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.”
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.”