Published: 22 July 2019

In his painting A Saint in All but Name, which features in our current Summer Exhibition, Paul Wright draws on and subverts a longstanding tradition of religious portraits of the Virgin Mary. Wright often uses famous faces as the starting point for his paintings, with such figures as Winston Churchill and Pablo Picasso having been given the Wright treatment, and in this case he turns his hand to an altogether more holy subject.

Paintings of the Virgin Mary exist from as early as the 2nd Century, however they begin to proliferate during the Byzantine period; by the Middle Ages, images of the Madonna were common in European art, and clear tropes of representation had been established and delineated.

One such trope, on which Wright plays, is the colour of Mary's clothing. She is shown in a rich, deep blue from as early as 500 AD, and throughout the Middle Ages in both Byzantine and Western Medieval representations, she continues to wear almost exclusively blue garments. Throughout history, blue has been thought of as a sacred and valuable colour, due, in large part, to its cost. One of the earliest blue pigments used by artists, ultramarine, was made from lapis lazuli, a very costly stone that was once more precious than gold. Subsequently, it was reserved for only the most important subjects. So common are representations of the Virgin in this deep, rich blue that is has been dubbed Marian blue and, with the rise of Mariology and the cult of the Virgin, it became the Madonna's official colour. After her induction into the uppermost echelons of the Church in 431, Byzantine artists replaced ultramarine with the cheaper mineral azurite, and the number of images of the Virgin in Marian blue robes increased rapidly. The religious connotations that arise from the use of the blue headscarf in Wright's work, then, are clear, and cannot be understated.

Wright's interpretation of the Virgin Mary grew more organically, beginning as a straightforward portrait. Wright said of his work, 'as the painting proceeded I needed something to frame the head and realised the heads scarf did this very nicely, with the very serene look on her face suggesting piety this visually made me think of Virgin Mary.'

A Saint in All but Name brings together what appears at first glance to be a fashion image, akin to those on the pages of glossy magazines, with a treatment normally reserved for saints and other biblical characters. Wright has paired history's most famous virgin- a renowned symbol of purity- with a face that bears resemblance to the sexualised portrayal of woman in fashion imagery. In doing so, the work raises questions about how we define piety and morality, particularly with regards to woman, both on and off the canvas.

A Saint in All but Name
Oil on linen
43" x 31"