Whenever I get the chance, I love to spend a few hours in an art gallery or museum alone. For me the experience of observing something of beauty or inspirational in detail, of learning to listen to a piece of art by trying to see through the eyes of the craftsman what they are trying to portray about life or living, and then pausing to reflect on my own thoughts about the subject and perhaps then writing or sketching my responses to their theme, becomes another form of meditation; an opportunity for me to seek Gods heart and listen to his creative voice in visual form.
A piece of ceramic sculpture that I return to time and time again is in Manchester Art Gallery, for I find it stirs within me many deep emotions about surrender, trust and love. So this meditation is based upon my reflections around this piece of art work.
Claire Curneen was born in Co. Kerry, Ireland in 1968, and graduated from Cardiff with an MA in Ceramics in 1992. Her signature white hand built figures constructed patiently of small thin fragments of porcelain clay, evoke themes of sacrifice, devotion and transcendence, informed by her Irish Roman Catholic heritage. Recognized as one of the leading contemporary ceramicists, her work is exhibited internationally and featured in numerous books and journals as well as being held in various international collections including the V&A.
This white porcelain figure evokes a sense of purity and innocence, and speaks to me of compassion amidst suffering. The figured portrayed is taken from an image of St Sebastian, by the painter Piero della Francesca in 1464,(pictured below) the story tells that Sebastian was a captain in the Roman army who was condemned to death because of his Christian beliefs. He is the subject of many artistic interpretations and is usually depicted tied to a post or tree and shot with arrows.
In Curneen’s interpretation of this narrative, the figure is a less idealistic representation of a man than in most painterly depictions. The scale used to depict the figure is not consistent throughout the sculpture; the head is proportionally smaller to the rest of the body, with beautifully formed delicate and subtle features that gaze as if in a trance towards a transcendent space. The head leans gently forward, perhaps submissive, bowing slightly before the presence of his creator as he awaits his imminent death. His outsized hands hang loosely by his side, open and ready to receive rather than tightly clenched as would be expected of someone undergoing extreme pain, suffering and fear. Yet this figure is depicted open to receive, to even embrace the suffering inflicted upon him, a mirror image of the crucifixion story where Christ offered himself to take on the suffering, pain and sin of the world that we might receive the promise of eternal life.
The eyes, painted in a dull green pigment, stare out towards an unknown place; a feeling of contemplation, a figure lost in thought, transfigured to another place away from the immediate pain that is being inflicted upon him.
The twelve wounds have been touched with gold, bringing to mind the verse from Isaiah 53:5 “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.”
The symbolism Curneen uses here is of the white, blameless lamb being offered as sacrifice for our sins, that the red blood of this innocent figure when spilt is turned to gold, for it is precious and brings healing and light to our souls. The ancient poet Rumi writes that “the wound is where the light enters you” and exposes one of the spiritual paradoxes that it is only when we loose our life that we can truly gain it, that it is by embracing our wounds and learning the lessons of the shadow that we can truly encounter the light.
The figure stands on a roughly torn slab of clay from which a tree stump emerges. Here there are no smooth or perfect surfaces, instead the flawed and fragmented clay references the fragility and uncertainty of our personal histories and the unsettled ground of family and society on which we build our lives.
The artists marks and fingerprints are still visible on the surface of the figure, showing how he was formed piece by piece, a layering of one moment in time upon another to create a final form. In the same way we can choose to observe the fingerprint of God in our lives as he gently forms and shapes us, like clay in the hands of the potter, until we become a full and unique expression of our creator.
The figure is partially glazed, drawing subtle attention to the detail of hands, feet and facial features.
The figure is in a meditative state and despite his pain I feel drawn to join him in his mystical state of spiritual awareness. I too am drawn to be open; to hold my hands out, cupped and open to receive rather than clenched and holding tightly to my individuality. Am I open to embrace the arrows of suffering that are drawn against me? Do I continue to pray and meditate even when life is full of pain, suffering and grief? Or do I withdraw and hide, clench my fists and close my soul to the mystery of embracing the blessing of the wounding? Do I only see God in the celebration and the hype? Do I only pray and praise when life is going well? Do I refuse to fall in love with all of life, instead only selecting the path that I know I can completely control?
In the novel ‘The Colour Purple’ Shug speaks of Gods disappointment when we walk through a field of poppies and fail to notice the colour purple. We are called to embrace Gods love in the whole of life, to live our lives to the full, to seek him in all experiences and seasons of our lives, and not to shy away from pain, but to seek the blessing that is awaiting us when we open our hands to receive all that he has for us.
By Lesley Sutton (artist and curator)