José F. Grave de Peralta
The Ladies in White arriving in St.Peter's Square
oil on canvas 120 cm / 80 cm
This oil painting of Piazza
San Pietro measures over 1
meter high and seems to
have been painted from the
air. On March 27, 2012, this
work was auctioned in
Miami, and the entire
proceeds from the sale went
to help the group of pacifist
women in Cuba shown here
arriving in St. Peter's Square.
In fact, in Cuba these ladies are often physically abused and carried off in paramilitary buses by
government militia brandishing clubs and other hard objects, when the women make their weekly procession to the church of Santa Rita along Havana's Fifth Avenue, to voice their wish for freedom.
The subject of the painting, then, is the "dream" arrival (my dream) of this group of valiant ladies who call themselves Las Damas de Blanco (The Ladies in White) and who march in this fashion since the early 2000s to protest the incarceration of many of their husbands or brothers (initially some 75), without fair trial, for various supposed "crimes against the State." Some of these "crimes" include setting up humble homespun libraries in various Cuban cities or simply voicing publicly and
peacefully their desire for individual freedoms in the Island. The ladies usually dress in white and carry a spear of gladioli to express their belief in a non-violent resolution to the unjust treatment of citizens in Castro's Cuba.
My dream would be that somehow these Ladies in White would be able to march into the Square of St Peter's one day,headed by a small procession of Cuba's patron, La Virgen de la Caridad .....
Close-up detail of the canvas,
showing the Ladies as they enter the Piazza of St.Peter's Square, carrying the image of Our Lady of Charity: La Caridad del Cobre
Saint Peter in Chains: The Ladies in White meet the Pope
In the second painting (horizontal pastel medium) the DAMAS de BLANCO are shown inside the Vatican collections as they meet with the Pope. One of the ladies and a Franciscan friar symbolically hold a CHAIN in front of the Pontiff. The scene takes place in the Hall of the Maps.
This area of the Palace is a grand gallery of geographical, aerial views of all the regions of Italy, painted in 1571 in the medium of "dry" fresco. At the time, the maps were researched on foot (there were no hot air balloons then) and painted subsequently for a very progressive and clear-sighted Pope, Gregory XIII Boncompagni, who in fact gave the world the Gregorian calendar we now use.
A visitor to this famous area of the Vatican today will learn that the 16th-century maps include even the area of Avignon (France) where the Popes were exiled for the greater part of the 1300s. So even
though politically Avignon is not in the political or immediate geographical vicinity of mainland Italy, its history makes the area part of Papal Italy.
The fact that in my painting the Ladies in White "meet" the Pope in front of a map of Cuba is more than an interpolation. Since its discovery by Christopher Columbus in 1492, Cuba has been a Catholic nation -- so my idea was to include a map of the island in this geographical hallway of Vatican lands in order to suggest that our story also belongs there.
At the top of my Cuba map in the painting, one reads the title: CUBA NOVA, which in Italian would mean, NEW CUBA. But in Spanish, it could also be read: "Cuba does not GO" --- it does not move.... This idea of immobility is brought out by the symbolic chain that the 5 ladies and the friar hold in front of the Pope, not precisely barring his movement but perhaps inviting him to think about why Cuba itself does not move or go anywhere.
When the first Pope, St. Peter, was held prisoner in a Roman prison shortly before his eventual death by crucifixion, according to tradition, the Archangel Raphael himself entered the jail cell at night and liberated Jesus' follower, by breaking the chains that bound him.
This painting was a challenge for me on many levels, and I often thought that its "message," if I may use this word, poses an important question for Cubans about their deeper identity and their right or obligation to meditate on the country's future in the light of Catholicism. Surely, the Ladies in White themselves, when they march Havana's streets on their way to the church of Jesus de Miramar or others, are trying to arrive in St. Peter's with their pleas for freedom.