Ilene’s piece


I created this collage for my dear friend and mentor, Ilene, as a thank you for her encouragement and love, as well as to honor a very magical, sacred experience that had occurred when visiting Rome, Italy with my family the summer of 2010.

The central image in the piece is the Madonna del Carmine. Each July she is processed through the streets in a neighborhood of Rome called Trastavere. This is an older, less chic part of Rome on the southwest side across the Tiber River. It’s a real Bohemian area, a place where the slaves and servants used to live in much earlier days, and thus, it has a powerful earthiness to it. We had wandered through Trastevere when first in Rome and really loved the feel of it, so toward the end of our Italy adventure when we came back to Rome a few days before flying home, we decided to return to the area.

After dinner as we were walking back to our apartment, we noticed that there was a lot of activity and commotion down a narrow street and so decided to wander that way to check it out. It was crazy. There were bands playing all over within feet of each other and people of all ages listening, drinking, and dancing.

Right in the midst of all of this commotion was a nondescript building with a carnival-like sign over its doors. It was one of those signs that is made from big old-fashioned lightbulbs. It just didn’t go together, this gaudy lighted sign and this very plain building so of course, I was drawn up the stairs to see what it was all about. When I reached the top of the stairs, I realized that the building was a church. The doors were open, but it was dark inside. Unlike the complete electricity of the outside environment, the inside was lit only by candles. Also unlike the outside, it was very cool and quiet. A priest was at the door ushering people in with a silent, reserved nod. When I quietly inquired about my bare shoulders (a no-no in Italian churches) he assured me without words that it was still OK to enter. And so we did…my son, Drew, my daughter, Alex, and me.

About halfway up the side aisle of the small church, I saw her. She was placed in front of the altar, dressed in the white robes you see in the picture on this art piece, with one spotlight on her. She was breathtakingly beautiful…virtually glowing with her white and gold attire amidst the candlelight in the darkness. I literally gasped when I saw her. And it hit me in an instant what this was…that she was the Madonna del Carmine that had been processed through the streets of Trastevere. I had read about this prior to leaving home, was disappointed I would not be there to witness the parade, and thought I’d try to figure out where she was on display when we returned to Rome. But with all of the excitement of our trip, I had completely forgotten about that plan until that moment of seeing her inside this small church. What a gift to have stumbled upon her when not even looking! A metaphor, yes? Needless to say, I immediately started to weep.

I noticed that there were candles in front of her for offerings and since I didn’t have a purse or a pocket, I asked Drew if he could run out to ask my husband, Joel, for a euro, which he did. And so I lit a candle and said a prayer for Ilene who had recently had surgery. Then I noticed that off to the side there was a pile of folded papers and blank pieces to write notes. Without thinking, I wrote a note that read,

“Complete healing for my love and mentor, Ilene.”

I folded it and added it to the pile.

We stayed in there for a while. I don’t really know how long. An intermittent flow of people came and went, lighting candles, saying prayers, genuflecting, writing notes. All the while the music and singing from the outside wafted in and encircled the incredible reverence in that cool, dark, sacred space.

At one point, a young boy, maybe five years old, came in with his mother. His mom helped him light a candle and they stopped for a minute to look at the statue. The mother was in a hurry and took the little boy by the hand to go. As they were leaving down the center aisle, the little boy turned around to look back at her and blew her a kiss. Alex and I did a joint sigh and hugged each other. So sweet. There’s something hopeful about seeing an innocent, masculine soul adoring the Sacred Feminine.

When we left the  church, we returned to the excitement of the outer world, carrying along the deep gratitude for the experience and the assurance that my prayer had been heard for Ilene’s healing…healing in whatever form she needed and desired. I wept through the rest of that evening and was filled with such joy. When I went to mass there a couple of days later, I noticed that the notes had been moved to the base of the statue, at her feet, and it warmed my heart again to know that my prayer for her was indeed present and heard, part of the sacred goings on of this ancient tradition.

When back home, I felt the need to express the profundity of this sacred experience to Ilene and words were simply not enough. Thus, this piece came forward with Madonna del Carmine at the center encircled by the many goddesses and sacred images that we both treasure.

The piece is on a 24×30″ plywood base with many found objects and goddess images including (clockwise from top right): The New Eve of Guadalupe, The Goddess of Willendorf, Ilene’s Mary Magdalene, Tara, Judith Beheading Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi, the Black Madonna of Chartres, The Red Spider Goddess, Black Madonna by Meinrad Craighead, Venus de Boticelli, Madonna del Voto from Siena, Ilene’s Green Goddess of Nature, Frida Kahlo, and Ancient Aditi.


2 Comments on “Ilene’s piece

  1. So very beautiful, in form and in spirit. Thank you so much for sharing your Ilene lessons and stories. I have been feeling the need to do something in particular to honor Ilene, and her gifts to the world,as well as to my own life. N
    ow I also will do a piece Specifically for her…and the impact she had with the gifts she shared. Thank you again Ellen


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Regina Leffers McCaleb, Ph.D.

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