It is flattering when people are drawn to one of my paintings without knowing the mythology that influences it. By far, this painting is the one I have been asked to talk about the most. “What is this about?” Or often “What the hell is going on here?”
The short answer: This painting is my veneration of art itself. I can not express in words the ways that artistic work gives my life meaning, and the act of creation and creative flow is the state of existence that I strive to be in daily. It is the closest I personally feel to sublimity.
Now, if you are curious about the symbolism in this painting, I shall unpack it in the following essay. I haven’t so much worked on this for months as much as I’ve put it off for months because I loaded way too much conceptual material into the original painting.
Friendly warning: Please, do yourself a favor and do not go to artists for facts! Any artist worth their salt will research their subject matter, but art is a synthesis between the history informing the subject matter and the artist’s vision. It’s also important to understand that many artists work within existing visual-vocabularies to discuss ideas. They are often not speaking literally about the subject matter within their work.
That is to say this painting (or subsequent blog post) should not be used as a text book to teach about Irish mythology or culture. I am neither a scholar, nor Irish. If you would like to know more about Brigid, I urge you to seek out academic sources – specifically from Irish authors when possible. I will do my best here to delineate between influential sources and my personal expressions within the work. I also provide a ton of links throughout this cursory essay so that you can further investigate these topics.
Who is Brigid? the tl:dr version
Brigid (also spelled Brig, Bric, Brigit, Brighid, Bríd, and Bridget) is the name of a goddess from Irish Mythology as well as one of the patron saints of Ireland, Saint Brigid. Depending on who you ask, “Brigid” is an amalgam of all these divinities, or they are all distinct beings/historical people. The commonalities between all of these versions of Brigid is her connection to fire, smithing, poetry, warriors, and healing. I will speak more on these in the painting description. There are numerous living traditions dedicated to Brighid the goddess and Saint Brigid. People all over the world are devotees to the goddess and/or the saint.
That is a painfully concise explanation! If you are interested in learning more about Brigid, please take a look at the list of sources I have provided at the end of this post (thank you to the Brigid’s Forge community for handing me most of the titles on this list!). If academic texts scare you, I highly recommend Brigid: Meeting the Celtic Goddess of Poetry, Forge, and Healing by American author Morgan Daimler. It is solidly researched, very accessible, and includes many of Morgan’s direct translations of the original source material.
Initial Goals and Concepts
As someone who has only experienced Ireland from the outside looking in, I have always been moved by the importance that artistic work seems to have in Irish culture. To many Westerners who are steeped in a classically Greek view of the Humanities, we see the essence of a subject to be it’s Philosophy (hence PhD.) For Irish culture throughout the centuries it would appear that Poetry holds this place of distillation for all subjects. This always made sense to me. Art is philosophical in it’s own right, it can be logical and direct. Yet it is also a mutable and multifaceted Truth. Being a radiant presence within Irish culture throughout history, Brigid becomes the natural embodiment of these themes for my painting.
I knew that I wanted to make this painting a triptych. There is a long history of triptychs used in Western religious paintings, namely because they function well as stand alone altar pieces and because of the importance of the number three in Catholicism. Threes are very significant in pre-Christian Ireland, which is demonstrated throughout the original mythology. The number three is consequentially very significant to Brigid in her lore as a goddess and as a saint.
Brigid’s traditional mythology largely informed this piece, as well as a traditional piece of Irish literature: Coire Érmai / Coire Goriath or “The Cauldron of Poesy.” This 7th century poem speaks about the emotional currents that fuel creativity. This is a narrow explanation of the text, really The Cauldron of Poesy is an exploration of divine inspiration. My personal favorite translation of this poem is by author and poet Erynn Rowan Laurie. I wanted to tie this evocative poetry about the paradoxical source of creativity (from within and without) into the painting’s imagery.
Lastly, the reason I often work in the visual elements of antiquated literature is that I find the contrast to our present reality forever interesting. Not in the same neo-classicist lens of folks who pine away for a fictional past. I truly do appreciate computers, vaccines, toilets, and a bevvy of basic human rights many of us get to enjoy here in 2020. The past was not “better” for most people. There are, however, some philosophical gems that I have found in ancient literature and folklore that I think are worth examining through a contemporary perspective, so I explore them in my work.
Translating the Visuals
Brigid was said to own two oxen kings (Fe and Men) a king of boars (Triath) and a king of rams (Cirb) An interesting thing I learned from Daimler’s book is that these animals were symbolic of the class distinctions in early Irish clan society. I thought that fit nicely with the notions that art and artists transcend barriers of class.
There is a lot tying sustenance and hospitality to Brigid in her folklore as well. She is referred to as Brig Brigiu or “Brigid the Hospitaller.” I learned what a Brigiu was from a presentation on Brigid by Orlagh Costello. A Brigiu was a wealthy landowner who was expected to provide hospitality to travelers and workers on their land. Perhaps our modern day equivalent would be Brigid the Landlord. Think on that contrast for a second! If there are other lives in your demesne (on your property or in your place of work) that you depend on for your livelihood, how do you help sustain them?
I think about the agricultural setting of these ancient texts in contrast to present day factory farming. Our way of life diminishes the intrinsic value of the creatures who sustain us. We torture them and we lock it all away in abattoirs where we don’t have to see or think about it. This is precisely how we treat ourselves and our creative stores: as commodities and nothing more.
It dawned on me one day that I had to start tending to my creative practice like livestock. While imagination may be boundless, my creative bandwidth is a limited resource with its own needs. If I try to commodify and exploit my creative resources – namely my brain and my body – without rest and without sustainance, they/I will keel over. Part of this painting’s function is to remind me to periodically tend to the livestock (my brainmeats.)
Rag Trees and Brigid’s Crosses
I would be remiss if I were take all of these themes from ancient Irish culture into my work and not nod to the living traditions in Ireland in honor of Brigid/St. Brigid. First, on the left hand tree there are Brigid/St Brigid crosses. These are traditionally woven out of rushes and function as protective blessings. There are regional variations on the styles and traditions surrounding these crosses, but all over the world people weave these in celebration of Imbolc, a day dedicated to Brigid/Saint Brigid.
On the upper right hand side of the image you will see rags tied to the branches of a hawthorn tree. Irish scholar and sacred site tour guide Lora O’Brien unpacks this beautiful tradition right here. While you are at it, please go check out all of Lora O’Brien‘s work! Lora is an invaluable educational resource on all things Irish, particularly in regards to Irish archeology, mythology, and living folk traditions. They likely have site-visit videos of some of the holy wells mentioned in the next section.
Holy Wells and the Well of Mystery
Seamless segue. It was always weird to me that there is a dearth of well representation in Brigid art. Why? While she is linked to fire in the literature, there are actual wells dedicated to Saint Brigit that you can physically visit. There are several sacred wells dedicated to Brigid, a few better known examples are:
- ‘Dabhach Bhríde’ in Liscannor, Co Clare
- ‘Sruth Bhríde’ in Faughart near Dundalk, Co Louth
- ‘Tobar Bride’ in Oughtaragh, near Ballinamore, Co Leitrim
Katherina Elizabeth of the Brigid’s Forge community pointed out this resource to me: a map of all the documented holy wells in Ireland! I love it when ancient and current technologies converge. Anyway, the well in my painting isn’t any one specific well, but certainly representative of Brigid’s many wells.
This is also a nod to the various wells from Irish myth referred to as The “Well of Wisdom” or “Well of Knowledge.” I have encountered these titles most often designated to Connla’s Well in Irish myth and poetry. In myth it is said that Connla’s Well is in the hall of otherworld king/god Manannán mac Lir. It is surrounded by nine sacred hazel trees, whose potent magical hazelnuts fall into the well. These hazelnuts feed the Salmon of Knowledge who lives in the well. This well has been sought out by poets and gods alike, imbibing in the wells water is purported to grant one ecstatic inspiration.
There are numerous cautionary tales of the many who have sought out the well and drowned in the process, which is fairly straight forward symbolism. The pursuit of Poetry, Art, and/or Truth is not without its hazards. I find it fascinating how often notions of enlightenment are conflated with notions of happiness. Yes, the truth will set you free, but the truth is also horrifying. This makes the mythological Otherworld an apt literary mirror for our own, waking reality.
In early Irish literature, it can be concluded that people viewed creativity as having an otherworldly source. The Otherworld in this context is essentially where all of the Gods and supernatural beings dwell. It’s contrast to our world is often depicted through time: when it’s day here it is night there, when it’s summer here it is winter there, etc. Time also works differently there. There are many myths and anecdotal historical accounts of people being spirited away to the other world, and after spending what felt like days there, they return to find years have passed in our realm. Anyway, this is to explain the visual choices I made here depicting the otherworld in this painting.
Brigid is also connected to death and grieving. In the mythology Brigid had two sons, both of whom she outlived. She is considered to be the inventor of keening. I feel that this speaks to the cathartic function of creative work. I won’t dissect this bit too far, it’s personal. Suffice it to say I have lost many loved ones to early, violent deaths. Being able to channel that grief through creative expression has saved my life on numerous occasions. I feel that this is true for everyone. Everyone has music or movies or literature that serves as a light in the darkness for them.
Like all saints she is also considered an ancestor, so I depicted her here as a bog mummy. It is, after all, the work of many ancestors that inform all of our art. Culture is the conversation we keep with the dead, we examine historical works and contribute to this dialogue with our own work. We tend the fires lit by those who come before us.
It wouldn’t be a Brigid painting (or a recognizable one) without the iconography of Brigid’s most familiar aspects. The theme that repeats itself throughout this painting is creativity expressed through the juxtaposition of Fire and Water. This is the concept connects everything in the image, including the central, triform figure. On the upper left we have Brigid the Healer, on the right we have Brigid the Smith, and in the center there is Brigid the Poet. In the imagery I chose here I made sure depict Brigid as source of the fire/heat in each aspect, each interacting with the water welling up from its otherworldly sources.
Again, there is much information regarding the various aspects of Brigid, and I point you to the work of actual experts to learn more about them. I would, however, like to speak a bit about the central figure in painting. This is the form that represents Brigid the Poet, but also Brigid as the living embodiment of creativity. The word Imbas roughly translates to inspiration. “The fire in the head” is a term that shows up a lot in Irish literature and refers to the visionary experience of creative flow.
Writers, visual artists, and musicians often talk about the phenomena of “flow state” where they find themselves in a different state of consciousness and the work flows forth from them unencumbered. They take a look at the work afterword and think “Who authored that? Where did it come from?” To quote contemporary Irish artist Blindboy Boatclub “Creative flow is the drug that artists chase.” For me, this is church. I tried to create a visual representation of imbas with this central figure. This is how I feel when I am “on fire”, when ideas and words and images flow forth from me unhindered.
There is so much more I could speak on, but I should conclude what turned out here to be a dissertation. Like, I didn’t even get into the snakes. If you have read this far, wow! Thank you, I appreciate your interest in my work. If you celebrate, Happy belated Imbolc.
If you would like to purchase a giclée print of this Brigid painting, please visit my Etsy shop here: https://www.etsy.com/shop/MysticMedia/items
Ó Catháin, Séamas, The Festival of Brigit: Celtic Goddess & Holy Woman, DBA Publications, 1995.
Bitel, Lisa M, Landscape with Two Saints: How Genovefa of Paris and Brigit of Kildare Built Christianity in Barbarian Europe. Oxford University Press, 2009.
“Got Milk?”: The Food Miracles of St. Brigit of Kildare https://academia.edu/resource/work/12818517
Brigit: Goddess, Saint, ‘Holy Woman,’ and Bone of Contention https://academia.edu/resource/work/738469
Several academic articles on Brigid by Casey June Wolf https://independent.academia.edu/CaseyJuneWolf
Bladey, Conrad, Brigid of the Gael: A Guide for the Study of St. Brigid of Kildare, A Sourcebook for Classroom Use. Hutman Productions, 2000.
Daimler, Morgan, Brigid: Meeting the Celtic Goddess of Poetry, Forge, and Healing Well. Moon Books, 2016.
Hutton, Ronald, The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy. Blackwell Publishing, 1993.
McCone, Kim, Pagan Past and Christian Present in Early Irish Literature. National University of Ireland, Department of Old Irish, 1990.
Harrington, Christian Women in a Celtic Church: Ireland 450-1150. Oxford University Press, 2002
O’Duinn, Sean, The Rites of Brigid: Goddess & Saint. Columba Press, 2005.