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What does an artist do?

Whenever people ask me what I do, their next question after I say that I am an artist is invariably to find out what kind of art. Telling people whose faith position is not necessarily known to me that I paint religious icons is always an interesting moment, but at least I have a clear sense within my own journey of what it means to be an iconographer. I have begun this new year with two icon commissions to complete - one of St Peter (with his links to my former diocese, Peterborough) and the second, an icon of the episode in Christ's life when he is offered hospitality at the home of Martha and Mary. This second icon is particularly interesting, given that there are very few pre-existing icons of this scene. I am working on a new design and the challenge is most enjoyable, drawing on traditional principles and yet creating something new. It's definitely a case of "watch this space"!


This kind of creativity isn't always immediately obvious when painting icons. Iconographers are invited to work within the tradition, which has its rules and approach to theology built in. Since the schism between the Eastern and Western Churches in the eleventh century, the iconographic tradition has been preserved more within the Eastern Orthodox Church than in the West, with the consequence that many of these principles reflect Orthodox understandings of the faith. For the Orthodox, icons are a central part of the liturgy and their design and content often bear a direct correlation to the words that are said and sung in Orthodox worship, especially when it comes to feast days of the Church. Consequently, as I am journeying on this path as an iconographer, one of the questions I am pondering is this: what difference does it make that I am an iconographer within the Anglican tradition? Certainly, it meant that I did not hesitate to accept the commission to paint Christ with Mary and Martha, notwithstanding that this isn't a "traditional" icon. How should theological differences be reflected in the way icons are designed?


Against this background, the last few months have caused me to reflect even further. What does it mean to be a "sacred artist"? If God has placed it in my heart to use artistic creativity to communicate the Gospel of Christ, what am I to say and how?



In practice, my reflections on different themes within theology in a more contemporary style have continued for longer than I have painted icons. This triptych of Mary was painted in 2011-12 as we journeyed through that Church year, and it still brings me joy as I acknowledge our passing from image one to two this coming weekend. More recently, however, I have had a sense that the power of image to communicate the Gospel requires me to take greater risks, both artistically and prophetically, in what I offer as an artist within God's church. Increasingly, when I feel the call to speak out, to express a view on an issue, it is an image that is given. I don't think we should be surprised in this. Our society is increasingly image-driven, where logos and icons (of a different kind) are seen all around us. Even a single colour can evoke a memory or association with a particular brand. I recall when, during my career as a lawyer, the proposals for a new logo for our firm were rejected at first because the particular shade of orange reminded people too much of Sainsbury's! The short attention span of a world where soundbites and limited character messages are de rigueur may not engage with a fifteen minute sermon or a 2,000 word article. Yet, it may just stop for a moment and ponder an image that catches its attention.


So it was, in the aftermath of the 7 October actions of Hamas in Gaza, that I felt an image form within me. Like many of us, I was reading news reports of untold suffering by so many in that place - Jews, Christians, Muslims - men, women and children. I was reminded that these three world religions are held together in Islamic tradition by the phrase "the people of the Book", recognising that all three revere the same Old Testament (or Hebrew Scriptures), albeit with different emphases. And I was reading how Jewish claims to the land given by God in the Hebrew Scriptures were now being used to justify the infliction of suffering and death, when those same Scriptures exhort God's people to protect the stranger, the orphan, and the widow. Above all, the sixth commandment declares: "Thou shalt not kill". I am no expert in the history, politics or religious background of this region. Nonetheless, I knew that to call myself a "sacred artist" and being a priest, gave me a vocation to say something, even as my heart cried out "Lord, have mercy". I was warned that saying anything publicly (even in visual form) could attract unwanted social media trolling. Yet the image within me wouldn't go away. So I set about trying to create what I could already see.


If you follow my Facebook page, you will already have seen the finished piece, and I promised more of an explanation here. The artwork is centred on a young child, crying at the death of his brother in Gaza. Within the background is an evocation of rubble, with the sixth commandment written in Hebrew. The image of the child was created by tearing up the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 5, to be precise - I had been gifted an old, dilapidated Bible for use in my art). The work doesn't have the refinement of an icon; I am seeking actively to broaden and develop my skills in the practical aspects of making, which I know I need. Yet I know that, for me, I managed to express something of what has been within me these past months. So perhaps - rather than me writing more about it now - just spend a few moments to reflect for yourself on how the image speaks to you...





The Sixth (mixed media on watercolour paper, 2024)


Prayer for peace in Israel and Gaza

Heavenly Father, we pray for the many people whose lives have been torn apart by conflict in Israel and Gaza.

We pray especially those who have died, those who are grieving, the injured and those now without food, shelter or medical supplies. Strengthen and support the work of all relief organisations.

We pray also for those who have the power to bring peace. May they be touched by a spirit of compassion and kindness.

Lord hear us as we pray in the power of your Spirit, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen.

(prayer from Winchester Cathedral website)



NEWS...


As well as my artistic commissions, I am excited by the opportunities to speak and teach about icons. I shall be in Cambridge this weekend to preach at Evensong for one of the colleges; and in the Nadder Valley Benefice (Diocese of Salisbury) to speak at one of their Lent events.


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.


Two of my icons will also be included for sale in the exhibition "Made in Peterborough", to be held in Peterborough Cathedral from 7-29 February 2024.


I am also pleased to say that my icon cards are now on sale at Gloucester Cathedral shop.


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