Monday, December 25, 2017

On the first day of Christmas

Clive Hicks-Jenkins, "The Armouring of Gawain," 2017
Silkscreen in collaboration with Daniel Bugg, Penfold Press

Last year this print was a Christmas present (highly appropriate because "Gawain" is a winter's tale, a Christmas story), and this year my husband and I framed art from Clive Hicks-Jenkins, Beth Adams, Ruth Sanderson, and our Japan trip in time for Christmas. "The Armouring of Gawain" is the sort of thing I love; Clive Hicks-Jenkins elaborately links his image to a text. The medieval poem, Gawain and the Green Knight by the "Gawain Poet" or "Pearl Poet," is a splendid, fantastical, moral, green, magical thing. I haven't read it in a few years, but it is one of the long poems that I like to reread. Might be about time again.

Why are Mary and the baby Jesus in Clive's print? The answer is tucked inside the poem. It is Christmas-time when the poem opens, and again when Gawain will meet the Green Knight a second time. Now, meet the young knight's shield. On Gawain's shield--part of the "armoring" of Gawain--shines a golden pentangle that symbolizes many things. The poet is frank about symbolic meaning. The endless knot of the star suggests the five wounds of Christ, the five moral virtues of the knight, the star of Bethlehem, and the "five joys" of Mary (Annunciation, Nativity of Jesus, Resurrection, Ascension, and Assumption.) The five senses and the five fingers of the hand are evoked. Thus earthly virtues, earthly gifts, and heavenly truths arm Gawain. The physical and the metaphysical will be tested in the course of the Green Knight's Christmas year-and-a-day beheading game. But there is more to why they are nested in the picture, and more to Gawain's shield.

So why are they there, and why are the colors of this silkscreen are so markedly different from other prints in the series? Red and yellow gold dominate. Gawain's shield in the poem links up to the colors of the print. In the narrative, the inner surface of Gawain's shield holds an image of Mary. Here we see not the outer portion of the shield but the inside. On the silkscreen, Mary and the babe are backed by red, just as the shield in the poem gives us a red ground. Red in the medieval mind probably would have suggested the fire of Pentecost and the Holy Spirit, the blood of Eucharist, and the crucifixion. The gestures of the child Jesus are, while true to the movements of a baby, suggestive of both aspiration and the arms-up, arms-out position when Christ is hanging on the cross. Out there in the world, Mary and faith and the pent or five angles, gold on a red ground, will stand between the knight and danger. Gold, the highest and the most pure of metals, will lead the way. 

What about the little scene in the corner? Clive's castle evokes Camelot and knightly ideals, but its life has fallen into shadow. Perhaps Gawain carries away the light as he departs. The castle is defended by both crenellated walls and a moat; it contains church-like structures and phallic towers. In some ways, it is a protected realm where the knightly virtues are not tested. But in the poem, the Green Knight in all his barbaric-seeming color, power, and gusto breaks into that sheltered place. Then Gawain, the purest (the most like gold, the highest in a hierarchy) of the knights, must abandon castle defenses in order to go into a cold, turbulent landscape and search for that magical "elf," though he will carry virtues and shield with him. The cleverness of his hands, the senses of the body, and virtues will all be tested on the journey. The tidy red leaves shown here as part of his armor will give way to hardship in a less neat and controllable nature, and then to the vibrant green of the Knight. Gawain in the silkscreen is a sort of walking castle, a tower of metals, and the lively, spirited plumes that spring from his head seem another defense, a counterpart to the rippling moat, though they also hint at the wild winds beyond the walls and his own springing, youthful energy. But at Bertilak's castle, all defenses and armor will be stripped away, and Gawain will gain a new green garment to remind him of the lesson he learns there.

Interestingly, on the moat in the silkscreen swim six swans, the birds that expressed fidelity to the medieval mind because thought to mate for life, unlike other creatures. I might have expected "seven swans a-singing" since it is Christmas at Camelot at the poem's start, but instead the artist gives us an even number, suggestive of pairs. And Gawain's forthcoming test from the Green Knight and Lady Bertilak will have something to do with pairs, faith, loyalty, and virtue. 

Merry 12 days of Christmas!

For more about Clive's collaboration with printer Daniel Bugg of Penfold Press, fly here.

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.