Tuesday, 27 November 2018

The Crucifixion icon
completes a triptych
of Bethlehem icons
in Lichfield Cathedral

The icon of ‘Christ Crucified, Risen and Lord of All’ hanging above the nave altar in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

While I was in Lichfield Cathedral last week [23 November 2018], I took time to look at the wonderful new icon of ‘Christ Crucified, Risen and Lord of All.’

The icon hangs at the east end of the nave, suspended from the roof above the nave altar, and was dedicated by Bishop Michael Ipgrave of Lichfield two months ago on the Feast of the Holy Cross [14 September 2018].

In his pastoral letter last month [October 2018], Bishop Ipgrave writes, ‘I was particularly interested to learn about the arrangements for securing it in the ceiling, as I was the first person to stand under it as I presided at the Eucharist; I need have had no fears!’

Palestinian icon writers and students from Bethlehem worked on this icon, which completes a triptych of icons in the cathedral. This third icon was planned as the cathedral’s lasting memorial to the centenary of the end of World War I and an invitation for all to appreciate the path through sin, violence and destructiveness that Christ has taken to redeem our evil and win us the everlasting peace and life of God’s Kingdom.

The icon measures 3 metres x 2.55 metres and takes its inspiration from the shape of the Saint Chad Cross. The only adaptation is the lengthening and broadening of the central panels.

The cross depicts the dying and rising of Christ, the paschal mystery, with two faces. On the west-facing panel, we see Christ nailed to a cross. The cross is blossoming, symbolising the new beginning Christ’s death wins for the world. From his side, water and blood flow, streams of new life. We think of the water of re-birth in baptism and the blood of his body brought to us by the wine of the Eucharist.

The east-facing panel depicts the Risen Christ, his face serene, one hand raised in blessing, the other holding the Gospels, the good news he sends out into the world through the Holy Spirit.

Work on the icon began in July. A special studio compound was set up in the south transept of the cathedral. Ian Knowles, Principal of the Bethlehem Icon School, brought with him a group of students from Palestine and two of the school’s tutors.

The careful painting, gilding and lettering took 10 weeks to complete and the icon was consecrated on 14 September, the feast of the exaltation of the Holy Cross.

The Dean of Lichfield, the Very Revd Adrian Dorber, has said: ‘I want this new icon to be a message, a message of hope and creativity, a message that says here at Lichfield Cathedral you can explore deep things in life, you are welcome, irrespective of your background or beliefs.’

The Dean first fell in love with the sacred art or icon writing during a sabbatical in the Holy Land in 2012. There he was struck by the sight of nuns regularly saying Friday prayers in front of the icon called Our Lady Who Brings Down Walls painted on the Israeli-built wall that divides Jerusalem from Bethlehem. His questions led him to the Bethlehem Icon School and it quickly became been a passion of his to bring the school to Lichfield to create something new for the city and beyond.

Dean Adrian has explained: ‘I want this new icon to be a message: a message of hope and creativity: a message that says here at Lichfield Cathedral, you can explore deep things in life, and you are always welcome, irrespective of your background or beliefs.’

The icon of Archangel Gabriel is based on the Lichfield Angel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Two years ago [2016], students from the Bethlehem Icon School came to Lichfield to complete the Lichfield Annunciation, two icons of the Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary. The three Palestinians – Nicola Juha, Noura Sleibi and Loris Matar – worked with the director of the school, Ian Knowles, to produce a pair of icons 270 cm x 72 cm depicting the scene of the Annunciation.

The icon of Archangel Gabriel is based on the Lichfield Angel, a limestone carving discovered during excavation work under the Cathedral floor in 2003.

In the paired icon, the Virgin Mary is seated on an elevated throne weaving a cloth that would become the veil of the Holy of the Holies in the Temple. A red curtain stands behind her in the doorway of her house, evoking the veil of the Temple. In this icon, the curtain is drawn back to indicate that the Lord is entering in, making the womb of the Virgin Mary his dwelling place, making her the Mother of God.

The icon includes patterns that are indigenous to Palestinian culture. The colourful rug on which the feet of Virgin Mary rest is decorated with Palestinian motifs that are particular to the Bethlehem area.

After seven intensive weeks of preparing the boards and writing the icons, they were installed in Lichfield Cathedral, with the Dean presiding at the Eucharist and giving his blessing.

The Virgin Mary is depicted seated on an elevated throne weaving a cloth that would become the veil of the Holy of the Holies in the Temple (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The location of these icons in the cathedral nave has been chosen to enhance the dignity of the altar, to be visible to worshippers during celebrations of the Eucharist and other services, and to be clearly visible to visitors.

For the Lichfield Annunciation, two boards were made of tulip wood – 230 cm x 72 cm, and 36 mm thick – with European oak braces. On these, a layer of cotton cloth was attached using animal skin glue, to which was then applied multiple thin layers of a gesso solution made of chalk dust and animal skin glue. This was sanded and then polished, before the design was transferred from sketches made in the studio in Bethlehem.

After Armenian bole, a very smooth clay, had been applied to where the image was to be gilded, 23.5 carat gold leaf was applied using a technique called ‘water gilding’. This required working from 9 am until past midnight, for the finest results to be achieved. This was burnished in various ways to give a variety of textures and finishes, all of which reflect light.

Gold is used in the icons not to suggest wealth but because it has unique qualities that show a radiant darkness, as though the light is captured and then thrown out again. In an icon this symbolises the presence of God, who is both known – the brightness of reflected light, and unknown – the darkness that gold holds in dark browns and greens. The halos were then embossed, the angel’s with rays and the Virgin’s with delicate, radiant patterns. These were created using a rounded stylus and moulded stamps, with sharp taps made by a hammer, that play with the light to create an added beauty. All this follows the techniques of late mediaeval icon writers.

The students themselves made the paint. They used egg tempera, the yolk of free-range eggs extracted, diluted slightly with water and a little vodka added as a preservative and to help make mixing with the mineral pigments easier. They used a limited palette of colours, all made from natural sources. Natural pigments are more mellow than synthetic ones, and the location of the icons in a vast edifice of rich coloured sandstone and stained glass would have clashed with more garish synthetic hues.

To create a visual harmony and balance, while enabling the colours to ‘sing,’ they kept the palette simple and took particular note of the colours found in the stained-glass windows – in particular the rich yellows from the windows in the Lady Chapel and the greens from the windows in the Nave that nicely complement the red sandstone of the nave walls.

The Bethlehem Icon School was founded in 2010, with a mission to create an environment where Palestinian Christians could meet and reconnect with their centuries-old Christian art. In a city where high unemployment and restricted movement to neighbouring holy sites had become the norm, BIC is working to instil collaborative work ethics, renew spirituality and produce skilled iconographers.

The model for the new Crucifixion Icon, seen on the Nave Altar earlier this year (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

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