Surely this is the strangest Pascha many of us have ever experienced. What can I say, except that Christ is Risen and that this strange time will pass, one day at a time.
During the last four weeks of lockdown, far less strictly imposed than the one in Greece, I have completed another icon of Saint Andrew the First-called, this time for my own parish here in Edinburgh. The knowledge I will see this face each time I enter the temple is both an honour and a burden, although no more than knowing that each icon is used in the spiritual efforts of all who see them.
My next projects are smaller and slower – in between home learning for my daughter and keeping all three of us in domestic safety, I have managed to find ten more small icon boards such as the one used in the icon above. *commissions are open* and I’m looking forward to working on small, intimate icons while my eyesight lasts.
At the same time, I am slowly adding prints to my new ‘print to order’ shop where you can choose the format and size of an icon and have it delivered direct to your door, worldwide. The current images can be seen here
I am almost finished a new tiny piece based on a workshop I completed online with the artist Koo Schadler, which will influence my non-Icon painting in new ways – her mixture of innovative techniques for a very traditional looking finish is something that chimes with my own way or using egg tempera.
Finally, I am going to be painting more of my ‘non-icon icons’ – works on paper, using egg tempera and khadi paper. These are based on ancient Christian carvings and symbolism, suitable for all homes and situations. If you would like to discuss buying an original A3 piece or in due course one of my prints, please contact me here – I would love to hear from you more than ever.
You can hear some of the choir of Vatopaidi on Mount Athos singing “Christos Anesti” here – I will share more music and recipes during Bright Week and progress on my online video iconography tutorials (Coming Soon!).
At the moment I am busy with commissions – a blessing that keeps me hard at work – and planning an online gilding resource for students, as well as the joy of parenting an almost 11 year old, gardening and watching the babies in the parish grow into toddlers (my favourite age).
Saint Antipas of Pergamon: Edinburgh is blessed with many doctors and dentists – especially in our Community, where students come from Greece for the high standard of post-graduate course available at the University of Edinburgh. Two Cypriot friends who have sadly gone back now got together with ten others in the Church and commissioned a large, water-gilded icon of St Antipas of Pergamon, the patron saint of dentists. The names of the donors are recorded along the bottom of the icon – some do not manage to Liturgy often and I felt it was important that their presence be noted whether they can be with us in spirit only.
I have also made very high quality photographs of the icon which will be made into prints – each donor receives a copy of this and in due course can come and see the icon in Church. Father Raphael has decided to have it framed behind glass, as the mirror-finished water gilding is prone to marking easily, especially when venerated in a community setting.
St Mary Magdalene.
A small A5 personal water-gilded icon for our dear new Deacon, Fr Antonios. He was very kind and left the details to me, including colour and inscription. I wanted the colours to reflect the warmth of his ministry and service in our Church, and her face to connect directly with this most cherished servant of God whenever he has a moment to be in his prayer corner. Clergy are so often over-looked in our communities and yet they give to all who ask and are in need of time, a word, recognition of our presence. How better to thank them than give them the same through an icon of their favourite Saint ?
One thing that often sounds ‘different’ to Christians from some other traditions is the Orthodox practice of having a ‘spiritual father’ or indeed mother. This is a long-standing small-t tradition in Orthodoxy and part of it stems from our close connection to the monastic life. I found out very quickly that it was common for laity to visit monasteries (we use the same word for both male and female religious houses) regularly, particularly during or soon after Lent. This is tricky for those of us in Britain at the moment – not forever, I hope – as the main monastery is the Monastery of St John the Baptist in Tolleshunt Knights, down in Essex. Indeed, if someone says “I’m off to Essex” we know that they mean the Monastery! It is an unusual place, as it has both male and female monastics who share services and meal times, but it works well. Founded by Elder Sophrony (Sakharov) with only six monastics in 1958, it has become a focus for pilgrimage and produced several books on both Elder Sophrony, his spiritual father St Silouan the Athonite and the religious life of children by Sr Magdalen. It has a deep feeling of spiritual asceticism exemplified in its service during which the Jesus Prayer is repeated for several hours a day.
While the opportunity to visit the monastery is limited for many in these islands, we have been granted several monastics who have become spiritual parents of many hundreds during the course of their long lives. In particular, I think of Archimandrite John Maitland Moir and Mother Thekla. Both are of a particular period in Orthodoxy, when the bridge from East to West was narrower than it seems now, and both were influential in the growth of the Orthodox community in Scotland and England. You can read more about Father John – or ‘Archi’ John as we called him – here, and more about Mother Thekla here.
The reason I mention them is because I have just completed an icon of St Mary of Egypt, commemorated this fifth Sunday in Lent, for a lovely client in Yorkshire. The inspiration of the icon is the one owned by Mother Thekla – her spiritual mother – and is profoundly important both to her and indeed in the life of the Church. St Mary represents an example of the ultimate repentance – a life transformed by the Grace of God and whose life has been handed down to us by the tradition of the monastery where Fr Zosimas, who met her in the desert over the Jordan from his monastery, departed into the wilderness at the beginning of each Great Lent. The icon shows St Mary, clad in rags and with hair ‘white as wool’, in prayer to the Mother of God and Christ. I deliberately kept the icon simple apart from the addition of one, tiny, scorpion… The reason I added this desert dwelling creature is three-fold.
Firstly, they do live in hot, desert landscapes. I included one in the icon of Christ and the Rich Young Ruler last year, when I was thinking of the countryside in Colorado – this little animal connects them both.
Secondly, it reminded me of the passions which St Mary spent most of her years overcoming. She told Fr Zosimas that the first 17 years were a battle with wild animals, and whenever she ate, she was assailed by hunger for food, that she thirsted for fine Egyptian wine and worse. The scorpion is small, almost invisible and yet deadly; how like our passions they are, striking at us when we least see danger and fatal to our souls.
Thirdly, Father John read the life of St Mary of Egypt each year, after the Liturgy on Sunday. It took almost thirty minutes and I was able to record it two years before his final long illness. The sound quality is poor, but after the first few minutes it improves a little.
One year, Father John said “a scorpion approached” in his inimitable style, which any who listened to him will remember well. It has become something of a reminder of Fr now he has been gone almost four years. When I was asked to paint the icon (and yes, I paint icons…) it made me think of Fr John and his very distinctive delivery of that line in particular.
It seemed fitting to add this small memory of him, who was also know to the commissioner, to this icon of both her patron Saint and based on the icon which had been a part of Mother Thekla’s life in her own Yorkshire desert. This is the way in which icons are both personal and still part of the tradition.
As we approach the end of Great Lent, may we all re-read her life and listen to the words of Fr Zosimas about her great repentance.
One of the questions I’ve been asked in the last couple of weeks is: “wait, you’re going on a course/retreat? aren’t you able to, you know, just paint an icon already?”
There are two answers and the short one is “Yes I am and yes I can” but that wouldn’t really explain what I’m doing or be worth sharing with you.
The second answer is Yes: My journey and ongoing growth as an iconographer means that I will never stop learning, changing, developing, praying for the life that means the icons are not simply copies or reproductions of images. Yes: I can paint icons already! No matter what saint a person needs an icon of, I can develop the icon that is right for that person’s needs and situation and with God’s help, produce an icon of that saint or situation which will support their prayers or commemorate the occasion they are celebrating. It may even be a memorial icon, given in memory of a person who has passed on, so that their church has a permanent presence of that person and their saint. All of these situations are possible.
Most of us need time to focus on our vocation and that is what my retreat has been. It was a wonderful chance to meet new friends, to reconnect with Aidan, to walk among the woods and listen to astonishing numbers of birds. I come back slightly dazed at the pace of life in the city and knowing that in the long term, I need more peace and focus to allow my prayers and icons to grow. I also really, really loved the chance to help budding iconographers who had perhaps not even attempted an icon before. That was very special and I will, God willing, be teaching soon. I’m not sure where – there are a few retreat houses in Scotland but I need to investigate them more – or perhaps further south. I do think that for most people the ability to immerse themselves in the subject is a great help to begin with. I’d love to know where you would like to study! Do let me know below.
The icon of St John is almost completed – I will post a blog with just photographs tomorrow as a taster – and it will be available in the shop probably next week. If you would like to be in with a chance of owning it, add your name to my newsletter list and subscribers will get notification 24 hours before the listing goes live and 48 hours before I add it to the blog and facebook/twitter…
I often wonder about the meaning of wisdom; I know that “the fear of The Lord” is the beginning of wisdom… But does that mean actual fear? Or what we would call respect? Or, perhaps, the acknowledgement that He is ineffably ‘Other’ – we have a God who cannot be confined or delineated in human terms – except that He chose to be. Understanding that miracle is, perhaps, the beginning of Wisdom.
I am currently working hard on a family icon – I do love these. To be able to create something for a family to pray with is a great blessing. I hope to complete it this week, before summer break begins in earnest.
As all mothers will know, we never quite achieve as much in a week as we hope. Last week I had hoped to make major strides with the icon of the Transfiguration but everyday duties intervened. We have given the house an early spring clean, I’m preparing for a small Christmas Fair at our school and just keeping all the plates spinning sometimes uses more energy than I have. On Sunday, we finally had our house blessed – we had a few friends here, as well as Fr Raphael (Pavouris), and it felt so wonderful to see the icons of our home ‘Church’ being blessed.
As a small diversion, I began the drawing for my next commission – a small icon of Ss Beaga (Beya, Bee) and Maura. More on these wonderful women to follow soon.
And a little more progress on a study I am doing in parallel with the Transfiguration – today, I wanted to paint the eyes, which make such a difference to the balance of tones in the face.
I painted this icon in 2008, shortly before the birth of my daughter, as a gift for the first child of dear friends. It is based on a fresco by Manuel Panselinos, a master iconographer of the high point of Byzantine iconography. His style is masterful: a single line, a fluid brushstroke, is enough to perfectly form an eyebrow or a fold in fabric. His use of colour is sensitive and shows how the underpainting affects the overal tone of the finished painting: the proplasmos is often a cool green and in spite of that the faces have life and vitality. As Aidan says, iconography shows life transfigured, not distorted. Although certain periods of iconography have different emphases, I feel it is very important that at all times we remember that it is humanity shown in its full transfigured form: Life as we truly are or can be, not an abstracted exaggeration which distracts from the holy subject shown (“those hands are how big? wow, look at that massive head! etc). At the same time, avoiding sensuality (too much emphasis on earthly beauty) is the other extreme… The middle path, as always, is the narrow one.
Anyway: the fresco looks like this: amazing, isn’t it? That level of skill is breathtaking.
My initial drawing never looks anything like the final painting, but it’s crucial to get it as close to right as I can. It can take hours, spread over many days (or weeks) until it is acceptable. With this one, I was sticking as close as I could to the original. Five years on, I’d be a bit less copyist. Maybe.
The placement is tricky: how central is the head? is the halo big enough? what’s going on with that twisting torso… I see so many faults now. Still, having a large impending baby meant I had to press on. Skipping ahead many stages, most of the underpainting is completed here.
You can see that I’ve put a piece of paper over the gilded surface. Whenever possible I use water gilding. Although the surface is more fragile than oil or mordant gilding, I truly love it. It can be left matt or semi burnished, it can be burnished to a mirror like finish and best of all, it doesn’t give me a headache from the size, shellac or meths involved. Hooray. Not being too ‘precious’ about things, I also think that we should use natural materials as far as possible in icons: what could be more natural than water, clay, rabbit skin glue, gold leaf and a little alcohol? I could, at a pinch, make all of them from materials around me. Oil size not so much.
In this painting, the technique I used was the ‘proplasmos’ one: we begin with the darkest colour and build up slowly to the highlights. Normally for flesh we would use a dark ochre or a mixture of black and yellow. Following Panselinos, I wanted to try a greener foundation. This is terre verte, a very slippy clay based pigment. I wasn’t entirely satisfied with it and nowadays use what Aidan describes as the ‘membrane’ technique, where the modelling of the flesh and form is done in a dark pigment before layers or membranes of flesh tone are laid on top. That’s a vast and crude oversimplification but it has astonishing results.
More modelling has been done but it’s a long way off. You can see how the yellow ochre of the main skin tones transforms that ghostly green. I can’t begin to describe the feeling when the Saint begins to look back at you. The closest I can think of is when (as a mother) you begin to feel the baby move – and finally respond to a touch or a word. Suddenly there are two of you in one body. It’s *that* kind of a thrill – you realise that you never were alone but now you know it, emphatically.
When painting faces, a fraction of a millimetre makes a massive difference. There’s still a lot of work to do on this but you can see how the green has almost been covered. Although it’s no longer so obvious, it informs all of the tones on top. The wonderful thing about tempera is how the light bounces through the layers and unites them as we look at them. It’s like impressionism in that respect. I have to add, again, this is an old work: so many things I’d do differently, although I still like the knotted cloak!
I did very little work to the icon after this stage: now I would of course but that’s another story. I used bright, simple colours as it was a gift for a young boy. I wanted him to be drawn to it, inspired by the sensitivity and strength of this Saint, close to the very direct gaze. I left the water gilding semi-burnished, polished only with a squirrel mop, so that some of the scratches would be less obvious – and sometimes I just prefer it too. Please let me know what you think and ask questions: I’ll answer what I can!