The first time I painted a crucifix it was back in 2010. I hadlaunched my website gallery and it was one of the first enquiries I received. I was thrilled. The client had just restored a house on Orkney and wanted a painted crucifix for it. (He asked why I wasn't advertising in The Church Times or The Tablet: but if you've ever inquired about the prices in those two publications you'll know one would have to be more of a Damien Hurst than a penniless iconographer to afford any space there.) That first crucifix of mine was of the type known as 'Christus patiens', showing a dead Christ, eyes closed, bloodied, hanging limp and twisted from his nails. This is the style of crucifix we in Western Europe see more often than the older Byzantine type - 'Christus gloriosus' - where Jesus is shown upright with arms outstretched, eyes open. The famous Franciscan Cross of St Damiano is of this kind.
More than seven years on, and mindful of the old adage about the cobbler's children going unshod, I decided it was time I made a crucifix for our own home. Most things I paint are commissions or are for sale elsewhere, so no sooner do we get used to something being on the wall than it disappears. I'm glad of that really, it gives me the chance to try again. Though I shan't be trying again with a crucifix unless I can buy a ready-made blank. I had forgotten how difficult a shape it is to cut without specialist equipment. Casting around the internet for my inspiration, I ran across some wonderful images from the Franciscan museum in Zadar, Croatia. Another one for the bucket list.... If you make it there before I do, please abandon the beach one day in favour of this place and report back. Croatia is a bit of a hybrid East-meets-West place, iconographically speaking. A largely Catholic country, but with many influences from the East. The 11th century cross which I took as my chief model shows Christ standing rather than hanging, calm and strong. He is not twisted and emaciated or smothered in gore. Instead of a loin cloth he sports a rather fetching sort of brocade kilt which I lifted wholesale. But what I really wanted - and failed - to recreate was the magnificent face of Christ in my second, black and white image below. Also from Zadar, from a nunnery destroyed by Allied bombing during the second world war, tragically this partial photo seems to be all that remains of this most haunting icon.
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.
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.