Woman Hero (Self Portrait as the Virgin and Child)
Oil, lapis, and gold on panel
16×12 inches, 2018
The research for Woman Hero (Self Portrait as the Virgin and Child) is based in Medieval and Renaissance history and uses symbolism derived mainly from these periods. Because this is the heritage of many cultural norms and attitudes in modern western society, it is a particularly potent source of symbolism that is still relevant today. This piece can be described as having three main themes, or areas of questioning outlined below.
Masculine and feminine sacrificial blood
When a girl becomes a woman, there is something given up: a certain self-confidence and identity with the body; an animal, instinctual unselfconscious. This rooted sense of belonging is traded for blood when a girl begins to menstruate. In biological terms, menstruation is a sacrifice made in exchange for the ability to reproduce. But the blood which symbolizes a woman’s sacrifice has consistently been regarded as “dirty blood,” loaded with stigma and shame. This taboo is partially influenced by her inability to choose the blood, as it seems to come mysteriously and unbidden. She is viewed as being acted upon by outside forces, dimly understood and therefore long interpreted by men as “witchy.” Such problematic perceptions of menstruation speak to the masculine fear of woman’s potentially uncontrolled and uncontrollable body.
Masculine sacrifice has a much different symbolic history. A man’s sacrificial blood is “noble blood,” and the act is that of a hero. He chooses, through bravery and strength of character, to give his blood in a heroic act. Volition is involved: the decision to spill his blood is associated with reason and clarity of mind. It is clean blood, not the contaminated blood which is spilled by a woman’s “irrational” and inscrutable body. Decision plays a part in both the choice to sacrifice, and also in the choice of sacrifice.
If, in contrast, the only way a woman can find redemption through her “dirty blood” is to conceive and give birth to a child, what does it mean if this duty, this burden, goes unfulfilled? For much of history, women without children have been seen as ranging from pitiable to worthless and even evil. A “barren” woman is infertile, which often implies a parallel with death. In the context of these attitudes, which remain largely intact to this day, is the female blood sacrifice meaningless? What must change in order for a woman’s sacrifice to be deemed heroic rather than redemptive, one involving both volition and choice?
Masculine and feminine creativity
In many societies and throughout much of history, the creative outlets open to women have been tightly controlled. Child-bearing is still an expectation, if not a requirement, for women in many parts of the world. Women are told to be fulfilled in every way by the role of mother; it is one of the few forms of creativity sanctioned for women. Within the rigid religious structure of Medieval and Renaissance Europe, women were told that motherhood was a duty, a punishment, a woman’s greatest joy, and her highest form of creativity. Rarely was a woman allowed to train in the arts, let alone make this the focus of her life. In fact, it was believed that women did not possess the capacity for artistic creativity and original thought. This view necessitated an accompanying belief involving propriety, decency, and morality. Even if a woman was admitted to possessing the innate artistic skill, training and practice were judged to be immoral.
Art-making as a queer behaviour
Still today, a woman who has no craving for motherhood and who chooses a different sort of creative life is often looked upon with suspicion. There is a sense that such a woman is weird (a word deeply connected to the notion of witchery), and possibly dangerous, due to the absence of a mothering urge. Not only is she unnatural and unpredictable, but she is also defective. Classic homophobia states that sexual attraction between individuals of the same gender is aberrant and perverse, as it does not produce offspring. Similar reasoning, based on the idea that procreation is somehow fundamental to wholeness, has been applied to women who do not desire motherhood. While the lack of this desire causes discomfort, its presence produces the opposite effect: it calms the fear of otherness and dispels some of the mystery surrounding the question, “what is a woman?” Motherhood is a universally accepted way to prove legitimate womanhood, and indeed, legitimate personhood.
- The blue veil
The Renaissance iconographic type of the Virgin and Child is employed in the layout of this painting. The blue-veiled woman stands in the Virgin’s place. Historically as well as in the present day, women have often been veiled for religious purposes. It is a mark of modesty, and sometimes of shame. The reasoning behind this practice is usually connected in some way to the perceived wickedness of a woman’s sexuality and the danger that poses to a man’s moral life.
The blue veil, particularly the ultramarine used in Renaissance Italy as the Virgin Mary’s color, conveys both purity and holiness. Lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, the material for this color, was once valued more highly than gold. The Virgo woman, childless and yet overtly sexual in her bare-chested state, is glorified by this coveted hue.
- The fawn and the blood
The fawn’s position here is that of the Christ child in traditional Renaissance Virgin and Child paintings. The fading of a fawn’s white spots as it becomes an adolescent makes the young deer a powerful symbol of innocence to be lost. The adult stag has also (though rarely) been used as a stand-in for Christ, with the antlers representing a crown of thorns. Here, the fawn looks adoringly up at the woman who holds it; this is a conversation across time, a meeting between two incarnations of one creature, depictions of the past and the future.
The pool of blood which oozes from beneath the fawn is a clue to its overlapping identity with the woman. It also questions the loss of a girl’s unselfconscious embodied experience that often accompanies the onset of menstruation. What is the purpose of this sacrifice? What (other than the ability to procreate) is gained from the forfeiture of more animal-like confidence?
- The coral cornicello
This “little horn” is an ancient Italian phallic fertility symbol and protective charm with origins stretching back to pre-Christian times. During the Medieval and Renaissance eras, pieces of coral-like this were also used as teething aids for babies. Additionally, they often symbolized Christ’s sacrifice. In the context of this piece, the cornicello proposes the existence of an independent (self-perpetuating) conventionally masculine creativity expressed in feminine form. It also speaks to the presence of blood and again brings up questions about gender roles and the purpose of sacrifice.
- The gilded halo-mirror and garnets
The gilded halo again draws parallels between the central figure and classic Renaissance representations of the Virgin Mary. It reiterates questions about what constitutes ideal womanhood, and what a noble feminine sacrifice looks like in the wilful absence of procreation. At the same time, this halo functions as a mirror, framed in wood and inlaid with garnets. Mirrors are symbolic of both vanity and self-reflection. In the Medieval Christian tradition, vanity was a sin of which women were often accused in particular, and many steps were taken (such as sumptuary laws) to quell this female moral weakness. However, mirrors in Renaissance art were also used to represent contemplation of the self, clarity of sight, and fundamental truth. Additionally, they became an important technical tool for painting self-portraits, of which this is one. The mirror in Woman Hero proposes the necessity of the much-maligned ego as part of an artist’s emotional toolbox.
Garnets are thus named because of a visual similarity to pomegranate seeds. During the Renaissance in Europe, garnets took on the symbolism of Christ’s sacrifice since, when polished, they look like drops of blood. The stones can also be associated with feminine power, again because of their blood-like appearance, but this connection is decidedly pre-Christian in origin. Finally, garnets were thought to protect against poison
- The scorpion
The subject of this portrait was born under Scorpio ascending; from this perspective, the presence of a scorpion is an astrological clue to her personality. The ancient practice of astrology (long considered a science and equivalent to astronomy), which can be traced back to the Greeks and Babylonians, describes those born under Scorpio rising as enigmatic and controlling. When used as symbols, scorpions often imply danger, but in many cultures, they are also seen as omens of change and renewal. Here, the sense of impending transformation and implied uncertainty heightens the fawn’s vulnerability and re-addresses the theme of sacrifice.
- The peach
Peaches appearing in Renaissance art often symbolized purity, virginity, truth, and female fertility. A decaying peach, however, denoted an immoral woman who was thought to have committed sin through unsanctioned sexual behavior. Decaying food of any type was regularly understood as a symbol for mortality and eventual death. Here, the rotting peach raises questions about the harsh societal judgment of women who actively choose not to procreate and yet freely explore their sexuality. Together with the childlike fawn and the mature woman, this deteriorating fruit completes a symbolic life cycle. Additionally, the positioning of the fruit in the woman’s hand suggests that she may be offering it as food to the fawn. Considering the aforementioned symbolism, what would this gesture mean?
- The chalice
The chalice has a deep symbolic history in the Christian tradition. It is tied to the sacrament of the Eucharist and the idea of sacrifice that is one of the foundations of Christianity. There are also pre-Christian rituals associated with the chalice, in which this kind of goblet represents the womb and female fertility. In many religions, both contemporary and historical, the drinking of sacrificial blood (actual or symbolic) is extremely common. Christian myths set this holy, heroic blood firmly in opposition to the “contaminated” and “shameful” blood of menstruation. The presence of this chalice asks the questions: What is the liquid in the cup? What is to be sacrificed here, and for what purpose? Is this a noble sacrifice?
- The coins and the lambda
The symbolism of coins in Medieval and Renaissance paintings is two-fold. In many instances, they are used to represent greed and selfishness. Yet they are just as often a symbol of financial success and status in the community, either due to noble inheritance or honest hard work. While the first meaning is used in reference to women, the second rarely is, as females were not normally allowed to practice a profession or to gain financial independence.
The lambda has had a similarly multi-faceted symbolic history. In ancient Greek and Roman languages, it represented the “L” sound. In Roman, it also denoted a unit of weight– from the word libra, meaning “scales” or “balances.” In ancient Greek, it was associated with “liberate,” “loose,” “freedom,” and “unity.” The character has several scientific uses, such as the designation of kinetic potential or a change in energy. For these reasons, it was adopted by the gay rights movement during the 1970s as a symbol of societal change in the direction of equality.
- The oxen
The parchment tacked to the wall bears the image of an auroch, or oxen, loosely copied from the famous 17,000-year-old cave paintings at Lascaux in France. Recent research has revealed that many (if not the majority) of people who made these paintings were, in fact, women. From ancient Greece and China to early Judeo-Christian cultures, oxen have long been used in sacrificial rituals and indeed have become symbolic of sacrifice itself. Because of this association, early Christians began affiliating the ox with Luke the Evangelist. Luke was supposed to have been an artist and to have painted a portrait of the Virgin Mary, a legend which precipitated the adoption of an ox emblem by Medieval artists’ guilds. These guilds, of course, were closed to women.
- The silphium
The large flowering plant that appears directly behind the fawn is an extinct species called silphium, genus Ferula, part of the carrot family. In antiquity, this herb had several important medicinal and culinary uses, including (due to its estrogenic properties) as an abortifacient. Any herb of this nature, in a patriarchal society, gives women an important kind of power. Silphium was said to be worth its weight in gold, so highly was it valued for medical purposes. Both the plant and its seeds were depicted on ancient Greek and Roman coins, signaling its importance in these early cultures. The seeds of the plant are said to have resembled hearts, and may even connect this shape with the symbolism it currently holds. The lore of this potent therapeutic plant had it tied not only to feminine sexuality but indeed to the very notion of love.
- The river and stormy sky
Rivers appear repeatedly in Renaissance paintings and can imply change, transition, or a journey. In images of the Virgin and Child, the presence of water has baptismal overtones. The Northern Renaissance painters in particularly favoured backgrounds depicting nature as wild and unruly. Lucas Cranach the Elder often painted stormy and foreboding skies as symbolic of the Passion and other trials to be faced by the innocent Christ child.
- Developing the concept
The concept is the foundation of for each of my paintings, and I continue to place increasing importance on this part of the process. Sometimes the seed of an idea comes from conversation, sometimes from material I have read, sometimes from a dream. Somehow it catches me, and I know instinctively whether or not it will have the momentum to carry an entire work to fruition.
- Reading and research
After the initial idea has occurred, the next step for me is research. I check out books from the library, read scholarly articles, and visit museums to collect information. I take notes and journal about my idea in the context of the subjects I have researched, including philosophy, psychology, cultural history, gender studies, and natural sciences.
- Making rough sketches
When I feel the research is well-rounded, I move on to small sketches. This is when I settle on the main compositional elements and their relationships to each other. Usually, these drawings are quite small in size, no more than a couple of inches across. I make two or three before moving on to the next step.
- Finding reference images
Photographic reference images have become a critical tool for me. Whether they are pictures I have taken myself, generic ones I find online, or specific works from art history books, they help give the finished painting a sense of weight and cohesion. For this painting, I collected roughly twenty separate images that were used in the final piece.
- Creating a digital mockup
Woman Hero is my first work for which I used photo editing software to create a complete digital mockup, roughly stitching together the various collected images to get an idea of the final composition and how each element would relate to the others. I found that this step improved my precision and control of space within the picture plane.
- Completing a polished graphite drawing
For this stage of the process, it is important for me to be as detailed as possible. The graphite drawing is a finished piece in itself, as well as a blueprint for the final painting. This was when I began recording my hours for Woman Hero; all steps previous were not taken into account as part of the total 687 hours. Of this total, the drawing took 81 hours. I used a mechanical pencil on Strathmore 80 lb 12 x 9-inch paper.
- Transferring the drawing to the panel
The panel is my foundation of choice, as it is extremely stable and smooth. I use Ampersand gessoed deep cradle panels. Women Hero is on a 16- x 12-inch panel with a 2-inch cradle. Moving the drawing pattern to the panel is an involved process. First I scan my drawing and print out an enlarged image with dimensions matching the size of the panel. Then I tape a piece of red Saral transfer paper to the panel, chalk side down, with the printout affixed on top of it. Next, I use a pencil to trace the main outlines of the design before removing the paper and going over these lines with a pencil. Finally, I copy the rest of the drawing onto the panel by eye.
- Sealing the panel
It is important to seal the panel before adding paint so that oil will not pick up graphite and create smudging. I use a mixture of one part white shellac to three parts denatured alcohol, which must be carefully poured over the panel, covering completely and evenly all parts of the surface. I leave this to dry for 24 hours.
- Adding gold leaf
The next step is gilding, which is not part of every painting but was important in the concept for Woman Hero. This is the first piece for which I used actual gold leaf, a very difficult material to work with. It requires specific tools and a controlled environment. I did oil gilding, a less complicated process than water gilding. Before laying down the gold, I painted on a base layer of “bole,” or red clay color. When that was dry, I applied a thin layer of oil “size,” and waited about half an hour for it to become tacky. Then I used my squirrel-hair gilding brush to carefully pick up a sheet of gold and lay it onto the panel. Any draft or sigh is enough to blow this 0.18 micron-thick gold to mere dust, so the process is rather stressful. Lastly, I took a very soft brush and gently stroked the surface to affix the leaf to the size, brushing away any extra bits of gold around the halo.
- Painting process
After the gold has been left to set for a day, painting can commence. I use the smallest brushes I can find, Winsor & Newton Cotman watercolor 0000. This is the only size I use throughout the painting. There are several brands of paint I favor, including Old Holland, Rembrandt, Michael Harding, and Williamsburg. Winsor & Newton liquin is my medium of choice. The manner in which I paint is rather specific to me; I prefer to complete each area before moving on to the next. I usually begin in the center and work my way to the edges, because this allows me to rest my wrist on the edges of the panel that are as yet unpainted. The human skin was the first part I tackled in Woman Hero. I like to use colors straight out of the tubes, which is an active choice based on the kind of results I desire. I love color and strive for intensity; blending and mixing mainly on the surface, one true color atop another, is a way to achieve this. I build up many thin, translucent layers of paint to create a smooth and vivid surface that will capture light and give a sense of luminosity to the image. Sometimes there can be as many as ten different layers in one area; other times just three or four. The blue scarf in Woman Hero is an important conceptual aspect and was created with only two colors (although in many layers): white and true ultramarine, made out of crushed lapis lazuli from Afghanistan. This material has a long heritage in Medieval and Renaissance art that partially determined my usage of it. The paint was interesting to work with, more grainy than synthetic colors, but absolutely unmatched in results. Lapis is a character in the painting; it is essential. Because of the way I proceed, it is very easy for me to know when the painting is finished. The last area touched by my brush was the very top left corner of the sky.
Arhia Kohlmoos grew up in a log cabin in the woods of central Wisconsin. There, she and her four sisters were homeschooled by their parents, a stone sculptor and a piano teacher. Arhia graduated summa cum laude from Lawrence University with a BA in Fine Arts, and then spent three years teaching art in Nebraska. She received her master’s degree from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in 2012.
Follow Arhia on her artist page: https://www.facebook.com/ArhiaKohlmoosArt/