Mid-Century Hollywood Virgins
For years now I’ve been attending the bi-weekly classes of local painters that have met for over the last two decades to paint images of the Virgin, saints and such. I’d love to lie and say I’ve become a great painter but I’m more of class jester bringing snacks and entertaining visiting grandchildren by playing cards with them.
Part of what has always fascinated me is the students’ belief that since no one knows what Mary or the early saints looked like, you’ve complete artistic freedom to paint them as you see appropriate.
I was reminded of this when I visited another artist that specializes on putting animal heads on religious figures. I was baffled seeing bird heads on early saints that were otherwise human or pug heads on Jesus and the two thieves alongside him at the crucifixion. Pug heads did not make me want to pet them. However it gave me idea.
Namely, why not take Mary and a handful of early saints and face model them after women of the last century known for their beauty and having the same name? Not intended to be a joke, or disrespectful, but another way of drawing attention to early accomplished women in paintings with women that were famously accomplished in an era with photography.
My first attempt was St. Veronica, the gal infamous for being brave enough to enter a crowd full of people who didn’t like Jesus and making a man she didn’t know more comfortable during his march to death. In return he left his facial image on her veil. Nothing else is really known about Veronica, not even her name, as Veronica is simply from the Latin for veil.
Veronica Lake was a 1940s film noir siren best remembered for her peek-a-boo hair style covering half her face. Her hair was so popular factories making war supplies with female employees asked Veronica Lake to change her hairstyle to prevent more vision-impaired work casualties.
Saint Lucy is the patroness of vision issues and an early nun that gouged out her own eyeballs to deflect the attentions of an unwanted suitor. Mary gives her a new set which are different colors than her previous eye balls she holds on a plate in paintings. St. Lucy is seen around town on fund raising efforts for our Society of the Blind, called St. Lucy’s. Most office complexes with an optometrist are called St. Lucy’s.
Lucille Ball, after a long, but unmemorable film career and before a long distinguished TV career, rocked the world as Lucy Ricardo on I Love Lucy with then husband Desi Arnaz. Her comic artistry changed American culture making her the most seen face of the last century. However, I didn’t want her saintly image to be the wide eyed, middle aged, Mrs. Ricardo, and preferred a more demure image from two decades prior when she was an ingénue.
St. Hedwig has an interesting local image history as she is often confused in art here for her niece, St. Elizabeth of Hungary. Hedwig was the first royal to unite Poland. Following the king’s death she lived as a nun, but never became one, to keep control of her queenly finances.
The model for St. Hedwig’s face is Hedy Lamarr that in addition to being a mid-century movie star was a mathematics genius developing the radio technology to help the Allies win the war. Her discoveries are what enabled BlueTooth and WiFi to come to fruition. Her face was considered the most symmetrical ever and was featured on the early computer drawing software, CorelDraw, until she sued for payment.
Mary Magdalene is the most misunderstood women of bible often labeled as a whore when she simply was Jesus’s pal and a politically influential woman in his lifetime. Most assume she was Jesus’ great love as it was her he returns from the dead to visit first, not his mother or an apostle.
Following Jesus’ death she tries to convince the Roman emperor that Jesus returned from the dead. The emperor goads her on saying if she can change the color of an egg on the table he’ll believe. She picks one up and the egg turns burgundy. In art she is often seen in burgundy that many misinterpret as her being a scarlet women. In reality it is a nod to her starting the tradition of coloring Easter eggs.
Marlene (real name Maria Magdalena) Dietrich was a German actress that had a prolonged film career portraying beauty and glamour. Following films she had an equally long career as a musical performer despite having a limited vocal range but excelling at visually portraying beauty and glamour once again. When booze and age stopped her art she, like Hedy Lamarr, died following many years of self-induced seclusion.
Tallulah Bankhead had to make her reputation on the London stage before she could muster her success in America. She was never well cast by the studio and her movie career was not spectacular. Her stage career, however, was, and as for her life – that was where her greatest talent lay. Her style, her wisecracks, laden with irreligious wit and delivered in her famous husky drawl blew her reputation out of all proportion.
Surely there are a lot of lovely Marys in the last century (Mary Pickford, Mary Miles Minter, Mary Astor, Mary Poppins, etc.) but it was Tallulah that, before becoming a legend, was always encouraged to change her name to Mary Bankhead. The moniker was easier to remember and fit on marquee better than the multi-syllabic, mellifluous Tallulah. She refused.
Later in life, after becoming a legend, Tallulah heard an ad for Prell shampoo where one could squeeze Tallualh, the bottle of Prell shampoo, and she’d bubble up. Furious, she took Prell to court under the pretense that had her name been Mary, the jingle could imply any Mary of fame. Being the only Tallulah, famous or not, the ad was directed towards her and she deserved compensation. Tallulah won yet again for not being a Mary.
Remember, you can use any image (pug or movie star) to portray a saint or Virgin as long as it helps you reflect on making your own life more kind, or at least, more fun!