On Wednesday, 25th October 2017, I had the privilege of meeting icon painter, Ekaterina Vandromme, who introduced me to inspiring new materials and techniques: traditional egg tempera and natural pigment, gold leaf and gesso boards. What an illuminating experience it was, to be informed about the processes involved in icon painting – from fasting and contemplation to the unique spiritual elements of the painting process itself.
There are three traditional styles associated with this art form: Byzantine, Russian and Romanesque icon traditions. Vandromme has worked in all three styles although it appears that the Russian tradition is often her more favoured form, with its vivid colours and intricate detail. Besides working in iconography she has also had a hand in creating wall frescos as well as producing beautiful Russian calligraphy for the Russian Orthodox Church dome. Her works vary from vibrantly hued saints to intricate and delicate interpretations of biblical scenes. Everything has a fine and iridescent quality to it. There is a definite sense of joy in her work and of course patience.
In my own work I have recently been exploring the sublime through digital light and the almost tangible light aura of sacred spaces. I have been trying to replicate these moments of light intrusion through art prints and installation. Part of this exploration inevitably lead to an interest in the majestic Gothic and Byzantine churches, the stained glass and the rose window, the icons and the mosaics. But it is the gold leaf and its reflective nature that has always held a particular fascination for me as it radiates light and its reflective surface can be burnished and embossed to great effect. The halos of the saints appear to vibrate with light because of this medium. The gold details of these works seem to shimmer in the dimly lit naves of these medieval buildings; and so I was delighted to see first-hand, a demonstration by Vandromme of the application of gold leaf; its fragility equally as remarkable as its use in icon painting to surround and illumine the subject.
However, let us also not forget the sheer versatility of egg tempera as a medium as well, and the range of natural pigment available. During the painting process Vandromme informed me of the important combination of contemplation, prayer and fasting alongside the technical aspect of painting, so that each icon is imbued with the spirit of God and prayerfulness. The icons are essentially ‘cared for’ by the painter and each and every step from border to paint layers has a spiritual significance. These paintings are not meant to be life-like for that would be an idol, they are meant to depict the stories and people of the bible who hold spiritual significance. It is their spiritual essence that the painter is after so that when viewed they may convey a sense of spiritual guidance or instruction. Therefore, iconography is not about realism or idolatry. In fact, it may be closer to the colour and abstraction theories of artists like Kandinsky than we think, in its spiritual dimension and colour symbolism. But unlike abstraction produced through chance or automation, this work has a set formula and although each painters’ work will be unique, the subject will have been copied from past icons and then etched into the gesso (unless of course a modern saint or martyr is introduced). Therefore it is less about rendering the subject than it is about presenting a replicated symbolic image through which, the divine presence associated with it can be accessed or acknowledged. The iconographer is meant to convey the ‘light’ of the creator in their work. This is the essence of the form – divine beauty. Vandromme explained it as painting layers that must create ‘a diamond of light’ in the final stage of highlights. The technique reflects God’s process of creation, working from a dark void to light and eventually the creation of man.
But what of the role of the viewer in this form of art? The viewer is not meant to be a bystander or passive spectator but a participant in the act of religious contemplation and presence. This interaction between icon and viewer is inescapable and not reliant on the viewers’ religious beliefs although a deeper faith would mean a deeper use of this ‘visual tool’ in contemplation of the divine. There is a process of ‘purification’ invoked through such a contemplation of the icon and what it represents. Thus both artist and viewer are in a process of divine communication and purification which makes this art form so unique and fascinating.