‘A Feather in the Sky’ - ‘Una Piuma nel Cielo’

Catalogue accompanying the Exhibition

Foreword by Mons. Ciarán O’Carroll, Rector, Pontifical Irish College Rome

As a constitutive part of the summer programme this Year of Faith, the Pontifical Irish College is honoured that it has been selected to host the latest exhibition by the dynamic and prolific contemporary Irish artist, Eve Parnell. Eve has chosen to exhibit drawings based on a selection of the sculptures of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, some of whose works adorn the interior of the Basilica of St Peters.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini (December 1598 –November 1680) was a leading figure in the emergence of Roman Baroque architecture and was hailed as one of the most gifted Italian sculptors of his age.  Working largely in Counter Reformation Italy, the innovative and creative Bernini is credited with creating the Baroque style of sculpture.

In his artwork, the deeply religious Bernini possessed a talent that depicted dramatic narratives. He used light as an important metaphorical device in the perception of his religious settings, often using hidden light sources that could intensify the focus of religious worship.

Eve Parnell's new collection of drawings, executed on tissue paper, breathe new life into a selection of Bernini's sculptures. In an age of advanced graphic computer design, Eve has recaptured something of the timeless quality of Bernini’s work using pencil on delicate paper.

Eve has chosen to focus on small sections of a number of gigantic sculptures. In undertaking this process she has added a new dimension to our perception of Bernini, rendering specially chosen aspects of sculpture accessible in a novel way. Bernini's sculptures are overpowering in their colossal size and brilliance of execution. By contrast, the drawings are worked on the most fragile of media in pencil, which lends an entirely fresh appreciation of Baroque sculpture. In her choice of subject, Eve demonstrates her appreciation of the humanity inherent in Bernini's work through the gestures and postures of Bernini's figures that truly transcend time, remaining as contemporaneous today as when sculpted over four hundred years ago.  In her representation of part of Bernini’s Bust of Gabrielle Fonseca, for example, Eve has chosen to represent Fonseca only from the chin down. The decision to allow the viewer to imagine another person’s head to complete the drawing is truly inspirational. Eve’s work is fresh and somewhat unconventional – a description not unlike that ascribed to Bernini in his day.

I hope that this exhibition will help deepen each viewer’s understanding of the message of the Gospel and challenge each of us to live that timeless message of love and salvation, hope and courage, to the full.

Introduction by Anne Hodge, Curator of Prints and Drawings, National Gallery of Ireland

You do not see with the lens of the eye. You see through that, and by means of that, but you see with the soul of the eye.[1]                       

John Ruskin (1819-1900)

Ruskin’s words give a sense of the close observation and depth of thought behind Eve Parnell’s arresting monochrome drawings. Inspired by the dramatic Baroque creations of Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598 -1680) in Rome, they seem at first glance to be accurate, almost photographic, renderings of details of the great master’s work. But, although technically brilliant ‘copies’ of parts of Bernini’s sculptures in St Peter’s Basilica and other churches around the city, these drawings are much more than that. Parnell has chosen to focus her attention on powerful details – Constantine the Great’s  hand outstretched in surprise, a well-built winged angel standing on billowy clouds, the elaborately brocaded and tasselled stole of one of the fathers of the church, in order to draw our attention and allow us to appreciate the genius of Bernini’s creations.

Far from being direct copies, the drawings have a life all of their own. The pencil lines are visible, when you look closely you become aware of the hundreds of marks made to recreate the sculptural forms and shadows. The shiny surface of the graphite creates a flickering light when the delicate paper flutters which gives the drawings a lively quality. Parnell creates these large-scale drawings using simple materials: a soft graphite pencil on a fragile tissue paper which contrast with Bernini’s use of costly, long-lasting materials like bronze and marble. The snap-shot quality of the drawings allows us to imagine what an awe-struck pilgrim might have committed to memory having stood, mouth agape perhaps, gazing up at the incredibly life-like sculptural figures which inhabit St Peter’s Basilica.

When Parnell was in Rome in the Spring to begin work on this project, she spent much time in St Peter’s looking for inspiration. She was fascinated by Bernini’s magnificent cathedera which surrounds the Chair of St Peter behind the equally dramatic baldacino over the Papal altar. She realised she wanted to create drawings that, inspired by Bernini’s sculptures, would get across the idea of compassion and strength, especially inner strength, through beauty and delicacy.

The resulting drawings allow us, the viewers, space to contemplate the beauty and expressive quality of Bernini’s sculptures without being distracted by their context within the elaborately decorated Basilica, which, to our twenty-first century eyes, can seem over-the-top. They allow us to appreciate aspects within Bernini’s work that are sometimes overlooked, in particular humanity, humour and compassion. They have a simplicity and pared-back quality that allows us to notice things like the richness of the folds of fabric, layered like thick cream, or the power of the angel as he swings around in the contrapposto pose so typical of Bernini.

As the project progressed, Parnell began to look at other buildings in Rome that featured Bernini’s work, in particular the Chigi Chapel in the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo (where she chose to explore the vibrant sculpture of Daniel in the lion’s den) and the Capella Fonseca in the Church of St Lawrence at Lucina in Piazza San Lorenzo near the Via del Corso. She always focuses on small details, for example the hands of the patron Gabriele Fonseca, whose portrait peeks out from the wall to the right of the chapel dedicated to his name. That drawing shows only the man’s torso, one hand clasped to his heart, the other clenched nervously in a gesture that seems to say, ‘Me? I am not worthy’. It is such a human and universal expression that we can imagine ourselves in his position.

This suite of eight drawing fits in well with Eve’s previous work and shows she is continuing to work through similar themes and preoccupations. Her sense of wonder at the world around her; people, nature and objects, shines through strongly. Through these drawings she gives the viewer an alternative perspective on the world, and in particular the art of Bernini. Their simplicity gives us the opportunity to look at and meditate on the near miraculous quality of Bernini’s sculptures – ‘to see with the soul of the eye’.

A Breath of Life

Eve Parnell's new collection of extraordinary pencil drawings have that same quality of disorientating changeability which needs to be absorbed like food and drink for nourishment, in the same way one might read the poetry of Whitman, or the work of D. H. Lawrence and James Joyce, to discover the multiplicity of themes and meanings, the passions and the fears, the sensuality and the heartaches within those writers’ work.

Such passions, fears, heartaches and sensualities also lie deep within Eve's art.

Bernini's sculptures are huge pieces of definitive story telling that leaves little or nothing to the imagination: they are bold and sure in their purpose. They have, through the sureness of Bernini's unparalled brilliance, the very mark of God in every frozen curve, every marbled glance and gesture. There is no hesitation, no contradiction, only confidence, beauty, weight and conviction. As a consequence there is no argument. All is statement.

Cleverly Eve has chosen to concentrate on small areas of a handful of the Naples born sculptor's work, thereby discarding the inherent Bernini confidence and, by so doing, creating a certain hesitation and pause – most notably where there are folds of fabric which give a sense of fragility (the drawings themselves are executed on tissue paper) and vulnerability that can have the effect of a Chopin sonata in its delicacy. Where the lower part of a face is seen – especially one of a moustachioed man – the effect is more like the sorrowful slow movement of Mahler's Fifth Symphony which, for me, is the questioning voice of Christ, full of love, and the greatest, heart breaking vulnerability of all.

Eve's exquisite drawings have, by concentrating on the particular, put real breath into Bernini, making his gigantic works less museum pieces and more of a link with humanity as a whole. Eve has turned marble into a kind of flesh with genuine movement, desires, vices, sin, plus a huge capacity for life and love.

Look again and again at these drawings for they will change how we look at Bernini in the future, because Eve Parnell's art, the art you are seeing now, is itself a journey where we must be brave enough to look it clearly in the eye and say, “Yes, yes, this is life.”

Steve Newman


[1] Robert L. Herbert ,ed., The Art Criticism of John Ruskin, New York: Da Capo Press, 1964, pp.23-24