Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Here’s to You Reverend Robinson

The subject for the final work in my original series of altarpiece constructions is supplied by a familial myth. My mother’s mother used to tell the tale of her mother’s ancestor. It is believed that that family is descended from the Englishman John Robinson. Robinson is not quite the household name that, say, Myles Standish is. He was one of the Pilgrims, but he never made it to the Plymouth colony.

Robinson was actually the pastor for the Pilgrims. He traveled with them to the Netherlands, but he stayed there when the Mayflower sailed. Not everyone made that first journey and Robinson, as a pastor, felt he could not neglect his flock. He died there, never having seen the New World.

It is a great tale. No one in the family has ever verified the ancestry, but it does seem feasible. Robinson’s son did eventually make it to the colonies and he had descendants. For my purposes I just assume I am one of the Robinsons.

I began work on this altarpiece several years ago. Probably seven or eight years. Production stalled at one point because I needed a good image of the Mayflower to incorporate into the pictorial scheme. I did finally find something in a book I ran across while on a visit to Florida. The irony being that I was living in Massachusetts at the time. The next problem came when I was trying to decide which text to use on the panels.

For many of the "saints" in this series the incorporated text comes from their published or private writings. This has included, poetry, journals, letters, and non-fiction of various kinds. I try to use the actual handwriting of the person if at all possible. The problem with John Robinson is that these are almost universally unavailable—in his own hand or otherwise. While considering all this, other projects took precedence and I left the piece on the backburner.

Recently, I decided that I might as well try to finish off the Robinson piece and another altarpiece, each of which is fully constructed and only awaiting the final process of painting. I was forced to consider what text would need to be adhered to the panels before the painting could begin.

I started considering my own recent life in connection with Robinson’s. He exemplified the life of the "pilgrim." He was left roaming from land to land, with the hope that he would eventually reach the "promised land." And that hope was really enough to sustain him, even though he never saw the Massachusetts shoreline. As I am awaiting a new destination I am reminded that our courses sometimes change. Nevertheless, we make the most of the intermediate circumstances.

As I considered all this I was reminded of another family of pilgrims. The first two books of the Bible are largely devoted to the long journey of Abraham and his descendants. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and even Moses were all pilgrims seeking a land promised by God. None of them ever possessed that land. They wandered around it and learned some great lessons along the way. But they hoped, and that was enough. It is enough for me, too. This thinking gave me the text on which to paint this St. John altarpiece. An altarpiece of hope.

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