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44  |   D O N N E  T R I P T Y C H
Winged wall triptych, 2003/2004
Painted wood with brass and iron fittings

Central panel 174 x 174 x 7 cm ; left and right wings each 174 x 87 x 6.5 cm

Overall, closed state 174 x 174 x 14 cm;  open state 174 x 355 x 7 cm.



The Metaphysical poet John Donne ( 1572–1631 ) wrote those nineteen of his Holy Sonnets often referred to as Divine Meditations at different periods of his life but ever, it seems, de profundis —always when his existential plight was most severe. The craft and power of their words, their Sturm und Drang, have long been with me, so that their verses have the habit of springing to mind, of annotating and redeeming everyday experience. In 1982, I used the first six words of one of these sonnets, AT THE ROUND EARTHS IMAGIN’D CORNERS, as the title of two large panels and, in the same year, dedicated my DIVINE MEDITATIONS, a series of twenty pen-and-ink drawings, to the sonnet complex as a whole. With the completion of DONNE TRIPTYCH, in November 2004, these earlier works became part of a series.

DONNE TRIPTYCH, 2003/2004, closed state, 174 x 174 x 14 cm.

DONNE TRIPTYCH, 2003/2004, open state 174 x 355 x 7 cm.

In the summer of 2003, having completed the wall piece PSALTER III and finding myself, coincidentally or not, at a low ebb, I was especially grateful to receive a book, out of the blue, from a friend in Belgium: the catalogue of an exhibition of works by Hans Memling in Bruges, which had been published ten years earlier. Its introductory essay included the black-and-white reproduction of an altarpiece dating from around 1480, known after its patron as The Triptych of John Donne or The Donne Triptych, which today hangs in the National Gallery, London—which greatly roused my interest.

This John Donne, Sir John Donne of Kidwelly (c. 1430–1503)—a Welshman, who commissioned the work of Hans Memling (c. 1440 [ ? ]–1494), probably in Bruges—had been an officer of Edward IV and, in that capacity, often visited Calais and Flanders—especially Bruges—a century before the birth of his exalted poet namesake. On the triptych’s central panel, he and his wife, Elizabeth, are portrayed as donor and donatrix, kneeling with their daughter before the Madonna and Child, accompanied by Saints Catherine and Barbara ; two angels, holding stringed instruments, complete the group. On the left and right wings, respectively, Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist, name-saints of both Donnes, are represented ; and on the outsides, or reverses, of the wings, Saints Christopher and Anthony Abbot are painted to resemble statues set in stone wall-recesses.

In the fifteenth century it was as yet unnecessary, even in England, to make a secret of one’s Catholic faith—quite the contrary, in fact—whereas after the R eformation, during the poet John Donne’s lifetime, it was anything but wise to acknowledge one’s adherence to the Church of Rome. Donne’s own family suffered greatly for holding fast to the old religion after the establishment of the Church of England by Henry VIII, and his, that is, Donne’s conversion to the Anglican priesthood was accompanied by pangs of conscience, self-doubt, and—pragmatic calculation. Ordination seems to have been forced upon him by Elizabeth I’s successor James I, who was set on winning the brilliant polemicist to service in his church, so that, although Donne was to advance to highest orders, as Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, his perplexity regarding what had been a more than opportune renunciation of his fathers’ faith never ceased to haunt both the poet and the clergyman. Bold Metaphysical that he was, for him, only the autonomy of art seems to have stood beyond the reach of doubt.

For Church and State, for Art and Science, the Early Baroque seems to have been a time of great turbulence and drama. One reads that life itself was regarded as a stage upon which the individual played his part as an amalgamation of body and soul. Time and again, in the extravagant language of his works, Donne invokes that restless union, addressing it with particular directness in that one of his Holy Sonnets—beginning I am a little world—which caught my eye when the identical names of the poet and the donor once again led me to the words of the Divine Meditations.

In the first two lines of the poem—which only appeared in print in 1635, four years after the author’s death, and has, since then, been assigned widely varying positions in the chronology of the Divine Meditations—Donne makes use of the familiar Renaissance image of man as microcosm. For Donne, this little world is a miniature universe, ingeniously fashioned of matter—the four sub-lunar elements Earth, Air, Fire, and Water, or the four humors, or body fluids, blood, yellow bile, phlegm, and black bile—matter, that is, combined with spirit, or mind—the fifth, supra-lunar, angelic element, Aether, the quintessence, the world soul :

I am a little world made cunningly 
Of Elements, and an Angelike spright,

But the sins of body and soul already besmirch one’s miserable existence, rendering it so contemptible that the whole is worthy only of annihilation :

But black sinne hath betraid to endlesse night
My worlds both parts, and ( oh ) both parts must die.

The poet calls upon the blessèd dead who inhabit the higher spheres of heaven and with them the astronomers of his time who postulated heavenly seas beyond the known stars—“the waters which were above the firmament” [ cf. Gen. 1:7 ; KJV ]—

You which beyond that heaven which was most high
Have found new sphears, and of new lands can write,

to place those great founts of penitential tears at his disposal—through a kind of genetic engineering, perhaps ?—that he might properly lament and, at the same time, completely inundate his woeful, wretched world with their waters :

Powre new seas in mine eyes, that so I might
Drowne my world with my weeping earnestly

I was particularly taken by these last two lines and—imagining them in combination with the Memlingesque triptych form ( which was, of course, neither devised by, nor exclusive to him )—thought I detected what might be the beginnings of a plan, maybe even the foundations of a new work.

In the sestet of the sonnet, the option of putting the cleansing properties of the proposed flood to use is advanced but just as soon rejected, on the grounds that a life so dominated by low desire has earned nothing but the fire—said fire being of necessity the purifying flames of true faith, the zeal of the Lord and His church [ cf. Ps. 69 : 9 ] :

Or wash it, if it must be drown’d no more :
But oh it must be burnt ! alas the fire
Of lust and envie have burnt it heretofore,
And made it fouler ; Let their flames retire,
And burne me ô Lord, with a fiery zeale
Of thee and thy house, which doth in eating heale.

The subject of PSALTER I is its own prosaic form and the matter-of-factness of its numerals as expressions of the Fibonacci Series’ arithmetic wonder ; PSALTER II addresses the self-absorption of those who, at a safe remove, take it upon themselves to regulate the lives and deaths of others ; and PSALTER III upholds Number as an exemplar of the universally binding laws of Nature. The intentions of the DONNE TRIPTYCH are more complex.

In our secular world, an employment of the triptych form, when I had already made use of that of the church hymn board, may not seem an all too drastic step : a mere heightening of form, or increase of scale, perhaps. That type of notice board, however, is common only within the Protestant Church, where it belongs to the world of liturgical management ; by announcing the numbers of the hymns to be sung and the psalms to be read, it serves to insure a smooth running of the worship service, whereas the winged altar—the screen behind or above the communion table—is not an item of practical use in the usual sense of the word but a devotional object originating in earlier, Catholic times. The triptych altarpiece’s wings are folded shut on workdays, with the comparatively sober decoration of its outer doors displayed to the weekday worshipper, whereas they are solemnly opened on the Sabbath and feast days to allow the splendor of their inner faces to shine upon the faithful—assuming the work to have not only survived the iconoclastic fury of the Reformation but to be still in situ, and in service, within the walls of what are now, in Northern Europe, for the most part Protestant houses of worship.

Conscious of the centuries-old, ecclesiastic tradition of the folding altarpiece, DONNE TRIPTYCH harks back still further to the etymological origins of the triptych as a hinged and three-leaved writing tablet. For in this work, lines seven and eight of Donne’s sonnet provide the text for an inscription that is written, letter for letter, across the piece’s outer and inner faces in the original, seventeenth-century, orthography.

Initially, it was my intention to have the individual letters appear as signs of the manual alphabet—as in the bottom row of SEE NO, HEAR NO, SPEAK NO—and I was besotted with the idea of letting the signing gestures of dozens of disembodied hands speak of eyes and tears, and of weeping and drowning. In fact, as I began to work, I was so in love with the piteousness of this image—of the text as the last visible signs of so many shipwrecked souls expressed by dead-white, slightly larger-than-life-size hands that looked as if they might belong to a collection of plaster casts, or to a shadow-play—that I spent months producing drawings and models of them.


Manual alphabet: Drawings for the sixteen letters occurring in DONNE TRIPTYCH.

In the end, however, the pathos of this vision, together with my inability to find a plastic form for the hands that struck a balance between the graphic and the sculptural, led to my eleventh-hour decision to replace the signing hands of the manual alphabet with oversized Braille cells. For, to determine the absolute size and coloring of the triptych, I had referred to Hans Memling’s original altarpieces, and the wooden construction of the DONNE TRIPTYCH had come to possess such a weighty presence, even as a blank, winged screen, that it seemed disingenuous to let it serve merely as the background for a spectral Punch and Judy show. The idea to form the inscription as a relief of greatly enlarged Braille characters had the advantage of not denying the triptych form as an object in its own right nor having the lettering reduced to application, but rather to integrate it into the whole, so that the work, perceived in its entirety, is at once stage and pageant.

In the finished work, the metallic surfaces of the 221 hemispheres that form the individual Braille ‘letters’ now return the same number of blurred reflections of the viewer and his surroundings; at the same time, they are themselves mirrored in the gloss of the inner and outer panels’ painted surfaces, where they become spheres, half substance, half reflection—like so many private little worlds. And before my mind’s eye, the suggestion of the reading fingers of a monumental hand passing over the surface of the work remains.

Turning for guidance to the Donne sonnet itself, I received abundant encouragement for the substitution of the Braille alphabet for Sign—of spheres for hands, geometry for figuration—and thus for saving the piece from the cloying naturalism of so many desperate human hands. The question of how the shining orbs are to be interpreted—whether as building blocks of Braille ; as tears ; as beaded water droplets ; as air bubbles rising to an imagined surface ; as stars ; as clusters of stars at the center of the Milky Way ; as microcosmic worlds ; or simply as what they are—can now happily remain undecided.

Such fence-sitting notwithstanding, on 11 November 2004—Armistice Day and the day after I had mountd the triptych’s last shiny hemisphere—I opened the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung to find an image that bore an uncanny resemblance to one of my silver orbs. Its caption identified it as a black hole : a source of radiation consisting of seven stars spiralling with a velocity of 280 km/sec around an extremely small space comprising 1,300 solar masses. On the outer faces of DONNE TRIPTYCH, the pattern of large, raised dots (painted beech-wood hemispheres, representing the relief of written Braille) and smaller points of reference (painted upholstery nails, marking those of the individual cells’ six positions that are not raised) creates the image of stars in the night sky ; whereas, on the triptych’s inner faces, the silver half-spheres—configured as they are without a reference grid and mounted on sky-blue panels within golden frames—resemble less the glowing firmament, with its tent of stars, than individual constellations on a map of the heavens.

Black hole.  Photo © Gemini Observatory.

The first twenty-four of the seventy-two symbols of English Braille which the piece comprises are distributed over the eight grey-green panels of the triptych’s black-framed, outer doors, and are meant to be read from left to right, line for line, across their combined breadth. The first sign indicates that the following letter is to be capitalized ; the last is the sign for comma, thus : capital p  o | w  r  e | n  e  w | s  e  a | s  i  n | m  i  n | e  e  y | e  s comma. The pattern of perusal, the stasis of the grid of dots, and the semi-matte, monochrome coloring of the whole are borrowings from the ‘everyday’ sides of Memlingesque altarpieces. There, saints are often portrayed in grisaille as stone statues in a common and continuous picture space—as opposed to the three inside ‘feast-day’ surfaces, which differ from the two plainer, outer faces not only through the use of gilding and full color, but also in the wings’ and central panel’s usually being treated as individual picture spaces, intended to be ‘read’ accordingly. When standing open, the DONNE TRIPTYCH displays twelve fields or panels, upon which one reads, beginning with the left wing : t  h  a | t  s  o | capital  i  m | i  g  h ; followed by the central panel : t  d  r  o  w  n | e  m  y  w  o  r | l  d  w  i  t  h | m  y  w  e  e  p  ; and finally the right wing : i  n  g | e  a  r | n  e  s | t  l  y —whereby, the word drowne is not capitalized as it is in the sonnet, where it begins a line.

Artistic conventions of the fifteenth century and words from the seventeenth for a work at the beginning of the third millennium. Why not a contemporary text ? Why not one original to me ? Why not employ new, up-to-date media in my work ? Why ? Because every work that truly expresses our innermost selves, that affords a glimpse of the private world we alone inhabit, is always something new : a singularity, by definition . Because we cannot do otherwise than stand on the shoulders of those who existed before us—we are unthinkable without them, we have no life, no language, no culture. Because the sounds and rhythms and images of words that have been read time and time again, over time, become part of the minds of others. And because forms that have been in use for thousands of years have another and profounder resonance than words and forms specific to our day. Nothing can match or mimic this passage through time —time, which can only ever be the present.

Twenty years earlier, in the edition to the Raumwerk I PURITANI—which I called a portrait of the artist reduced to ratio, proportion, and simple numerical combinations and which consisted of acrylic paint on sailcloth, linoleum, and daylight, and lasted twelve days ( two hours per day)—I quoted from a letter written by Rainer Maria Rilke to his wife, the sculptress Clara Westhoff, in 1907 :

Kunstdinge sind ja immer Ergebnisse des In-Gefahr-gewesen-Seins, des in einer Erfahrung Bis-ans-Ende-gegangen-Seins … Je weiter man geht, desto eigener, desto persönlicher, desto einziger wird ja ein Erlebnis, und das Kunstding endlich ist die notwendige, ununterdrückbare, möglichst endgültige Aussprache dieser Einzigkeit … Darin liegt die ungeheure Hilfe des Kunstdings für das Leben dessen, der es machen muß —  : daß es seine Zusammenfassung ist …

[ Kunstdinge ( quite literally “art-things” ) are indeed always the result of a having-been-in-danger, of a having-gone-to-the-very-end … the farther one goes, the more particular, the more personal, the more singular an experience becomes, and the Kunstding, finally, is the inevitable, irrepressible, and, if possible, ultimate expression of this singularity … Therein lies the immense sustainment that the Kunstding provides for the life of him who must make it —  :  that it is his summation … ]

How the decades show me the truth of these words ! Sustainment ? It is no accident that I gave the first version of what has become an autobiographic methodology the title THE CONSOLATION OF ART. Summation ? Yes, even in the most banal sense. For even the very Constructivist himself draws on and reproduces his own physicality. Singularity ? In what, of what, does it consist ? In body and soul, matter and spirit, of Elements, and an Angelike spright. It is innate, and it is acquired.

From childhood, I’ve felt a strong attraction to the art of the fifteenth century, even calling it—as in the text on THE HERESY OF MATTEO PALMIERI above—the lodestar of my aesthetic consciousness, and the touchstone of any artistic awareness to which I can lay claim. Those six drawings refer, of course, to Francesco Botticini’s Assumption of the Virgin, which, like Memling’s Triptych of John Donne, is dated c. 1475 and hangs in the National Gallery, London. But why did it make any difference to me that the painting is intimately related to Città di Vita, the poem composed by its donor, Matteo Palmieri? Or that both poem and picture were long considered heretical for their implicit assertion that the souls of men were those of the angels who remained neutral in the face of Lucifer’s insurrection ? Why was it of any concern to me that the painting shows the nine celestial circles in the dome of heaven, or that human figures are included within the angelic orders ?

In my work in general and quite specifically here, inthe DONNE TRIPTYCH, a convergence of interests—geometry, for example, theory ( of art ), ecclesiology, the ( poetic ) arts—and a gravitation towards the metaphysical examination of things cannot be denied. Is it education that drives me to forge Kunstdinge out of these interests? Or my somatic memory? Reflex or reflection?

In 2001, I gave the title MNEME—the Muse of Memory, as well as the organic and psychological ability or capacity to retain information regarding things and occurrences—to a piece of mine that involves aspects of the mnemonic:

…  biological memory [ the genome ] ; conscious, human ( personal, historical ) memory ; written memory ( writing ) ; the memory of light [ the spectrum ] ; the work of art as memory—and the rôle, which fate and chance play in these notations and impressions. Looking at the nine almost finished collections of wooden objects enclosed in glass cases, which are meant to be considered both art objects and scientific specimens, I recognized that while they do in general deal with the theme memory–chance–fate, in addition, they describe in detail, how one comes to do what one does, and more specifically, indeed more intimately, how I come, and how I came, to do what I do, that is, to work artistically.

Through the years, my mothers and fathers have at times made their mark as engineers and educators, and at others as witch-hunters and Indian-killers—distinguishing themselves, that is, as much through ingenuity, organizational talent, and inquisitiveness as through bigotry, malice, and greed. All these attributes, and more, drive my own working, too. Consciously and unconsciously, my works are recollections of and reactions to the same qualities and characteristics. Through my works, I am able to grasp, and to bear, all that which I have to keep in mind. I work to remember and, because I remember, I work to forget—for memory’s sake, and due to it. I want to make sense of things by making of them things perceptible to the senses. I think about myself through my things. My conscience passes review as I view them—apart and separate from myself—and is relieved.

But no condition is ever lasting. No sooner is one piece finished than I start to cast about for the makings of the next. The paint on the DONNE TRIPTYCH—which itself is at once a creature of doubt and doubt's master—was barely dry, when my search for ideas and images began anew, driven by a desire to fabricate something in which things and words—Samuel Johnson’s sons of heaven and daughters of earth—can be of a piece.