Thursday 14 December 2017

What Lies Beneath: The Descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles and Mary at Pentecost by Elizabeth Wang

The Descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles and Mary at Pentecost by Elizabeth Wang, Courtesy Fr Stephen Wang & Radiant Light

The Descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles and Mary at Pentecost by Elizabeth Wang
The Descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles and Mary at Pentecost by Elizabeth Wang

Niall MacMonagle

Today, Whit Sunday, the seventh Sunday after Easter, is traditionally associated with baptisms and weddings. The white garments worn give the day its name, a day still known as the Descent of the Holy Ghost on the Apostles.

In Elizabeth Wang's painting, that momentous event is ablaze with colour. The standing figures are still but the painting is alive with movement. The Holy Spirit descends with dramatic energy and the apostles and Mary, touched by this mysterious force, blaze in turn, their flames flowing heavenwards.

As soon as Elizabeth Wang could hold a paintbrush she made colour marks. In primary school she loved painting funfairs or medieval battle scenes. What came naturally was a figurative style but her A-level teacher encouraged a freer approach using a large brush, powder paint and huge sheets of sugar paper.

Disillusioned with Anglicanism, Wang, as a teenager, stopped going to church but at 21 became a practising Christian. Wimbledon Art College accepted her but she became ill and had to abandon college. Once recovered, she married at 21, had three children and converted to Roman Catholicism at 25.

Art took a back seat for years. She admired the German Expressionists, what she called "Modigliani's beautiful, somnolent nudes", Singer Sargent, Gary Hume, Allen Jones ("but not for his Monroe-ish women in five-inch stilettos").

Flower paintings dominated for a decade and her inclusion at the Royal Academy in 1984 was a turning point. She was now a professional artist.

In the late 1980s, being ill and weak, Wang abandoned watercolours, and returned to oils. Prayer became her theme, Swiss painter Johannes Itten's colour theory, her inspiration.

When she became a Catholic, she says that she couldn't string two words together to explain her faith; her art spoke for her. Our Lady came to visit her. She painted her. And she founded Radiant Light, a movement encouraging people to grow in holiness. It could be another name for this vibrant image.

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