I recently sent off a commission for two more wonderful Celtic saints - and some more vermilion as it happens, always a passion of mine. Everyone knows of St Kevin, ascetic and abbot, hermit in the Irish wilds for many years. He is feted in verse in the immortal but irreverent Dubliners song ("There was an old Glendalough saint, renowned for his learning and piety. His manners were curious and quaint, and he looked upon girls with disparity"): and in the beautiful poem by Seamus Heaney which meditates on the legend of the blackbird which laid an egg in St Kevin's oustretched hand as he prayed. The poem reveals this parable of Christian self-sacrifice and suffering more eloquently and completely than I ever could either in paint or poetry.
St Melangell's life in Wales is well attested though less written on than Kevin's. Her shrine is still to be visited in Powys and was restored in 1992. St Melangell's legend is of a hare pursued by a hunting nobleman which bounded up and took refuge from the hounds in the folds of her cloak. Reputedly the hare runs fastest uphill and so symbolises the ascent of the human soul escaping the powers of darkness. I am mentally incorporating these two in my 'some day' iconographic project on the new creation.
I just viewed another wonderful video by Attila Gazo of www.masterpigments.com about the production of blue pigment from mineral azurite. Find it here on YouTube by cut and pasting the link in your browser: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OcMCGNNzxtk.
A divine colour, azurite, as important in later medieval western art as lapis lazuli. If I could afford to, I would splash it on all over. I love it in its purest grades, as in this tiny illuminated letter T (back of a pendant jewel I made for my daughter): -
- and just as much in its lesser grades, as the greenish shade I used for Christ's robe in this icon of the Confession of Thomas.
I once harboured ambitions to make my own pigments, but just looking at the equipment and repetitive processes involved in Attila's work is enough to make one come over faint. Quite a risky business too, given the toxicity of some of these pigments. Check out his videos on the production of lead white and cinnabar.
Some art deserves to be less noticed, and I have to admit that sadly most of the contents of the Salzburg Cathedral Museum fall squarely into that category. Worse still, the reputedly magnificent apartments of the former prince-bishops were closed for restoration, so I found myself scooting past quantities of truly dire (but impressively large) canvases, an entire corridor of curiosity cabinets with several hundred years' worth of dead animals and other dusty relics in them, and various other forbidding remains, wondering whether the fabulously wealthy bishops of Salzburg were just less efficient than their contemporaries in looting the best religious art, or whether they preferred to keep their wealth at home and commission only from the locals at the expense of quality. But then in the very last display case (which displayed, unaccountably, a huge pair of Dutch clogs) I read a querulous note complaining of Nazi thefts and Allied bombings, which went some way to explaining it. But I spent time there, it being a cold January day, and a few things did catch my eye at random:-
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.
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.