Friday, November 12, 2010

Heart to Heart

I have been commissioned to paint two Sacred Heart images and each time it raised some interesting questions in relation to tradition. One relates to the style in which one ought to paint the image, given that this is a relatively recent devotion – is it legitimate to use an iconographic style which predates the devotion, for example? The second is in regard to how the light emanating from the image of the heart itself should be portrayed, should it be tongues of light or a halo for example? A recent visitor to Thomas More College recently asked me about both these points. Fr Seraphim was very knowledgeable and had well thought out views on each issue, so it forced me to sit down and think again about the reasons for doing what I had done in each case, and to reflect on whether I had made the right choices, especially in the consideration of applying a halo to the heart. This week I will describe the story of each commission, so that readers can get a feel for how these dialogues run. Next week I will present the arguments as I see them surrounding these two concerns.

The first was for the Maryvale Institute, in Birmingham, England, which as well as being an internationally known Catholic college is the national shrine of the Sacred Heart. They have a beautiful little side chapel, below, separate from the main chapel. The central focus of the side- chapel is a stained glass window, above, which was imported from Rome at the beginning of the 19th century, and is the oldest image of the Sacred Heart in the UK. I was asked to paint an image of the Sacred Heart based upon this window to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the founding of the college. Since its founding like any educational institution seeking to be orthodox, it has had to counter efforts to undermine what it is doing and Fr Paul Watson, the president of the college, explained to me that they felt sure that much of their success could be attributed to the protection of Christ through devotion to his Sacred Heart.

I was asked to paint an icon based upon the window. In discussion, it became apparent that any image that conformed to the iconographic prototype would not retain the distinctive qualities of the window, which is in the baroque style. What I aimed for, therefore, is more gothic than iconographic – a naturalized iconographic form. The pose is obviously taken from the window. Deviating from Western naturalism, there is no cast shadow, and it is painted in egg tempera, so has the flat look of the medium. Also, I painted a conventional halo around his head. To his heart I applied radiating, monstrance-like, tongues of light (the form of which was also taken from the window).

The abstract design around the border is taken from the window. It is not usual to incorporate such designs into Eastern icons. However in the West, in all forms of art including the iconographic, there is a strong tradition of abstract art and especially that which uses flowing graceful lines. The fleur-de-lis incorporates the lily, the symbol of purity and, by virtue of its threefold design the Trinity. The red and yellow design incorporates vine leaves, the symbol of wine the Eucharist. The blue-green design, which forms the arms of the cross give a sense of a flower coming into bud. Within the root there is a triangle and the within the bud a pentagonal design. Five symbolizes living creation (and in this context, I thought, man). I do not know the intentions of window maker, but I interpreted the combination as a symbol of the Incarnation, God is made man.

It was presented to the college at the Silver Jubilee Mass celebrated by the then Archbishop of Birmingham, now Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, a supportive patron of the college during his time at Birmingham.

The second is at Thomas More College in New Hampshire. Like the Maryvale Institute, it was asserting its Catholic identity and fidelity to the Magisterium. Shortly after I arrived, under two years ago, I was struck one day by the words of the psalmist in None: ‘Vain is the builder’s toil, if the house is not the Lord’s building; vainly the guard keeps watch, if the city has not the Lord for its guardian.’{ Ps 126(127)}. Recalling also, my experience at the Maryvale Institute, I immediately suggested to President William Fahey that we have an image of the Sacred Heart for our chapel too. It seems he had been thinking along similar lines for he told me that in fact his intention was, starting that Fall, to dedicate the college each year to the care of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. This has been done twice now.

This time I chose to create an image in a more iconographic style. Clearly, this is not part of the iconographic tradition, so I based the pose on the Pantocrator, blessing Christ. Again, I used egg tempera painted onto a gessoed panel as the medium. As this is a Western devotion and I am a Roman Catholic, I incorporated some Romanesque (ie Western) features by having the geometric patterned border and also, putting a geometric pattern into the background around the figure. This time I painted halos around both the head and the heart of Christ.

Part II next week.

Above: the Maryvale Sacred Heart; and below, the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts Sacred Heart

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