THE ICON PROJECT
Since 2014 Lichfield Cathedral has been working with the Bethlehem Icon Centre to produce a new addition to the rich spiritual and artistic heritage of the Cathedral. In 2016 students from the school came to Lichfield to write two Icons which can now be seen in the Nave of the Cathedral. The Icons take the Annunciation as their subject – the Archangel Gabriel on one pillar, and the Virgin Mary on the other. In 2018 students from the Bethlehem Icon Centre will return to Lichfield to begin writing a third Icon, this time of the Crucifixion which will be suspended from the vaulted ceiling in The Crossing.
Icons are liturgical objects, not simply pieces of art. They are integral to worship and to the prayers of the worshipping community. Their location inside the Cathedral was chosen because it would enhance the dignity of the altar, and be visible to worshippers during the celebration of the Eucharist and other services, as well as clearly visible to visitors to the Cathedral.
Icons are not representations of an event lost in history – the Lichfield Annunciation is a present day encounter with the Mother of God and Archangel Gabriel. The Icons invite us to meet them, and to have faith. It is not about making us imagine the past but to encounter it directly. The style is deliberately non-photographic, so that it does not try to play to our imagination as we begin to think of what it must have been like then, or to imagine ourselves in the scene.
Making the Icons
For the Lichfield Annunciation, the two boards were made of tulip wood – 230cm x 72cm, and 36mm 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 the sketches which had been made in the studio back in Bethlehem.
After Armenian bole (a very smooth clay) had been applied to where the image was to be gilded, 23.5carot gold leaf was applied using a technique called ‘water gilding’. This required working from 9am 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 which 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 which 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 various moulded stamps, with sharp taps made by a hammer, which play with the light to create an added beauty. This followed the techniques of the late middle ages.
The paint was made by the students themselves. The medium was 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 at the same time 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 which nicely compliment the red sandstone of the Nave walls. The original design of the Cathedral was as a veritable riot of colour with the walls, ornamental details as well as the figures of saints all richly coloured. Some examples of the medieval paintings still exist, and give some sense of how what we now experience as quite sombre and dark is very far from what the original architects intended.
The Lichfield Annunciation can be viewed now.