5. Thresholds and Edges
“i is a long memoried woman …” Mary Wickham RSM
I have a friend who spent several months working as a volunteer at Mercy International Centre, Dublin. She wrote home a number of chatty, informative letters. Where some people focus on scenery or museums, her remembering had a distinctive quality: when she wrote about Dublin and excursions to other parts of Ireland she would invariably include a description of a statue that had caught her eye and engaged her imagination; amongst them the seated figure of poet Patrick Kavanagh not far from Baggot St on the banks of the Grand Canal and the controversial Molly Malone figure in O’Connell St.
My friend’s perspective set me thinking about statues, and more particularly about the way women have been embodied during the last two thousand years; about the metaphoric power of sculpture in terms of the way women have been shaped and perceived and placed, as well as the way women have projected and appropriated images of themselves.
It set me thinking about the relationship between statues and jubilee. Sculpture has traditionally been a way of commemorating: an achievement, the passage of time itself, of honouring the dead, the great, the fallen in war, of lauding the exemplary: from the simplest of cairns on a mountain top to the highly ornate edifices of the Victorian era, to the post-modern plastic wrap of buildings by Cristo.
Statues have no speech, yet they can make subtle sounds as the rain falls on them and the wind blows past and around them. They take up space. They occupy a place. They reflect the light. Some soak up the sun, taking into their very heart the warmth. Some find themselves resting places for birds. Some soak up the moisture from the air, letting the damp seep into their apparent solidity. From different angles they present different aspects. Depending on the time of the day, they can cast long shadows, and certain planes and surfaces are accentuated or understated.
Consider sculpture as a metaphor: this or that shape as the reality she, woman, has been dealt, the space she has occupied, the form to which she has adapted, particularly in her relationship to Church, to the men of the Church, and the God the Church proposes. Think of Michaelangelo’s Pietas, of Bernini’s Teresa of Avila, of the ubiquitous plaster Virgin in blue and white. Think of what has not been made; not given shape. Consider the samples that follow a personal selection, not a prescriptive set … you will have your own; you will find your own. Good. Let us pray to keep open eyes of our spirit.
Which woman are you?
Which figure looks at you with your eyes?
What challenge is given to unbecome?
What to aspire?
What needs remoulding, what speaks to your desire?
What figure does your life call you to be?
From which should you flee?
Who is it shapes and forms for good?
What tyrannies maim and distort?
Find for your self the idol, the true.
Discard the one, claim the real.
May Grace the Sculptor find you good stone.
The Lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral is a lovely place. It is also a truly terrible place. In afternoon sunlight it has a subtle beauty, full of white light, spacious.
Yet there is about this place a skeletal quality: so much white stone looks bone-like, the archways and roof-bosses so many knuckles and joints. And then you read that the original medieval windows were not of clear glass at all, but a richly coloured, ornate stained glass, the statues likewise coloured and gilded.
And then you look carefully at the many little stone figures in alcoves and high niches, over the archways, in the roof corners.
You see that they have been attacked, hands missing, most of them decapitated, beautiful figures scored and smashed, the fine detail bludgeoned off.
Cromwell and his wreckers came here during the Reformation when the Church of England reacted to the excesses of the cult of the Virgin Mary.
From adulation to violation.
In the green enclosure around Salisbury Cathedral there stands a bronze figure of a woman.
No, stands is not the right word.
You have to be quick to catch her.
She strides ahead, intent and single-minded, arms swinging.
A lean, even gaunt figure, she is older than the usual girlish Madonna. A face that is worn and wise to the world. Not a winsome face. A bit fierce, an onlooker might think. And yet there is a delicate gentleness about her too.
She could be any refugee, any pilgrim, any searcher.
She marches parallel to the Church path, but not on it. She walks, against all warnings, on the grass. She has her back to the vast Cathedral. She is headed for the market-place. Is she in flight from, or on a mission to? Has she been sent or has she set off at her own prompting?
“High above the north western doorway of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne, can be seen a sculpture of a woman’s face, that of St. Brigid, favourite daughter of Ireland.”
Legend has it that St. Brigid was born on the threshold of the house, neither inside nor outside, so it is fitting that she should be depicted above the doorway. Being on the threshold perhaps denotes Brigid’s affinity and the spiritual realm, but it also signifies her temporal homelessness, belonging and not belonging, inclusion and exclusion.
The face above the doorway of St. Patrick’s Cathedral is, of course, not Brigid’s at all. The face, sculpted from life in the 19th century was that of another Irish woman, Clara Mary, Sister Ursula Frayne, foundation member of the Sisters of Mercy in Australia.
What seems is not so; at least not simply.
What you see is not all that there is to get.
One woman for and as another.
One face for another.
One name for another.
Veiled head and broad open face.
Behind each woman
there are the hidden generations;
behind each name a story,
(I carry in my world that flourishes the worlds that have failed)
Echoes and fragments of earlier names and deeds;
(i is a long memoried woman …)
each woman more than a single self in time;
and each woman wanting to be named for who she really is.
Listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches … I will give the hidden manna and a white stone – a stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it. (Rev: 2:17)
At over eighty archaeological sites in Ireland and other medieval sites in Western Europe can be found curious and controversial carvings: some are on castle walls, some on bridges, but paradoxically the majority are found on Churches. The term sheila-na-gig refers to small carvings of naked women with exposed genitalia. They are reminiscent of gargoyles, having the same bizarre, distorted appearance. One theory traces their origins to similar male and female figures found in French Romanesque Churches. These were used to illustrate the ungodly powers which threaten men. They may reflect a fear of the feminine. Caricatured in an attempt to lessen their power.
One such figure is found at St. Gobnait’s Church, Ballyvourney, West Cork: a small weathered figure in a window arch. Homage is paid to this figure each year during the Feastday procession of the holy woman St. Gobnait.
Goddess or whore, feared or fearsome, token against evil or stone of healing, pagan remnant of fertility rite or Christian admonition against lust, Earth Mother or prefigurement of St. Brigid as Triple Goddess: one or all of these, the Sheila-na-Gig retains her mystery and her potency as all that is primeval and elemental in the feminine, as all that is provocative and perceived to be dangerous. As all, perhaps that is the feminine at its most fecund and creative.
There are a number of variations on the name Sheela-na-gig, which is thought to derive from the Irish Sile na gCioch, meaning Sheila of the paps, or breasts. One variant calls the figures Cailleach. This is the Irish word for old crone or hag, associated with protection of the land. Ironically, it also means a veiled or celibate woman. In the circularity of Irish medieval thinking it seems there is not a great distance between the sheela-na-gig and the veiled celibate woman.
Catch the No 10 Bus along Baggot St and alight at the Herbert St stop. You will come face to face with a veiled woman, a cailleach. Well, not quite face to face, since she is a towering, larger than life figure.
She is not alone, this wise one, protector of the land.
Here is a configuration of the feminine,
a womanly trinity,
mother, child and nun.
One hand is outstretched.
Is it a gesture of giving or of begging,
a welcome or a movement of farewell?
The outstretched foot from one angle looks almost dainty,
like a dancer preparing to leap,
but move to the side and you will see
that the foot is like an anchor,
or the root of some great sturdy tree,
the leg massive.
The weight of the figure
rests on that leg,
a complete contrast to the hand suspended delicately in air
like a bird’s wing.
That leg gives balance to the unseen hand behind,
firmly gentle at the mother’s back:
to embrace/to propel/to steady/to guide/to protect/to comfort/to reassure/to strengthen/ to encourage/ to love
They stand outside the house;
like Brigid at the threshold,
the zone of inclusion or exclusion,
the way in which is the way out.
She owns the house who ordered it built,
yet she is not entirely free to be its mistress.
On the street perhaps she is freer to greet and to seek,
to welcome and console.
This is a circle that is not a circle,
a circle in the making,
a circle at the waiting,
waiting a response from the onlooker,
each onlooker the missing arc that completes,
makes the circle mercy.
Each of these: the disabled of Ely, Salisbury’s Walking Madonna, Ursula as Brigid, the Sheela-na-gig, Catherine and the Woman with the baby, they each tell their own story. Through the gloom and the glory, love and cruelty of two thousand years they are, after all, still alive, as all art is alive. They are women for all weathers, on whom the rain falls and the sunlight gleams.
They are still standing, and they sing in their silence, in the rhythmic vernacular of Grace Nichols’ African-Caribbean woman:
i is a long memoried woman …
I am here
a woman … with all my lives
strung out like beads
It isn’t privilege or pity
that I seek
It isn’t reverence or safety
quick happiness or purity
but the power to be what I am/a woman
charting my own futures/a woman
holding my beads in my hand …
I have crossed an ocean
I have lost my tongue
from the root
of the old one
a new one has sprung …
This reflection was first published in Listen, Journal of the Institute of Sisters of Mercy of Australia, Vol. 16 No.2, 1998.