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.
My Nativity icon for this year is a miniature on vellum, only six inches square. It will be framed and is for sale, should the spirit move anyone to own it! I have arranged the design as a quincunx, four circles around one, a geometrical arrangement with many resonances in Christian symbolism. I broke out a new precious pigment from Attila at Master Pigments for the dark blue used in this design, a rare mineral called vivianite, also known as blue ochre. It is very finely ground and a easier to apply than lapis lauzuli. Unlike lapis, it mixes with white without being overwhelmed. Also from Master Pigments were the vermilion, purple earth, and my favourite green volksonkoite - another rare mineral, this one from Russia. The florid decorative treatment is inspired by a margin I spied on the Abbey Bible, an Italian manuscript of the mid-1200s owned by the Getty Museum. By the way, the Getty is really wonderful at making digital images of its collection available on the internet for private study.
Have a blessed Advent and a joyful Christmas all!
This painting was finished and sent for reproduction way back in May or June, but I have had to be very patient about putting it on my boasting page, not wanting to blow the client's cover before they sent out their Christmas cards. Carpenters' Company is one of the ancient trade Guilds of the City of London, though nowadays I think their activity is confined more to charitable sponsorship and promotion rather than actual woodworking. Their guild Hall is a little too grand for woodshavings. Their brief was to include the Company arms and motto, the oak and pine leaves of their crest, something to do with carpentry and some seasonal motifs. I didn't have much notion what the medieval man at work in his woodshed might look like, but I took my inspiration from an amazing Spanish cathedral ceiling painting which immortalises the carpenters who built it. There they are in their stripey aprons and hose, hard at it with axes, chisels, saws and hammers. Working to the theme of 'Make Ready the Stable', a stray line I recollected from a Christmas carol, I wove them in with the heraldic elements, adding in a star and robin in my usual cod-medieval style (more than a nod to the Luttrell Psalter in this case). Delighted with the colour reproduction job the printers have done - colour conversion is never straightforward. The original painting, only about eight inches square, is framed and hanging somewhere in Carpenters' Hall for the rest of time.
These two miniatures on vellum are going off to my UK gallery this week, the first in an intended series featuring the unseen and unsung - and horribly endangered - amphibians of Europe. I think of them as our native dragons in miniature. and I hope a toad has never looked so glamorous. I don't know if they genuinely qualify as miniatures (4 x 7.5cm), as art societies make strict rules for such these things and I can't be bothered to look them up. The enigmatic title is an obscure reference to an obscure Japanese silk dyeing technique which has fascinated me for many years. It was revived and transmogrified by the great artist Itchiku Kubota, a Japanese 'living treasure' in his life time: I saw an exhibition of the first half of his incredible great work, 'Symphony of Light', in Paris in 1990. His completed oeuvre now lives in Japan, and is high on my bucket list (the way things are going with that travel fund, I shall have to stow away). My floral background is a tiny homage to his extraordinary kimonos, though the motifs I've used are entirely medieval European.
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.