It’s Advent as I write and timely to reflect on some of the foundation work for the Festal Nativity Icon which I worked on in the third and final year of the diploma course (2013-16) with Aidan Hart. I know that this is a silly-busy time of year for many of us but you don’t have to read it now – it’s here for later!
Before I get started, I also want to say that the British Association of Iconographers have an online exhibition ‘Icons Emerging from Lockdown 2021’ sharing the work of over 46 icon painters. The work is worth leaving this page right away and having a look!
Back to the Nativity icon – In this post, I want to look at the starting point of the icon – looking at the choices and decisions behind the composition.
We were invited to work on a festal icon of our choice and to design a new composition which emphasised a particular aspect of the feast. I chose the Nativity – with the theme of praise and thanksgiving so beautifully expressed here in the Festal Menaion – Nativity Vespers:
We were encouraged to study good examples of our chosen festal icon referring to frescos and manuscripts. At first, the variety of prototypes felt overwhelming (just google ‘orthodox nativity icon‘) but I have a particular love of manuscripts and one in particular spoke to me with its beautiful simplicity – the Armenian Nativity by Toros Roslin, painted in the 13th century, so much so that I painted a reproduction on vellum (blog post here).
In October 2015, we made a course field trip to Thessaloniki to explore some of the beautiful icons and frescos that reach back into antiquity. In particular I loved the frescos of St Nicholas Orphanos Church (14thC), including this one of the Nativity. You can get a flavour of this trip in my post here.
Looking at the layout of the Orphanos fresco, light from heaven is directed vertically to the Christ Child, centrally placed in the heart of the cave where high contrast and curved lines frame the Blessed Virgin. Your eye is then led gently down and around to take in all the surrounding figures and back to centre.
The most perplexing aspect of the composition for me was settling on a layout of the Virgin and Child which are diverse as you can see from a few examples below. I felt that it was unusual for a mother to turn away from her child, let alone this one!
I made a start on the cartoon – sketching out the overall composition on a large sheet of cartridge paper cut to the size of my gessoed panel (53 x 42cm). To help keep things fluid at this stage, I made separate sketches of each cluster of figures which I was able to photocopy, cut out and move around. I had also been working on the figures and colours in a workbook (you can see some examples here).
It was important to align the composition with our chosen theme and to allow the viewer’s eye to flow and pause in a rhythmical and meaningful way around the icon. You can see on this example, I had shown the Virgin looking towards her infant being bathed by the midwives – I wasn’t entirely happy with this but this was the exploration stage.
Looking back at my notes I have found some helpful comments from Aidan and Sr Petra Clare:
- The mountains are not responding to the light of the star – move them to turn towards the light of the star and so they curve to contain the angels.
- The length of the Virgin’s legs not quite right, the knee to heel should be the same on both legs.
- Archangel Gabriel too high up the mountain and right wing not quite right.
- Adjust the shepherd cluster to flow directionally towards the Virgin and Child
- Magi better in a linear format to direct the eye back up the icon to the star.
- Finally, Aidan reminded me that ‘the star represents heaven so it needs to be joined up to some form of half circle to show a connection between heaven and earth through the incarnation. A star in the sky by itself doesn’t convey this connection so well.’
It was somewhere during this exploration stage that I came across the translucently beautiful work of the Romanian master iconographer Gabriel Toma Chituc. This detail from his Nativity icon was an answered prayer for me as it expressed so eloquently the union of heaven and earth, Mary placed vertically and the Christ Child horizontal with the light of the star reaching into the cave.
For the ancient Greeks, the cave symbolised the convergence point of divine or cosmic energies and was considered a sacred point where the soul could enter earth and subsequently leave and return to earth.
I will close here for now showing the cartoon transferred on to the panel, using red ochre rubbed on to the back of the traced paper image and setting the lines with a dilute mix of red ochre tempera. If you would like to see the finished icon, you can see it here.
As always, thanks for reading and wishing you a peaceful and blessed Advent.