The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
– Matthew Arnold, ‘Dover Beach’
Over these last months, I’ve had the great joy of watching unfold a series of beautiful and stunning images by Michael Galovic, based on The Fall and Expulsion from Paradise. In seeing the images evolve, step by step, I gained an increasingly deep respect for the complexity of the process – from the gessoing of the boards, through the creation of each layer of moulding and gilding, and then the layers of painting where specific features and the final delicate detail emerge. This truly gave me a deeper understanding of, and insight into, the sheer complexity and technical skill involved in successfully balancing each layer, with their different components and levels of permeability to create the works.
Michael is in the very rare position of being both an iconographer and an artist. It is these two aspects of his practice that underpin his work across different material and genres. His childhood in Serbia was visually enriched by art in general, his mother being an art historian and his step-father working on the restoration of frescoes that had been whitewashed during the centuries of Ottoman rule. He then followed this with five years of training at the Academy of Arts in Belgrade.
This eclectic background gave him an enormous appreciation of the skill, subtlety, and sheer brilliance of medieval art, through from Romanesque to the early Renaissance, especially in the religious context. As a painter of icons, he had a wide-ranging technical understanding of the qualities of the media involved as well as a fascination with the imagery and symbolism portrayed in a variety of different forms. This has informed the diversity of directions in his art practice over the last thirty years he has spent in Australia, with many of his works depicting his fascination with concentric circles representing spheres, similar in effect and purpose to the almond-shaped mandorlas from which they evolved, such as those found in icons of The Transfiguration, where the viewer’s gaze is drawn further and further into the image.
Michael’s current journey began with ‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil’, a title which both referenced the 1997 film and was inspired by a small segment, often barely noticed, of ‘Madonna della Vittoria’, painted in tempera in 1496 by Andrea Mantegna to commemorate the purported Gonzaga ‘victory’ over the French in the Battle of Fornovo. He has taken up this small image of Adam and Eve, depicting the moment at which Adam is about to bite the apple, which forms part of the dais on which the Madonna is seated, and has paid homage to the sculptural quality of Mantegna’s work by creating the scene in bas-relief, embellishing the Tree of Knowledge with delicate gilding. This image has then been placed against a predominantly dark field, evoking the night sky, that extends around and far above the figures, highlighting the momentousness of the act about to be taken. Mantegna’s work, as a whole, places the fall in relation to redemption, expressed in the standing figure of Christ on the Madonna’s knee.
A vivid visual contrast is provided by the second work in this series – ‘Before Night Falls’ (the title being another filmic reference!) – based on the Romanesque ‘Fall of Mankind’, a section of the wooden Hildesheim painted ceiling, created c. 1230. As in Mantegna’s depiction, the figures of Adam and Eve are captured at the moment of decision, backgrounded by a rain of golden apples and enclosed in a vivid red circle, highly evocative of the icon images of Elijah’s ascent in a chariot encapsulated in a fiery circle. In both instances, the circle symbolises the ‘otherness’ of the protagonists – in Elijah’s case, a positive movement beyond the earthly plain and, in the Hildesheim ceiling, the imminent loss of paradise. There also seems to be an interplay between the falling apples in the Hildesheim image and the Greek and Norse legends of the golden apples which conferred immortality. However, the Hildesheim image gives a clear message of the potential for redemption, highlighted in Christ’s gesture of blessing.
To the original image, Michael has added a dais made of strongly geometric images. These are an homage to the vivid and startlingly modern geometric nature of the usually overlooked painted divisions and ‘rounding-off’ of frescoes in Romanesque art. Again, the image of the circle as a representation of a sphere or other realm is highlighted and provides a strong visual link between the two parts of the image.
The third work, ‘The only Paradise is Paradise Lost: To Gauguin’, is Michael’s exploration of Gauguin’s perception of Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands in relation to the idea of Paradise and Paradise Lost, by someone who is arguably one of his greatest admirers! In the image, Michael references aspects of five of Gauguin’s works – ‘Tahitian man, woman and cat’, ‘Parua na te varua ino (Words of the Devil)’, ‘Nevermore’, ‘The Meal’, and ‘Where do we come from, what are we, where are we going?’, as the basis for creating an enormously vibrant and dynamic image. The devil’s masked and humanoid presence in the background has been transformed into a serpent that flows to the foreground of the image, confronting the viewer, while the figures representing Adam and Eve are highlighted against an ovoid shape in tones of vermilion and orange, echoing the red disc encapsulating Adam and Eve in the Hildesheim ceiling. Other fascinating elements are the transformation of the man’s cigarette (in itself a signifier of the often-negative impact of French colonialism on the islands) in ‘Tahitian man, woman and cat’, to an apple and that of the hermaphroditic figure reaching for a fruit in ‘Where do we come from’, into Eve reaching for an apple. Her nakedness is covered by a softer version of the raven of Gauguin’s ‘Nevermore’, while Adam’s is placed behind a hand of bananas from ‘The Meal’.
Through the use of these images, Michael has evoked a deep sense of the highly ambivalent nature of Gauguin’s experience, while also creating a new work in which these elements coalesce with an acknowledgement of indigenous Australian dot work techniques to form an intensely vital exploration of The Fall, which complements the ‘frozen in time’ moment of decision captured in the first two works.
The final piece in the series, a replication of Giovanni de Paolo’s ‘The Creation of the World and Expulsion from Paradise’, brings alive a wonderful work of 1445, discovered while researching the different forms of covering used in portrayals of Adam and Eve. In his religious paintings, Giovanni resisted the trend towards more strongly naturalistic and scientific representation. His depiction of the creation is tremendously dynamic in its portrayal of God, accompanied by seraphim, creating the earth at the centre of vivid concentric circles, representing a medieval cosmography including the elements of earth, air, fire, and water. The image with the radiance emanating from God brings to mind Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem ‘God’s Grandeur’:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.
Counterpointing this is the Expulsion from Paradise, with is verdant and stylistically portrayed flora backgrounding Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Paradise by a fiery-winged angel. Both Adam and Eve look backwards towards what they are losing, and it has been suggested that the unusual depiction of the angel naked suggests his empathy and compassion for their fall from grace.
Giovanni has drawn upon a rich heritage of symbolism in his depiction, as is shown throughout the visual references in his work both through his cosmography and his referencing in such touches as the four rivers flowing out from paradise. This backgrounding creates a sense of mystical ‘otherness’ which could not be achieved in a more naturalistic work. Sadly, the original is not in a great state of preservation, with its overall craquelure and discolouring, so it is especially wonderful to have this replication that brings to life the great beauty and intensity of the original.
Michael’s ability to create this is a great tribute to his outstanding work ethic. I have been repeatedly amazed by how he finds the most difficult tasks and complex works energising, rather than exhausting, but delighted that that is the case.
In conclusion, these works give a wonderful sense of God’s immanence in creation. They highlight that inherent in the Fall is the prospect of redemption, whether this is shown in Christ’s blessing or in the empathy of the angel. Even though this is understandably less explicit in ‘The Only Paradise is Paradise Lost: To Gauguin’, there is a sense of the strength and vibrancy of creation. They help to revitalise our sense of wonder and to give us a renewed appreciation of the art that has contributed to it.
I can find no better ending than these lines from T. S. Eliot’s ‘Little Gidding’:
We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring
will be to arrive where we started … and know the place for the first time.