I have spent a week in Clare Priory learning about icon painting. The Augustinian monks are not an enclosed order, but opportunities to to get out were minimal, especially as light was so important for painting. For someone who likes a whole day’s walking this seemed restrictive after a few days, and I kept nipping out for quick walks into neighbouring Clare Castle. Autumn is advanced, and there was lovely colour all around with shadows stretching across the fields.
Clare Priory was reclaimed by the Augustian monks in the 1950s. There are currently 3 monks and two resident nuns. The main building is C14 and the stairs to my attic room went at odd angles. There were instructions laid out on the structure of the day:
The Augustinian Rule provided further structure to the day. This Eight Chapter document was designed to encourage the community to live together well. A bit in Chapter eight seemed particularly relevant for icon-painting:
“The Lord grant that you may observe all these precepts in a spirit of charity as lovers of spiritual beauty, giving forth the good order of Christ in the holiness of your lives: not as slaves living under the law but as men living in freedom under grace.”
The connection between a highly structured and prayerful day, and the production of something beautiful revealed itself through practice as the week progressed, although I must admit there were times when beauty escaped: us students talked too much and we got stressed. One day I missed Mass to catch up on my painting, and whilst I regretted this in some ways it was a particularly lovely experience to be on my own in silence working on the icon.
So what is an icon? The word (like pilgrimage) is used very loosely. By the end of the week I felt I had reached the point of “conscious incompetence” – at least knowing how little I knew. Our wonderfully patient teacher Annette Ashton-Melzack had recently completed her training as an iconographer through the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts, working under the tuition of Aidan Hart. I had his large instruction book: Techniques of Icon and Wall Painting, but this had not prepared me for just how many stages there are to producing an icon in a traditional manner (and there are several different traditions…). I also have his smaller book Beauty Spirit Matter which reflects on the central idea in Christianity of the spiritual made material, and the beauty and integrity of matter. Prayerful in production, the final piece should be anonymous in nature, and allow the viewer to look beyond our normal universe to the Sublime. No pressure, then!
Each painting session began with a prayer, which became increasingly covered in paint as the week progressed:
Theotokos: the carrier of God. What a daunting prospect. We started off with a gesso board and made up some pigment paper, rubbing red ochre into paper to transfer a tracing of the image. This was then secured with paint- tempura made with a mixture of egg yolk, vodka and distilled water. The base of the halo was then built up with 7 or 8 layers of bole: a clay paint which was ground and polished when dry to form a base for gold leaf.
Getting the gold to stick was an interesting challenge- more vodka was required. The student sitting next to me was a sister who had spent much of her life teaching both art and theology- she was a natural and invented a refinement which involved leaving the backing paper of the gold to peel off in its own time- it worked!
The process continued with plenty of opportunities to make mistakes, but also to correct them as there were so many layers. The only design decision was how to paint the background. My first thought was dark- “Madonna of the Midnight”, then bright orange “Madonna of the Autumn Leaves”, but in the end it just had to be Celestial Blue .
On the final evening us students took our offerings into the church where they spent the night. At Mass the following day they were blessed with lots of incense before the congregation. My icon is now at home looking a little out of place.
I do not think I will ever be an iconographer; I do not have the patience, but I learnt so much. I imagined how things might have been for the artist-monks in the Abbey of St Edmunds- working within a tight framework of the Benedictine Rule, and lacking decent light in winter. Their illuminated manuscripts are simply amazing. I was reminded once again of the iconoclasm which took place during The Reformation. This would have struck at the heart of anyone who took comfort through or from such imagery- perhaps particularly (in the case of Theotokos) women. I hope that some of the ideas and techniques can be transferred to other work and I might “have a go” at illuminated manuscripts. And, as with all things, if you make something you start to appreciate other, better examples.