Friday, October 27, 2017

Second Illustration for Brethren


Here is a second illustration by Dan Hallett for my novel Brethren. Below is the script I initially sent to him:

Script for Dan

The second illustration is based on the iconography of the ‘Harrowing of Hell’. This legendary event purports to explain what Christ did between his death and resurrection: he went down into hell, to release the Old Testament patriarchs from limbo, and possibly preach to and rescue other ‘spirits in prison’. It was a popular story in the Middle Ages, via a compilation called The Golden Legend, and / or Latin translations of the original source, the so-called Gospel of Nicodemus (a late-classical fake).

Are you on Pinterest? There are some useful collections of medieval and early-modern visual representations there, e.g.: https://uk.pinterest.com/revjoelle/harrowing-of-hell/?lp=true

There are two basic ways of representing hell in these images: as a devouring mouth, or (seemingly much less common) as a walled city. In the former style, the mouth gapes open, and Christ seems to reach inside and lead people out by the hand. In the latter, he ‘besieges’ the gates of hell, and breaks them down, perhaps by striking them with his staff / ensign (which has the same St George’s Cross as the Agnus Dei).

In the Gospel of Nicodemus, there’s some suggestion Satan lets Christ into hell willingly, thinking Christ is defeated, not realising he’s bringing in a Trojan horse. In ch. 14 of Brethren, Jenny suggests that hell swallows Christ, but then vomits him out, because it can’t keep him down. I can’t find any visual suggestion of this last idea—perhaps because it’s too irreverent—but it echoes the story of Jonah and the whale, which was interpreted as an allegory of Christ’s death, i.e. Jonah in the belly of the whale is Christ in hell.

In keeping with the emphasis on the body in Brethren, we’re going to show hell as a mouth rather than a city. The mouth / face should have horns, and should vaguely (but not explicitly) suggest the head of a weird, demonic bull (because in the book hell is also depicted as the Minotaur / the bull-headed god Moloch). The pic will show a Robert / Everyman figure kneeling inside the mouth, hands clasped in prayer. But he’s not kneeling directly on the red tongue. Instead, he’s on a round, white communion wafer, which sits on top of the tongue. Hell is either about to try to swallow this wafer, or is in the process of vomiting it back out, but in any case, it’s sticking its tongue out, as if at the doctors.

Communion wafers are sometimes embossed with Christian symbols, one of which is the Agnus Dei (the image is also invoked in the words of the mass at the consecration of the host). Our wafer will instead by inscribed with the pattern / shape of the Chartres labyrinth from the first illustration, with Robert positioned at the centre. Not sure what this necessitates regarding the relative scale of Robert / wafer / hellmouth, but see if you can figure it out.

Re: the labyrinth pattern on the wafer. Don’t attempt to draw the path with two separate ‘sides’ enclosing a central space, as in the first illustration. Just do it as a single red line, to make it easier to draw at a smaller scale.

People in hell are always naked, so the only period indicators in medieval illustrations are in the general artistic style for human physiology (medieval faces often look a bit gormless to me)—and haircuts! But since this is (sort of) Robert, who at this point in the story has been hacking his own hair off with a pair of scissors for the past several years, his hair won’t be noticeably 80s in style. He’s also described as wearing dirty jeans in the final couple of chapters, so give him those too, but he’s bare-chested and barefoot. Robert’s ears are described as sticking out like Prince Charles in an early chapter, so give a suggestion of this, but don’t emphasise it too much, because we want to keep the dual significance whereby he stands for Everyman as well as himself (he should seem like a type rather than an individual). He should nonetheless look very much the worse for wear: bony and thin, but also a bit misshapen. He’s approx. 27 years old.

Christ stands outside the hellmouth. He’s carrying an ensign with the same design as the one in the scapegoat picture, and he has a halo. He is wearing a cloak with a shoulder brooch, as he is often represented. However, his body and face appear as that of a skeleton, like those which feature in a Dance of Death. It shouldn’t be a clean skeleton either, but one with tufts of hair, and gobbets of dried flesh and skin. Like these late-15th century examples: https://remedianetwork.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/dance-of-death.png

Skeletons in the Dance of Death sometimes have a jaunty or irreverent or mocking air. We don’t want that. This Christ skeleton should be serene and authoritative. It should also be drawn at a larger scale to Everyman / Robert, and it’s reaching down to offer its free hand for Robert to take.

Around the wafer, the hellmouth is vomiting up a flood of red wine (the blood of Christ, to accompany the body of the host). Perhaps the wafer is even floating on the flood, being carried forward out of the mouth, so the wafer’s like a raft for Robert—if you can make that work.

N. B. No demons in this hell: only the mouth.

I initially thought of having the hellmouth spewing its guts up, so that they flow around Robert and the wafer, and the coils of the guts would suggest (but obviously not directly reproduce) the shapes of the labyrinth, which in the text of Brethren is implicitly compared to both the inside of an ear and the packed cavity of the intestines. In the pic, Robert would then also be at the centre of this alternative labyrinth of guts. I don’t think this will work—it may not be obvious what the spilling guts are, or why they’re there, plus it will make the picture too busy. It’s better to keep the focus on the wafer and wine (the body of Christ inside the body of hell), but I mention it so you’re aware of some of the broader thematic issues, i.e. the association between hell and the (disintegrating, putrefying, turned inside-out) body.


Dan did not draw Christ outside the hellmouth, reaching in to draw Robert / Everyman out. Instead, the dead Christ is inside hell, with His foot on the wafer that represents His resurrected body, which is on its way out of hell. This actually works better thematically.

Looking at the finished illustration, I thought it would not be obvious to the viewer that Robert / Everyman is kneeling on a giant communion wafer, so I added the following clarification to the end of the written text of the novel (the first illustration with the bisected goat is currently placed as a frontispiece, and this one as an endpiece):

Bill Forester once said: we remember a dead Christ, but our communion is with the risen Christ. Robert imagines a communion-wafer boat bobbing out of hell on a tide of wine. Because hell swallowed the dead Christ, but vomited up the risen Christ.

Then Christ swallowed hell.

Thursday, June 22, 2017


Brethren Sample Illustration 

I have nearly finished a new novel, Brethren. Here’s a possible blurb:

1984. The Miners’ Strike. Liverpool win the European Cup, and the Militant-led city council are on a collision course with the Thatcher government.
Robert doesn’t care about any of that. Only how many references to God he can find in the lyrics of U2, and the imminent arrival of evangelist Billy Graham for Mission England.
Oh, yeah. And the visitors from God. If they are from God. The first keeps changing: sometimes it's a giant; sometimes a dwarf. It’s always on the point of turning into something else—and it's changing Robert with it. 
The second visitor is a starved, naked girl. She says Robert knows her—she sacrificed herself for him. Now she wants a sacrifice in return.
Tracey lives next door to Robert; she’s the one who invited him to church camp last summer, where he was born again. She knows there’s something wrong, but she’s got her own questions. What if you’re not like the heroes in the Bible? No visions, no supernatural visitors. How do you make God real in your life then?
Tracey has to make a sacrifice too.

I am now thinking about possible illustrations for this novel. As usual, I am collaborating with Dan Hallett to create a few samples for publishers, who can then decide if this is something they would like to see more of. The picture above is the first such sample. The rest of this post is a simplified account of the creation of this illustration, including: some general notes I wrote for Dan to introduce the novel; a short extract from chapter 15; and a script for this particular illustration.

General Notes for Dan

Brethren is set in evangelical Protestant church (the Brethren are a particularly austere non-conformist group). So my original idea was that its depiction of angels and demons would be rigorously Protestant, and use only Biblical sources. This is important because most of our ideas about demons, and some of those about angels, actually come from the New Testament Apocrypha (i.e. works judged unreliable by the early church) or the similar Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. But Robert’s theories about angels are taken solely from the canonical books of the Bible, which leads him to rather different conclusions to those of Christian traditions informed by these other sources.
However, Brethren is also a horror story: that is, a story in the Gothic tradition, in which the protagonist is haunted by repressed secrets. And one of the ideas behind the Gothic as it emerged in eighteenth-century novels is that England is similarly haunted by its medieval past: that is, by its Catholic past. The ruined monasteries and abbeys and castles that were the settings for Gothic fiction were ruined because of the destruction caused by Henry VIII’s reformation.
So my protagonist tries to construct an austere Protestant system of belief, but he’s haunted by Catholic ideas, which seep into his visions and experiences: e.g. transubstantiation (the idea that the bread and wine somehow become the actual body of Christ during communion), and the Harrowing of Hell (the idea, derived from the so-called Gospel of Nicodemus, that Christ preached to the imprisoned spirits in hell between his death and resurrection). I also draw on late-medieval Catholic sources like morality plays, in which the soul of Everyman was besieged by demons and angels; and medieval characters like Joan of Arc (who was visited by saints and angels).
So I want the images to have a late-medieval, Catholic feel, with a visual style from the 15th and early 16th centuries (i.e. just before the Reformation), but (if and when they include human figures) these will be dressed in 1980s clothes (I have some photos I can supply for reference, but they’re not necessary for this particular illustration). I was thinking of an engraving style, but really, if we’re talking 15th century, woodcut is more appropriate (and will probably be easier to do).
The sample illustration is based on the idea of the scapegoat from Leviticus in the Old Testament, which is discussed in chapter 15 of the novel. The relevant extract is appended below. Robert, the main protagonist, is the only one who can see or hear the ‘girl’, a.k.a. the demon Azazel. His friend Tracey’s there for moral support, as is Jenny, who’s an R.E. teacher with a background in theology. Mark’s an autodidact lay preacher. He’s the one actually performing the exorcism.

Novel Extract

‘My name is Azazel,’ the girl says.
Robert copies her. ‘Az-a-zel.’
‘What does that mean?’ Mark says. ‘Who are you?’
‘Ask Jenny,’ the girl says. ‘She knows.’
‘Jenny knows what it means.’
‘Me? I’m not …’ Everyone looks at her. ‘Fine. It’s from Leviticus. The ritual for the Day of Atonement. It might not even be a name.’
‘It’s my name,’ the girl says.
‘We don’t have theological discussions with demons,’ Mark says. ‘They’ve got nothing to teach us about God.’
Jenny pulls her bag out from under the chair, and gets her Bible out. She places it on her lap. ‘Maybe it’s something Robert needs to tell us.’
Mark says, ‘Well, there’s no harm in reading from God’s Word. But I’m not having a demon explain it to me.’
‘Take your time,’ the girl says. ‘Talk it over.’
‘On the Day of Atonement,’ Jenny says, ‘the High Priest stood before the Ark, in the presence of God. But first he had to make a special sacrifice.’
‘Nothing to do with demons,’ Mark says.
‘So he took two goats, and he cast lots between them.’
‘That’s you and Tracey,’ the girl says to Robert.
‘One goat for God; the other … for Azazel.’
‘It doesn’t say that.’ Mark gives in and goes to get his Bible from the top of the dresser on the other side of the room. He gives the bed a wide berth.
‘You won’t find it in the NIV,’ Jenny says. ‘Or the King James. Or the Living Bible. They all translate it. But they’re guessing, because no-one knows what it means.’
‘I do,’ the girl says.
Jenny says, ‘In Hebrew, it’s something like “taken away”; “removed”.’
‘Exorcised,’ the girl says.
‘In the Greek version of the Old Testament, it’s “a thing that keeps illness away”. Like a charm.’
‘Except not like a charm at all,’ Mark says. ‘Because that would be the occult.’
‘In the Latin Bible, it’s caper emissarius. Messenger goat. Scout, spy.’
‘Angel,’ Robert says.
Jenny flicks through her Bible to Leviticus. ‘In English, it’s usually scapegoat, but Tyndale invented that word in 1530 for his translation, and everyone else copied him. Except the RSV.’ She reads, ‘The goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before the Lord to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel.
‘So the High Priest sacrifices one goat; sprinkles its blood in the Holy of Holies. Then he puts his hands on the head of the other, and confesses the sins of the people.’ She reads again. ‘The goat shall bear all their iniquities upon him to a solitary land. To Azazel. Which could just be a place in the desert. Or a demon who lives there.’
‘Both,’ the girl says.
‘Jesus,’ Mark says. ‘He’s the scapegoat.’
‘But they don’t kill the scapegoat,’ Tracey says. She hooks her feet around the front legs of her chair and looks down again.
‘Right,’ Jenny says. ‘Literally, “the goat who escapes”. Because it doesn’t matter what happens to it, after they send it away.’
‘One for God,’ the girl says, ‘one for me. But the one for God dies; and the one for me lives.’
Robert doesn’t believe her. ‘Maybe Azazel kills the scapegoat.’
‘Jesus is the scapegoat,’ Mark says. ‘And He wasn’t sacrificed to a demon.’
Jenny closes her Bible, but keeps her finger inside it to mark her place. ‘Why Azazel, Robert?’ she says, as if he chose the name. ‘Did you hear it in a sermon?’
Robert makes his hands into fists. ‘No.’
‘In the desert, outside the camp.’ Jenny taps her Bible against her knee. ‘The Greek word for hell is Gehenna. Name of a place outside Jerusalem where people sacrificed their children.’
‘Maybe Abraham went there to kill Isaac,’ the girl says, drawing patterns on the quilt with her finger.
‘In Jesus’ day, it was abandoned, cursed. A rubbish dump.’
‘So Azazel is hell?’ Robert says, thinking of Jesus in the wilderness, tempted by Satan. Maybe that was Gehenna too.
‘I don’t know.’
‘If Azazel eats the goat, does that mean it’s eating sin?’
‘What else would a demon eat?’ Mark says.
Jenny says, ‘In medieval paintings, the entrance to hell is a mouth. So when Jesus dies, it tries to eat Him. But He’s too pure; it can’t digest Him. So it spits Him out.’
‘Does Azazel spit the scapegoat out?’ Robert asks.
The girl burps.
‘We don’t need to know this,’ Mark says. ‘It’s not relevant.’
Jenny says, ‘Christ bears the sins of the world, but He’s still pure. He takes the penalty, but not the guilt.’
The girl burps again, and says, ‘His flavour doesn’t change. He still tastes the same.’
‘For the scapegoat, it’s more like the other way round. It takes the guilt, but not the penalty.’
‘You take the penalty; Tracey takes the guilt,’ the girl says to Robert. ‘Or the other way round. It’s up to you.’
‘I don’t want it to be up to me.’
‘Robert,’ Mark says, ‘stop talking to it.’
‘But it is up to you,’ the girl says. ‘So who do you want to be? The goat for God; or the goat for Azazel?’

Script for Dan

A really boring illustration of these ideas would be a picture of two goats: maybe one black, and one white. So I thought, what if it’s not two goats? What if it’s half a goat? This ties in to another famous Biblical story about King Solomon, who decided to cut a baby in half to find out which of two women was the mother: she was the one willing to give the baby away rather than see it harmed. In the context of the novel, depicting the goat cut in half could suggest that choice is painful, disruptive, and reveals secrets (the inside of the goat). It always involves violence and the renunciation of possibilities (by choosing one thing, by definition you exclude another).
I started off by thinking of Damien Hirst’s Mother and Child, but if you look at the cross-sectioned cow in that, its interior just seems a mess. It’s difficult to make out the shapes of internal organs, etc. So we want a goat cut in half, but rendered somewhat non-realistically, more like the ‘self-dissecting man’ from the anatomy treatises of Vesalius, who displays all his internal organs, etc. In fact, the high priest often had to separate individual organs as part of the different Old Testament sacrificial rites.
So: a cross-sectioned black goat, with a (probably simplified and stylised) set of visible internal organs.
The idea that the scapegoat is Christ also made me think of the image of the Agnus Dei, the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world, which is shown with a halo, carrying a flag with a Saint George’s Cross. So our goat will similarly have a halo and flag. It’s both the Lamb of God and the scapegoat. But a goat (particularly a black goat) is normally a Satanic symbol, so it’s also both Christ and the devil.
The Hirst cows look very odd with only two legs, and similarly I suspect it will be difficult to render a convincing two-legged goat. This is something you’ll have to figure out. I guess the Hirst one is neither sitting nor standing, but suspended, and that’s probably the impression we want too.
Brethren also has several allusions to the Minotaur and the labyrinth, which represent the devil and hell in medieval allegory, with Theseus as Christ, penetrating the labyrinth to kill the devil. So one final layer is to have a red maze in the background behind the goat. This maze begins / comes out / is analogous with the spaces between the goat’s various internal organs, i.e. the organs sit on a red background inside the goat, where they block out most of that background, reducing the visible part of the background to a series of lines, whose shapes resemble those of a maze / labyrinth. A drop / line of blood trickles out of the goat and down onto the background of the page, where it begins another, similar path through a larger maze / labyrinth. (N. B. For reference, there’s a labyrinth filled by an advancing rivulet of blood in the first Hellboy film.)
The blood coming out of the goat is therefore a trickling red thread like the thread Ariadne gives to Theseus in the minotaur's labyrinth. So there's a sense in which we should be able to see the blood flow as reversible: we should be able to follow its thread from the outside inwards, as well as from the centre out.
Mazes / labyrinths are common elements in the floor decorations of medieval cathedrals, where they represent the idea of pilgrimage. Here’s the one from Chartres: http://www.luc.edu/medieval/labyrinths/chartres.shtml In this context, it's Jerusalem at the centre of the labyrinth, not the devil. This alternative, positive meaning ties in with the goat / lamb doubling / superimposition.