25 November 2012

Icon of Saint Clement blessed today....

At this morning's service at St. John's Episcopal Church in Ashfield, Massachusetts, my Icon of St. Clement of Rome was blessed by the Rev. Eliot MossFriday (Nov 23) was the Feast Day of St. Clement, so I am particularly content with how this has worked out, even though I know every imperfection in the Icon. 

 In many respects, today marks the culmination of a Tale of Three Churches. 

 The tale begins with the Church in which I was raised.  St. Clement's Episcopal Church, "The Fisherman's Church," in Baldwin Harbor NY.  It is the place where I began my Christian formation as a young child.  It no longer exists as an episcopal church, but its seaside location left a forever-image - an Icon - in my soul

The Second church would have to be St. Clement's Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. An Anglo-catholic church, their website contains an account of the legends associated with St. Clement. The rector mailed me palms held by the celebrant on Palm Sunday, which I burned and mixed the ashes with the pigments in the creation of the Icon. http://www.saintclementsphiladelphia.org/ 

And, finally, my home church of St, John's (top picture).  At vicar Moss's suggestion, the Icon was set on the alter today and blessed using the Episcopal Occasional Service for such an event.  We were able to discuss St. Clement's life at the coffee hour afterwards.

Christ is the icon of the invisible God; all things were created through him and for him.

The Word became flesh:

And dwelt among us.

Let us pray (Silence)

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior manifested  your glory in his flesh, and sanctified the outward and visible as a means to perceive realities unseen: Accept, we pray, this representation of Saint Clement of Rome; and grant that as your people look upon it, their hearts may be drawn to things which can be seen only by the eye of faith; through Jesus Christ our Lord. 


So be it.
 Saint Clement Carol

1 It was about November-tide
A long, long time ago,
When good S. Clement testified
The faith that now we know.
Right boldly then, he said his say,
Before a furious king;
And therefore on S. Clement’s Day
We go a-Clementing.

2 Work in the mines they gave him then,
To try the brave old saint:
And there two thousand Christian men
With thirst were like to faint.
He prayed a prayer, and out of clay
He made the waters spring,
And therefore on S. Clement’s Day
We go a-Clementing.

3 An anchor ‘round his neck, they tied,
And cast him in the sea;
And bravely as he lived he died,
And gallantly went free.
He rests a many miles away,
Yet here his name we sing,
As all upon S. Clement’s Day
We go a-Clementing.

4 Our fathers kept it long ago,
And their request we make
Good Christians, one small mite bestow,
For sweet S. Clement’s sake:
And make this feast as glad and gay
As if it came in spring,
When all upon S. Clement’s Day
We go a-Clementing.

31 October 2012

St. Clement....is finished.

An iconographer's prayer reads,

"Teach me . . . to imagine the work without despair if it should turn out differently..." 

It continues, "keep me from achieving perfection, for surely I would be lost in arrogance." 

Well, surely that is not a problem.  

I was impatient, I moved too quickly in the middle of the work, and I lost some of the potential beauty. My paint was too thick at times, and I lost some of the earlier color gradients in the ocean and on his robes...but overall I am content.  

I set out to paint an Icon of St. Clement that was true to his person, and I am happy with the final image.  It's not exactly what I had envisioned - nor is it as good as I think it can be - but it is an effort through which I learned much ~ more about myself, incidentally, than about the Saint.

30 October 2012

Interlude....This Amazing Process . . .

 I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised…but this is really mind-boggling.

If you read back to when I painted my first icon of St. Columba (at the very start of this blog), I was very undecided as to which saint would be captured in my second icon.  I was debating back and forth, but nothing seemed ‘right.’  And so, on the day I completed my icon of St. Columba, I looked at the calendar…and it was the feast day of St. Clement of Rome, the patron saint of the church in which I was raised, and I suddenly  knew whom to paint next.

And so here I am, in the last days of finishing that Icon.  I have been frustrated in the last week, because I *could* have been finished earlier, but I kept making what I saw as stupid mistakes, painting errors that need to dry before I can correct them.  And at the same time, my mind has been wandering…because, once again, I have been undecided on which Icon to begin next. I have been considering a whole litany of saints whose lives interest me: St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Irenaeus of Lyons, St. Ansgar. St. Kilian, St. Thomas the Apostle, St. Tutilo of Gallen….

Even so, my mind started considering St. Bega, a 9th/10th Century Irish saint who fled to the Lakes District of England.  I had been to St. Bee’s, England, a town named after her, and home to a Priory founded on the site of her sttlement. I had also explored a small and unique church named for her, hidden in a sheep pasture in a valley in Bassenthwaite.   She is not well known outside of these two places, except in popular literature because of Melvyn Bragg’s historical novel, “Credo.”   I actually began to feel guilty that my mind was wandering to Bega so much even as I was still painting Clement…especially since Bega was so obscure by most standards.

I had also done some research on the monastic site of Nendrum in Northern Ireland, a historical ruin which I had visited, but was unable to find much information for specific saints connected with that site, and so I ‘gave up’ on it.  In the meantime, I had collected several file folders of information about St. Thomas – more than any other saint, for certain. I was leaning towards him next, and began to settle in on that decision, being intrigued by the many early writings that connect him with the early evangelization of India. 

So, today, still undecided as to my next effort, I cleaned up many of my errors on Clement.  I finally got to the point where I felt I could probably finish in the next day…certainly in the next week, putting the ‘finish’ date somewhere between October 31 (tomorrow) and November 7 (one week later).  I only need to clean up a few obscured lines, and finish the anchors on Clement’s pallium, and I am finished. 

And so, waiting for the last bits of paint to dry, I started some web research for my next Icon.

Whereupon I stumbled upon my first scholarly piece of research on St. Bega, and read the following:

About 1400, the day of St Bega was celebrated at St Mary's, York as one of the lesser festivals, ...But what day was that? Canon Wilson, editor of the St Bees Register, mentions three possible dates - 6 September, 31 October and 17 December. 31 October also occurs in the calendar of saints' days kept at Aberdeen and (as the date of the Saint's death) in the Life of St Bega. “ (John M. Todd at http://www.stbees.org.uk/publications/bega/index.htm )

The author continues:

“…Apart from those already mentioned, there is another possible day, 7 November, which is almost certainly the one celebrated at St Bees. The premise is that the day would be the same there as at York. The coming and going of monks between mother house and dependency - clearly shown for the thirteenth century by the St Mary's Chronicle - was such that different feasts for the same saint in the two houses were unlikely.... there is a fifteenth-century Book of Hours in the Bodleian Library which certainly belonged to St Mary's, and a Psalter which probably did, and in the calendars of both manuscripts St Bega the virgin appears on 7 November. And that seems conclusive.”


And just in case there was any question, my eyes widened as I read further.  One of the most famous legends associated with Bega is that of a “holy bracelet” that belonged to Bega, which was kept as a relic in the Priory at St. Bees.  In discussing the origin of the bracelet, the scholar wrote the following:

“…Or it may even have been brought back from Ireland (where bracelets of the type indicated by Butler have been found in large numbers), conceivably from the daughter house of St Bees established at Nendrum in 1178….”

Nendrum – the historic ruins about which I had so far found nothing – was a daughter house of the main Priory of St. Bees, which was the ‘home base’ of St. Bega…and whose Feast Day was October 31…and/or November 7.

I think I know who I am supposed to paint next.

In the meantime, we will apply the anchors which ended Clement's life, and bring our work on Clement to a close this week.

23 October 2012

St. Clement - Post 18 - What a Difference a Day Makes . . .

 This evening's project was the border around the Icon.  I had originally conceived of the border as something "Roman," something that would represent the Roman Empire attempting to surround and control the early Christians.  I had planned for Clement's scroll to extend beyond the border, precisely to show how his words transcended the physical limitations that Rome would place on him. I had decided early on that I would try and use a border that resembled a roman mosaic, which were plentiful in the time Clement walked the earth. 

But the question remained...what colors? What pattern?

I had initially thought I would use red and white in an alternating checked pattern, red being the symbol of martyrs and white being the symbol of God's purity....but the more I considered it, the more I thought that combination to be inappropriate.  There was little in Rome's persecution of Christians that could be thought of as 'pure;' and so I chose the color "Buff Titanium" instead, which is a yellowed and sullied form of white...perfect for a Roman Empire that saw its emporors as divine, but who,in reality, were less than that. I also worried that a simple checked red and white pattern would look a little bit like a picnic tablecloth or the floor of a 1950s diner.

In checking pictures of actual Roman mosaics, fish motifs seemed to be a very common theme of the era. With the fish as an early secret symbol of Christianity, it seemed a natural choice. And, given Clement's association with the sea and with the anchor symbol...it seemed natural to attempt mosaics of anchors and fish.

So, with the Gregorian chant playing in the room and the sandalwood incense lit, I set out to duplicate mosaic tile work in egg tempera.

The pattern came naturally...anchors in triplicate on either side, seven spaces apart from one another. One fish on the top. Simple triplets of red tiles on the bottom, on either side of the scroll. All symmetrical and in order, as Clement would prefer things.

I am grinning ear to ear with the results.  I have not completed the 'groutwork' between the 'tiles,' but it looks as I had hoped, and it has been a good night.

22 October 2012

St. Clement - Post 17 - Three steps forward, two steps back....

 I rushed, and it wasn't good.  In my desire & excitement to finish, I moved too fast.  The Icon grew sloppy.  Areas I had completed looked awful because I overdid it.  I had painted over areas before the first layer was dry, and the colors bled.  And so, I had to revisit some areas.

The Pallium (Clement's bishop's stole) was a mess. I carefully painted over the errors, and I will add the anchors back on as a last touch.  I used too much white on his robes, so I needed to paint some of them over and reapply lighter layers.  And the best part was, I didn't get annoyed or mad at myself.  It was just a time of learning that I needed to slow down, turn my attention to tiny details, and only paint a little bit in a sitting.

I wrecked the ocean water, too.  Having completed it, I couldnt stop myself from applying one more layer, and it seriously degraded the look...and so, I had to re-paint all the white lines in the ocean waves.

I settled on the Scroll: "Seek Peace and Follow After it," from 1 Clement 22:5, was more than appropriate.  It was a lesson I myself needed to learn as I grappled with the fact that I am not a particularly good painter, and have no reason to get annoyed at myself for mistakes. I simply need to learn from them, and correct myself as I am able.

Ironically, Clement wrote his first letter to Corinth because a group of young, impetuous hotheads had replaced the 'old guard' in the Corinthian church through some political maneuvering.  In their haste to get things done 'their way,' they overthrew the established (and wiser) order.  In many ways, my own painting parallels their impatience:  skipping steps, moving too fast, not realizing the mess I was making.  Clement advised the church members to 'seek peace, and follow after it' rather than create chaos.  

Yes, my painting of this Icon is a living, contemporary example of the Corinthian 'problem,' and Clement's gentle admonishment.

I am recommitted to patience.  I painted the outside border today, and am considering how I want to approach the inside border, in which I had planned to mimic Roman mosaics from the 1st Century. But that will be for another day. No need to do it all tonight....

15 October 2012

St. Clement - Post 16 - Working through the Fear

 Tonight was the "first float."  It was also making a conscious decision to trust a process that is slow, that reveals itself with patience, and that develops over time - everything that this task-oriented, results-demanding business teacher hates.

I finally decided to apply the 'lights' that characterize traditional icons.  The pure white is said to represent the final stage of creation's development: the ability to exude the pure, uncreated light of God.  In my last post, I applied the initial white lines, having been reassured that it really is O.K. if it looks a little awkward.  I had been afraid that I would ruin or mar the work, but that fear proved unfounded.

But today's application of the "first float" was scarier still.

The first 'float' is the application of a very diluted, but otherwise intense pigment that is harmonious with, but different from, the underlying color.

Were my color choices 'harmonious?" I chose Iron Oxide Red to 'float' over St. Clement's violet robe.  I chose French Yellow Ochre to float over his green pallium.

Were they diluted enough? Or would I end up completely changing the tenor of the entire picture?

And what about the places that still didn't have any white highlights: the quarry, the ocean.  Was it time to start applying some white? Or would I totally ruin what I had done?

Only one way to find out . . . 

The float was perfect.  If anything, I may have slightly over-diluted the pigments, so that the overlay was very, very transparent and gentle.  And I like it.

The white lines in the ocean turned out thicker and cruder than I had hoped, even using a narrow brush...but somehow,  it still captured the anger and motion of the sea, and I am content.  When I add a float on the ocean, it may even appear more mysterious.

I chose a different brush to make tiny, tiny white lines on the Quarry, and couldn't believe how easily - and thin - those lines came with the right brush.

I have several more highlights and floats ahead.  I have a scroll to complete.  And I have yet to address the mosaic tiles that frame the Roman saint...and the more I look at the Icon, the more I feel I need to shy away from the red and white mosaic tiles I initially envisioned, and opt instead for earthy browns and off-white tilework...imperfect, earthy, somewhat stained. Something human and unenlightened.

Patience and trust are Good Things.  As is giving up the need to work towards immediate results.


13 October 2012

St. Clement - Post 15 - Highlights

 OK, a Big Kiss to Beverly Phelps (she knows who she is!)   We spent some Facebook time back and forth the last few days about the creative process, and my frustration with my progress.  And somehow, after our conversation, I just felt that everything was OK.  We lit the incense, mixed the egg tempera, and set out to see how St. Clement and the creative energies and I could work today.

Today's task was the hardest, and what I find the most difficult, and where I feel the most incompetent: Highlighting the near-complete Icon with 'light.' I had been fighting it, in part due to my own inability to 'get it right.'  In addition to Bev's reminders about creative work, I took comfort in these words, direct from Betsy Porter, an Iconographer I greatly admire, who trained at the Prosopon School of Iconography, a school I highly respect:

"When completed, the first highlight may look awkward and crude! Don't be discouraged; you're just roughing out the shape of the figure."

And with ego out of the way, and permission to do something awkward and crude, I began.

And with ego out of the way, I actually like how this is beginning to come together.

Many steps ahead...many floats and highlights to go.  But taking my time, and approaching this in the right spirit, we are progressing...


09 October 2012

St. Clement - Post 14 - Working through it.

 Apparently, I didn't sleep well last night.  My mind was racing: colors, techniques, the next icon to be tackled after this one was done....I got to work at 8:30, and by 11:30 I was exhausted, and by 1:30 I was home....whereupon I fell asleep and didn't get up until after 4:30 pm.  A bit of dinner...and back to painting.  

Today was also frustrating, but I accepted the frustrations.  I decided that perfection was not an option, that I would make errors, that I would have to 'wash' some misplaced brushstrokes away.  With my own incompetence finally accepted, I finally proceeded with a 'two-steps-forward, one-step back' approach.

Lines were strengthend, colors brightened, the halo completed.  Clement's eyes are complete, and his face is coming to life.  The anchors on his pallium finally look better than a child's effort.

I tried adding the white 'light' to the folds in his garment, and that was a disaster.  As I cleaned it up, I struggled with the whole white-highlight thing.

On the one hand, it is 'standard practice' in historic icons to complete the icon by showing the 'uncreated light of God" showing through the saints very being, through their clothing, through nature itself, and I have enevfr quite mastered the technique.

On the other hand, I'm not partuclarly seeing that that specific technique is required in this icon, and perhaps that is my struggle: trying to incorporate an element because "I'm supposed to" rather than because the creative impulses are leading me there.

Overall, I am pleased with where we are at.  We are further along than I thought we would be, and I like what I am seeing...especially now that St. Clement is looking back at me while I paint!


08 October 2012

St Clement 13 - Frustration!

There is an Iconographer's Prayer that goes, in part:

"Teach me to profit from my past mistakes
without falling into a gnawing doubt.
Teach me to anticipate the project without worry,
to imagine the work without despair
if it should turn out differently."

That was meant for today.

As I applied the next layers of paints, everything seemed to go 'other than according to plan."  Pigment colors were not as I expected when they dried.  Careless moves meant I dropped some flecks of pigments in places where I had not intended them.  Clement's pallium is not as brilliant as I had wanted it, the ocean is a lighter blue color than I wanted, and I haven't found the right combination of colors for this robe yet.

I even picked up the glass of water, in which I wash off my brushes, and took a sip when I had meant to reach for my coffee.

And yet, I think the transformation today has been positive overall....I include two picture to show the beginning and the end of this morning's session.

Much work ahead.

The Start and End of the Session:

07 October 2012

St. Clement - Post 12 - Opening the Icon

 “But the earth was unsightly and unfurnished, and darkness was over the deep, and the Spirit of God moved over the water” (Gen 1:2, Brenton LXX version)

And with that as the guiding principle, I opened the Icon today.

It took me as long to set up as to apply the pigments.

In my own way, I am a purist.  Gregorian chants were set up to play.  Roman sandalwood incense was lit. Italian wine – from Rome (Fontana Candida Frascati, if you are interested) – was mixed with egg yolk to form the tempera. Palm ashes and clamshell ashes were prepared (more on that below).  And I finally sat down to cover the icon in pigments.

The initial coat in an icon is not perfect – in fact, it is a bit messy and uneven – on purpose.  Creation of an icon mimics the creation story itself, and that means that the initial phase is one of chaos and darkness, as the Spirit of God hovers over the waters.     In replication of that process, the paints applied are the darkest ones to be used – darker than any of the items are envisioned.  The pigments are ‘floated’ on water above the icon, more than painted on the icon. 

I mixed dried pigments – struggling to get the desired color combinations – and watered them down with the egg-yolk and wine mixture, and began applying them to the appropriate areas. Of course, the part I thought would be the most difficult – the  olive-green ‘sankir’ color applied to the face and skin features of all icons – came the easiest, while the background color proved the most difficult.  Then, using a larger brush, I watered them down significantly, and pushed and prodded the pigments around as they ‘floated’ on the surface of the water being applied to the icon.  My fears that I would ‘lose’ the underlying picture proved unfounded, as the evaporating waters left a chaotic application of paints in a very thin, translucent layer over the lines.

In my first Icon of St. Columba, I was blessed to be able to use water from St. Columba’s well in Kells, Ireland, to add to the base coat.  With St. Clement, I also wanted to incorporate physical elements into the icon, and I chose two:

The base coat on St. Clement’s clothing is mixed with ashes made from palms that were used by the celebrant at a Palm Sunday mass at St. Clement’s Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (Thank you to the Rev’d Canon W. Gordon Reid, Rector of that parish, who sent me those palms).

The pigments forming the base coat of the ocean were mixed with powder grinded off of the Quahog shell (thanks to my partner, an aspiring jeweler) that I had used to burnish the halo (see my previous post).  It just seemed ‘right’ that the very piece of shell that represented the ‘burnishing’ (which I see as a sort of ‘testing’) of the human, earthly, red-clay halo to prepare it for the gold leaf, be incorporated into the ocean waters of the Icon.  It is there as a symbol of how the ‘trial by persecution and drowning’ experienced by Clement prepared him for an eternal Gold Crown.  It is even more significant to me because the shell came from the south shore of Long Island, and the St. Clement’s Church of my youth (“The Fisherman’s Church” in Baldwin Harbor) was located directly on these waters.

So now, we wait…wait for the base coat to dry completely, so I can begin the painstaking process of forming more perfect images out of the chaos.

06 October 2012

St. Clement - Post 11 - Red Clay and Gold Leaf

Yes, It's been over a year since my last post.  St. Clement has waited patiently in a drawer as my personal life took some tortuous turns, including packing up and moving, not once, but twice.  Our current apartment is perfect for us in many ways:  It is a big old house, subdivided into several units, and all of the neighbors are down-to-earth, friendly free-spirits.  I am now 15 minutes from work (rather than an hour), in a small New England Village, and the house overlooks the Deerfield River. I have an office that is now set up with room for painting, and a second-floor screened-in porch that runs the length of much of the apartment.

Something about the autumn wind, the warm days and cool nights, the changing leaf colors, the reflection of leaves in the river has gotten into the artsy element of our souls.  Our upstairs neighbor has decided to begin major painting projects (He likes BIG artwork: furniture stenciling, boats etc.) and his tools are sprawled across what little back yard we have before it falls down the bluff into the river.  My partner Danny has just been ├╝ber-productive mode, turning our porch into a jewelry studio and producing a series of necklaces from pieces of wave-scoured quahog shells we collected from our recent trip to Fire Island (a much-needed escape from a year of brutal changes in our lives).  And St. Clement is now out of the draw from which he has been patiently waiting to emerge.

When we moved to Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts in July of this year, I began investigating new church homes.   It only took one visit to St. John's Episcopal Church in the neighboring village of Ashfield to know that I was "home:" though it is a small country parish, they have icons on the wall.  They chant. They respect the liturgical elements of worship.  And so, this weekend found me renewing my work on this icon.

I spent a few hours refamiliarizing myself with the steps taken thus far, and re-reading, once again, Clement's letter to Corinth. And yesterday morning, I decided to take the next step: Clement's halo.

When I painted my icon of St. Columba, I simply painted the halo; with Clement, I decided to actually use Gold Leaf, which needs to be applied before any other painting. The symbolism, as in all aspects of iconography, is compelling.  The first step was to melt rabbit skin glue and mix it with a drop of honey and red clay to make a 'red clay bole' paste.  The red clay is the first layer in preparing the icon for gold leaf.  In the original Hebrew, the word 'adam has at least three meanings: the color red; the masculine form of the female 'adamah (ground, earth, soil); and Man.  Hence, the first Man, created from Earth in the creation story, is named Adam.

So do all holy men and women begin, like us, created, rising from the primordial womb of earth: red clay. Everything I read cautioned me about using exact proportions of glue and water and honey and clay sediment....and I still decided to use my intuition and let my feelings guide me.  

They served me well: the clay went on easily, and dried within an hour.

To remove the small bumps and smooth out the imperfections, I needed to 'burnish' the clay, using a 'burnishing tool' or perfectly smooth 'burnishing stone,' neither of which I had access to.

But Icons should be created using natural materials to the greatest extent possible...and we had precisely such perfect, natural, smooth materials to use for burnishing: a collection of perfectly smooth, ocean-pounded hardshell clams.  I smiled at the beauty of this possibility: St. Clement, martyred by being cast overboard into the sea and weighed down by an anchor, having his 'earthness' burnished and polished and readied for gilding by a product from the sea itself.  Yes, this was right.  And so, I burnished the surface with a shell, and it was good. :-)

Since Gold Leaf requires specific 'climate' conditions to adhere well, St. Clement took a brief sojourn into the refrigerator. Had I been more patient, I could have left him on the porch over night, which would have cooled the icon in the chilly evening autumn air.  That would have been better.  Oh well.

The Gold Leaf sheets were amazingly fragile and light.  Using wax paper, I 'stuck' the sheets of gold leaf to the wax paper, cut it into strips, and proceeded to apply the leaf to the Icon.

"And God formed the man of dust of the earth, and breathed upon his face the breath of life, and the man became a living soul"  (Gen 2:7, Brenton LXX)

I breathed on the cool clay, and the combination of moist breath and cool clay created the condition necessary for gilding. I places the wax paper-backed gold leaf strip on the clay halo, pressed down gently, and peeled off the wax paper.

The Gold Leaf remained.  I continued.  In time, the red, earthy clay was transformed into something golden and perfected.  As a symbol of the transformation of the base to the holy, it was a fascinating process.  

 Unhappy with a 'simple' halo, I finished by imprinting a slight double row of indentations around the exterior of the halo, some of which slightly revealed the underlying red clay, an effect I actually appreciated and embraced, as it spoke to the dual nature of man: physical and spiritual.

I am very happy to be back at this work.