This is the first painting to have left my desk for a long time, thanks to a big relocation (foreign country, foreign language, dilapidated house to renovate) which was accompanied by a surprise cancer diagnosis, with all the ensuing strains of seeking and undergoing treatment. It is so time-consuming to be ill! What better way to celebrate my ongoing recovery than with the completion of this unusual commission: the third Miracle at Cana icon I have painted for the same client, but this one a gift for his very special godson's forthcoming marriage. My client had very particular wishes for the overall design and colours, and has personalised the icon with the names of the bride and groom, and a blessing from John's gospel, all in Greek script. I had all the pleasure of wheeling out my best lapis lazuli and ordering a beautifully routed and cradled solid wood board from an artisan in Serbia.
I am also currently working on the restoration of a big St George icon (dragon and princess this time) a project which I took on in a fit of rash enthusiasm and which I don't mind admitting is giving me a packet of trouble. Fortunately (as I am not a conservator) it is worth nothing either artistically or monetarily: it has sentimental value to the owner, who found it in a junk yard sale, because it reminds him of his Serbian heritage. It is a curious item: it seems to have been cast in resin from the riza on some old icon, complete with nail heads and tack holes. A riza (sometimes oklad, Russian) or revetment is an embossed metal cover made to protect a precious icon from candle smoke and the kisses of the faithful. The embossing echoes the painted design underneath and only the hands and faces of the saint peep out from the cover. I found some examples on line - one a 19th century version in plaster, and another which is copyright. This copy had been sprayed gold and paper prints of faces and hands pasted on the top. A few damp years in a garage, and they had peeled off completely. I am trying to replace them with something a little worthier than paper cut-outs, using gesso on balsa wood and a great deal of ingenuity. St George has also had a respray, silver this time at the client's request, and now he looks like the King of Bling. I can recommend Plasticote Brilliant Metallic spray paints, they really are remarkably convincing.
Courtauld Institute standards it is not, but I hope to turn it into something the client wants to hang in his home. Look back in a while for the faces. And before anyone else asks - no, I do not do restorations.
Recently a family member asked me to provide some artwork for the cover of a forthcoming book, which besides being my first opportunity at a project of this kind presented some interesting technical problems. Gold areas in a design are notoriously difficult to reproduce in print. Every scratch and blemish is magnified in a scan, it comes out looking dull and brown, or gives off unwanted reflections. I decided it would be a waste to include any gold in the design at all. Not that lack cheapens the piece as an icon in any way. In the past, icon painters by no means always used gold in their designs. In times of scarcity or of war, for fresco schemes, for clients with shallower pockets, or sometimes simply for artistic reasons, many icons were painted with coloured backgrounds.
Putting aside its symbolical properties, burnished gold acts as neutral in a painting (strangely enough) and also, as a background, makes a motif 'tell up' incredibly well. Also, let's be honest, that amount of bling tends to distract from a multitude of shortcomings in a painting. Icon painters can tend to get very hung up on the quality of their gilding and devote less time to improving the actual painting!
In the end I substituted a painted ground of red for the the medallion of Christ. I added the symbols of the four gospellers afterwards, to complete the piece as an icon, and used brilliant white for the background. White is used in icons to convey the brilliance of uncreated light (think of Christ's robes in icons of the Transfiguration). I would have made life a great deal easier for myself if I had not glazed the red with transparent quinacridone pigment to warm its tone - forgetting that quinacridone is horribly staining and travels everywhere, especially onto pure white backgrounds! The quinacridones are a new addition to the artist's palette, developed by the car industry I am told, and useful as a substitute for carmine and alizarin, which are of suspect lightfastness. It's just too darn messy, though; I think I shall have to retire it from my arsenal.
An icon of Christ the Teacher in combination with the Hindu and Buddhist lotus symbol were specifically requested by the author to tie in with the theme of the book, which is a work of comparative theology. I designed the roundel of Christ to appear within the 'O' of the book title, with the eastern lotus symbol and frieze beneath, though no doubt the publisher will rehash my design to his own taste. I believe the book goes to print quite shortly: publisher James Clarke & Co Ltd. The actual icon will be framed (unusual for me, but for purposes of reproduction the board was a lightweight one), and appear for sale on my website in due course.
I was so excited to receive a commission to design an illuminated letter B for a Californian boutique wine producer's new range of organic wines. The brief (an angel watering a vineyard) seemed like the perfect marriage of my diverse interests! We agreed the design and just as I started laying in the colour I received word that the company was making a change to its business plans and so my artwork would not be needed after all. Too sad... No doubt the drawing will get recycled somehow - I am posting it here as a little RIP to the project, together with a photograph of a wonderful medieval watering pot which I turned up while I was researching the detail. I want one, any potters out there?
Yesterday we woke up to the news that Norcia in Italy has again been hit by an earthquake. Thankfully this time there seem to be no human casualties, but word is that the ancient Benedictine monastery of Subiaco has suffered bad damage. I wonder how its famous fresco of St Francis has fared? It's thought that it must have been painted when Francis was still alive (on earth, that is) because it is inscribed 'Brother Francis', and there is no halo. A couple of years ago I was commissioned to make an small icon based on the fresco as a gift for Professor C H Lawrence, historian, who among his many achievements has written the definitive history of the mendicant orders in the medieval world. The scroll he is holding reads 'pax huic domui' - peace be on this house - with what I think must be a date underneath, 1228?
Continuingl on a cheery note, I managed to get my icon of the Confession of Thomas finished before disappearing on holiday for my own micro-Brexit. Slightly under A3 this, so quite large for me, but all those little figures - the festival icons always leave me wondering whether it was strictly necessary to have so many apostles. I suppose I should be glad it wasn't the 70 Martyrs of Sebastopol. No inscription yet - we are still mulling it over. Confession? Declaration? Convincing? Testing? I talked it over in my previous blog entry here. Feel free to express preferences or make suggestions.
This week I was excited to have finished my first sizeable illumination on vellum, and will be sending it off to the US next week. 'Sizeable' in this context is comparative, since the whole piece measures only 8" x 10", but that is pretty large in miniature terms - a lot of eyebending detail and many hours' work. The client wanted the Lord's Prayer, illuminated in the style of a canon table from the exquisite Gladzor Gospel (pictured above). The Gospel book was made around 1300 in one of the monasteries of the vanished medieval university of Gladzor in Armenia, and is now in the Getty Museum in the US. Canon tables were a handy little cross-referencing aid, so that one could compare similar passages across the four synoptic gospels. They were usually decorated to look like a miniature jewelled temple, and the Armenian artists included birds drinking from urns, horns of plenty, fruits and flowers and many symbolic references to the abundance of paradise embodied in the holy Word. I have combined elements from the Gladzor canon table, and others from various works by my much-admired T'oros Roslin who was working a good fifty years before the Gladzor artist. I guessed at the original pigments he used - only four or five, despite the multi-coloured appearance, and tried to match them. I used the beautiful and precious mineral pigments I bought with some of my prize money from Attila at Master Pigments. His lapis lazuli and volkonskoite are intensely coloured and very finely ground: other such pigments I have tried have been much too coarse for illumination work. Vellum is a marvellous thing to work on, and rightfully costly, so much more rewarding than a lifeless bit of paper. As the paint goes on, the moisture causes the collagen in the vellum to swell, making each motif stand very slightly proud like a little jewel on the surface. I'd love some more commissions in a similar vein, so please share with your friends!
A new commission has recently given me reason to revisit the iconography known in English as the Doubt, or Incredulity, of Thomas. The apostle is shown reaching out his finger to the wounded side of the newly risen Christ; Thomas declares his belief and Christ pronounces the 'eleventh beatitude': "Blessed are they who have not seen and yet believe." Picture above is a 15th century wallpainting of this scene from Hertfordshire's very own St Alban's Cathedral, and a slightly earlier Byzantine fresco of the same scene from Greece.
The title of the image expresses the unjustified reputation of poor Thomas in the Western church. I have seen some modern icons inscribed the 'Confession' of Thomas, which is better. After all, Thomas recognises Jesus as "My Lord and my God", one of the pivotal moments of the post-resurrection story. By tradition, Thomas was a very young man, even a teenager, among the apostles, brave, loyal and impetuous. Tradition says that he took the gospel to India, where he was martyred and the community of St Thomas, or Syriac, Christians in Kerala still bear witness to his proselytising. Not the work of a timorous recidivist. So my client and I are considering a different name for the piece, which is destined as a wedding gift. The Greek title translates as the 'Touching' of Thomas, and I'm told that the Russians call it the 'Assurance'. At the moment I am weighing up entitling my icon 'The Convincing of Thomas', or maybe even 'the Conviction'
I have painted this icon before, but have become dissatisfied with my treatment of it. My present client wants the full Byzantine party - groups of amazed apostles, doors, scenery and so forth, but the scene lends itself to a focus on only the two central figures. I once thought that this was a modernising approach: focusing on the minimalist essentials of the scene as a counterpoint to the distracting sensory abundance of modern life. But in fact I find that this is not true at all, and in my researches I have turned up a number of beautiful and early two figure 'Incredulity' icons. My favourite has always been the Ottonian ivory, around a thousand years old, pictured first below. I love the way Christ tenderly bends down from his high dais and Thomas is stretching up eagerly as if he is actually going to climb into his wounds. I have had a photofraph of it pinned to my inspiration board for years, and one day I shall paint a version for myself. The second image is a tiny Byzantine carved sapphire (reverse side, hence Christ on the left), dating perhaps as far back as the sixth century. Astonishingly it was found among the treasures of the famous Cheapside Hoard, remodelled as an Elizabethan earring. I hope it is on display - I shall be looking out for it next time I visit the Museum of London. You can read a most interesting in-depth article about this jewel here: http://farlang.com/byzantine-gem-cheapside-hoard
I'm confident that this icon, an unusual commission from a Peter celebrating his eightieth birthday, is unique. It is based on the apostle's first encounter with the resurrected Jesus which is only mentioned in a half verse by Luke (24 v34). The client has meditated long on these few words but his brief was to keep it simple. And red - he has a passion for red as one sees in Russian icons. God grant you many years, Peter.
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.