Scotland's 5th Estate

St Bride

 

Random Art, an occasional series.

As Madeleine Emerald @emeraldthiele [“Victorianist musings on Pre-Raphaelite Art & Angels, & other stuff in between”] points out the National Gallery has a: “A wonderful zoom for Duncan’s St. Bride (1913) which allows you to really wallow in the detail.”

Go here to play with it.

Little known fact also: look at the dark building bottom right, it’s Iona Abbey. From this perspective it’s fair to assume that the painting was painted from Eilean Annraidh (Island of Storms).

Here’s an extract from an essay by Norman Shaw on the connections between the work of John Duncan and the work of William Sharp (aka ‘Fiona Macleod’):

“John Duncan’s St Bride from 1913 illustrates the inter-dimensional nature of the artists vision; where the landscape is impregnated with ‘decorative’ celtic motifs whose flatness literally induces a new plane in the painting. This harmonious synthesis of heterogenous modes of representation through a kind of collaging can be seen as a visualisation of Geddes’ idea of synergy as a parallelism of different disciplines.

Duncan applies this ‘collage’ aesthetic to a ‘native’ tradition which is becoming fragmented and multi-layered as antiquarianism and archaeology gain ground.

Bride, or Briget – as both pagan goddess and Christian saint – personifies the mingling or continuance of Celtic pre-Christian ideas with Christian belief. Fiona Macleod’s St. Briget of the Shores was published in the 1896 edition of The Hills of Dream, providing a textual background for the interplay of styles and symbolism evident in Duncan’s painting of 1913. Macleod also told one version of the Bride story in the Autumn edition of The Evergreen. St Bride is the supposed foster mother of Christ, transported by angels to Bethlehem on the eve of his birth. But the legend of St Bride, Macleod claims;

“goes further back than the days of the monkish chroniclers who first attempted to put the disguise of verbal Christian raiment on the most widely-loved and revered beings of the ancient Gaelic pantheon. Long before the maiden Brigida… made her fame as a ‘daughter of God’… the Gaels worshipped a Brighde or Bride, goddess of women, of fire, of poetry… one whom the Druids held in honour as a torch bearer of the eternal light, a Daughter of the Morning”.

Robert Graves connects Bride with the Triple Goddess; the earth-goddess herself ; while Sir James Frazer called St. Bridgit ‘an old heathen goddess of fertility, disguised in a threadbare Christian cloak’

The pan-cultural vision of John Duncan, then; finds grounding in the emerging global mysticism realized by Fiona Macleod through delicate distinctions between history and myth.

Geddes also happily flits between history and myth as mutually informative narratives. In the murals for Ramsay Gardens in Edinburgh that Geddes commissioned to John Duncan, Geddes stresses a parallelism between Scotland’s scientific tradition and its mythic tradition by having Duncan represent The Awakening of Cuchullin or The Taking of Excalibur within the same narrative as, for instance The Calling of St Mungo or Michael Scot; medieval “translator of Aristotle and enquirer into scientific matters.” Duncan frequently paints in tempera – including in large scale work like The Riders of the Sidhe (1911) and St Bride (1913). The flatness of this media allows Duncan a more ‘decorative’ aesthetic where spatial representation is necessarily ambiguous. In a similar way to Ossian his figures become landscape elements; pre-Christian and Christian personifications of the mythopoeic landscape.

The central female figure in Duncan’s Anima Celtica image published in The Evergreen in 1895 has been tentatively identified by Murdo Macdonald as Bride also; this time surrounded by Ossianic figures such as Cuchullain, Finn, and Ossian himself. The flatness and quasi-collaged nature of many of Duncan’s designs, together with their trans-historical subject-matter indicate the layered; non-linear worlds they represent; where the Geddesian In-world collides with the Out-world.”

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5 Comments

  • Murdo Macdonald 1 month ago

    My ‘tentative identification’ can now be revised. While the main figure of Anima Celtica certainly has a resonance with Bride, it is in fact modelled on Ella Carmichael, the distinguished Celtic scholar (friend of John Duncan, daughter of Alexander Carmichael). I note this (and the contribution of Abigail Burnyeat to the identification) in my chapter ‘The Visual Dimension of Carmina Gadelica’ in the book The life and Legacy of Alexander Carmichael (2008).

    Reply
  • Alastair McIntosh 1 month ago

    This short piece is splendid, but on my phone at least it is not showing who the author is. I’d have presumed Murdo or Norman. Not many others would have the knowledge. But seemingly not as both are referred to in the third person.

    I especially appreciate this paragraph: “The pan-cultural vision of John Duncan, then, finds grounding in the emerging global mysticism realized by Fiona Macleod through delicate distinctions between history and myth.”

    Both evangelical and secular commentators (whether in some unholy alliance, or otherwise) have missed this point in their arid and even snarky Celtoskepticism with its *Celtic* cast in scare quotes. In contrast, I was back on Lewis last week, in a conversation on how Carmichael stood very appropriately in his bardic authority to repair what was (and is) a living and not just a fossilised spiritual culture (see the Islands Book Trust conference proceedings on that). My fellow conversationalist, a leading figure in the island arts (and we were in An Lanntair, but *not* on the Sabbath) said: “It’s like in knitting, a stitch gets dropped, and we have to go back and repair it.” Lovely, lovely. That’s what I mean by living heritage.

    What is important for the future in our work and inner lives is that we recognise and take care clearly to register those distinctions between history and myth. That way, we can treasure the scholarship of the Celtoskeptics (Logos), but not be restrained from flowing in the “carrying stream” (Henderson) of a living spiritual tradition that is both within us, and a gift for our times (Mythos). In other words, we can be faithful to what us documented of history, yet free in our imaginations.

    In 1982 Canongate published a seminal set of papers edited by Robert O’Driscoll under the title, “The Celtic Conscciousness.” Included in its nearly 700 pages are contributions by Joseph Campbell, Kathleen Raine, Hamish Henderson, Anne Ross, Sorley MacLean and even a bizarre little epistle from Salvador Dali. Some chapters were speculative, but the volume establishes that *consciousness* is the key. As Richard Demarco concluded his chapter: what Celtic artists “seek in their work is what we seek in the Journey: something that goes deeper than the individual consciousness; unity of being, the reconciliation of spirit and matter, art and life, and art and technology; human energy working in harmony with the Earth Spirit and the cyclical power of Nature; and the release of consciousness and art from the thin-layer of our twentieth-century time space.”

    No scare quotes there, glory be.

    Reply
    • Bella Caledonia Editor 1 month ago

      Sorry Alastair its by me (notes really) – but a bit wary of putting my name to to it because its really Norman Shaw’s insights, from an essay I published by him a good while ago (!). I’ll see if he’ll let me republish the whole thing.

      Reply
  • w.b.robertson 4 weeks ago

    take your pick from the quotes for submissions to Pseuds Corner…

    Reply
  • Mathew 4 weeks ago

    1913 is the year that Matisse painted La Fenetre Bleue and Portrait of Madame Matisse. It’s the year that Picasso created Guitar and Au Bonne Marche.
    In that company the Bride looks a little lost.

    Reply

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