Mary Magdalene of the Roses, 40" x 60", Oil on Canvas, 2010. At Holy Rosary Church in East Harlem.
In 2007, I decided to change my life. I accepted a mural commission that providentially was offered to me when I made this decision, and ever since I have been a full time artist, even if this sometimes means having the greatest faith imaginable that all will be well and that my ability to survive, as well as retain my integrity as an artist, will be long-lasting. One of the reasons I made this decision was that I wanted to paint Magdalenes, and see them within the context of the larger world outside my studio. I wanted one of my Mary Magdalenes to be in a church.
In 2009, I attended a Catholic funeral mass for my friend's mother. I had written a poem for my friend and her mom as a way to express my condolences, and they were going to read it in the mass, so she invited me to attend. I had already spent more than a year visiting churches and spiritual centers "by chance", but I had not even once gone into a Catholic church, the church of my childhood, where my grandmother would take me every Sunday. Just the week before I had had an experience that indicated that I should go to a Catholic church, so receiving the invitation to the funeral mass was, well, opportune. I was there early enough to find a place to seat in the tiny and crowded chapel. The priest said that we should begin by reading the poem. And he did, and he continued with the mass, and continued with the poem as well. In fact, he kept interrupting the mass to read verses, and I wanted to hide under the rug because he kept asking me to come to bring poetry to the Church. Dios mío, that must have been one of the most embarrassing moments of my life, and you can't really lie to a priest during Mass! But how do you say no?! He waited for me at the end of the mass, held my hand, and took me to his office, where he an his friend Judy convinced me to help them out...
The story continues, but the point is that this is how my wish of having a Magdalene in a church came to be. Father Gilbert and I became good friends, and I met all the Puerto Rican ladies who take care of the church. They kind of immediately adopted me. I adopted them too. I began L.I.F.E., Art and Letters, and this Magdalene, the biggest painting I have ever painted.
Because it was always meant to be in a church, this Magdalene holds the customary alabaster jar and has no Vesica Venus... It also brings together all the other elements I strive for: the iconic face; the color red in all its shades; the great bright yellow halo that could be the Sun or the light of the Christ; the flowing folds of the dress like a river of passion that envelops the Magdalene; the dove of the Holy Spirit always near her, Sophia present in her presence; just a little bit of darkness under the dress. And yellow roses. For this one, I wanted yellow roses.
One of Raquel's songs in her CD Las 7 Salves de La Magdalena mentions "Yellow flowers for the Magdalene". I believe in her prophetic vision, and in being a faithful contributor to our mythology in the works, so I wanted to give the Magdalene yellow roses. I went to all the flower shops in my neighborhood and beyond, looking for affordable yellow roses. I could not find any, so I went home empty handed. Soon, however, Judy, the woman I met at Father Gilbert's office the day he kidnapped me, came to visit me with a gift: a big bunch of yellow roses. I had not told her I needed yellow roses! Does this qualify as a miracle?
The roses lasted long enough for me to paint them, actually, longer than any bunch of roses I have ever held in my hands. I had never painted roses, but drawing and painting have one trick that, if you learn it, helps you paint anything: seeing in terms of value and shape. You need to stop looking at a rose as a rose, and just see the lightness and darkness, the shape, the lines that make up the shapes. The roses came out pretty well!
I am very partial to this Magdalene. It might be because it took more than six months to paint it and because I worked and reworked it until it was time to let her go. She is now a bright presence in a very depressed environment. The material poverty of my neighborhood reflects itself faithfully in this church. So my Mary Magdalene is there and I think she is telling all of us to brighten up! Life is beautiful! Roses have thorns, and last such a short time, but would we want to stop loving and enjoying them just because of that?
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