Note: I have set up a private Facebook Group for people participating in the daily prompts to share their work and receive constructive feedback in a safe space. Please click HERE if you would like to take part.
Good morning. We’re traveling the timelines today for a visit with Saturnino Herrán.
A Mexican painter and muralist from the late 19th and early 20th century, he is among those of the indigenismo movement who worked to celebrate Latino culture as the precursor to the revolutionary spirit of mid-century Mexican art, including having taught greats such as Diego Rivera.
The piece I share with you today, La Ofrenda, hangs in Museo Nacional de Arte INBA in Mexico City.
Painted in 1913, it exemplifies Mexican modernism with its allegorical allusion to life’s journey. A punt boat in a canal is filled with zempasúchitl flowers (a marigold that is traditionally associated with death) meant as offerings for the dead. This is a reference to ofrenda, a tradition deeply connected to Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos. Each character is represents a different stage of life.
Of course, your interpretation doesn’t need to follow Herrán’s intention.
Instructions: Allow the mood and colours of the painting to influence your writing today. What is the story of those in the boat? Is there one character through which you can convey all of that rich emotion? Do they ponder? Or is this a quiet moment before the business of the city? Let whatever comes flow from your emotional reaction to the painting and write that. Don’t edit.
Are you longing for a bit of a solitary creative refuge in the middle of this quarantine?
Many of us continue to remain holed up in our homes across the globe. These many weeks of solitude (or sharing space without any breaks) leave us struggling with our sense of peace each day.
One of the ways I work with my writing groups to help ease anxieties and create space right now is through flash fiction using famous artworks as inspo.
My obsession with beauty, passion for museums, and love of storytelling led me to it, and students have adored the combo.
So, in celebration of art, support of museums, and an offering of solitary creative space, I’ll be posting a visual writing prompt each day along with light instructions to help guide you in this sweet process.
To kick things off, let’s go with Thomas Cole’s The Journey of Life: Youth. I love this painting for its ethereal quality and room to create your own interpretation. It hangs in the American National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
Historical Paris is a city filled with ornate churches and people who lost their heads.
For folks whose primary view of this dichotomy is via the Internet, one can’t quite grasp the level of such a reality. On the ground, there’s no debating it.
That intricate dance of God and Country played out in the celebration of opulence as much as that of revolution is what drove me to move on from the Louvre after my brief visit with the Mona Lisa to some of the most extraordinary places in all of Paris.
I wasn’t interested in the Eiffel Tower (never even got close to it), Versailles (too far away), or even the Champs-Élysées. I needed to touch faith and death and headed for the only place I knew I could do both—the Île de la Cité.
To be honest, I wasn’t entirely clear in my purpose or this afternoon pilgrimage. However, the “see what you’re guided to” approach had been working exceptionally well. So, I just let my feet and my senses take the lead. What I experienced transformed into an afternoon of extraordinary architecture, extensive history lessons, and expressive reverence.
Basilica of Notre-Dame des Victoires
Notre-Dame de Paris
Sainte-Chapelle Upper Chapel
Sainte-Chapelle Lower Chapel
Most unexpected of all, the places I was called to on the journey to the island turned out to leave the greatest mark upon me.
Knowing it was my father’s birthday, I lit a candle for him amongst the saints of Basilica of Notre-Dame des Victories. With more than 37,00 ex-votos, devotional artifacts that take their name from the Latin “ex voto suscepto,” or “from the vow made”, covering the walls of the 400-year-old church, I found myself overcome with the urge to pray. Despite my own aversion to organized religion, I wondered if the power of belief could draw even the most profound disbeliever down onto their knees.
Unknown to me, this beautiful minor basilica has been a pilgrimage site for those who pray to the Immaculate Heart of Mary for hundreds of years and became the first stop on my own such journey of Mary.
Time and time again over the coming weeks, Mary and the saints, pagan women, queens, other feminine figures who needed me to hear would appear to me in different places and ways, transforming a trip to France into a spiritual experience.
Mine wasn’t one of conversion, but one of profound reverence for the stories of women within the ancient world. How, despite their power and place being confiscated and marginalized by men seeking their own power, women and female iconography attached to faith continues to drive millions of people in their spiritual journeys. Their stories remain hidden in plain sight if one knows where to look.
Left with a sense of wonderment, I found myself wandering a bit until the grand mishmash of architecture that defines Église Saint-Eustache came into full view.
I’d read of its stunning sanctuary but honestly only went because the gentle hand pushing me along did so in that direction. From the moment I stepped into the vestibule, I lost all sense of time and the outside world.
While the other visitors made their way to the right to admire its Gothic flying buttresses, rose windows, and breathtaking art, I found myself speechless and enraptured in the Chapel of the Virgin.
There, amongst the handful of faithful, the Virgin rose up and I once again found myself before the Great Mother and her child, wide open and listening amidst absolute grandeur.
I realized how, in these magnificent places we wander through as tourists gasping in awe at the art still glorious after war, revolution, occupation, and conversion, the intricate evidence of other sorts of stories remains unnoticed.
I stood amongst sacred geometry from every belief system intricately woven into the designs upon the walls:
On the towering walls, ancient goddess and Sibyl figures with doves and serpents sat woven into the tapestry of Christian stories told through art:
The stunning Cosmati-style floors that adorn the walkways of Renaissance-era churches across Europe made me gasp (I have a thing for Cosmati). Floors that, at least at their Italian roots, were crafted with the sacred stone taken from ancient temples dedicated often to their own Great Mother. Floors that, according to the anecdotal accounts, mark the path which clergy must walk to reach the higher plane and may have deep sacred feminine roots.
As I rounded the corner to return to the Virgin, she reminded me to always look for that which others miss.
It would be in those quiet places, where my obsessive study of history, years of research on feminine spiritual iconography, storyteller’s wild imagination, and persistent belief in something not yet entirely revealed, where the stories that needed telling would rise up for me.
Throughout the remainder of the afternoon, while I visited iconic sites such as Sainte-Chapelle and the Conciergerie where Marie Antoinette and thousands of others spent their final hours before the guillotine, I sought only those small stories and found myself rewarded.
In the final act of the day at the Conciergerie—a place that disturbed me beyond explanation—I found myself locking eyes with a woman in the lower-level chapel.
I have to be straight with you. Following a day of incredible cathedrals and spiritual guidance, I had very little left for such a place and its most famous inhabitant—Marie Antoinette.
I’ve never been a fan of her, and the absolutely horrifying history of the Conciergerie as a prison didn’t improve that condition. It’s worth noting that later in my French sojourn, I’d end up once again at a place that spent a century and a half as a prison after the French Revolution, and my experience there proved extraordinarily different. The effort at the Conciergerie seemed to be at preserving the dark spirit of death and execution. At Fontevraud a week later, I would find none of that but instead a day that seemed to allow me to touch heaven for a moment.
Back to our woman, whom I didn’t even bother to get the name of, hanging on the wall at the Conciergerie. She never waited for me to acknowledge her. Like Mary, she rose up because she knew I was one of those who would hear her if she spoke.
“We are all the Woman On The Wall,” she said to me. “Never forget.”
“Is this the line for the Mona Lisa?” the older woman behind me asked as her husband moved up and down the snaking procession of people asking anyone who looked like an official Louvre employee if they’d actually made it to their destination.
There we stood, eyes alighting upon the gorgeous glass Pyramide du Louvre that is the iconic “You are here” sign for the magnificent museum. It was 8:52 a.m. and the line tripled, then quadrupled, then trickled well past the initial security screen and out into the rainy morning.
We had arrived, nearly ten minutes early in fact, for our 9 a.m. appointment. We’d done everything in our power to ensure such a meeting took place—bought our tickets in advance, made reservations online, left nothing to chance.
However, I. M. Pei’s architectural wonder could not convince those of us who had another sort of iconic masterpiece in mind that we’d not screwed this all up and would be stuck in a line that led to, well, not what we came to see.
It turned out that EVERYONE was in line for a visit with La Gioconda, and we’d totally done the right thing. Those of us with advance tickets and reservations for the very first slot of the day trotted right through, up the stairs, up more stairs, and then some more, and one more flight just to make sure.
The museum docent that I stopped to talk to at the top of the stairs said that in half an hour those stairs would be packed with people waiting, waiting, waiting. Some might wait for three hours for a glimpse at the beauty beyond the doorway.
So, I stopped talking and scurried toward the magnificent Galerie Médicis where she stood, glassed-in, amongst some of the most spectacular paintings in the history of art.
Dwarfed by the size and absolute divinity of the 24-panel Marie de’ Medici Cycle painted by Rubens 400 years ago, there she sat, roped off, barely visible. Visitors, fifty or so at a time, were let past the ropes that kept them penned back from her as well.
With that, the stopwatch began.
That was all the time you had in her presence.
Time enough to click a selfie, take a picture or two, and then—poof—all the anticipation and work put in to stand even in her vicinity was over.
It was the most magnificent moment of my life.
No woman on this Earth is more mysterious and sought-after than the Mona Lisa. From obscurity to utter obsession, the world has latched itself upon this simple portrait. Everyone seems willing to speculate on her identity and nobody really knows who she is.
I spent far more time with her in other places—hours and hours at Clos Lucé and in da Vinci’s gardens at Amboise.
However, that one minute proved one thing to me—that this glorious goddess with whom women crave a moment and men desire with the greatest of passion is a vessel for immeasurable power.
While men wage war on the Earth, she conquers the mind. Her territory, her imperialism, lies within.
And so, Woman On The Wall seeks to explore the true identity of La Gioconda, this woman who has inexplicably captured our hearts, as she watches over the world.
There she stood—a queen, a goddess, emerging from her royal pavilion to return the magnificent jewels once bestowed upon her to a faithful servant for safekeeping. Fantastical bestiary of the forest ensure her passage to and from this place. The lion and the unicorn, watching over the doorway; the dog and the monkey, companions underfoot.
Before me hung the sixth, most enigmatic, panel of the famed La Dame à la licorne tapestries at theMuseé de Clunyin Paris, and I found myself deeply overwhelmed for the second time that day.
Exhaustion and jet lag, I told myself as dabbed at my wet cheeks.
Then, my eyes rose up to land upon the words woven in the pavilion rising up in the background of the tapestry. I leaned into my constant state of verklempt and understood that France with all of the moments I chose to open fully to would transpire according to my will only.
“A mon seul desir,” I whispered, and it was if my lady and her unicorn whispered hello in return.
I’d waited years to take in the absolute wonder of this allegorical series of tapestries that have been the source of heated debate and endless interpretation since their rediscovery at Château du Boussac in 1841.
Still in the throes of my first twenty-four hours in France, I would only come to understand the significance of the tapestries within the context of my novel research almost two weeks later. The thrill of knowing now that this proved the first piece in a provocative puzzle of revolution, duality, and mysteries of the French Renaissance shoots me right back to that moment.
As I write this, I wish only that I’d spent more time at the Cluny with these magnificent works, listening to them speak as so much else would speak to me through the places and artifacts I discovered in my research.
While no one entirely agrees on what these mysterious panels mean, who created them, or why they were crafted, the general consensus is that the six panels are an allegory of the senses (Sight, Sound, Smell, Taste, Touch, and the final sense of Heart or Soul).
Oh, how I want to get into all of the academic knowledge surrounding them. To me, the debate and the analysis make me ravenous for more. However, I’d much rather tell you about my own fictional interpretation that leads to these being included in the novel.
I’ve long pursued a more fanciful interpretation (and totally fictional, as I have nothing more than my imagination and anecdotal research to thread together the concepts I’ve chosen to pair up). One in which these panels represent the story of a lost time and the lost society of the Sibylline.
The mythology of the Sibyls is more than 11,000 years old and weaves its way through at least a dozen civilizations of North Africa, Mesopotamia, and Europe. Five appear on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The Vestal Virgins are thought tied to them. The Sibylline Books, great records of the oracular visions of the ancient world, are thought lost to the politics and religious fervor of the 5th Century, re-written later to suit the re-telling of history through the lens of Abrahamic religions. For generation after generation, kings and pharaohs sought them out and relied upon their oracular powers to guide everything from warfare to marriage, and then they were wiped from history.
Or were they?
From King Arthur to the Dames Blanches, the Medieval era is steeped in mysticism. The line between this world and the next revealed itself as little more than a light veil, through which all manner of creature and being often passed. I like to entertain the idea that these tapestries reveal the existence of the Sibylline to us.
While many today attribute illuminated manuscripts bursting with spells and rituals, bestiaries from which headless armies of Blemmyes walked and dragons of all manner took to the sky to nothing more than fantasy, I am not so easily convinced that we have not somehow severed ourselves from the passages that once were open between the world.
Evidence of the Sibylline mounting a resurgence of their culture and extrasensory abilities is ample within the Middle Ages. These tapestries to me reveal their revered place in Medieval society, particularly in France where Humanism and the exploration of the self attached to that sensibility found itself fostered by common man and royalty alike.
Within their world, a new Sibyl could rise and take her place as the oracle of humanity every thousand years. The last Sibyl had been brutally murdered at the beginning of the 5th Century.
So, the time of da Vinci and Michelangelo, of Francois I and Marguerite, was the time once again for a Sibyl to rise after this female-driven society remained cloistered in abbeys, underground, hidden away while rebuilding for a millennia.
Through each sense elaborated upon in the tapestries, the Sibylline reveal their ability to renew the world, to end humanity’s suffering, and to bring us all back to a greater understanding of the power that lives within ourselves.
Away from the Christian interpretation of these panels, there is plenty of pagan and ancient goddess iconography. The baby rabbits are associated with Artemis and cannot be killed in the hunt as they are under her protection. The chalice is an ancient goddess symbol of fertility and rising up from the Mother blood.
The crescent moon within the banners of the tapestries is the epitome of the divine feminine power on Earth.
That one might once again be able to develop spiritually enough to manifest and fortify personal power according to their own will was widespread in the 15th Century. This esoteric link between human and divine is not unlike the new age movements today that are opening people to new levels of mental and spiritual development.
We all can begin to understand why panels such as these and women such as the Sibylline vanished.
Returning back to the final panel and the phrase sewn into the pavilion.
Nearly everything in that time period, especially if it might have subverted the doctrine of those who murdered to keep their dogma in a primary place of power, was encoded to be deciphered by those who knew the way.
I played for a long time with the anagram of those words until the code I needed to emerge from it made itself evident:
A Mon Sevl Desir – According to my will only.
Voir des l’ansem: See the Ansem, the descendents of angels.
“Je suis désolé, je parle un peu le Francais,” I responded. I’d been on the ground in Paris just a few hours and had not engaged my language skills long enough to do anything other than apologize for my poor French.
“Oui. Merci, monsieur.”
“Do you know of her?” he asked in English, much to my relief, rolling a cigarette with one hand and adjusting his plaid, wool scarf with the other. “Most people don’t stray off the path here. Are you searching for something?”
We stood for a moment and admired the subject which sparked him to interrupt an odd Canadian woman’s wander through the lonely graves along the South wall of Cimetière du Père Lachaise.
“She’s extraordinary,” I whispered. I knew he’d caught me half in tears in the moments before our first words. I’d been searching for more than half an hour for Monument aux victimes des Révolutions and wanted her to be it.
“May I ask why you are looking for it?” he asked upon learning of my quest and odd interest in Communist Paris.
“Marie Guerrant,” I told him.
“Who is she?”
“Muriel Gale’s pseudonym.”
Puzzled, he introduced himself as Olivier, one of the historians of the cemetery.
I returned the courtesy, offering up myself as a novelist, which cleared up any confusion he had earlier about why I’d be tossing around names such as Marie and Muriel.
Paris plays a key role in the Woman On The Wall as the place where our main character, Elijah Gale, returns to eight years after her grandmother Muriel’s murder.
Muriel, a Holocaust survivor, is buried at Père Lachaise under the name Marie Guerrant (Mary at War) in the novel. She was also a Communist – a seemingly unfathomable pairing. However, the woman had always been an enigma whose politics favored the people rather than power.
Olivier’s eyes lit up.
While he had to take up a position at the front gate in under half an hour, the charming middle-aged Parisian who looked every bit the part offered an arm and his knowledge to guide me through my search for answers amongst the dead.
From that point, he walked me along the boulevards lined with maples and acacia beginning their dramatic shift from summer’s hues to the vibrancy of Samhain. The stories of the interesting and uncommon flowed from him as if they were his own.
The graves of Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison, and Edith Piaf remained far in the distance. Instead, we chatted about the quiet, undecorated graves of people who lived out eternity inside one of the most noted cemeteries in the world. Graves like the one that carries the name Marie Guerrant in Woman On The Wall. Graves that serve as masks for lives we will never know or understand.
I found myself struck by a knowing as to one of the reasons Muriel never revealed her true identity. Père-Lachaise’s most wrenching memorials haunt the walkways, those to the dead of Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau, and the other concentration camps.
Olivier spoke of how soil from those places was mixed with that at the graves. We walked past sculptures of emaciated souls and I understood as if Muriel shared it with me herself. She was a survivor of Dachau who worked to preserve lives, culture. Being buried amongst those who died in the camps would have defeated her in death. She preferred the power of anonymity in order to make sure that work continued on.
Despite the fact that Muriel is dead long before Woman On The Wall begins, I love her as a character. She drives Elijah in the best and worst ways, and I’m genuinely fascinated by her impact on the entire cast.
The last bit of the walk proved quiet and had me wondering if Olivier was either irritated or lost in thought. As we made our way to the cemetery entrance near Rue Robineau, he turned to me once again.
“You know they call it The Wall,” he said of the Monument aux victimes des Révolutions. “You’ll find it in the park up that hill. No one really ever goes there.”
As he spoke the words, my entire body seized up with a sense of awe at the serendipity of the one sculpture I’d come to see carrying the moniker of the novel I am writing. My eyes overflowed with tears.
“It was never allowed to be inside the cemetery for reasons no one really knows,” he continued. “You must see her, incredible, holding back the revolutionaries of not just the Commune, but all of the generations.”
“She was their protector, then?” I asked.
“Their Sibyl, you might say.” he replied.
As the first stop on my first day in France, this proved to be the beginning of a truly remarkable confluence of time and opportunity during which people such as Olivier dropped into my life to reveal extraordinary details I would never have otherwise known.
As I rode the Metro to the Museé de Cluny that afternoon, I marveled at how clear Muriel had become. The pace and path of Elijah’s return to her grandmother’s home in Paris and the role it played in the story firmed up in my mind.
Now, I needed to know, who were these victims of revolutions locked inside the stone of this Wall?