If you stare at a religious artefact long enough can it convert you?
Yes, I am seriously asking that question. It’s not the type of question I’d usually ponder, being neither religious nor prone to staring at artefacts. However, last month I completed another ekphrastic poetry project with the Art Gallery of Ballarat, Ballarat University and Ballarat Writers. This year’s project was based on the exhibition, Living Traditions which exhibits a range of religious and spiritual artefacts and artworks.
A group of poets from Ballarat Writers and Ballarat University were assigned the daunting task of creating a collection of ekphrastic writings inspired by the collection. Ekphrasis is the term used when creating one artwork inspired by another.
To begin we were provided with a scanned copy of images and my first response was to see if any jumped out at me, called me to them, gave me an epiphany of inspiration. There were a few, and after of few weeks of procrastinating I mean, refining my preference, I settled on a photo of an Alb neck.
The only information I had was the image and it’s caption: Ornament for alb neck.
So I did as our wonderful teacher Annette Chappell instructed us to do; I set about taking notes on the dominant impression. I could tell from the image that the piece was delicate, finely made. Then I did the next classic poetic device – I googled it. Alas, I had no luck finding a clearer version of the piece, but I did find out what an Alb neck was (a robe/lace/silk worn around the neck of a catholic priest).
So I was left with a few facts from google (catholic, garment worn by a man) and a low resolution scanned picture. It was still going to be a few weeks until I could see the piece at the gallery, so I gathered my facts, my dominant impressions and stirred in my imagination. Before I knew it I had a narrative, I imagined the woman/women who made the piece. The love they put into those tiny stiches, capturing an image of the Holy Trinity*, working to create an ornament from love. These women would have no idea that it would one day become an ‘artefact’ or an ‘artwork’, there was no personal gain for them. I was so filled with the spirit of these nuns, that when I broke out of my haze an hour or so later I had to ask myself – did I just have a religious experience?
The concept and images for the poem came to me easily but it did have to be edited after I saw the alb neck in the gallery. It was beautiful. The scanned images I was provided didn’t show the tiny glass beads that had been sewn on, or the level of delicateness of the crocheting. I also found out that the piece was 17th century Italian. With these new facts I just had to add more detail, trying to capture the agility and age of the artefact and it’s rich life before it came to rest in a gallery in central Victoria.
I’d love to hear from anyone who has also had a wonderful experience when learning more about religious or spiritual artefacts/art from cultures other than their own, please comment below.
*I had no idea what the Holy Trinity was until my lovely friend Maureen explained it to me.