Tag Archives: Planet narnia

Off to the Isle of Iona …

Above – painting at the North end of Iona, 2018

Place-names can tell you so much about the history of a place. If you find an old enough map of the Isle of Iona you can see that, tiny though the island is (three by one and a half miles) it has been inhabited by people for thousands of years.

Cnoc an Oran, for example – ‘hill of song’ in Scottish Gaelic, or Sìthean Mòr – ‘hill of the angels’ as it’s translated, though Sìthean also translates as ‘fairies’. Back in about 500AD when an exiled Irish prince, St. Columba (or Collum Cille as he was known) arrived here to set up a religious community, he would have encountered the ancient remains of previous dwellers going back to the iron and bronze ages. Iona has always been a an important spiritual place.

Known as ‘The Dove’ Collum Cille seems to have been anything but! (Maybe this was an early example of sarcasm). He banned women from the island, saying; wherever there are cows there are women and wherever there are women there’s trouble, or words to that effect. He was known as a powerful political negotiator across Scotland. ‘You wouldnae mess wi him’ as Scots might say!

He did set up a Benedictine Monastery though, and an Abbot of the abbey, named Adomnán, wrote of the miracles conducted by Collum Cille, which included facing down a sea monster (it’s since been speculated that it was in fact Nessie).

I first visited Iona in my early twenties seeking, I suppose, spiritual understanding. I did find it a deeply affecting place, which is why I’ve returned so many times since then. On that first trip, I visited the craggy south end of the island, where the rusting machinery remains of an 18th century marble quarry still exist.

The beautiful lucent white marble is streaked with deep grass-green serpentine and it made the perfect material for the alter that was created for the abbey in the early 1900’s when the abbey was restored. For hundreds of years, children of the island have sold little pebbles of the sea-washed marble to visitors for luck, they still do today.

On my first visit though, I decided to take a slightly larger piece, about 4×5 inches – a large chip from the marble quarry cuttings. It has travelled everywhere with me, you could say it’s been ‘my rock’! Though I think it’s time for me to return it to its home on Iona by way of a ‘thank you’ for everything the island has given me.

It sounds trite or contrived in the usual way of island sayings, when you read that ‘Iona always gives you what you need’, but I’ve found that to be true. There was the sense of spiritual discovery and wonderment in landscape in the first place- an inspiration for me to paint landscape – as well as the more difficult times when I’ve been struggling with life and visited the island to contemplate.

Contemplation sounds peaceful but those visits were turbulent in a variety of ways. For example the time I spent 21 days in a tent by myself, feeling that I needed a break from noise and people. In fact it made me deeply appreciate people since my main companions for those 21 days were spiders, a drove of slugs crawling over my tent, midges, a corncrake whose harsh mating call kept me awake half the night, and a team of baa-ing sheep who decided that my airing sleeping bag was a good place to urinate. (That’s a stench that never washes out, the sleeping bag was indeed a wash-out after that!)

Luckily the campsite owner had a stash of beautiful wool-lined sleeping bags and didn’t bat an eye when I told him of my predicament, lending me one of these for the rest of my stay.

There was also the time I stayed there in the wintry months, as part of an artist’s residency project. During that fortnight I shared a dwelling space with some very troubled people. Iona attracts pilgrims from across the world who desperately seek healing for emotional or physical wounds. It’s not easy to deal with that sometimes and I found that the atmosphere, combined with a few of the demons of my past, haunted me for months to come.

On the other hand, each day brought blessings: the endless beauty and colours of the landscape, the turbulent energy and colours of the tide changing at twilight, which inspired a series of paintings titled October Tide, then there were fellow creatives who arrived with songs, music and ideas, and new friendships …

Mary McCormick, a grounded and unassuming women in her 70’s from the American mid west, was someone who observed without judgement or drama. She loved to collect small pebbles from her daily walks, pour them into a little dish and invite us to admire them, sharing her photos of the day with residents around the kitchen table. If the conversation veered into turbulent waters, she’d succinctly say her piece with calming compassion and just leave it there, resonating with understated wisdom.

One day we walked to Sìthean Mor, ‘The Hill of Angels/Fairies’ and she said that she’d heard in a book that you had to listen here for nature, or God, or for whatever beliefs you had, to give you an important message. I stood for a while, watching a wash of slate grey cloud blowing across a dazzling blue sky – it looked like a painting in progress – and the phrase ‘You are meant to enjoy it’ came to mind.

Afterwards we dropped in to the Columba Hotel and I told Mary about the troubled thoughts that had been stirred up by time spent on the island this time and the company, or demands as I felt, of emotionally troubled people. I’d felt so upset I’d taken to hiding in my room in the evenings, worried that I’d affect others with my mood, that I was ‘losing it’. Mary immediately exclaimed ‘Oh, no Rose! ..’ jumping up from her place next to the log fire and coming over to hug me, ‘You’re the most grounded person here, you’ve been a friend during my time here’. My worries felt washed away. We’ve stayed friends since then of course, though Mary is now back in the US, writing, exploring grasslands of the Midwest and finding opportunities to be involved in her main occupation of landscape gardening.

During the residency I’d been reading the poems of Virgil, and on my return I began to explore Medieval philosophy, which led to a new series of paintings about the planets as understood in Medieval cosmology. It was an incredibly enriching time when I read Planet Narnia by the author Michael Ward, which explores the planetary influence in the works of C.S. Lewis.

I found that contemplating the influence of each planet changed me. Working through the ideas connected with Saturn for example – winter, introspection, hard lessons, death … (my dad had died just two years before) during the months of December and January 2018, led to a new understanding of how to live life – you’re meant to enjoy it.

Spring arrived at the same time that I was painting Jupiter, which alligns with the change from winter to spring – winter passed, guilt forgiven as C.S. Lewis writes in his Planets poem on the subject of Jupiter – and with it a new relationship.

Last year my partner Adam presented me with an engagement ring that he’d designed himself, made with a small piece of the Ionian marble (my rock, that I’d found on my first trip to Iona in the early 90s!) After celebrating, we discussed where we’d like to get married, but each idea was fraught with planning troubles – we wanted to get married in the countryside, but how would we bring all our relatives from different parts of Britain to the celebration?

In the end, it made most sense for just the two of us to go away to get married, what’s known these days as ‘an elopement wedding’. It was Adam who suggested the obvious – ‘how about Iona?’ I was struck by the fact that I was surprised (and delighted) by the idea. Back in my twenties I’d thought to myself ‘I’d like to get married here, if I ever get married’. Somehow that dream had been buried in the back of my mind until Adam took the idea out, gave it a dust and – there it was!

And so we’ll be in Iona this May (the green, fertile month of love, art and expression, as understood in Medieval cosmology). Inspiration for my next series of paintings. I’m going to take my Iona rock back to the south end of the island and leave it there as a thank you to Iona.

I hope someone else discovers it, and that it brings them enjoyment … C.S Lewis says it better than I can:


“Meditation in a Toolshed”
By C. S. Lewis.

I was standing today in the dark toolshed. The
sun was shining outside and through the crack at
the top of the door there came a sunbeam. From
where I stood that beam of light, with the specks
of dust floating in it, was the most striking thing in
the place. Everything else was almost pitch-black.
I was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it.
Then I moved, so that the beam fell on my
eyes. Instantly the whole previous picture
vanished. I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no
beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny
at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the
branches of a tree outside and beyond that, 90 odd
million miles away, the sun. Looking along the
beam, and looking at the beam are very different
experiences.

And from ‘Surprised by Joy’, C.S.Lewis:

In other words, the enjoyment and the contemplation of our inner activities are incompatible. You cannot hope and also think about hoping at the same moment; for in hope we look to hope’s object and we interrupt this by (so to speak) turning round to look at the hope itself. (…) The surest way of spoiling a pleasure was to start examining your satisfaction. But if so, it followed that all introspection is in one respect misleading. In introspection, we try to look ‘inside ourselves’ and see what is going on. But nearly everything that was going on a moment before is stopped by the very act of our turning to look at it. Unfortunately, this does not mean that introspection finds nothing. On the contrary, it finds precisely what is left behind by the suspension of all our normal activities; and what is left behind is mainly mental images and physical sensations. The great error is to mistake this mere sediment for the activities themselves.

‘Saturn’ (September ‘Planets’ exhibition 2019)

‘Saturn. Planets Series’. Oil on 30×30″ panel. Rose Strang 2019

This is the final ‘Saturn’, created for the upcoming exhibition on the 12th September this year. This one was painted purely in oils since black is such a tricky colour to work with and oil pigment has more depth of pigment and versatile texture.

This is a continuation of the Planets Series I’m creating this year, which takes inspiration from the planets as understood in Medieval cosmology, and the seven books of Narnia which were each inspired by the seven planets, as discovered by Michael Ward, author of ‘Planet Narnia’.

The exhibition launch takes place at 6pm on the 12th September at the Demarco Archives Gallery in Edinburgh’s Summerhall. (The rest of the series in progress can be viewed Here)

 

I’m particularly looking forward to the accompanying talk by Michael Ward (author of Planet Narnia. The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis) which begins at 6:30pm 12th September in the Main Hall at Summerhall, Edinburgh, as part of the exhibition launch.

Michael Ward is one of the world’s leading experts on the works of C.S. Lewis. It was his particular interest in the Narniad that led to his unique discovery that each of the Narnia Chronicles corresponds to the seven planets as understood in Medieval imagination.

Michael studied English Literature at Oxford, Theology at Cambridge, and has a PhD in Divinity from St Andrews. His PHD focused on the Narnia Chronicles, and it was during PHD research that he chanced upon the link between the books and Medieval planets. Only someone steeped in the entire works of Lewis, including Lewis’ poetry, would have recognised these associations.

Towards the end of 2018 I was exploring medieval symbology when I discovered one of Michael’s lectures on You Tube (see link below) which explored the Narnia/Medieval planets connection. Having been a Lewis aficionado since childhood I was immediately intrigued, so I ordered the book and have been attempting an artistic response ever since.

It has proved highly challenging, but I know I’ll be exploring these themes further in future. It has been richly rewarding, not just artistically but absolutely as part of exploring life’s experiences – difficult to explain why until you yourself have explored these rich associations, which reach back into pre-history in many ways, yet have contemporary and individual significance.

I never imagined I’d be delving so deep into these ideas and I’m grateful that Michael has responded so positively to the artworks, and I was of course delighted when he agreed to give the talk this September.

I was also delighted that Richard Demarco was enthusiastic about hosting the exhibition and event at his gallery in Summerhall, since Richard’s life’s work in the arts touches on many of the themes explored in this exhibition and talk (such as a non-linear concept of time, connections between the arts, sciences and faith, and ways of imagining or perceiving our experience of life).

I highly recommend watching this documentary (link below) for a taste of why it’s so fascinating as a subject. Michael Ward is an engaging and humorous speaker, and I’m sure that people from all walks of life, whether from a creative, historic, literary or theological perspective (not to mention the many people across the world who simply appreciate the Narniad as engaging and compelling stories) will really enjoy the talk this September, and I hope, the exhibition of my paintings too!

Mars

Above, one of my favourite sketches from Prince Caspian by the illustrator of the Narnia Chronicles, Pauline Baynes.

I haven’t yet painted my response to the planet Mars, this is because while up north in Ardnamurchan, the trees just didn’t show enough obvious signs of early spring and as I’m heading up there on the 17th May for an exhibition opening, I’ll be able to make sketches and photos of a more spring-like time.

(You can view my other paintings of Ardnamurchan Here )

Apologies if you’re just tuning in to this blog after a while and don’t know what this is about – this is a continuation of the Planets Series I’m creating this year, which takes inspiration from the planets as understood in Medieval cosmology, and the seven books of Narnia which were each inspired by the seven planets, as described by Michael Ward, author of ‘Planet Narnia’.

I’ve painted two of the series so far – ‘Saturn’ and ‘Jupiter’, viewable on this link with info on the series inspiration https://rosestrangartworks.com/2019/02/22/planets-series-open-studio-day/

I chose Castle Tioram on the Ardnamurchan peninsula on the west coast of Scotland as the linking back-drop for all the paintings. It’s always seemed Narnia-esque to me, on its sandy peninsula fringed by wild trees, it reminds me of the Castle Cair Paravel, particularly in its ruinous state as described in Prince Caspian ..

Castle Tioram. (photo, Rose Strang March 2019)

As explained by Michael Ward in Planet Narnia, the early association of Mars was growth and trees, since Mars is related to March, therefore spring. In this capacity it’s known as Mars Silvanus – though the more common association with Mars is war.

I’ve also been reading books about Medieval philosophy (mostly Agrippa’s Three Books Of Occult Philosophy) and it seems that the influence of Mars is about a certain energy –  a vitality or vital force, which I suppose relates to growth and spring therefore presumably fecundity,  fertility and sexuality as well as new growth of crops and plants in spring. I’m wondering if the pagan image of the Green Man is related (I haven’t explored that so I’m not sure).

It’s the idea of an unleashed unguided energy perhaps, and I’m now thinking of Stravinsky’s ‘Rites of Spring’, which captures the essence of that energy brilliantly. It’s an exciting piece of music, the sinuous sound at the start is very evocative of growing trees, and sensuality, but it has a sort of unsettling violence too as it develops  – and that brings us back to the war-like aggressive themes of Mars.

I’ve gone off on a tangent though, and as explained by Michael Ward in Planet Narnia, for C.S. Lewis the influence of Mars could manifest good or bad action, depending on the character of the recipient of that energy. Mars was understood as a ‘malefic’ planet, but in Prince Caspian we see its energy working both ways through the varying characters. In the end though Aslan, and the trees, decide the outcome.

C.S. Lewis understood the Mars influence as the essence of courage or fortitude –  an iron will (iron is the metal associated with Mars) the ability to keep going despite pain and suffering, also courage in the face of death and destruction. People can use that energy for good or ill, as the characters do in Prince Caspian.

Prince Cspian speeding through the trees (illustration Pauline Baynes)

The four children arrive in Narnia very suddenly, by magic, whisked from a train platform on their way to school. They find themselves amidst wild trees, and making their way through they emerge on to a beach, and gradually make the discovery that they’re back in Narnia, but that thousands of years have passed and the Castle of Cair Paravel lies in ruins.

It’s spine-tingling stuff, one of my favourite passages from the Narnia Chronicles. Lewis’s writing is so evocative and atmospheric, as always. The discovery of an aged golden chess piece – a knight – with one remaining in-laid eye made of ruby is found in the grass amidst the ruins of Cair Paravel. A beautiful and poetic equivalent or image of a knight’s gauntlet being thrown down in challenge.

They take on the challenge, realising that Narnia must be re-claimed from the cruel Telamarine usurper, Miraz, and the story unfolds gradually towards the full-blown battle near the end.

As they travel back through the wild trees towards the battle-site, they become lost, then after making camp, Lucy wakes during the night believing she hears Aslan’s voice. As she walks through the trees towards the voice, she senses that the trees are almost coming to life again, they stir and seem to dance, then fall still.

Later, she does encounter Aslan, who insists that she must wake the others and make them follow though they can’t see him as yet. She expresses her fear that the others won’t believe her or follow (she’s the youngest and tends to be dismissed when it comes to leadership and decisions).

Aslan breathes courage into her, and she resolves to convince the others. It’s an obvious depiction of faith, and whether or not you’re religious, it’s a modest, yet affective description of someone discovering faith and resolution against the odds.

And on it goes, through the rest of the characters, each resolving to take on increasingly painful challenges, up to the point of battle and death, resulting in victory in the end with the appearance of an entire forest of wakened trees sweeping towards the enemy..

Throughout all of this, there’s much pagan imagery or references to ancient mythologies – Bacchus, Sirenius, Dryads and so on. One of my favourite descriptions is of Aslan, Lucy, Susan, Bacchus and various dryads and naiads helping to free schoolchildren from punishment, or from tedious lessons. Lewis’s humour and compassion (not to mention remembrance of his own deeply unpleasant experience of school) is given full leash here!

If you too loathed school, it was an immensely satisfying read as a child I remember. What would I have given to have a bunch of cavorting mythological characters show up and interrupt me being belted, via a dryad causing the headmaster to turn into a tree!

Though Prince Caspian is a book about war and suffering, Lewis doesn’t forget to remind us there’s a better way to be, and how poetic, to halt violence through spring trees – the idea of a benevolent influence of mars.

There are a few critics of Ward’s thesis that the Narnia Chronicles are each related to the planets as understood in Medieval cosmology, and those critiques have been welcomed by Ward, since they enrich debate. No-one would argue with Lewis’s obvious fascination and understanding of Medieval cosmology and literature – all of his creative writing, including the Planets Trilogy, and many poems explored this theme.

I’m not qualified in any academic sense to refute the idea of planets corresponding to the Narniad, I simply know the books extremely well, and so it’s easy for me to immediately conjure up the imagery and ideas that related to the planets as understood in Medieval thought. I’m convinced though, because it seems so self-evident once pointed out. Reading something about Medieval cosmology or understanding the basics at least, is a requirement too, and it was becoming interested in this subject that led to me reading Planet Narnia.

So to me the ‘Saturnine’ atmosphere and blackness of The Last Battle, for example, is obvious now – the utter ending, the oppressive feel, deathly law and order, death on its way, and let’s not forget that the four characters are dead, in earthly terms, when they leave Narnia. These are all clearly Saturnine subjects and themes. Not to mention that it’s the 7th book, 7 is the number of the completion of the cycle of time, and Saturn is known as Father Time (who reaches across the sky in the Last Battle and extinguishes the sun).

Beyond 7 is 8 – the number of eternity, which is where the characters end up at the end (I’ve just learned about these numbers this moment, having seen a video Michael Ward posted about the symbology of the North Rose window in Notre Dame Cathedral).

More than ideas though, it’s the incredible atmosphere Lewis creates that I’m responding to as an artist since I’m very interested in evoking atmosphere through my paintings (the sense of what’s experienced as opposed to a postcard view)

As I explore these subjects though, I’m also brought face-to-face with the religious themes in Lewis’s work, and the fact that the bulk of academic support for his work comes from religious organisations or people.

This is challenging at times for me, I’m ever wary of organisations and institutions so religious institutions are no exception. (I do not mean to cause offense by these statements – this is about my subjective response).

The fact is, that the reason C. S. Lewis’s work and literary output has survived is due to the incredible efforts, sheer depth and breadth of study, not to mention love of Lewis’s work and the man himself, by people such as Walter Hooper and Michael Ward.

This isn’t to suggest at all that anyone’s insisting you have to be religious to appreciate C.S. Lewis! (In fact you can find some alarming Youtube videos out there with fundamentalist Christians ranting that Lewis is an evil pagan!) It’s more that in reading about the religious appreciation of Lewis by people who are dedicated (in sane, open-minded and compassionate ways that is) to their religion, I can feel slightly at odds. There’s much about it I don’t ‘get’, the Old Testament and so on. Religious dedication takes a multitude of paths of course, as myriad as the characteristics and varying beliefs of people and their interpretations of religious scripture. I don’t mean to naively or dismissively lump religion into one entity!

So I continue to be very vague about my spiritual response to the Narnia Chronicles, not because I don’t feel that aspect powerfully, but because maybe it feels easier not to define it, and perhaps I’m scared of that response being damaged or diluted in some sense. My response to landscape has been coloured and influenced by the Narniad throughout my entire life, from early childhood. At the age of nine I remember encountering a verdant marshy, mossy area between a small group of silver birch trees – it was a slightly misty morning, with the sun casting a white glow through light cloud. I took my shoes and socks off and felt the grass growing beneath my feet and wondered if I might be transported to the wood between the worlds!

Later at the age of twenty I went to the Isle of Iona because I felt the urge to explore my own spirituality. I did discover and experience something, in how I experienced nature there, but there are few people I’d discuss that experience with. If there’s one person I’d have relished the opportunity to do so it would of course be C.S. Lewis!