess figure with cosmic rays emanating from her hands and held aloft in a 'nimbus' or halo.
Traditionally, Mary is shown with her foot on the neck of the serpent to symbolize that she has vanquished the 'devil'. I made a conscious decision to have her in harmony with the serpent, as the older pre-Christian meaning of the serpent is centered around the reverence for the serpent. The serpent is the symbol of the kundalini. In addition, Mary stands on the 'crescent moon' which is also an ancient reference to the Goddess. She, along with her accompanying symbols, is held aloft in the branches of a glorious 'Tree of Life". The "Tree of Knowledge" is really the map of the human soul. It is seen in nearly every ancient religion pre-dating Judeo/Christianity. The trunk symbolizes the spine, and the branches symbolize the chakras and the kundalini pathways. 

The serpent is vital and alive in harmony with the Goddess.
I wish to acknowledge the salient fact that I invited my daughter Ilara to work as my mural-painting apprentice for parts of the project. As fate would have it, Fr. Sabah elected at the last moment...after the changes as described above with the 'hands of God' include a very prominent vision of the so-called 'Tree of Life' at the base of the design. This was to be an auspicious decision that I willingly complied with, as the 'Tree of Life' is yet another powerful symbol of the Goddess and as it turns out, Ilara was charged with almost all of the rendering of this element. As a feminine influence on the course of this project, Ilara was a perfect compliment to the energy of the Goddess that ended up being infused mightily into the entire design as we will see.

Ilara applying one of multiple transparent glazes to the leaves on the 'Tree of Life'. 

Once we had established that the 'tree' would be an important part of the design, it dawned on all of us -Ilara, Fr. Sabah and myself- that the branches would permeate throughout the entire mural as a kind of powerful embrace...the essence of the Goddess would be evident to all that have the understanding of the original meaning of the archaic symbols. As a discreet act of defiance, it was decided to rev up the presence of the Goddess so that She resides in a natural harmony with the masculine aspects of 'God' in the design. 

Months before we realized that the 'Tree of Life' would be included in the design, Ilara had this motif tattooed on her left arm. Talk about pre-cognition.
I thought it was very fitting and evocative that months before Ilara was charged with the rendering of the 'Tree of Life' in this mural, she had a lovely design of the exact image tattooed on her arm. There is something quite undeniable about the synchronicity of this inexplicable chain of events!

...the branches would permeate throughout the entire mural as a kind of powerful embrace.

While I always respected the wishes of my patron and friend Fr. Sabah...he is a great man of the utmost integrity,,, I felt that I could not abandon my own conviction that the concept of a 'higher being' or God must include both the masculine and feminine aspects in order to be honest and authentic to my artistic spirit.

The planet Earth...Mother Earth...hovers in space above the center of the Tree.
Yet another sublime reference to the feminine nature of God/dess is evident in the prominent placement of 'Mother Earth' at the base of the design as it hovers in space above the center of the Tree. This was an element that the good Fr. Sabah suggested for his own reasons; suffice to say that the circle and the sphere are decidedly feminine attributes that parry in a dynamic tension with the triangular aspect of the apex high above. 

Resting in front of 'March of Trinity' shortly after its completion with Ilara.

She (the Goddess) is 'grounded' at the base of the mural, She is coiled as a serpent at the foot of the Goddess in the form of the transcendent Mary who stands on her crescent moon, She spreads her earthy branches throughout the entire cosmos of the design to bind together the sexy, messy business of creation.

I don't think that a male 'God' with healthy self-esteem would raise any objections whatsoever to the presence of His female counterpart in this context. I find it impossible to fathom for a moment how a sole male God could hope to foster creativity into being without the womb of his female companion as a vessel for the maturation of the process. 

I will be eternally grateful for the intellectual traction from the Holy See that motivated this robust response and I pray with all sincerity that the balance of power between the sexes is appropriate and timely in our enlightened age.