RDS Recommends with Sarah Lightman

April 24, 2024

Artist, writer and RDS tutor Sarah Lightman takes us on a journey to Italy and tells about her favourite places to visit and art works to see.

Join me for an imaginary day in Italy, a visual story in three acts...


San Marco Museum, Florence

We’ll start the day with a morning in Florence, but turn away from the crowds outside the Uffizi Gallery and the Accademia – so much gathering noise, and hustle, there. Instead we will find ourselves in a place of quiet, internal spaces and meditative thoughts. With no audio manuals and information booklets, we travel, self-guided, through the San Marco Museum, housed in the medieval Dominican monastery of San Marco, built around a courtyard. Follow me up the stairs to the first floor, with its small rooms, known as cells, where the monks would pray. The cells were decorated with frescoes by Fra Angelico, who was a member of the Dominican community there for several years. He drew on his deep religious knowledge and faith to rewrite theological possibilities and narrative in biblical art.


Image 1

Let’s stop inside a cell, just here, the third cell on the left. It’s the Annunciation fresco, where the Virgin Mary is told of her miraculous future pregnancy (above). Mary is magnificent yet demure, as she always is – extraordinarily ageless, light and alive. I’ve seen, and sketched, these works before, 25 years ago, on a travel scholarship while I was an undergraduate at The Slade. Seeing artwork again is always like seeing an old friend. “You haven’t changed,” I tell the fresco. “You’ve aged rather poorly,” it tells me back. If we could close the door to each cell, we would be all alone, and this image transforms into a story being performed in front of us– an intimate, interactive, theatrical and theological experience. Mary is painted receiving the news from the Angel Gabriel right here, right now, as Georges Didi-Huberman writes in Fra-Angelico: Dissemblance and Figuration: “the one who sees inhabits from that point on the mystery facing him.”


In each cell, beside its painting, there is a window, which I have never really noticed before. I become aware it’s raining on the streets outside, torrents all around us, but here, inside, the Virgin is always dry – no dampness, or bleeding, she glows but never breaks a sweat. In contrast, like the soaking streets outside, Jesus often leaks blood profusely. Dripping like a waterfall and sliced open like a piece of meat, or a blood-red orange, his body has red spurting out like spider legs (above). But Mary never shows any signs of her own fertility, or lack of it, not internally anyway; she suffers no overheating or cramping. I, in contrast, stand here after all these years, returning not as a blooming 25-year-old, but as a woman on the edge of “the change”.


Borgo Pignano, Volterra, Tuscany

Let’s travel now through that window, to a space surrounded by trees and flowers: Borgo Pignano, a sprawling farm and hotel in the quiet beauty of the Tuscan countryside where I have been on the Moritz-Heyman Artist Residency.

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Inside the main building there are quite different paintings of women. These are living, breathing women, ageing, scared and sad. There are the spiritual shadow worlds of Celia Paul’s portraits and self-portraits, like the colours of a few-days-old bruise, glimpses of yellow coming between grey clouds of suffering (above).

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And the burnt, bloodied finger of Ishbel Myerscough, she is wounded but still resplendent in a black dress and delicate necklace, grounded by injury, or perhaps mourning time passing, but her hair is still free to be flyaway, living without gravity (above).

These paintings call to me with depth and clarity. Profoundly involved paintings of imperfect humans, born from staring and glaring, they are about a woman feeling very, very seen. And although we are no longer in an austere monastery but in a lounge of light pastel soft furnishings and cushioned luxury, these painted women gaze down upon us, confronting our gaze, and we start to feel very uncomfortable.

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So, we’ll leave them too, and now let’s go through one last window today, ending our time together on the hills outside. The blue sky and green grasses, the daisy-speckled paths surrounded by fields that wave, bow and stroke the breeze.

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We are part of a symphony, a living cinema of inhabitants - the frogs, the cuckoo, the hoof tracks of the wild boar we just missed a glimpse of. We are just another breath in this universe of animated colour. We stand within another painting.

Dr Sarah Lightman is an artist and writer. She teaches Evening Graphic Narratives and Drawing Graphic Narratives 2. The emphasis in her classes is on finding ways to tell personal stories in text and image, and on throwing out any preconceptions about what you thought made a graphic narrative.


  1. Church of San Marco, facade
  2. Fra Angelico, Annunciation, fresco, c.1440 - 1445
  3. Photo of Fra Angelico, Annunciation by Sarah Lightman
  4. Fra Angelico, Crucifixion, fresco, 1442
  5. Borgo Pignano
  6. Celia Paul, Self Portrait (detail). Photograph by Sarah Lightman.
  7. Ishbel Myerscough, Self portrait. Photograph by Sarah Lightman.
  8. Borgo pignano landscape. Photograph by Sarah Lightman.
  9. Daisies at Borgo Pignano. Photograph by Sarah Lightman.
  10. Boar tracks, Borgo Pignano. Photograph by Sarah Lightman.