Bookmark and Share

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Writing an Icon - an unusual art

I was reading in our free Parish Magazine that one of the nuns from our local monastery has been commissioned to write an icon for the local church. Of course it is a painting, but the terminology for producing a religious icon is to "write" it. I wondered why the word "writing" was used, so I did a little investigation.

An icon (from the Greek eikon - an image) is like a picture, but is not supposed to be an actual representation of the person, more like a window into our understanding of the qualities that the saint or holy person represents, and a window into our own soul and relationship with God. An icon can be compared to a carefully constructed poem. Every element, like a word in a poem, fits very concisely and precisely to add to the overall meaning and harmony of the whole.

Each icon is supposed to be unique and written with a prayerful attitude, requiring many hours of painstaking work, including contemplating the symbolism of that particular saint.

"It's very important to be at peace with yourself and with the world around you. Writing an icon is a form of prayer. Each brushstroke is like a form of meditation. You have to have that inner peace. Otherwise, you can't do it." Maria Leontovitsh Manley, icon painter.

Not all icons are portraits, although this is the most common form. Above - a 12th Century Icon showing monks ascending a ladder to a welcoming Jesus. Note the devils trying to pull them off!

Nothing artificial is used in the production of an icon, which is usually painted on a wood panel that represents the Tree of Life or the Tree of Knowledge, and sometimes it is called an ark to recall the Ark of the Covenant.

The board is covered with linen cloth which represents the shroud of Jesus and then the whole thing is painted with gesso and egg tempera in the required design. On the right is the earliest known icon of Christ from the 6th century.

Colour plays an important role in the design. Red represents divine life, and blue human life, whilst white is the pure essence of God, only used in resurrection and transmigration scenes. If you look at icons of Jesus and Mary, often Jesus wears red undergarments with a blue outer (God become human) and Mary wears a blue undergarment with a red overgarment (human granted holy gift by God).

Often elaborate gilding is used, made from real 24 carat gold leaf. Gold, which does not tarnish is supposed to represent the Holy Spirit, or breath of life, because you have to breathe on the fine gold leaf to get it to settle into the glue before it can be burnished to a high shine.

There is a specific order to writing the icon: from the most general space (background) to the most specific (the face).

In an  interview with iconographer Marek Csarnecki he says:

"There is a pragmatic reason for painting the face last. Although the face is the most important part of the icon, every detail in the icon is part of the transfigured reality, and has to receive the same level of focus and attention. Experience has shown me that if I start with the face, I obsessively work on it to the detriment of the rest of the icon, and it loses its overall harmony or wholeness and develops lopsided.
It’s best to work from the outside to the inside, giving every aspect of the work its due. Painting the face first is like having dessert before dinner. You might lose your appetite for the rest of the meal."

I had no idea icons were so complex, or that they had such a rich history and tradition. I am looking forward to seeing what Sister Mary Stella writes for our local church. Apparently her icon will be of Saint Oswald and St Aidan (The patron saint of the local church and St Aidan has links to the North of England.) 
Pictures are from wikipedia commons.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Unputdownable - The Courtesan's Lover by Gabrielle Kimm

The Courtesan's Lover is exactly the sort of book to keep you occupied over Christmas as you sip mulled wine before a cosy fire. In fact I would liken it to mulled wine - rich, deep and satisfying!

Set in a beautifully realised Renaissance Italy, it tells the story of Francesca Felizzi, a wealthy courtesan, who decides to 'go straight.' The first section of the book shows us her life as a courtesan - the glamour and the potential danger are neatly interwoven. For the book to work this part has to be believable and the author spends some time setting this up, so we understand just what a courtesan's life would have been like, right down to how a citrus fruit is used as a contraceptive device!.The setting of Napoli is impeccably researched; the nitty-gritty of Francesca's business is described frankly, but there is nothing here that would shock the average reader.

Once Francesca falls in love, the rest of the book is concerned with how her former clients interact with each other, and how each past encounter now poses a danger to the one true relationship in her life. The reader is kept on tenterhooks wondering which of her lovers will betray her. There are plenty of colourful characters, not least her servant Modesto, a eunuch, whose plight is both touching and sad. There can be few books that examine the tragedy of these young boys whose voices were preserved by the worst kind of intervention.

There is plenty of danger to add spice to this romance.
We fear for Francesca's life when she entertains the sadistic Michele - the client from hell, and fear for her daughters at the hands of the irrational Carlo, her lover's son. Gabrielle Kimm racks up the tension and the pace so it builds nicely to its conclusion.

The Courtesan's Lover is a well-written pageturner, a good old fashioned story with action, romance and a sumptuous setting. Very highly recommended.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

The UK Historical Writers Association Dinner

How much noise do fifty writers make when they are gathered together for dinner? The answer is - it's deafening! It could be that we are desperate to speak after staring at our computer screens and notepads in our solitary imaginary worlds, or it could be that historical fiction writers are just loud, but lip-reading skills would have certainly been a bonus!

On the way in to The Westbourne I got chatting with Cassandra Clark, who then introduced me to more people. It was hard to read everyone's name-badges, without missing chunks of the conversation, but over drinks we spoke of agents good and bad, of promotional postcards, and booksignings, and the fact that some plots never seem to go where we want them to go. In short, lovely to share experiences and know that others are travelling the same path.

When we finally say down to dinner and people were eating, the noise abated enough for us to have a proper conversation. I was seated at one of the smaller tables along with what I shall call the "Roman cohort". I found out some interesting facts about roman armour from Lindsay Powell - that it was chain mail, or individually made, not always the plate armour we see in films, and as an added bonus he filled us in on not-so-ancient American politics.

Also on my table was Ben Kane, who not only writes best-sellers but seems to be a great organiser,as it was he who had master-minded the evening. Ruth Downie was opposite me, all the way from Devon, and it was interesting to hear that she has the same trouble with slaves in her books as I have with servants and chaperones. We have to get rid of them if we want a scene to be between just two people, and then bring them back whenever the character needs to go anywhere.

Gabrielle Kimm was next to me and we already know each other from a long while back when we were both short-listed for the same prize. (Neither of us won, but it made us friends.) I had her latest book with me to persuade her to sign it for me, and on the way home I finished reading it, so a review is coming soon.

What was going on at the other tables I have no idea, but looking over my
shoulder it seemed everyone was engrossed in conversation with somebody. Thanks to Stella for her warm welcome. It was lovely to meet all those writers. And thanks to everyone I met for a great evening. At the top are the books of the folks I met, if you are looking for a Christmas present for someone, why not choose one of these....

Find out more about the Association: