(Art) Painting the Goddess: Working with Symbols by Elaine Drew

In a previous post I showed my earliest attempts to depict the divine feminine. While I agree with Tolstoy that the most important thing about a work of art is that it transmit the feeling of the artist to the viewer, that is not something I can measure or control; that part of the communication is in your hands. So I’m left to talk about what can be verbalized: the mechanics of putting a painting together. In this post I’ll limit myself to one of the mechanics of getting feeling across, and that is the use of symbols.

Medieval painting has been a big influence in my work in terms of its content (religious), its technique (egg tempera, gold leaf), and its use of symbolism. In this group of paintings I combined the sorts of historiated (decorated) letters you might find in an illuminated manuscript with symbols of the particular goddess or divine process I was attempting to portray.

The interesting thing about symbols is that they can function on several different levels at once. The letter forms create a space for the deity to inhabit and also echo something about the meaning of the painting – perhaps the name of the goddess, perhaps her function.

Doris, goddess of the littoral, inside an historiated "d". Snails, and a fish decorate the "d". Dori's skirt is made of waves and she holds a bird in one hand and a clam, looking like a sceptre, in the other.
Doris, goddess of the littoral, inside an historiated “d”. Snails, and a fish decorate the “d”. Dori’s skirt is made of waves and she holds a bird in one hand and a clam, looking like a sceptre, in the other.

In the painting D for Doris we see the goddess of the littoral, the place where the sea meets the land. The form of her letter, besides being her initial, reflects the spiral of the cosmos, and the shape of the d‘s ascender echoes a fish tail. The is bounded by an area of roiling sea, the primeval soup of life. Inside the d, Doris lives in her own universe of ocean, sand, and sparkling stars; she enables life and creativity. Her skirt is made of waves whose motion is the breathing of the sea. Her shirt is decorated with plankton, and she is surrounded by her creatures. A group of clams form a scepter in one hand, a seabird sits in the other.

a female figure with wings inside an historiated "G." Top of G morphs into a bird
A female figure with wings inside an historiated “G.” Top of G morphs into a bird.

G for Goddess: This painting of the soul (anima) depicts our own interior divine force, the inner goddess. Bird symbolism is often associated with both the soul and the ancient goddess of life, death, and rebirth venerated in neolithic Europe. The vegetation symbolizes the life force, and the little celestial bodies on the periphery point us to an unknowable reality beyond ourselves. Circular forms point to the perfection our souls long to attain.

A figure holding an egg is next to a large historiated "I". A bird figure and foliate inside the historiated letter.
A figure holding an egg is next to a large historiated “I”. A bird figure and foliate inside the historiated letter.

The Egg and I contemplates our place, as women, in the cycle of creativity. An ancient bird goddess represents our ancestral mothers from time immemorial and observes us from the very center of the “I.” She lives in us at the core of our being. Life and fertility unfold around her. The egg that “I” hold is the symbol of my potential as a person and as a woman to pass forward the gifts of our mothers.

The goddess invites souls to life. She is contained in an historiated U. Surrounded by stars, representing the universe.
The goddess invites souls to life. She is contained in an historiated U. Surrounded by stars, representing the universe.

The Portal: The life force is symbolized by the goddess appearing in both the vesica and the U. The U stands for the Uterus, the sacred place where life begins, and also for the Universe, a place of infinite potential. The goddess, surrounded by the richness and fertility of vegetation, offers life to those brave enough to accept the challenge. Her pale face hints that she rules both life and death, and that the two cannot be separated. She offers the women below a symbolic umbilical cord, and their nakedness emphasizes the vulnerability of those who accept life, in its beauty and terror.

(See “How to Express the Feminine Divine?” and “Painting Taera, Goddess of the Earth.”)