Friday, February 04, 2011

Creating an Icon of a Modern Saint

Creating an icon of someone whose face is very familiar in another form, such as a photograph or a naturalistic portrait, creates difficulties for an icon painter (just as it would for somebody working in the gothic style). When painting someone for whom there is already an established prototype in the tradition, such as Christ or the Apostles, the artist simply conforms to the prototype. But what would one do when painting an icon of a modern figure? The image has to be recognizable as the person portrayed, but at the same time is must conform to the stylistic principles of the iconographic tradition.

I have seen some icons of figures whose faces are well known through photography, such as St Therese of Lisieux and Mother Teresa of Calcutta, in which a naturalistic photographic-like portrait stares out from a painting in which everything is else iconographic. The result in the examples that I saw was a clash of styles - naturalism and iconography- rather than a blend.

I have a similar problem to grapple with as I continue to paint large scale works for the chapel at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts. In the next few months, I will begin an image of St Thomas More himself. This issue here is not that his photographic image is well known, but that his naturalistic portrait is. The familiar painting by Hans Holbein the Younger is the definitive face of Thomas More. As a portrait it is wonderful, but it is not right for an icon or the gothic style (which is what I hope to do).

The first step, I feel is to establish just what the principles that we need to work with are. The two requirements for a holy image were set out by Theodore the Studite. (Theodore is the great Father of the East whose writing, perhaps even more than that of John of Damascus, closed the iconoclastic period in the 9th century.) The first requirement is that the image bears the name of the person depicted; and the second is that it captures his or her ‘characteristics’. I have written in more detail about this here. When we talk about ‘characteristics’ in this context, we are referring not so much to a photographic likeness, but rather to those key elements (which might include physical attributes) that characterize the person and contribute to his or her uniqueness as a person. So it would include, for example, the physical attribute of shaggy hair and beard of the prophet Isaias; but also the tongs and hot coal that touched his mouth before he prophesied for the first time. In the context of this discussion, therefore, it means that a portrait-like likeness is not necessary in order for it to be a holy image.

When painting an icon of a modern figure for whom there no established iconographic prototype, the painter and those who commission the work will have to make the judgment as to what those characteristics are. Part of this decision-making process will focus on deciding how much of a conventional ‘portrait’ it will be.

For the purposes of this discussion, consider the example shown below of John Paul II (if you wish to comment, please remember that this is not an article about the validity of the cause for the beatification of JPII). The iconographer has sacrificed elements of a more conventional likeness in order to create something that is consistent with his own iconographic style. I think this is a better approach. Notice how similar the facial features of John Paul II are to those of Christ. I don’t know if this has been done consciously, or if it is just the iconographic style of the painter coming through naturally in each case. Either way, to my mind the effect works. Christ is the Everyman, the model for all humanity, so it is right that saints especially are portrayed in some way participating in the model of humanity that he gives us. All sacred art is a balance of the general and the particular. We relate to those elements that are common to all of us, and so the artist must reflect them.

To come back to St Thomas More, at this stage, my intention, rather like this artist, is to make sure that the name, the characteristics of man, and the style are all preserved. There is a line drawing study for a painting of the whole family that Holbein made. Given that iconography and early gothic art tends to describe form with a line this may be easier for me to work from. (In contrast, baroque and High Renaissance art describes form with tonal contrast.) I am hoping that the line drawing will be the framework onto which I can 'hang' the form which is something other than the naturalistic. We shall see!

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