Diary of a Pilgrimage by Jole Bortoli

Kilkeady, Co. Clare, Ireland.

May 2010

It’s early morning and I get up and get ready to go out on my bike before it rains. I don’t wear rain gear but I don’t like to get wet. I have become skilled in judging the clouds and generally I manage to complete my tour just in time, just as the first drops catch me as I get back and close the gate.

I always cycle the same loop in the mornings to wake up. Down by Lough Bunny, then right and on to the turlough and up by the farm, where I hope the dog is not loose, so I speed up a bit.

When I reach the black gate I always have the same reaction, I go by and then, as an after-thought, I turn around and dismount. I open the gate and enter; I close it behind to make sure the cattle can’t escape. I cycle down the boreen to the graveyard’s entrance and leave the bicycle there.

I enter the place by the special break in the wall. All the crosses show their back to me, so that they may face the rising sun.

The tombstones in the graveyard of Kilkeady surround the small church’s ruins. There I go to check on the ivy’s progress on my favorite engraved slab encased in one of the walls. Then I walk amongst the graves and look at the things resting there: small holy statues, plastic flowers and personal objects, which reveal something of someone’s life journey.

My tour completed, I arrive at my favorite spot. I position myself right in front of it, the stone Celtic cross with the little statue of the Madonna holding the Child, sheltered in a small alcove right in the middle of the cross.

Looking at it from that angle the main arm of the cross becomes one with the trunk of the majestic tree that grows behind. It looks like if the branches have grown straight out from the cross.

The small white porcelain Madonna stands out from the grey stone, weathered with yellow and white lichens. We look at each other and then, after a while, I take my sketchbook out of the rucksack and make a few drawings. I work quickly because I am getting cold or it’s about to rain or it is too windy.

I have done this exact thing at least a dozen times.

Back in my studio and over a long period of time I have drawn and painted these images over and over. Concentrating on the cross first, re-interpreting the symbol, studying the contrast between the stone and the bark of the tree, but always leaving the little alcove empty.

At times I would draw or paint in the white figure only to cover it back again, reluctant to acknowledge the obvious: the little Madonna wants to be painted and I am resisting it!

I play with other female images: a nature goddess, a Joan of Arc type heroine, a Buddhist White Tara, but none would have it. They simply refused to stand there.

As a lapsed catholic, left wing feminist I was finding difficult to work with an image that wouldn’t let me alone demanding that I work with it. Fully, honestly and openly. And since I have learnt not to question too much the images that come knocking at my door repeatedly, I finally surrendered.

I took a deep breath, opened the door and packed my bag to go Home.

Sant’Angelo in Lizzola, Pesaro, Italy.

July 2010

The valley is thick with vegetation that man cannot penetrate. It is the kingdom of wild boars, deer and snakes. The dense wood spreads down all the way to the sea. The old country house hangs on the side of the hill above and has a small sheltered balcony where I like to sit and work.

There are external steps that from the balcony go down to the front yard around which, many other flights of steps depart in various directions.

The house is built on a steep slope and, as you move from place to place throughout the day, you keep either climbing or descending both inside and outside it.

There is a well attached to the house and beside it, where steps depart (or end), there is a ledge where vases of succulents and geraniums are kept. On the wall there is a ceramic relief tile encased in and protected by a wooden frame with netting that you can open and close, like a small door.

The tile portrays a Madonna with Child, a very simple but pleasing example of folk art, that I have admired many times. I call it The Lady of the Well. She ensures that water runs plenty; she protects the house.

I wonder who made it and when.

I open the small door and take a couple of snapshots of the image intending to work on it sometimes, later on. Back on the balcony I sit down to read until something diverts my attention. There is a movement in the wisteria’s leaves that envelops the handrail at the side of the steps I’ve just climbed. A long black, beautiful snake is silently slithering through it.

Tivoli, Italy.

August 2010

My friend Bernadette and I have just made it here after having negotiated half a day in Rome, getting from airport to train stations via buses in the most intense midday heat.

In Tivoli Paola is waiting for us, ready to be our guide through her native ancient town in the Sabine hills rich with water and vegetation. It is here in these streets that, over the couple of days, the ‘apparitions’ begin.

On the wall and house corners, in the narrow side streets high up against crumbling palaces, pictures of Madonnas reign over the town and its inhabitants.

They reveal themselves gradually in a myriad of styles, sizes and shapes that are a wonderful             celebration of folk art.

Simple straight wooden frames surround some, others are nestled in marble alcoves. One is frescoed in an oval shape closed in by a relief of stucco clouds interspersed with small angels’ heads. Another is perched high up right in the corner of a house. Its rectangular frame is heavy with a very elaborate and heavy baroque construction surmounted by a metal covering.

On the wall of a side street, beside the house number 15, I see an altar constructed like a Greek temple with its carefully and lovingly painted white columns and blue tympanum. The whole thing oddly stands out from a dull grey building.

The Madonnas themselves are half concealed behind all sorts of protective devices, finely wrought iron gates, standard metal netting, glass panels, overgrown climbers or just a single pink flower in full bloom.

Our Ladies might be looking at you, staring with the stiff gaze and body postures of Byzantine style figures. Others, realistically painted, have their eyes skyward or downwards, their hands joined in prayer. One has her hand raised to her neck in an almost coquettish gesture, as if adjusting or closing the mantle, her head slightly reclined. Some are holding the Child but most are on their own.

A small relief tile outside a convent’s wall portrays a child-like maiden with pale blond hair partially covered by a light pink veil. Her hands are crossed over her heart. At the top of the tile sits a single metal-wrought rose.

Paola and Bernadette patiently wait for me every time I stop to take pictures and together we wonder and admire this odd display. The locals sitting outside shops and cafes, with typical Italian manners stare at us. Are they aware of this subtle and yet powerful presence?

Wandering through the streets of Tivoli is like walking in an exclusive art gallery whose elusive paintings are all positioned outside eye level but precisely because of this, if you take the time to look at them, the reward is double.

Napoli, Italy.

August 2010

As we continue our journey further south to Naples pretending we are on the Grand Tour, with all the excitement and none of the grandeur, I keep looking out for more apparitions. Naples however is ruled over by a very powerful saint, even the Virgin can’t compete with. And yet as art has thought me to look everywhere but straight, I still manage to catch glimpses of her.

There she is, a statue clad in blue beckoning from the back of a seedy side street I don’t have the courage to enter. In a church I rest my head back on the bench and up on the ceiling she is carved out in wood and painted in vivid colours. In the myriad of workshops that populate an entire quarter, hundreds of small cribs are alive with exquisitely executed Madonnas who share their space with angels, Pulcinellas, trinkets against the evil eye and reproductions of modern day celebs’ busts. This is a city where faith, superstition and the mundane all have an equal share.

My last picture is taken high up on top of Vesuvius. On a big lava boulder, hangs a painted ceramic tile of the Madonna and the Child, with a smoking volcano in the background.

Dublin, Ireland.

March 2011

In my studio I am painting Madonnas. They are interpretations of what I’ve documented during my trip and of new ones who have ‘appeared’ since.

Like those images the ones I am working on now are partly the fruit of my imagination while others have required a model. As I put colour to eyes, lips, hands I ask myself many questions that I promise to find the answers for.

I feel the journey is only starting.