| || |
Just in time for his feast on 11th February, I was last week delighted to add St Berach of Kilbarry to the little clutch of less known Celtic saints I have been commissioned to paint: another first I think, at least as he is represented on the web. St Berach's life in the 6th century in Ireland has a few well-attested facts and a great number of fairy tales. He was a disciple of St Kevin, built a church, and is still greatly reverenced in Roscommon. This is a hand-sized icon designed to travel with his owner, for whose family St Berach has a special significance.
I drew for my design on the illuminations in the Book of Mulling, which was painted (only!) two hundred years after the death of St Berach. The hairstyle and robes owe a great deal to St John, seen below in the original - faded but still startlingly blond and blue-eyed. For the face and beard I also confess to a touch of The Dubliners in their later manifestation, I'll leave you to guess which one.
Thanks to the generosity of Trinity College, Dublin who own the manuscript and make public their technical researches, I was even able to approximate the pigments used in the original. For other pigment 'anoraks' out there, these were various ochres (John's curls are yellow ochre), indigo blue, organic pinks and purples and orpiment. Orpiment is a startlingly bright lemon yellow, an arsenic compound. I actually have a sample of the pigment, but decided to substitute with a cadmium mix identical in colour but less poisonous. Indigo and organic compounds don't last so well on a panel as between the pages of a book. I used indigo for the underpainting but enhanced it with azurite and egyptian blue: contemporary, but perhaps not easy to obtain in 6th century Ireland. The purple-red is indigo overpainted with natural carmine, but as I did not adopt the flat geometric style of the manuscript I found it necessary to highlight with a little cinnabar: probably just as poisonous as the orpiment I rejected. Ah well... The green background is a mottled application of indigo glazed with yellow ochre and my orpiment substitute.
To represent his hermitage and the abbey he founded, he is clutching a stone chapel of ancient Irish form. His abbot's crozier I copied from an ancient example dug up in a peat bog. These had a little reliquary chamber in the their ends and were staves of mighty talismanic power with which the early Irish clerics warded off the forces of darkness as they strode around the wild and sodden landscape of pagan Europe. I tell you the Desert Fathers had nothing over these fearsome Celtic hermits and evangelists, they were redoubtable spiritual warriors. They travelled to and fro to Sinai and Byzantium on networking visits, and even spread their mission over here to Austria, in those early days a truly terrifying landscape for any visitor, never mind a stray Christian.
The view from my desk
Current work, places and events, art travel, and interesting snippets about Christian icons, medieval art, manuscript illumination, egg tempera , gilding, technique and materials.