My painting of The Virgin of the Goldfinches, purchased by the Contemporary Art Society for Wales, hangs permanently in the Saint Dyfrig Chapel of Llandaff Cathedral, Cardiff. Earlier this year I was asked by Alan Torjussen to write an account of why I chose to paint the subject in the way I did.
‘Well, it’s Wales of course, though the Wales of imagination. On the horizon is Mwnt, a place I love, with the waters of Cardigan Bay sweeping to a golden sky. The house is a construct, a thing of the imagination. That lapidary blue sings to me, though the building is fortress-like… almost brutally so… to protect the prize, the Virgin closeted within. I think of her as the precious jewel in the jewellery box. But no matter how closely something is guarded, security in this life is not ensured. She’s risen early from sleep, gathered her bed-coverlet as a mantle against the morning chill and walked out alone into the garden. Up the hill to where saxifrage and sweet Cheddar Pink and fragrant Lily-of-the-Valley grow, perhaps to feed the goldfinches with a pinch of seed. The goldfinches were serendipitous, the birds that gathered at the feeder in my garden the morning I went out to paint whatever was around. But goldfinches are associated with Christ, their brave, cardinal-red caps significant of him in folkloric terms.
People sometimes wonder why Gabriel is red, and I reply, why would he not be? I balk at those pale, blonde, sexless angels in white Victorian nightgowns. For me an angel must be fierce and dazzling and bright with colour, and I look to the angels of the Romanesque with their sweeping black brows, dark eyes and wings like parrots, barred and striped and emblazoned with peacock eyes. And here he comes, swooping down, outrider goldfinches before him, and after this, nothing in the world will ever be the same again.
I’m asked if I have faith. I was asked it repeatedly by the clergy at Llandaff before the painting was hung. I do not. None. But I do love the stories, and think we are the better for them, because they are full of splendour and poetry and essential truths. Moreover, it’s a strange thing that though I profess no religious belief, I find I believe the things that I’m painting. Like an actor inhabiting a role, I too inhabit the worlds and scenarios I’m depicting.
The American poet and novelist Marly Youmans, pointed out that the maze is positioned as though to stand in for the Virgin’s halo. That surprised me at the time because it wasn’t a conscious placing in those terms, though it may well have been subconscious. And she spoke too of the maze as being emblematic of the womb, with the solitary sheep the seed planted at heart of it. I love the poetry of that. I think that paintings should have such elements of mystery within them. Nothing laid on too heavily, but placed lightly to nourish repeated viewings. At the time I made the painting I didn’t know it would hang in a church. Once I’d got used to the idea, it appealed to me that people might see it regularly and that the painting might grow on them and become associated with moments of quietness and contemplation. I would like that for visitors and worshippers it shouldn’t matter who made the painting, but just that it exists.’
Clive Hicks-Jenkins 2013