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All that glitters...

This blog post comes a little later than usual, as I have been taking a winter break at the end of February to find some warmth. While we were away in Mexico, we were able to learn something about the Mayan culture and there may well be a blog post in my reflections on the trip at some point. But for now, I'm going to focus this month's pondering on something that plays a key role in my practice as an iconographer - GOLD. In some respects, it was the use of gold that initially drew me into the tradition of icons nearly 20 years ago and I still spend perhaps more time and energy practising techniques for gilding than for any other aspect of my work. So it was that when I was invited recently to preach at St Catharine's College, Cambridge, in their sermon series 'Around the Bible in eight objects', I chose to consider gold and its place in Scripture in more detail. For this month's blog, therefore, I am sharing the text of my sermon...

Readings: Genesis 1.1-9 and Revelation 21.14-26

From the myths of King Midas and the medieval alchemists to Spandau Ballet, gold has captivated humankind’s imagination throughout history. It is no surprise, then, that it features widely across the Biblical texts, with their variety of genres, cultures and writers. As an iconographer, I work with gold regularly and when the Reverend Ally invited me to preach in this sermon series “Around the Bible in eight objects”, gold was my obvious choice. I imagine if I asked you when gold is mentioned in the Bible, the story of the magi visiting the infant Jesus would likely come to mind. The three gifts – gold, frankincense and myrhh - pre-figured Christ’s ministry and death, gold the sign of his kingship. Indeed, of the 547 mentions of gold in the Bible, a significant number are used similarly – to describe someone’s wealth, importance or royal status. As Abraham is first introduced, we are told simply: “Abram was very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold.” The arrival of the Queen of Sheba brought a large retinue with “very much gold and precious stones”. Then as now, a certain amount of bling was expected of someone rich or famous! Choosing the readings for this evening, however, I took a certain satisfaction instead in selecting Bible verses from the very beginning, through to the very end.

That the streets of heaven are paved with gold is the matter of common folklore as much as it is written into the book of Revelation. The classic hymn, Jerusalem the Golden, relies on this idea of the holy Jerusalem (that is, the eternal city of heaven, and in no way the modern-day metropolis) the holy Jerusalem shining in its gilded glory. And of course, humanity’s choice of gold as appropriate to our eternal journey is not confined to Christianity. Just think of exhibitions of Egyptian artefacts from pre-Christian times, for example. Pharaohs and others were sent on their journey beyond death in golden sarcophagi containing the most ornate objects goldsmiths and jewellers of the time could produce.

Of course, as we heard in the second lesson, it is not just that gold paving slabs are de rigueur in the after-life; all of heaven is adorned with precious stones, an abundance of riches that suffuses St John’s vision of God’s eternal kingdom. As in many other places where gold is mentioned in the Bible, gold is used, not just to designate kingship, but to expand our imaginations. Gold is also used, for example, in the construction of the Tabernacle housing the presence of God, with detailed provisions in Exodus for the making of numerous holy objects, altar vessels, garments woven with golden thread. Its use goes beyond simply the offering of our riches to Yahweh. Here are references to something that so exudes extravagance and opulence, that it draws us out of our earthly experience of the every day. If God’s presence is here on earth, if we are to glimpse God’s heavenly kingdom this side of the veil, gold evokes that potential for transcendence in all our earthly worship. We are invited into a holy space that, in its abundant use of gold, is designed to transport us into what must have seemed, certainly to our ancestors, like another world.

It was that sense of Otherness that first drew me to the use of gold in my work. I was studying theology and like many students, became tired of all the words – so many words - describing theological principles and faith. I attempted instead to represent visually the concepts with which I was dealing. But how do you represent God, when we have no intellectual means to conceptualise or visualise what we cannot, by definition, comprehend? My response was instinctive – as an artist I use colour pigments ground from earths and stones to represent all that is earthly. I needed then something fundamentally different to represent the Divine. Gold is not a colour. It is not a pigment. It’s a simple truth: gold is a metal, an element; in this context, its substantive otherness helped me to represent the spiritual realms, both in my works of visual theology and, later, in traditional icons.

Working regularly with gold reminds me of an important lesson in my own relationship with God. Getting goldleaf out from the little paper book in which it comes, cutting it, picking it up, placing it, polishing it – every stage requires skill, practice and some other, more elusive beneficence. It is common to find iconographers speaking openly about the favour of the “gilding gods”. We are talking about 8 cm squares of almost pure gold, 0.12 microns thick; that’s approximately one sixth of a human hair, 1000 atoms. You can’t touch it lest it disintegrate with the slightest oil on your fingers; breathe at the wrong moment and it’s half way across the room. As my gilding tutor once put it: this gold has been formed deep within the earth over millions of years; don’t imagine for a second that you can be in charge of it. Instead, the art of gilding is about developing a deep respect for the material, seeking to understand how it behaves, and then aligning your practice to it. Gilding requires an inner stillness, a submission to the process, more than any other aspect of iconography. Likewise, we are called to follow the ways of the Divine and not to re-create God to our own designs. (Go back to the Bible and the account of the Golden Calf for more on that subject!)

An icon is thus designed to reflect that Divine otherness; the gold represents God’s richness as the icon becomes for those who pray before it a window, “transparent as glass”, into God’s eternal kingdom. So finally, let’s turn to our first reading, which, you may have noticed, does not mention gold at all. Yet it is here we understand most clearly why icons use gold. Have you ever wondered what actually happened when, as this creation myth has it, God said: “let there be light”? Day 1, there was light. Yet we have to wait until day 4 for the creation of the sun and moon. Cosmologists may have one or more explanations. A theological explanation is that from day 1, there existed the uncreated light of God. Even before sunlight separated day from night, there was light emanating from the Divine essence. It is this uncreated Divine light that supports our use of gold in icons, and indeed the whole approach to painting an icon.

By contrast, if we look for a moment at Artemisia Gentileschi’s self-portrait as St Catharine reproduced behind me. It is not an icon, not because of the absence of gold, but more crucially, in its treatment of light. We can look upon St Catharine and know exactly from where the light is coming – we do not need to see a window or a lighted candle within the frame; the deep shadows tell us. In most works of fine art, at least those dependent on an element of realism, the direction of the light is key. This is not true with an icon, which has no harsh shadows; the light comes from within the whole image. My aim as an iconographer is thus to communicate the uncreated light of the Divine, the light of God that filled the saint’s life and now suffuses their image depicted, that light which existed at the dawn of creation. At the end of a long day, after all the time spent gilding, and once the painting is finished, there is nothing quite like catching a glimpse of an icon in my studio in the failing light, seeing the golden glow as if emanating from it. That moment invites me into stillness every time, and invites you, as we pause to reflect:

Gold in its richness, its rarity and contra-distinction to the colours of this world, reminds us of earthbound humanity, and invites us into the presence of the holy Other.

Gold in its purity reminds us of the call to each of us to purify our hearts, to show complete obedience, to offer our undivided selves in worship to the Divine.

Gold in its longevity, its refusal to submit to creation or control by humankind, reminds us of the servant heart and calls us to humility.

Gold in its reflectivity, no light of its own, inviting each of us, despite our weakness, to bask in the glory of the uncreated light of the Divine that was since the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end.


Chapel of St Catharine's College, Cambridge


Returning from my holiday, there is plenty to keep me busy. I am just completing an icon of St Peter in time for Holy Week (all being well!), with two further commissions lined up. If you are interested in commissioning an icon, I am currently accepting commissions for completion in the autumn; prices begin at £170. Do get in touch to discuss an icon or other artwork that is on your heart.

I shall be in the Nadder Valley Benefice (Diocese of Salisbury) to speak at one of their Lent events later this month. I shall also be leading a "Praying with Icons" three-day retreat at Launde Abbey in August. You can find more details and booking by clicking here. Spaces are limited so if you are interested, do book ahead of time.

I am also pleased to say that my icon of St John the Baptist is currently out on loan and can be seen at St John the Baptist Church in Cirencester. I have agreed to supply two further outlets with my icon cards: the Iona Community shop, as well as the Pilgrim Shop in Walsingham and online here.

My next monthly blog post will be just after Easter, so I take this opportunity to wish you every blessing as we journey together with our Lord to Jerusalem over the next few weeks and welcome afresh the Light of Christ.

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Ally Barrett
Ally Barrett

So good to read this sermon again!

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