Tears of the Mother

Rebekah Pryor, Saltcellars, 2017. Table salt, dimensions variable.

It was the flickering sparkle, like diamonds, that caught my eye. An ensemble of delicate jewel-like containers laid out on a small table. Not crystal but salt, and miraculously held together in fragile delicate forms like containers. They held no other function than to set out a table for beauty and light. The light flickered like fire in my eye as I moved around this display and as I drew in close, I held my breath, fearing its moisture laden content would shatter the magic of this fragile salt ensemble. I had been invited to be on the judging panel for Australia’s Blake Prize for Religious Art and this work had caught my full attention. Salt containers, a collection of tears, the spilling over of grief that marks the human journey. Here was an expression of the lament that is so much a part of the human experience and the global world in which we live. So much sadness, violence, and reconciliation, a never-ending cycle. How do we contain and understand such suffering?

Carl Jung has said, ‘The most outstanding properties of salt are bitterness and wisdom … Tears, sorrow, and disappointment are bitter, but wisdom is the comforter in all psychic suffering.’ This delicate ensemble of salt forms invites the viewer to value and make sacred the experience of tears in grief, as an accepted part of the human journey and therefore a place where God is. Rather than seeking an escape from our suffering and the pain we feel for others who also suffer, here is an honouring of the place of compassion. There is bitterness and also wisdom, and a spirituality that is embodied, earthed and compassionate that does not make us insular but interconnected. Far from being a sign of weakness, tears remind us that the journey of life is undertaken in a leaky boat. We cannot isolate ourselves from the complex and fluid dimensions of life, we float upon such a sea.

Rebekah Pryor, Saltcellars, 2017. Table salt, dimensions variable.

Rebekah Pryor is an artist wise to the learning found through ritual and sacred space. This work echoes the complex human experience of grief and wise containment. It is part of a larger project where she is seeking to visualise in particular the experience of the mother. In Christian imagery this is often limited to images of women who are models of obedience and passivity, well robed in blue and silent in their transcendent beauty. This work activates the role of mother to contain not only her own grief but the grief that results from being a nurturer and holding the pain of others. She writes, ‘Saltcellars is a motif of maternal lament. It is part of a larger body of work that seeks to critique traditional images of the mother in Christian religious art and generate new icons that might more fully, ethically represent real maternal experience’. She adds, ‘Saltcellars suggests that bitterness and wisdom exist at once in a womans maternal experience. Her body feels both’.

In seeing this work we also feel it in our own body. On the edges of our seeing there are always tears, washing clean our capacity to see what is going on around us. While God might ‘wipe the tears from our eyes’ (Revelation 21.4), I think tears also enable us to see ethically and morally in a world awash with spin, illusion and the seduction of images which try to tell us that we are living in a culture where heaven is now on earth. Instead of this portrayal of a perfect world, tears remind us that the world is a sorry place. It is grief that dissolves the false promises of such cultural tropes. We have not arrived and lament is the prophetic response. This work invites us into a space that looks to me like a sacred space. God the mother sheds tears for this creation and for humans in their habitation of this planet. There is wisdom here that invites a re-orientation to nurture this vulnerable world and to see a God exercising the power of compassion. Life, after all, is worth crying for.

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Rebekah Pryor is a visual artist, curator, and academic living and working on Boon Wurrung and Wurundjeri country. Her artistic and research practice is interdisciplinary and currently explores the spatial and iconic potential of the body via a range of media and disciplines, including philosophy of religion, feminist theory, feminist theology, and architecture. Rebekah was a finalist in the 65th Blake Prize in 2018 and currently works in research and teaching in the Faculty of Arts, The University of Melbourne.
ROD PATTENDEN IS AN ARTIST, ART HISTORIAN, AND THEOLOGIAN INTERESTED IN THE POWER OF IMAGES. HE LIVES AND WORKS ON AWABAKAL LAND.

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