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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.
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.
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.
Some new bird-in-letter pieces for the new season. They will be sold individually, which is just as well because I see if I switch them around they will spell 'SOB', which was not what I intended...
The view from my desk
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