It makes me happy when I am reading my chosen 'book of the month' to realise very quickly that it's a book I really WANT to recommend. That is what happened with my June choice for the Artful Readers Club - "The Cleaner of Chartres". I'll say at the start that this is an unusual book.
After last month's review of "The Italian Chapel", it seems strange that this is another one related to a religious building. Many years ago I visited Chartres Cathedral and was overwhelmed by the wonderful colours shining through the huge rose window onto the flagstones below. "The Cleaner of Chartres" made me wish I could go there again.
The story is not actually about the cathedral, it is the setting for the characters and events, which are centred around Agnes and her life past and present. There seem to be so many books at the moment with this past/present scenario, but with this book it works well. It was a little slow at the beginning but very quickly the story clicks in and my interest was engaged for every page that followed. For the first 3 or 4 chapters I had to sort out whether I was in the past or present, but then I had the sense to realise that each time the chapter heading said 'Chartres' the story was back to the present.
The writing was very readable with a beautiful use of language, and sly subtle humour. There was not a superfluous, wasted word in the whole book. The balance of this quiet humour with sadness, true-to-life characters, history, and a gentle romance element was perfect.
A recurring element in the story is the labyrinth that is set into the floor of the cathedral. The concept of the labyrinth and the need to safely find a way in and out of the maze echoed the idea of finding one's way through Agnes's present and past to discover what lay at the heart of her problems.
One of the main characters tells Agnes the ancient Greek story of the Cretan labyrinth with a monster at the centre, a creature that feasts on a tribute of young boys and girls. Theseus determines to kill the beast, and is given a thread by the king's daughter so that he can find his way out.
Agnes is told that a tablet was once inlaid in the cathedral floor at the centre of the labyrinth which held an image of the Minotaur, and no-one knows why a pagan image should have been included in the fabric of the building.
This small section of an image of Theseus and the Minotaur - a creature with a bull's head and tail and a man's body - is from a wine jar made and decorated 5 centuries BC. I cropped the picture carefully with an oval shape. This is, after all, a family blog.
Away from this strand of the story the book explores human personality and relationships, good and bad people. I liked the characters I was meant to like, despised the baddies, and got very annoyed with the people who just did not think of the consequences of what they were doing or saying.
I read it quickly and was sorry when I reached the end. I felt as though I had lost 'friends'.
When it comes to deciding on artwork inspired by my personal book of the month, I find myself choosing to do just that, follow my inspiration. If one subject that jumps into my mind and stays there even though I try to find another theme, then I go with the one that really is the 'inspiration'.
Since childhood I have read and loved the ancient Greek stories and myths, and treasured my books of legends, so the subject of the Minotaur captured my imagination. Here is my version of the bull's head, and I leave you to imagine the rest of his body.
The background was a failed print from some work I was doing a couple of months ago. It came to mind because I remembered the imprint of the coils of narrow ribbon I had used to make a design, and felt these represented Ariadne's gift of the thread. That left a corner for the bull, just enough room for his head.
Every time I drew him, he looked like a friendly cow, and I had to make several attempts before I could make him even vaguely frightening. I think he's evil enough now to make me frightened of meeting him in the dark. Now you may say that a bull is not red, and is a grass eater with no fangs or sharp teeth. That's because you've seen a bull from time to time, but I know you haven't seen a Minotaur, and my Minotaur is definitely red, with scary yellow eyes. And how could he eat the youths and maidens if he had bovine teeth - would he suck them to death?
The bull was coloured with Inktense pencils, trying to get a rough textured appearance. The sharp edges around the image were added with a filter in Photoshop to give a rather uncomfortable feel. I'm quite pleased with it, and it helps to remind me of "The Cleaner of Chartres" which I know I shall read again.
You will find images of the Chartres Cathedral labyrinth on Google. And if you don't know the ancient story of Theseus and the Minotaur, check that out on Google too. Theseus doesn't come out of the story as a very reliable lover, and all does not end happily. Should make a good television play.
'Theseus killing the Minotaur' is a section of an illustration of a Greek Vase in "Myths and Legends", New Burlington Books, 1992