Home' Aurora : Aurora July 2014 Contents 19
www.mn.catholic.org.au Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle
BY MICHAEL O'CONNOR
What connection can there be between
the Hunter, rugged outback Australia, and
the Gospel according to John?
What connection, too, between a lamb, an
elephant, and that same Gospel?
The connection in the fir st instance is
Fiona Pfennigwer th -- a resident of Kotar a,
a natur al history illustrator, and one who
delights in the theology and ar tistry of
In a r ecently launched publication, The
Gospel according to John, illuminated, in
landscape format, Fiona has illuminated the
Gospel with the light, the life, the starkness
and the brilliance of our outback.
'Illuminated' it is. Not 'illustr ated'. John's
message in this work is represented to
Austr alian sensibilities by landscape, flora
and fauna that cast a unique, invigorating
fluorescence that possibly only Australians
We are familiar with illustrated works,
where pictures give a visual par allel to
accompany the text. We may be aware of
mediaeval illuminated treasur es, such as
the Book of Kells, where the Gospel texts
are embedded in or nate, swirling motifs,
Celtic knots and interlacing patterns in
vibrant colour s. Fiona's inspiration is mor e
from this genre, but distinctly Austr alian; as
Austr alian a s Kells is Irish.
Did the disciple/theologian or the
illuminator initiate this project? They seem
to have fed each other with a desire to
combine love of word -- especially the
Word -- with love of images in something
Something beautiful had already been
achieved in a companion opus, The Scrolls
Illuminated, with Australian-themed
borders and illustrations bringing light and
vibrancy to five festival books from the
Bible. The lover s of the Song of Songs
embrace in the sensuously car essing trunks
of gumtrees. Israel's legendary beauty and
heroine, Queen Esther, is a da z zling a zure
kingfisher in flight!
Something similar, but more profound, was
required for John. Fiona suffered, "blank
with ideas", searching for the medium to
illuminate John's rich tapestr y of themes
Illustr ations from a garden of "bible plants"
at Charles Stur t Univer sity in Canber ra
had to be rejected as "too pretty for John".
Jesus was not "soft" but "confrontational",
so he could not be adequately illuminated
from the confines of a small-scale, man-
made garden, regardless of its biblical
The work of the late documentar y
jour nalist, Paul Lockyer, repor ting on the
explosion of life gifted to the outback by
the flooding r ains of 2011, was the insight
that seized Fiona . The outback, stark and
beautiful in its dr y state, but tr ansfor med
by an outbur st of life in flora and fauna
following a deluge, was the very 'garden'
for John's story. "My illustrations emphasise
John's themes of light and life reflected
in the impact of water in the semi-arid
regions of outback Austr alia ."
Providential arrangements allowed Fiona
to immer se her self for a month in the
landscape that would illuminate John's
A holidaying friend made available her
reliable car for the only month that Fiona
could devote to her bush odyssey. Fiona
was able to complete obligations to her
Newcastle Univer sity students, free to
head west to a land bur sting with life and
colour to be captured by camera and
Not quite for ty days in the wilder ness ,
but a blessed time of discover y, quiet and
reflection, soaking up the spirit of the
land in its br eadth and its detail. The ar tist
used the bonnet of the borrowed car as
an easel for watercolour canva ses, or as
a platform for a camera to capture that
which was not sufficiently still-life.
Fiona could not have dreamed of stage-
managing the appearance of a lamb, poking
its head from a saltbush ('behold the lamb
of God'), or another lamb on a dam wall
outside Broken Hill, regal and vulnerable,
to illuminate the lamb of sacrifice.
A month outback but year s indoor s. A
work such as John Illuminated involves
year s of gestation, progression, alter ation
The text itself was set, of cour se : John's
Gospel in the English Standard Ver sion,
though with some acknowledged
enlightened 'tinkering'. But how to
format John to bring out the layers and
inter woven themes? A lifetime of knowing
Jesus through John's profound theology
brings for th a desire to communicate this
relationship through word and image. Fiona
spent two and a half years through many
iter ations matching text to page layout,
then bringing illustr ations to the task.
Landscape layout was a fir st breakthrough.
It is ideal for the breadth of John and the
va stness of outback. Coloured tex t is
inspirational. Red ochre underpins the
nar rative -- the soil and rock where the
story unfolds. A bluish shade car ries words
and passages revealing God's blessings. As
Fiona asser ts, "A key thing with John is
God offering blessings to those who trust
him." Then black tex t in those par ts wher e
John skilfully presents the trial theme; Jesus
the tr ustwor thy witness giving evidence
to, and against, a world lost in darkness.
The Innocent is condemned and the false
accusers and witnesses are guilty. Black
Sparingly and judiciously, Fiona has
employed a larger, more scripted lettering
for key phr ases -- "I am the light of the
world", for example. Likewise, judicious
use of bold type dr aws one to Jesus' "I
am" asser tions, so enlightening in John. The
Jewish festivals which Jesus appropriates
and fulfils in John are brought gently to the
All this gentle spotlighting doesn't detr act
from the flow of the tex t. It's meant to
make one aware of rich threads woven
through the story. It's enough to make
one curious, to keep one aware that John's
account is enigmatic, and to wonder, "Why
have you done that ! What are you wanting
me to find?"
Finding the Tr uth in John is what life is
about. "What are you seeking? Come and
you will see! " Fiona's John Illuminated
invites and rewards seeking and seeing
in a way that other pr esentations
might str uggle to achieve.
In Aurora in December 2012 I reviewed
Saved by Beauty, concer ning Dorothy Day,
twentieth centur y 'Apostle of the Poor'.
From Dorothy Day I have appropriated her
Dostoevskian mantr a , "The world will be
saved by beauty."
In Fiona Pfennigwerth's Illuminations I
experience beauty, a foretaste of the
fulfilment of beauty that awaits.
And what of the elephant? "John's Gospel
is like a pool in which a lamb may wade
and an elephant may swim." This quip is
Fiona's par aphrase of an obser vation traced
to Gr egory the Great. Jesus is accessible
in John to the humble wader and to the
indulgent plunger. In John Illuminated he
relates readily to Austr alians, simple waders
or capable swimmers, who savour the
distinctive light and rugged beauty of "the
Great South Land of the Holy Spirit".
The Hunter is blessed to have Fiona
Pfennigwer th -- ar tist of nature, disciple
and theologian -- to bring Austr alian light to
ancient sacred texts.
Please visit http://fionapfennigwerth.info/
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