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Face to Face
Portraits by Margaret Clarke, Rosalie Favell, and Aaron Anaïs Kimberly

Bernice Purdy1 proposes that the figures in the painting personify the Roman Catholic Church, represented by the Virgin Mary, and the Irish Catholic Church, represented by Saint Brigid. Purdy points to the gnarled tree as a possible symbol of the ancient oak temple of St. Brigid at Kildare. However, the figure of Brigid2 in Irish spirituality extends far beyond the Christian canon: Brigid was a Celtic goddess long before she was a saint. According to legend, Brigid was “a patron of warfare, or briga. Her soldiers were brigands, or as the Christians called them, outlaws.3 As one description of Brigid suggests, “beyond the grip of any one tribe or nation, She can mediate to ensure unity for the good of all. She protects us as we walk through the labyrinth but also makes us face the reality of ourselves.3

The painting conveys three levels of meaning—spiritual, political, and personal. Mary and Brigid, their names steeped in Irish symbolism, personify a quality of religious conviction. The combination of feminine beauty and rural humility in the defiant figure of Brigid conveys a strong sympathy for the oppressed classes of Ireland, and possibly alignment with the Irish Nationalism of the Easter rebels. Simultaneously, Clarke proclaims her identity as an Irish woman and artist. Through the evocative portrait of her sister—like a reflection of herself—Clarke links the process of birthing a child with creating a work of art, suggesting that the artist’s urge to protect her product and trepidation about the world’s response, are experiences parallel to the instincts of motherhood. Clarke’s painting is, like Brigid, a complex mixture of innocence, defiance, and wisdom.

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1. Bernice Purdy, “Mary and Brigid,” Now Appearing (Halifax, MSVU Art Gallery, 1996).

2. Figure of Brigid at druidry.org (http://druidry.org/obod/deities/brigid.html). Last verified: 15 October 2005.

3. Barbara G. Walker, The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983).

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