De Bruyckere is profoundly influenced by traditions of the Flemish Renaissance, drawing from the legacies of the European Old Masters and Christian iconography, as well as mythology and cultural lore. The voice of her text carries the angel figure before us as it metamorphoses into healthcare workers, the archaic angel or the guardian angel we all need. De Bruyckere offers us light where there is darkness, ‘there are angels amongst us’, she says, ‘I see them everywhere now.’
Berlinde De Bruyckere from her home in Ghent, Belgium, April 2020
Recently I was asked by a Belgian newspaper to select a work I would like to put on my wall in the context of the Covid 19 pandemic. The first work that came to mind was the ‘Madonna con Bambino e Santi’ by Giovanni Bellini (1507). It’s installed in a small side chapel of the Chiesa di San Francesco della Vigna in Venice.
The chapel is very dimly lit. To be able to perceive the work properly, one has to throw a coin in a collections box. Then bright lights are switched on and for a few moments we can really see the work. In the right corner of the painting, there is a Sebastiano, tied to a tree.
I searched for a painting that could bring consolation. I found comfort in the ‘Cristo morto sorretto da un angelo’ by Giorgione (1519).
Saint Sebastian was the main inspiration for ‘Kreupelhout-Cripplewood’ (2012 – 2013), my contribution for the Belgian Pavillion at the 2013 Venice Biennale. In the company of Professor Herman Parret, an expert in the matter, I saw most of the Saint Sebastians in Venice. Bellini painted a lot of them throughout his long life, mostly commissioned by patrons in an attempt to drive out the plague. This is his last one, painted close to the end of his life. To me, it’s the strongest one, the most humane, as if he painted his own son. A frightened expression on the face, full of awareness and fear of the implications of the Black Death.
And yet, this is not the work I want to put on my wall today. I searched for a painting that could bring consolation. I found comfort in the ‘Cristo morto sorretto da un angelo’ by Giorgione (1502 – 1510). I never saw the work in reality, but the image caught me immediately. The image of Christ seems to disappear in this dead body. What catches my eye is the angel holding the dead body, with his small, fragile hands. These days I am avalanched by dreadful images and news reports, all of which I can apply to this painting. People are dying in absolute isolation, unaccompanied, surrounded only by the sick. I think this is the worst, to die alone. Fortunately, there are angels amongst us. I see them everywhere now.
The angel in the painting has wide, dark wings. Warm wings that can cover the body and carry it away to a gentler place. I see the warmth of wide wings all around me. In the efforts of the health care workers, but also in those who bury our dead in complete solitude.
I chose this image because of them. The angel in the painting has wide, dark wings. Warm wings that can cover the body and carry it away to a gentler place. I see the warmth of wide wings all around me. In the efforts of the health care workers, but also in those who bury our dead in complete solitude. The archetype of the angel, an archaic figure, is entering our lives in a very concrete manner. In this painting he appears as the guardian angel. Providing shelter, protection from that which frightens us. Embraced and carried by the dark wings, soothed by the tender expression, we are prompted to make a spiritual journey.
In my research on this work, I stumbled upon an inconsistency: there are disputes about the allocation of this work to Giorgione. Experts recognize also the hand of Titian and support the theory that Giorgione might have started this work before his death and Titian finished it after he died. Though there is no consensus for this theory, I have to embrace the idea of the unfinished work being completed by others. It underlines the importance of the work, rather than the ego of the artist.
Me and my team would have left to New York on the 12th of March, to install ‘Kreupelhout-Cripplewood’ (2012 – 2013) at the Park Avenue Armory, where director Pierre Audi and composer Raphaël Pichon and the Pygmalion Ensemble would bring the Marian Vespers of Monteverdi, like we did two years ago in Amsterdam. Two hours before departure our flights were canceled. We felt both regret and relief. And then everything seemed to come to a halt.
In the meantime we are aiming to stage the production next year in May. I hope we will succeed. The relevancy of this work, this Saint Sebastian, the patron saint of the plague, being surrounded and sung at by so many, being charged by these voices, will be different, more fitting than ever.
From a Distance is an ongoing series of personal messages from our artists and friends. We hope that sharing messages, videos and inspiration from artists’ homes and studios can bring us all closer together as we navigate this new reality.