On paper dated to the 17th century, a now unknown artist painted visions seen in the chopped ends of wood. A spindly tree was sketched from a crack in the heartwood; in another painting annual rings were used to frame a blue-toned scene of Adam’s creation by God. Often the peculiar figures, dragons, and murky suggestions of animals are posed in caves and hollows, with wood whorls encircling the scenes. Now, for the first time, the mysterious manuscript, part of the special collections at Glasgow University Library, is being widely reproduced for the public.
What Heaven Looks Like: Comments on a Strange Wordless Book, by James Elkins, is out now from Laboratory Books, an independent publisher based in Astoria, Queens. Elkins is the E.C. Chadbourne Professor in the Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and he gives commentary on the meaning, imagery, and art historical context of each of the 52 round watercolors.
Elkins first encountered the small volume while he was researching alchemy, as the John Ferguson Collection in Glasgow is one of the largest with such material. “They have some famous and well-studied books, but like most large collections, they also have manuscripts, and those tend to be less well known,” he told Hyperallergic. During the week that he examined the collection’s holdings, he noticed an object in the catalog with neither author, title, subject, or date. “So I just asked to see it, and that’s how I discovered the manuscript,” he said. “I tell this story to recommend real archival research to younger scholars: there are still undiscovered countries out there!”
The sole words in MS Ferguson 115 are in a Latin inscription that reads: “Work of Natural Magic, in which the Miracles of Pneumo–cosmic Nature are Painted with a Brush. Fully engraved by an Ape of Nature, following Nature’s universal Catholic Prototype, and dedicated to the eternal memory of the king.” The cryptic writing offers little on the identity of the author. In What Heaven Looks Like, Elkins considers the artist as a woman. He writes:
I think it was created by a woman who imagined what she saw in the ends of firewood logs. In one picture the wood is fresh and green, in another old and cracked, in a third moldy and peeling. From that I deduce she worked at her project over a long period, perhaps years. I think she lived alone, perhaps high up on a forested hillside — at least that is how I imagine her. I have written this book to try to understand what she may have felt and thought.
Although Elkins’s writing tackles mythology, Baroque religious art, Catholicism, and the darkness that creeps into these biblical and enigmatic paintings, the narrative is very accessible to read, divided into short essays for each plate. Rather than deciphering the paintings, What Heaven Looks Like is at its core about spending time with art. “It seems like something people would naturally do, but the art world and academia are very rushed these days,” he said, adding that he used to teach a class where students picked a painting and copied it for 14 weeks. “By the end of the semester most of them had been transformed by the experience. Seeing takes time, even though — perhaps especially because — it seems to be instantaneous.”
After a couple of days with the manuscript in Glasgow, he bought high-quality slides to examine it remotely for a year. “My experience copying artworks was helpful, because it prompted me to try to see every single brushstroke,” he stated “I wanted to experience the speed and the process of making as much as possible.”
Whether the formally dressed man and woman painted in dark cave ringed by damp roots, or a crowned lion with a snake in its mouth (an alchemical symbol), Elkins imagined what the artist may have been feeling or thinking. “This anonymous late seventeenth-century artist is not modern in the sense that she fits in with Man Ray or Max Ernst; she is modern in the ways she occludes the clear subjects that she might have painted,” Elkins writes. “If that means making God the Father into a green specter, or stretching a lamb into a dome and pasting on a puppy’s head, she does it. The only limit is what she can bear to see on the page.”
Was the artist lonely, undergoing the uncertainty of an age of fading faith and emerging individuality? Were these specimens of wood from somewhere sacred, like a church or burial ground? Why did the artist paint things as if perceived from a distance, indistinct and shadowy? It’s impossible to know, yet meditating on each curious watercolor — a golden heaven or a man walking the fractured wood of a tree trunk like a tightrope — suggests something of the artist’s passions and anxieties about their place in the world.
“It’s from experiences like that, which take a long time and don’t result immediately in discoveries, that you get intuitions about artworks like this one,” Elkins said. “This is a very quiet book, meaning it wasn’t for some large public. It might have been just for the artist who made it. Art like that takes an especially long time to seep in to your awareness.”
What Heaven Looks Like: Comments on a Strange Wordless Book by James Elkins is out now from Laboratory Books.