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Transfiguration: metamorphosis and change

Orthodox icon showing the ‘metamorphosis’ or transfiguration of Our Lord

 

Wishing you all a joyous Feast of the Transfiguration, albeit one day late. This year I have kept the blog in hibernation for a few reasons, not least that any time I have outside of teaching and homekeeping has been used preparing icons. However, we have made the decision to send our daughter to a local school that we believe will fit her needs better than staying home, at least for the moment. Being an only child can be lonely, especially if your mother tends to be rather solitary! So next week we begin the adventure of school and I have been given a space above our church to paint, although I will be sharing it with several other groups. Please pray this works out – I think being so close to the services will be a great support in my painting.

 

In the meantime, all slots for icons this year are *definitely, finally* closed. I apologise to those of you who have been patiently waiting and promise you will see progress very soon. To those of you with enquiries about painting and tuition, please email me  – I am seriously considering a course here in Edinburgh next year.

 

I finally wanted to say a little about the Transfiguration, or metamorphosis: it is, possibly, my favourite feast apart from Pascha. The silent night, suddenly filled with blinding light; Christ’s true nature shining through this frail mortal frame, transfiguring the very robes he was wearing; the presence of the two prophets, taken to Heaven bodily, who ‘translated unto eternal life, where they groweth not old’ after a life of service and hardship… Finally, the apostles: the Troparion we sang says:

You were transfigured on the mountain, O Christ God,

revealing Your glory to Your disciples as far as they could bear it.

Let Your everlasting Light also shine upon us sinners,

 through the prayers of the Theotokos.

O Giver of Light, glory to You!

“As far as they could bear it” – we are given to see as much grace and divinity as we can handle. What mercy and love we are shown in our weakness, so that we can grow in love and faith as our children grow tall and strong! Blessed Feast, and pray for me, a sinner.


New Year, New Icons

a damaged fresco from the monastery in Mystras, Greece.
a damaged fresco from the monastery in Mystras, Greece.

I am delighted to be back at work, after a break from both painting and teaching my daughter. Over the Christmas and Theophany break, I thought long and hard about how to continue in my work while also being a ‘good enough’ mother, wife, teacher, member of the Church, here in Edinburgh. I almost considered no longer painting, I will be honest, as it is not a question of sitting down for half an hour and pootling about with a paint brush. I have read articles, both inspiring and dispiriting, on the future of iconography within our Faith. At the Orthodox Arts Journal Fr Silouan pointed out the problems inherent in relying on modern digital reproductions of pre-existing Icons. While I am not going to argue for a second that a reproduction cannot be used in both private and community worship – that would be silly – I will agree that once one has seen the complexity and vibrancy found in a traditionally painted icon, using tempera, ground pigment, real gold leaf which dances, shines, lives, one cannot argue that they are no different. It’s rather like – to use an utterly secular example – the difference between a salad of vegetables grown in the Mediterranean sun, bursting with flavour, vitality and complex tastes to the limp, pale and lifeless example of salad encased within two slices of white bread in this country. Technically the same, in reality, very different!

In an ideal world, we would all have handpainted icons in both our Churches and our homes. That’s simply not possible and we work with what we have, we pray that the Holy Spirit works through what we have. By His Grace, reproduction icons can and do convey blessings.

However: I have been given the opportunity, in a small, tiny way, to pass on the baton of traditional iconography in these islands and, thanks to God, many other places. I have seen, first hand, the transformation of a piece of wood, a leaf of gold, a pile of ground stone, into an icon that can live and breathe new hope and joy into the hearts of those who are sent them. I can’t give up, no matter what.

As you know, I keep my costs to a minimum and indeed pay myself less than the minimum wage (not even a ‘living wage’, whatever that means). If you are interested in commissioning an icon, do please contact me. It helps if you know your budget and I can tell you straight away what is possible – buying panels means paying the craftsmen who carefully dry and carve the wood, who spend hours applying gesso and have their own families to support, as well as buying gold leaf, pigments and so on.

With all that in mind, I have a few spaces for icons this year and pray that you will feel able to contact me by email or on facebook to discuss your needs. In the meantime, it is good to be back and planning my tiny work in this corner of our Father’s world.

Completion.

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As the secular year winds down, I find myself being caught up in the rush of making, baking, planning etc that seems obligatory these days. The chance to spend many hours painting and praying gives me respite and allows me to breathe: literally.

I have now completed the last icon of this year, although I’m already drawing the next one and planning what supplies I need for the two after that. Next year, I will not be taking any last minute commissions to slot into my list I’m afraid. It’s simply too stressful for me and my family. However, I still have some room, given my current work rate, for later in the year if you are hoping to commission an icon. Why anyone would choose to commission an icon may be the subject of my next post, probably at the start of new next year.

In the meantime, for my friends of all denominations or none,

Christ is Born, Glorify Him!
Καλά Χριστούγεννα !

And don’t worry if you are feeling a little forlorn – everyone knows the real celebrations happen at Easter!

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Beneath the glitter

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One of the big changes painters taught in the western tradition have to make is not looking at icons as a progression from light to dark, or top to bottom.

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I don’t adhere strictly to the idea that we must begin with the darkest layer or proplasmos (which too often becomes a thick and impenetrable blanket of pigment) but I have learned to look past the highlights. It’s tricky because our eyes are drawn to the light, the sparkles, the glitter, in all parts of our life.

As an iconographer, we have to gaze past that and find the foundations, the simpler, solid tones our forms are built on.

Now I’m about to spend many hours adding fine lines of gold – assiste - and the chances are it will be the first thing people notice. If it was simply decorative, I would often ignore it. However, the assiste lines transform what could become sentimental & naturalistic into an icon depicting matter itself transformed by the Light, that which the Magi followed and whose coming we prepare to celebrate. Let us not lose sight of the foundations of our faith & the importance of this festival, in spite of the glitter and tinsel.

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Glimpses

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I wanted to share a few images of recent work. I take pictures quickly, as I work. We are homeschooling my daughter now so time now feels more precious and recording my work with a DSLR sometimes feels like too much distraction. Time seems to be focused and I like that.

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I always paint faces first. Even if I put in washes for garments, it seems to me the prayer is easier when I have company.

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As soon as the eyes are completed, I feel the support and company lacking in solitary work sometimes. Perhaps that’s why I don’t feel lonely?

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May the Nativity Fast help us prepare for the birth of Christ in our hearts.

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Perseverance. Or idiocy?

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Here I am sanding off the third attempt at gilding this small icon.

I have no idea what is going wrong but I am, currently, unable to produce either water or oil gilding to the standard I expect.

Normally, iconographers don’t share their work problems – if they have any. I am, because I’m not trying to pretend I’m completely perfect or have reached startetz-like levels of prayer. Like my work, I am at the start of a long path and right now, it is covered in sharp rocks and thistles. Or nettles.

I need your prayers, friends. Just a dart whenever you remember. I have consulted two of the best iconographers I know, who are likewise bemused by my difficulties, so it is likely I have tried every single practical option possible.

Other than giving up, right now prayer is my only option.

With every breath I will praise The Lord

One of the great joys we have is singing. It doesn’t matter whether you can sing in tune (unless of course you want to sing with others) as long as you can raise your voice now and again.

I often listen to psalms & other hymns as I paint. St Augustine said :

“For he that singeth praise, not only praiseth, but only praiseth with gladness: he that singeth praise, not only singeth, but also loveth him of whom he singeth. In praise, there is the speaking forth of one confessing; in singing, the affection of one loving.”
(St. Augustine, Commentary on Psalm 73, 1)

Which has been paraphrased as “to sing is to pray twice”.

On this first Friday of the Dormition Fast, I hope you enjoy these psalms from the monks of the Holy Mountain. They are strange to westernised musical ears, at least to begin with. Give them space, listen again and rejoice in The Lord always.

Psalms