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Into the light

After reflecting last month on the coming darkness of winter and the spiritual parallels with the "dark night of the soul", I write now at the threshold of my favourite season of the year. Woe betide anyone who challenges me to enter into the Christmas spirit too early. I shall not be in town this weekend for the switching on of the festive lights. Our tree will go up only as Christmas Eve approaches; only then will carols be heard in our home. Until that time, I plan to immerse myself in the quiet yet purposeful waiting that is Advent. There are so many traditions to embrace at this time of year. By all means get your Advent calendar ready; I also have a playlist of music to which I listen only during Advent; I have chosen the book that will be my focus for Advent study; and already I feel impatient to set up my Advent candles in the studio. With the promise of colder days upon us, warmer clothing being called into action, I sense within my being that deep anticipation that something is about to happen. As the seasonal words of Morning Prayer have it:

Behold, I am doing a new thing: Now it springs forth; do you not perceive it? (Isaiah 43:9)

Advent is, in every sense, about anticiation of what is to come. Of course, it is about "counting the days to Christmas" as we taught our little ones. Yet it is also about that cosmic anticipation of when God's kingdom will come to its triumphal conclusion: the end times, the last Judgment. Its liturgical colour is the same as for Lent, calling us to a time of self-reflection, taking stock of our relationship with the Divine and our readiness (or otherwise) to receive the Christ within our very being. Advent invites us to look for the ultimate victory of the light of the Divine over the darkness of our own and our world's brokeness. The most beautiful liturgy that is the Advent Procession will see our places of worship transformed in the darkness by the light of myriad candles. That's why, for me, it is the candles of my Advent wreath that hold so much meaning. Week by week, the light grows stronger as successive candles are lit and we are assured once again that Christ, our true light, is coming into the world:

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:5)

As an iconographer and sacred artist, light is at the very heart of what I do. The successful completion of an icon is, in so many respects, about capturing light, representing in visual form how the uncreated light of the Divine shone through the life of the particular saint. When we gaze upon an icon, it is often the light that we notice most. Our eyes are instinctively drawn towards the brightest highlights, both on the face and garments. Those flashes of light would look really peculiar were they applied without proper regard to the shadows and to the numerous tonal layers before them. Yet somehow, it is so often those smallest, final gestures of light that bring the saint to life.

Highlights on the garment of St Columba

However, there is something even more fundamental when we speak of light in relation to painting an icon. I am trained in the Byzantine tradition of iconography, which puts great emphasis on the translucency of the colour applied, allowing light to pass through successive layers of pigment. The icon board, coated with white gesso through a traditional process, is itself a source of light. The translucency of the colours thus allows light to bounce from the environment and be reflected from the board beneath, back through the layers of paint. We are thus given an impression of light coming from within the face of the saint. Taken together with the application of gold to reflect the light of God's glory, and the fact that icons are designed to be lit by the flickering light of a candle, icons can become in some way sacraments of the Divine light.

This past week, I have completed my most recent icon of the Mother of God. Towards the end of each day, as light has been fading, the completed icon has remained on my easel under artificial light. It is waiting for a new home.I feel immensely privileged to have been able to complete it. I have taken time in prayer, looking across the room in the growing darkness, captivated by the way the icon seems to glow. I have tried numerous ways of capturing in a photograph something of the light that it reflects but somehow, I cannot. My only option is simply to be in that moment, opening my senses to what the Divine is saying.

And that says something to me about the season of Advent. In the growing anticipation of our waiting, our senses our heightened to all that is around us. We wait; we watch; we see; we sense. In the glow of a single candle shining in the darkness, we can become witness to Divine beauty, a reality so entirely other that it is beyond words; it cannot be captured. We can only gaze upon it, be silenced and allow our heart to be captured by it.

You shine your light into my darkened soul (St Symeon the New Theologian)

I shall be taking a break over Christmas so this will be my last blog post of the year. Whatever the festive season holds for you, may you know the blessing of Christ's presence with you. But before we rush ahead of ourselves, I wish you all a Blessed Advent.


I spent a delightful day at Launde Abbey at the beginning of the month, leading a quiet day to celebrate All Saints' Day. It brought real joy to be back in that place and to celebrate the Eucharist for the first time since I left my parish. If you or your community might be interested in me giving a talk or leading a quiet day around icons, art and theology, please do get in touch.

My most recent icon of "Mary, Mystical Rose" (image above, size 15 x 18 cm) is now available for sale at £575. Readers of this blog post are getting the first opportunity to purchase, with the icon going onto my website at a later date.

I continue to offer a range of icon cards for sale, either direct from me or from a growing number of outlets, most recently in the Launde Abbey shop. More details are on my website (click here).

Plus, I've recently received two exciting commissions to see me into the New Year, so watch out for more on my progress with those on my social media. If you are interested in commissioning an icon, please do get in touch. Icons start from £170 and would be ready after Easter.

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