Etz Chaim (Tree of Life)


© Durga Yael Bernhard

It wasn’t until after I painted Etz Chaim that I realized the influence of medieval art on my latest version of the Tree of Life.  Three years ago, I had studied medieval Jewish illuminated manuscripts while writing a review of a prodigious book on the subject titled Skies of Parchment, Seas of Ink.  This elegant and voluminous work gave me an in-depth understanding of the architecture of an illuminated manuscript – yes, architecture, constructed by a whole team of artisans to create a portable compendium of history, legend, family archive and political commentary – all bound up small enough be carried away in a pogrom, expulsion, household raid, or other anti-Semitic attack so common in the Middle Ages.  A manuscript was a handmade treasure, decorated with gold leaf (which was polished to a shine, thus “illuminated”) – a unique heirloom and record made to last.  And last they did, leaving an indelible mark on history – and centuries later, this artist’s mind.

Fantastic creatures adorn the margins of these manuscripts, part human and animal, or part animal and plant.  Bodies emerge from coiled serpents, faces from borders, letters from stylized waves, flowery flames from the mouths of birds.  I soaked it all up, reading the book from cover to cover, though it was not necessary to do so in order to write my review.  Little did I realize my unconscious was also absorbing it like a sponge.  I certainly wasn’t aware of any direct influence, and didn’t strive to reproduce the style or technique of medieval art.

Yet out it came months later, unfolding on the page much like a pen and ink drawing of five hundred years ago.  I chose a parchment-like paper for my acrylics, which I watered down and used more like colored ink.  My curvy lines are held by an overall structure, trailing off into undefined edges.  People at all angles are involved in myriad activities that demonstrate the passion of their time.  All these elements are found in medieval manuscripts.  My Tree of Life grew with a mind of its own, infused with the heightened sense of Jewish history and early painting that I had gleaned from the book.

The Torah (Jewish Bible) itself is known as a Tree of Life, or Etz Chaim in Hebrew.  Torah is a feminine word, symbolizing a living entity that is rooted in the past and branching into the future.  This is my third painting of this evocative subject – and surely not my last.

Etz Chaim is one of the paintings in my NEW calendar, The Jewish Eye 5779/2019 Calendar of Art. Order from my webstore ($18 including shipping within the continental U.S.) here.  Order from Amazon ($18) here.  (Better to order directly from the artist!  Amazon takes a big cut.)  Please help spread the word!

A good week to all.


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