This was the spontaneous response of a tipsy friend on seeing photos of the portrait that I painted last year of His Eminence Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster (and what an amazing privilege that was).
Being generous with said friend, I assume by ‘real artist’ she meant an artist capable of producing realistic art. And this – a century after Modernism – is still clearly the standard by which people judge art by. No doubt there are many reasons why there is such satisfaction and enjoyment in see things in this form.
However after three decades of mainly painting icons and ‘sacred portraits in the deliberately and definitely unrealistic style of the eastern Orthodox tradition (I refuse to use the oh-so-pretentious and erroneous term ‘writing’) it is a distinct pleasure to return to the challenges of naturalistic portraiture – but using the same traditional egg tempera medium and the same panels as for my icons.
And, in between continuing to paint icons and teaching the techniques thereof – I will be focusing on Clerical Portraiture. This will be a different type of icon painting, as I continue to explore my fascination with depicting light upon – and within – the human face ans in particular, the faces of those individuals who have given themselves to the spiritual life.
Judging from the feedback, the first three Heritage Lottery Funded icon painting ‘taster’ workshops have all been extremely well received, and were certainly enthusiastically attended. Whilst most of the participants were from the North Norfolk area, several individuals came from further afield – even as far as Yorkshire.
Whilst hardly anyone had had any previous experience of painting (or ‘writing’ as some prefer to say) icons, everyone completed a small icon to take away with them and gained an insight into painting with egg tempera and how it is used within the Russian icon painting tradition. Given the remit of the workshops, the gilding of halos etc was done with imitation leaf – and to great effect!
The new gallery (formerly the renown icon painting studio of the St Seraphim brothers, Fr David and Leon Liddament) has been beautifully refurbished and provided the perfect icon painting environment as the walls and new display cabinets are now filled with icons and exhibits from the collection. (And thus becoming the only icon museum within an Orthodox church in the UK.)
A different archetypal Russian icon was chosen for each workshop; an Archangel Michael (after Rublev), A 19th century Mother of God of Kazan and a 16th century Novgordian icon of St Parsakeva Piatnitsa. Each image was looked at in terms of its iconography and history, as well as being contextualised within the tradition of prayer and veneration.
The beautiful Quiet Garden of St Seraphim’s gave us yet another inspirational space to enjoy during our breaks, amidst the tastefully planted perennial borders of flowers, herbs, shrubs and trees – all at their seasonal best along the considerable length of the former railway platform . The delightful geese, Max and Wanda, added their own quirky charm to the events.
St Seraphim’s Trust have invited Helen to deliver several icon painting ‘taster’ workshops in 2019 and 2020 as part of their Heritage Lottery Funded programme of activities.
There will be three weekend workshops in the summer of 2019 and two weekend sessions, plus a longer five day workshop in 2020.
Summer 2019 workshops
(10.00 am – 4.15 pm daily)
Cost: £25.00 per person
18th & 19th May : FULL
8th & 9th June: FULL
20th & 21st July: FULL
Waiting list available
(Times and cost tbc)
4th & 5th April
16th & 17th May
15th – 18th June (5 days)
The workshops will take place in the new gallery space and provide a basic introduction to icons and the technique of icon painting. Participants will be able to ‘make and take’ a small icon and gain a deeper appreciation of Russian icons through the tradition established at St Seraphim’s in the mid 1960s.
Places are limited to 6-8 pax per workshop and priority will be given to local participants. Materials will be supplied.
To book a place, or for more information, please contact St Seraphim’s Trust directly:
Tel: 01328 820610
St Seraphim’s Trust
On the occasion of the patronal festival of All Hallows, 4th November 2018, this pair of new icons were blessed and installed by Bishop Peter Wheatley (retired). The Dean of Hereford, Michael Tavinor, gave the homily.
The icons were commissioned by Fr David Houlding as part of a major project to create a new main entrance area for this large church. The icons were designed to face the huge new glass doors at the west end as a sign of welcome. The Mother of God icon was further designed to be a memorial icon for Diane Clover, who had worshipped at All Hallows for many years.
Both icons are original designs (in the Russian tradition) with the blue colour of the robes creating a visual link to the dominant blues of the stained glass of the east end windows.
This icon, after the famous deisis mosaic at the Haghia Sophia, Istanbul, was especially commissioned for a new prayer corner at Holy Trinity Church, Cuckfield, West Sussex. The icon has been gifted by a local family who have worshipped at the church for many years.
The free-standing candle ‘Tree of Light’ upon which the icon is mounted, is a bespoke commission by the Oxfordshire-based artist and metal worker, Christopher Townsend.
This new and unique installation has been sited in the south aisle to form a new and beautiful prayer space in this beautiful church which dates from the 12th century. The Tree and Icon were blessed by Archdeacon Fiona Windsor of Chichester Diocese, during a special service for the dedicatory feast of Holy Trinity.
Oswald (c.604 – 642) is made known to us through the chronicles of Bede, although written a century later, in which he tells about the King who united the two kingdoms of Northumbria to become a powerful leader, who was generous to the poor and welcoming to strangers.
Prior to an important battle, we are told that Oswald experienced a vision on a Constantinian scale of St Columba, who told him that God favoured Oswald. This understandably caused Oswald – and his army – to convert to Christianity and a victory was duly wrought over the King of Gwynnedd.
Oswald requested help from St Aiden of Ireland in preaching and converting his Northumbrian subjects and according to legend, Oswald is reputed to have died at the battle of Maserfield at Oswestry (‘Oswald’s Tree’) where his dismembered right arm (which had been blessed by St Aiden) was taken by a raven into an ash tree. Having invigorated the tree, the arm fell to the ground, causing a healing spring to appear. Both the tree and the spring were soon associated with miracles.
Oswald is also known to us through a fragment of 12th century wall painting in Durham Cathedral, which is in the same niche and opposite to the well-known image of St Cuthbert. This may be no accident, as apparently Oswald’s head is in the same coffin as St Cuthbert.
This image is based on a 13th century manuscript illustration.
This devotional piece was inspired by my on-going study of Franciscan art and made in the late Medieval Italian style, using the same (700 year old) methods. It was created specifically for a parish priest in central London who has a devotion to St Francis of Assisi.
But somehow Julian of Norwich’s famous motif of the hazelnut crept into this composition – and happily seemed to fit. (Hopefully the meditative theme of the Unity of Creation eclipses any anachronism…)
Although Mother Julian was born 116 years after the death of St Francis in 1226, there is for me something inherently Franciscan in her deep desire to seek unity with the God who is “…the creator and protector and the lover” of all things. As Julian explains in ‘Revelations of Divine Love’:
“And in this he showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand….In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it, the second is that God loves it, the third is that God preserves it.
But what did I see in it? It is that God is the creator and protector and the lover. For until I am substantially united to him, I can never have perfect rest or true happiness, until, that is, I am so attached to him that there can be no created thing between my God and me.”*
(1st Revelation, chapter 5)
*Source: Michael Marsh: https://interruptingthesilence.com/2012/05/08/quotations-from-st-julian-of-norwich/
Commissioned by Holy Trinity Church, Potten End, Berkhamsted, Herts.
Within the underlying geometric structure of Rublev’s icon of the Old Testament Trinity, I was able to discern and make explicit the symbols of the three main Abrahamic religions; The Christian Cross, the Jewish Star of David and the Islamic Crescent Moon. To the best of my knowledge this ‘epiphany of symbols’ within this famous icon have not been noted before.
There are also three types of Cross that can be seen in this image and which represent the main Christian denominations; the Latin Cross of the West, The Russian Orthodox Cross (but without the angled foot bar) and the equal-armed Greek Orthodox Cross.
The purpose and function of revealing these symbols was to emphasise the message of universal spiritual unity, tolerance and a co-dependence borne of a shared spiritual ancestry – all of which could be argued to conform to the essence of Rublev’s vision. This is a work to promote interfaith dialogue.
Doctor of the Church, Benedictine monk, Abbot, Philosopher and Theologian
St Anselm was born in 1033 at Aosta, Italy. He arrived in England in 1070 to undertake the Gregorian reform of the church and align it with the papacy. He held office as the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093 until his death on 21st April, 1109. His tenure was not without controversy between himself, the King and the Pope, with two episodes of exile in 1097 and 1105.
St Anselm and Harrow on the Hill
In 1094, St Anselm consecrated the Saxon chapel dedicated to St Mary on top of the hill at Harrow. This icon was commissioned to occupy a new prayer space dedicated to the church’s founder in the South Transept.
The unusual panel shape was designed to fit with the extant irregular stonework around the window.
The saint holds the crozier of office and carries a model of the church he founded (based on a reconstructed image by Dan Secker). He also holds a small phial of holy oil. This very specific motif refers to the legend that on the day of consecration, a spy working for the Bishop of London (Anselm’s clerical rival), stole the Oil of Chrism that was to be used for the occasion. However, the thief was unable to leave the site and found himself miraculously immobilised, enabling the theft to be exposed and the consecration to proceed.
In January 2017, the current Bishop of London, Dr Richard Chartres, blessed the icon at St Mary’s and anointed it with holy oil.
The figures are a distinctive fusion of the Byzantine and Romanesque in their mix of elegant, flowing forms with more abstracted stylisation, and typical of late 13th century painting in central Italy. The corpus is the emotive Christus Patiens type; a form which provided the evangelising Friars of the 13th and 14th century with a potent preaching motif on Christ’s humanity and transcendence of death.
The ‘three Maries’ on the left of the apron form a uniquely lyrical group , with the Magdalene supporting the ‘Swooning Virgin’ as she collapses at the moment of Christ’s death. Opposite is the grieving Evangelist John, who in his turn, will care for the Virgin. Behind John, stands the Centurion, depicted at the moment he recognises Christ.
The function of this type and size of crucifix (croce dipinte) was probably two-fold; originally double-sided, the piece would have been carried in a procession (e.g. on Good Friday) and at other times, venerated on a chapel altar. The uppermost roundel, as seen in the original , may have contained a relic of the True Cross.
The Master seems to have produced several very similar crucifix (another example being in the collection of the Louvre) and must have had a workshop based in the Perugia/Assisi area, judging by the surviving works attributed to him. His notable works being the unique fresco cycle paralleling the lives of Christ and St Francis in the lower church of the Basilica di San Francesco, Assisi and the monumental crucifix (signed and dated 1272) painted for San Francesco Al Prato, Perugia (now in the collection of the National Gallery of Perugia).
Whilst the ‘Master of St Francis’ is known to have worked for the Franciscans in their most important Umbrian churches, it is not known if this particular crucifix was likewise intended for the friars use. Therefore it should be acknowledged in the light of scholarship, that this piece, along with other works, are not necessarily ‘Franciscan’*.
* Bordua, L., The Franciscans and Art Patronage in Late Medieval Italy, Cambridge, 2004 and Bynum, C.W., ‘Fransciscan Spirituality: Two Approaches’ Medievalia et Humanistica,Vol.7 1976, pp. 195-197.
Bomford et al, Art in the Making, Italian Painting before 1400, Yale University Press, 2000, Catalogue No.1, pp. 54-63.