It is about 6 o’clock, and the mountain is in a thin drizzly mist. Fingers of mountain rise in disappearing green. The brilliant white marble floor of the courtyard leading to the basilica radiates light. It is less than a week after holy week. The evening sun breathes into the monastery and the basilica glows orange, it reflects in the marble and the Regina Coeli blasts across the Monastery grounds and vibrates into your bones.
Santa Maria de Montserrat is a Benedictine Monastery built around a small black figure of the virgin mary that didn’t want to go down from the mountain. The monastery holds one of the oldest printing presses (maybe the oldest I don’t know) in the world. It was a sort of hide out for intelectuals under Franco. Its an incredible place, especially when the weather’s bad and the shops are closed and the tourists have gone. There are just the people visiting the church to pray or hear the choir. It’s very different when there’s a big mass, the place is so full its hard to move, then almost silent, then suddenly thousands of people pour into the courtyard.
I don’t know much about church bells, but I am almost positive the regina coeli was playing, though I haven’t found any recordings that sound quite like it. It started with the highest bell ringing, then one deeper joined in, after a few bars, then the next and the next, bit by bit, like the cloisters were being filled with warm perfume.
I have been thinking how to express this using paint, but this isn’t the result, I painted this in the monastery, I wanted to concentrate more on the floor, but as there were lots of people around, I thought I had better get as much church and people in as I can paint the floor again from this painting. Its not just the floor as it is, but I thought I could use that to work towards recreating the sounds and feel of the bells. Also by using repepition and the light of the building, but I haven’t got that far yet. So this is one painting amongst others that are working to this goal.
I began with a drawing in conte crayon on ply. I think this was Friday, there was a small group of school girls standing next to me, watching me draw, I tried not to look at them, then I burst out laughing and they kept coming back and we chatted and laughed until it was time for them to go back to school. The drawing took 4 hours I think, which was longer than I expected
Saturday night I sketched in ochre on the canvas from the drawing the day before.
Sunday I hid my apparatus by a shrine to Saint Benedict while I bought some soggy tortilla sandwich for later and a drank coffee. Then I set my things up after changing my idea for the composition. Working anti clockwise from the top left hand corner. I decided to wait till the light was falling straight onto the basilica facade before concentrating on the shadows and doing anything that couldn’t be undone. I made the underpainting as quickly as possible. As soon as I set up, children were coming up very close and asking stupid questions, It’s nerve racking enough without being asked what your doing before you’ve got started. Once the underpainting was done and I started painting red shadows into the statues people started responding positively, then they were repsonding maybe a little bit too much and getting just uncomfortably close and too numerous, so I put my hat on the floor with a couple of pennies and people gave me some space again. I made enough money to go down into Monistrol, buy a nice dinner and beer and still had money to get some shopping on Monday morning before going back up to the monastery.
Monday there was a car next to my space ship with a man and a woman, I felt a little awkward getting everything ready with them practically sat next to me, I think they were up to a little early morning hanky panky, so I felt really awkward and was probably staring at them. At the end of the day I had a feeling someone had interfered with the space ship, and they had! someone had tampered with the lock, got in, opened the glove compartment, not been able to shut it, and then gone away, locking the door behind them, but later on half the lock fell out. which is a pain.
I spent about 16 hours over two days painting in the monsatery, plus another 4 hours walking backwards and forwards carrying everything to and from. It’s a fantastic walk, I couldn’t afford to park in the monastery car park, but there is a little one just above the convent, then a walk across the mountain for about a mile or so along a path lined with painted tiles of the virgin mary. At one point there was an enormous land slide which destroyed the road and several shrines, but as sister Conchita’s friend pointed out, the shape and colours left behind resemble an enormous madonna painted on the mountain.