the grave dug by beasts

I have a soft spot for this painting, The Grave Dug by Beasts from my 2003-04 series The Temptations of Solitude. It was a subject that first caught my eye when examining the fragments of a medieval altarpiece in the collection at Christ Church Picture Gallery, Oxford, in preparation for making a contemporary response to them. The iconography in this painting refers to the death of Saint Paul in the desert. His body was said to have been guarded by lions that proceeded, at the behest of Saint Anthony, to dig a grave for the corpse.

I was attracted to the story the moment I heard of it. I felt it to be one of those accounts that while extremely unlikely was nevertheless poetically truthful.

From this starting point I became increasingly drawn to the stories in which mankind and the natural world intersected in ways that were considered unlikely to the point of miraculous: Herv√© and the Wolf, Kevin and the Blackbird, Elijah and the Raven and Francis and the Birds. The notion of any animal behaving in an ‘unnatural’ manner continues to catch at my imagination, not least because observation teaches me that such oddities happen. After all I have a Jack Russell terrier atypical of his breed inasmuch as on Autumn evenings he may be found down in the orchard lying companionably next to the resident garden hedgehog while she munches her way through windfalls under the apple trees. She only curls up when I approach! It’s not a miracle, but it is unusual behaviour. And only today I read on via negativa that Dave Bonta’s mother Marcia, an esteemed author and naturalist, yesterday watched a large, dark milk snake mating with two small garter snakes, and refused for a while to believe in what she had seen. I don’t know what was going on there… and Marcia hasn’t yet expounded the sighting on her own website… but it sounds pretty unusual to me.

8 thoughts on “the grave dug by beasts

  1. Pingback: a vision of angels ascending « Clive Hicks-Jenkins' Artlog:

  2. This is a great piece, Clive. Zoe already pointed out the roofless house, so I’ll just say that really struck me as well–for the same reasons.

    And I especially like that you mention the “natural impossibilities” that do in fact happen. I’m intrigued that you are drawn to those kinds of stories based in part on the realization that the spirit of the events can be quite real, and that the truth of the events should not be dismissed so readily as something impossible. Rare, perhaps, but not impossible. Because nature always likes to point out the shallow depth of our understanding.

    • Your encyclopaedic knowledge of the natural world and deep appreciation of the creatures with whom we share the planet, makes me proud indeed of the fact that you find something interesting and perhaps truthful in my explorations of relationships between men and beasts. I find both your writing and photographs to be a source of inspiration Jason. You feel things so extravagantly and express them so finely. While painting The Congregation of Birds I frequently referenced your blog for the connection you clearly have with some of the individual birds you’ve photographed with such frequency that they are clearly at ease in your presence. That seemed about as close as I was going to get to witnessing something of what lay at the heart of the stories of Francis. So there. You were in part my model for the painting. Bet you didn’t know that!!!

      • Clive, that is the most gracious and unexpected compliment I believe I’ve ever received. Thank you! And I’m blushing yet grateful that I could help in some small way. You, my friend, are always welcome to use my work in whatever way you like.

  3. although every piece of the painting has its own magic, the blue lioness is so incredibly powerful! i love how the house has no roof, as he lived out in the open, nothing separating him from the sky…

    • These stories of the desert fathers are all about privation, and so I felt that rough living under the stars would be an unquestioned condition for men renouncing every bodily comfort that might get between them and their God. The roofless building underlines that self-inflicted rigour. Well spotted Zoe.

        • But of course.

          The fragment at Oxford depicts a sweet pair of lions, more like large yellow Labrador dogs than big cats. They’ve artfully constructed a masonry tomb, a good trick given their lack of opposable thumbs. I decided that building skills would be absent in the beasts I’d depict. There would be the suggestion of a shallow scraping in the ground, as though domestic cats were preparing to bury their spoor. I didn’t want invest them with supernatural building powers, choosing instead to imply a tender if clumsy willingness to assist in the task of burial.

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