My old herniated disc injury from 2007 flared up once again 5 days ago, thanks in part to a familiar problem of an inadequate ceiling height. The culprit of the injury was the very large icon of the Holy Family for St. Andrew's Cathedral in Victoria BC. The icon is 84"x 60" and weighed 95 lbs. My studio's ceiling height was 96". The wall easel that I constructed allowed me to have the icon at a bit of an angle to help clear the ceiling, but with it being 12" off the floor, I'll leave it to your imagination as to the contortions required to paint anything at the bottom - hence the repetitive strain on the spine. In addition to the icon's weight, I then had to construct its crate, which weighed an additional 100 lbs, and did the assembling and packing in my dining room (in Winnipeg at the time). So it didn't come as a huge surprise that the day after sending out the icon, I was brought to the hospital and then became a prisoner of my sofa for days and days. The old injury is OK for the most part, but every now then, it reminds me that it is still there.
It was also a reminder that the background information on this icon pre-dates my Journal (Blog) entries which only began a few years ago. I felt like that I should correct that ASAP. There are many of my icons which, after so many years, still seem to be 'undiscovered'.
Background to the icon design itself:
When asked to write an icon of the Holy Family, the one reference icon provided had a number of theological questions to it, in trying to present a loving family unit. The immediate problem was the natural depiction of ‘embrace’ in which St. Joseph held Mary by placing his hand on her right shoulder and Mary leaning her head on him; while both embraced Jesus as a young infant, with their hands enveloping in front of Him.
Although the intent of portraying an exemplary loving family, it is after all, depicting a non-typical family. With the depicted intimacy between Joseph and Mary, it posed possible questions that could add to speculation around the Blessed Virgin Mary within the area of natural intimate relationships between spouses. The theology of an icon, and this one in particular, is to present the Holy Family as a close unit, but keeping the clarity of the Holy Family within the Revelation of the Incarnation.
Unlike orthodox icons which often keep Joseph completely separate from Mary and Jesus and portraying him as an elderly man, I have always tried to find a balance in keeping Joseph closely connected and yet with a sense of separation. Therefore, he physically does not touch either Mary or Jesus, but is yet very close to them and clearly part of the ‘family’. In this icon, again unlike orthodox icons which depicted Joseph as an elderly man, he is portrayed more in his middle age, because the ‘separateness’ is already established. His glance is more afar to accent his role as protector and making reference of his visions.
Mary’s head is kept bowed but now refers to Her tenderness to her family and to redirect the viewer’s eyes to Jesus who stands in front of Her. Her right hand also has a protective stance, and again, is directing to Her Son.
Jesus is portrayed as older, more of the age of when He was lost at the Temple and aware of His Father’s Will. He is the priority of the icon, open and not shielded as in other icons. This is truer to the purpose of the Incarnation and family that protected and supported Him in His development for His public life and ministry. Jesus holds a scroll representing the Word of God becoming Flesh.
Again, unlike regular spouses starting a family, both Mary and Joseph were aware of the extraordinary circumstances and events, which they humbly accepted and that, even before Jesus’ birth, had a sense of their unique roles within this Incarnation and being part of something so much larger then themselves.
The colours maintain traditional colours for Mary and Joseph, colours of the earth on their outer garment and the heavenly blue for their inner tunics. Joseph’s colour was lightened and adjusted to better connect him to the colours for Mary and Jesus. Jesus’ tunic has the iconographer’s signature patterns, symbolizing the Trinity.
The icon is 84” X 60” and covered with 24K Gold.
And then the physical work began
June 8, 2007
The first hurdle was assuring that an icon panel of this size would be structurally sound and survive the changing interior west coast conditions. I made the request of a highly valued carpenter who I was working with at the time. He was exceptional in theatre scenery construction. Because of the size of the panel exceeding the size of the highest grade plywood being used, I needed him to allow for at least a 6" overlapping seam between the two joined pieces. The addition of the raised framing along the front, in addition to the standard construction of an icon, it also provided additional structural stability.
I also had to build a form of easel that could lean against my studio wall.
June 11, 2007
With the size of this icon, working in a studio with a standard 8 ft ceiling would present challenges. The panel was the largest size it could be given the restrictions of my work space and its ceiling height. Nor could my studio space accommodate the messy preparation phase of the board. It required that I spread out into my Dining Room and Living room (being one big open space).
After preparing the saw horses and plastic, the daunting task of adhering the muslin was next! The work had to be done quickly as the gel medium dries fast and once started, there is no stopping or pausing. I had to work fast while work out all air pockets before the muslin was set, and minimize medium from falling on the floor. I also needed to work the muslin into the inside edges of the framing and along the outer sides; all without any wrinkles. It is a high cardiac activity time.
With the relief of the muslin being successfully applied, it was time to do the nine coats of gesso, with sanding after every 3rd coat. Straightforward enough BUT there was gesso dust everywhere, in every nook and cranny of the Living room, Dining Room, and Kitchen! What a mess to clean up.
June 12, 2007:
Keeping the gessoed panel on its saw horses, I then prepared the design on vellum paper taped to the wall of my studio, first drawing my standard grid pattern on it first. Once that was done, and corrections made, I then added vellum to the surface of the panel, drawing the same grid onto it, and then begin enlarging the image to scale. I prefer transferring the design onto vellum as lead pencil adheres to gesso and impossible to erase should corrections need to be made. It also gives me a pattern for future reference if needed.
Before moving the panel, I decided to work in some base colours while I had easier access to the full surface.
July 28, 2007:
Once the initial levels shading and lights have been established, it is time to apply the Red Bole to all surfaces that will be covered with be gold leaf. It is also essential to get rid of white surfaces as it affects the appearance of colours.
August 3, 2007:
Before the finishing touches are done, the 24K Patent Gold was applied. After the gilding is done, and inscriptions and halos in place, I can seal the gold. Once the gold is protected, I careful restore any edges and borders which may have been affected during the sanding and prep for the gold.
August 16, 2007:
The icon is completed.
And then came the Crating construction & Packing