Aidan Hart

Can You Paint a Holy Icon of Someone Not Yet Canonized? The Answer is Yes!

Can You Paint a Holy Icon of Someone Not Yet Canonized? The Answer is Yes!

The painting of the image is part of the natural process of growing devotion that always occurs prior to canonization. This is the process by which we collectively and organically recognize the sanctity of someone. The official canonization comes after this and does not make someone a saint, it merely accepts what is already known.

Slash and No Burn - New Icon of Our Lady of Czestachova

Here is another new icon of a familiar image. reader David Woolf from Wales sent this to me and I will let him describe the process by which it was commissioned: 'I wanted a travelling icon, so it is a diptych - it goes with me wherever I travel. I have a great devotion to Our Lady of Czestochowa. Aidan Hart, the artist, asked did I want her painted as the icon is currently at Jasna Gora, like the familiar black Madonna or one based upon the Iveron Theotokos? The icon currently displayed at Jasna Gora was originally of the Iveron form, but alas has been renovated on several occasions - the oil paint [yes oil paint, DC] applied by the restorers has not bonded to the underlying egg tempera, hence the ‘artistic mess’ of the icon today. Therefore I asked Aidan to recreate the original Iveron form, however because the attacks on Our Lady’s right cheek (the slash marks) are part of this archetype’s history I asked that these be added to the commission - an idea to which he was happy to comply. Furthermore the border he has used is as on the current icon at Jasna Gorna but if often hidden under a rizza.'


New Mosaic, OId Technique

Mosaic-Christ-Cardiff-small1Here are some photo's of a new mosaic just installed in Wales, designed and made by Aidan Hart.  (H/t David Woolf) I have taken the them from his website, here. Aidan's photos give us a sense of how it was produced as well as the what the final product looks like. The church, St Martins is an Anglican church in Cardiff on a town street and the mosaic is on the exterior. I like this - we must not underestimate the power of beauty and the face of Christ especially to draw people in to God. I found a photo of the church before the mosaic was placed there on the internet, see below. I hope the congregation will not think it is undignified that it includes in the pawn shop nextdoor. I personally think that the juxtaposition of the mosaic and shop emphases how we must think about beauty reaching out and touching people in the everyday activities of life and competing with all the advertising and other imagery that is out there. The method that Aidan used, if I have understood him correctly, is the 'Ravenna' or 'double reverse' method that involves putting tracing the design onto a temporary wet 'putty 'base (a slow drying mortar or plaster) and then placing the tesserae into the putty so that the artist can see the design developing as it would be seen eventually. Then a piece of glued linen is stuck to what is now the open face. The mosaic is turned over (carefully) and the putty is removed. This leaves a reverse image stuck to the linen. So far, all of this work is done in the studio. Now the mosaic, is placed into the mortar in situ. This means that the linen is facing outwards and the tesserae are pushed into the wall. Once this has set, then the linen is removed and the side of the tesserae that is open to the air is cleaned and you have the final image.

I remember that when I was in Aidan's classes he always used to stress how valuable it was for painters to study mosaics if they wanted to discern what colours contributed to particular effects, for example, flesh colours. Sometimes when you study paintings it is difficult to discern exactly what combinations have produced the final colour because with paint one wash is placed over another and you only see the combination, but can't see what is below the surface and has contributed to that effect. With mosaic, however, tesserae of pure colour are used to created a pixelated image and the combined effect is created in the mind's eye. So for example, a green effect might be created by having no green tesserae at all, but rather by having alternately pure blue and pure yellow tesserae sitting next to each other. When I gain a general impression I will 'see' green, but when I examine particular areas closely enough to resolve individual tesserae, I will see only blue and yellow. As painter, I can look at this  and create that particular green in my icon by using a the same blue and yellow  but in alternate transparent washes.






Above: work in progress - putting the tesserae into the base putty


The reversed image stuck to the linen, with the base putty removed and before being placed into its final position on the church









Every Artist Should Read This Book

The Techniques of Icon and Wall Painting by Aidan Hart. This is the best art instruction book I know of. In my opinion it should be read and absorbed by all artists regardless of the medium and the tradition they are working in. It is available in the US from Holy Trinity Bookstore, and in the UK from publisher Gracewing's website, here. It has 480 pages, 450 illustrations and 130 drawings. It comes in hardback and costs 40GBP or $70. Aidan Hart does a wonderful job in explaining the methods of the media that he works in: egg tempera, fresco, secco and gilding, with great thoroughness and right through to varnishing and even photographic artwork for publicity shots. As an experienced practitioner and teacher he anticipates the difficulties and questions of the students at every turn. At every stage links what is done to the underlying principles of the tradition, and this opens the door to so much more.

First, once the parameters that define the tradition are well understood, it gives the student the flexibility to start creating original work without straying beyond its bounds. Hart takes us step by step through that process.

Second, for those working in other traditions it gives a deep understanding as to how form (ie style), choice of medium, compositional design, even the framing is affected by the invisible truths that the artist is seeking to communicate. The way I paint man is determined by anthropology – my understanding of what a man is. The reason that we can distinguish between different traditions, for example the gothic and the iconographic, is that each is seeking to emphasize different aspects of the anthropology. Understanding how the iconographic tradition is governed by these considerations will help artists in other traditions, for example the baroque, to see how the theology governs the form of their chosen tradition as well.

The first two considerations are what transforms an artistic style from pastiche into living tradition, that is capable of developing and responding to its time, without compromising its core principles.

Third, he gives a simple and easily understandable explanation of the different variations within the iconographic traditions, and unusually, includes the Western variants such as Celtic, Carolingian, Ottonian and Romanesque icons and explains just why they are iconographic.

Aside from this even much of what he is teaching at a technical level is of use to all painters: especially colour theory, harmonization of design, and the different attributes of using line and tone to articulate form. Although vital, drawing skill is not enough. Hart has as well a wonderful sense of composition and colour harmony and this book gives us great insights into how he does it. He shows us that as well as experience and good judgment, there are many guiding principles that the artist can make use of. For example, as well becoming lighter and darker, colours actually change in light in shade – a green might become bluer in shadow, rather than simply dark green. Aidan explains sytematically, colour by colour, how to adjust for light and dark so as to keep a coherent, unified image. In my opinion it is worth buying the book for his personal insights in this area alone.

All this is supplemented by over 400 pictures, which include not just complete pictures of paintings, but also many which focus on small details that what he describes in the text.

Aidan Hart is Orthodox, but he does not snipe at the Western Church (as sometimes happens with other Orthodox writers) and so Catholics can read and enjoy it without worry. That said there is one small note of caution: in accordance with St John of Damascus, he describes the icon as being ‘grace bearing’. Catholics should be aware that their own tradition can describe it slightly differently. In accordance with the 9th century Eastern Father St Theodore the Studite, it tends see the action of the icon as one that is analogous to a sacramental, ie, that seeing it makes us more susceptible to the action of grace, but it is not in itself a channel of grace. I discuss this more deeply in a previous article, here.

This book is recommended as reading for anyone interested in sacred art and will, I believe do much in the future to aid the development of sacred art in the Church. Well done Aidan Hart.

Book Teaching Icon Painting by Aidan Hart

It is with much excitement that I await the arrival of a new book on the theology, history and painting techniques of icon painting. I have just heard that this has now been published by Gracewing in the UK and he told me that as yet there is no US distributor. If anybody knows how I can get hold of a copy, let me know! You can see details on his website here.

Looking at the contents it is extremely thorough. It discusses the various styles of iconography, Eastern and Western. In painting techniques it describes, step by step with illustrations (there are 460 illustrations in its 450 pages) and covers both the membrane technique - where the form is modelled in monchrome and thin washes of colour are placed over before final modelling; and the 'proplasmos' technique, where the painter starts with dark layers of paint and moves to the highlights systematically. He covers egg tempera, fresco and secco. To have a book with so many illustrations of his work makes it worthy of consideration for that alone (it retails at 40GBP).Aidan is a superb teacher (the best I have come across) who in his classes who reduces things to underlying principles quickly and simply so equipping the student to do much to teach himself after he leaves. The reports I am getting from England of those who have seen it are that it is every bit as good as it promised to be.

As a faithful Orthodox Christian, Aidan has the prejudices against other, Catholic, artistic liturgical traditions and culture that one would expect. As with any book by Orthodox, Catholics should be ready for this, but in my experience, there is little that we should be worrying about in such a discussion of the iconographic tradition, and much to learn. Certainly I am going to find out how to get hold of a copy and will report as soon as do so.

Below you have some very rough step by step paintings of the membrane technique, in which there is an underpainting in monochrome and then transparent washes are applied over it - left to right, starting top left.


Diversity Within Iconography - An Artistic Pentecost, by Aidan Hart

This is written by icon painter Aidan Hart (my teacher who is based in England). When reading the following, the reader should be aware that the in the Orthodox Tradition the form of liturgical art is restricted to the iconographic (that which, as Aidan puts it below, aims to ‘manifest the world and saints transfigured’). So when he refers to liturgical art, he is equating it in his mind with iconographic art. Catholic liturgical art includes the iconographic tradition and so in principle, we can accept what Aidan has said about it here. However, Catholic liturgical art is not restricted to iconography. In his book, The Spirit of the Liturgy Benedict XVI states this and adds the two great Western traditions of the gothic and the baroque as authentic Western liturgical forms. These aim to reveal different aspects of the mankind and so are complementary to the iconographic form (as a recent article discusses).


"When faced with the craze for novelty in contemporary art it is too easy to stress the unchanging nature of the icon tradition. We even read in some books that the icon painter must paint according to strict canons, as though he or she were expected to paint by numbers. Where does the truth lie between freedom and conformity for the way icons are painted? Or any liturgical art is created?

The answer is found not in the style but in the subject and the recipients. At Pentecost the one Gospel was preached in many languages because the truth couldn't be bounded by any one culture. And people needed to receive the truth in a form that they could comprehend.

It is a fact that the icon tradition in all its healthiest periods - both East and West - has great variety within an identity of spirit and purpose. This is attested by the fact that we can usually date an icon to within thirty years by its style alone, and give its provenance with reasonable accuracy. Great diversity in unity is a fact in icon history rather than a proposition. Romanesque, Russian, Byzantine, Georgian, and early Roman art - to take just some examples - all manifest the same vision but using their distinct dialects.

But where does the mean lie between unspiritual innovation on the one hand and mere duplication on the other? Genuine variety in liturgical art occurs when the iconographer unites spiritual vision with artistic ability - energized with courage and the blessing of God. Vision without artistic ability produces pious daubs. Not every saint can paint icons. Although icons are more than art, but they are not less than art.

Ability without spiritual vision can produce one of two results.

If the iconographer limits him or herself to copying, then their works will certainly function liturgically but will lack spirit and authority.  Such icons will be a painting of a painting of the saint rather than a painting of the saint. They will be the equivalent of a portrait made from photographs rather than from live sittings. The Evangelist Matthew records that Jesus taught the people "as one having authority, and not as the scribes" (Matthew 9:29). It was because He knew the Father that Christ spoke with authority. Likewise the apostles. "We declare to you what we have seen and heard," wrote John (1 John 1:3). When iconographers paint from experience their works possess naturalness, freshness and boldness.

If on the other hand the painter is of a more adventurous bent and experiments but without spiritual vision, then their works will tell us more about themselves than the holy subject. Their paintings might be admirable for their daring but be more art than icon.

When an icon painter has vision plus ability but does not have the courage to do more than simply copy, it is to my mind a sad thing and it misrepresents God's nature. It is like the person in the parable who buried their talent. It was because they believed that the giver was " a hard man" that they were "afraid and went and hid the talent in the earth" (Matthew 25:24,25).  Such fearfulness suggests that God has made us machines rather than mysterious beings of great depth and variety, made in His image. Monotony of style in liturgical art also suggests that God Himself is somewhat finite, able to be expressed in just one style. It is a form of spiritual meanness.

Vision, ability and courage in equal abundance is a rare trinity. This being the case, perhaps devout and careful copying of masterpieces in the spirit of humility rather than fear is the best compromise. But this copying is just a stop gap. It should not be accepted as the definition and apogee of tradition, any more than the recitation of patristic texts can be asserted as the zenith of teaching ability.

Why discuss the style of religious art at all, we might ask? Surely it is the icon's holy subject matter that makes it a holy image rather than its style? This is true to some extent: "The honour given to the image passes over to the prototype" wrote St Basil the Great  (On the Holy Spirit 18.45).

But it is also true that the way a subject is depicted has great impact on the way we see the subject. There is a profane way of depicting sacred things, and a sacred way of depicting mundane things.

In the Orthodox Church, liturgical art aims to manifest the world and saints transfigured by the indwelling Holy Spirit, like Moses' bush that burned without being consumed [see introductory note, DC].

By its means as well as its subject matter, liturgical art can help us see the world with the eye of the spirit, and not merely with the physical senses. What St Paul wrote of his preaching can also be the aspiration of all liturgical artists:

"Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is from God, that we might understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who possess the Spirit" (1 Corinthians 2:12,13)." "

The images are all of the Annunciation. From top: by Aidan Hart; 12th century Russian; 12th century English from the St Albans Psalter; contemporary Neo-Coptic; early 14th century Byzantine; 12th century, Mt Sinai.

Painting an Icon of a Contemporary Saint, written by Aidan Hart

I wrote a piece a while ago about the creation of an icon of a contemporary saint. I learnt about this from directly from my teacher Aidan Hart. I can remember once when I was visiting him he had created just such and icon - of New Martyr Elizabeth: a member of the Russian royal family who was murdered by the Bolsheviks. I thought I would ask Aidan to describe how he created this icon. What follows is his reply. Note how he is very clear that he is not aiming for a photographic-like likeness, but rather an image that infuses her physical characteristics with those elements of the iconographic form that will reveal more fully the true person. Aidan wrote as follows:

Icons depict people who are full of the Holy Spirit. These saints are radiant with the same divine glory seen by Peter, James and John when Christ was transfigured. Icons therefore depict a world seen not only with the eyes of the body, but with the eye of the spirit. They show us not just as a bush, but a burning bush.

This presents a challenge for iconographers called upon to paint a contemporary saint of whom photographs exist. On the one hand these saints are unique human persons, and their icons need to include at least some of their unique attributes.

On the other hand, icon painters are not called to paint naturalistic portraits. They are concerned not only with what the physical eyes see but also with what the spirit sees - the indwelling presence of Christ.

How then does an iconographer create an icon of a contemporary saint? They cannot ignore the saint's physical likeness as revealed in their photographs, nor can they simply reproduce it. They need somehow to affirm both visible and invisible realities.

What I briefly describe below is my own approach to this challenge, illustrated by a particular icon of New Martyr Elizabeth that I was commissioned to design and paint. St Elizabeth was martyred in 1918, and many photographs of her were readily available.

1. First I prayed. Saints are alive and well in Christ, and can help the iconographer to represent them worthily.

2. I then re-read Elizabeth's life, making notes about salient features of her character. Of these I selected what seemed to be the chief three: compassion, suffering, and deep inner composure. These were what I had to express more than anything else. While writing can expand on details, an image must distil the essence.

3. Beside these characteristics I jotted down possible ways of their being expressed in the icon. I find that this is best done by brainstorming - some ideas will be kept, many discarded.

4. I then sought out photographs and chose one or two that best expressed the saint's life.

5. The design work then began. The small panel size of the commission suggested a half length work, a bust. In the final design Elizabeth's right hand is raised in a gesture of both prayer and witness (the word martyr means witness). The other hand holds a cross, symbol of martyrdom. Elizabeth founded a hospital, and for cleanliness sake devised a white monastic habit for her nuns who served in the hospital. I therefore combined elements of this white habit with the more traditional black of the Orthodox nun. I included Elizabeth's abbatial cross, keeping the chain the same design but making the cross a little smaller.

6. Using iconographic techniques, I adapted the folds of her garments to suggest a more spiritual quality. Curves were made more angular, and highlighting was created by layering three distinct tones rather than using naturalistic modelling and blending. The face is the highest revelation of personhood, so the icon tradition simplifies garments to prevent them drawing attention away from the face.

7. Photographs revealed that Important features of St Elizabeth's face were a somewhat angular outline, deep eyes, and sorrowful eyebrows. I tried to incorporate these into the final design of the face, especially the angular outline which is emphasized by the close fitting veil.

8. While accommodating her likeness I did however change some facial proportions to emphasize her inner spiritual state. Such abstractions are a feature of the icon tradition. The organs of expression - lips and gestures for example - tend to be made smaller or refined. Why? Saints are full of divine power, so their words and deeds are very potent: they need not say or do a lot for a lot to happen. I therefore made Elizabeth's lips less wide and less full than in nature, and kept her gestures and facial expressions calm, without exaggeration.

9. By contrast, the organs of reception - eyes, ears, nose - are enlarged or elongated in icons. This is to show that a saint is one who contemplates divine mysteries, hears the word of God and does it, and smells the fragrance of paradise. I therefore emphasized St. Elizabeth's eyes and made her nose a bit narrower than life, which gives the effect of elongating it.

10. Our eyes give light - "the eye is the lamp of the soul" said Christ. But our eyes are also a window into our soul, the mouth of a cave with mysterious depths. Consequently the white of the eye is rarely white In icons. Its base is a dark shadow tone, which is then partially overlaid with a brown-grey made of raw umber and a little white. These deep tones evoke the mysterious depths of the human person, made in God's image. On top of these dark tones are painted two small crescents of nearly pure white. This white is the light of grace which shines out of the saint.

The icon is completed with the halo - a symbol of the indwelling Holy Spirit common to all saints - and the saint's name, a sacrament of the saint's uniqueness.

Aidan Hart is based in Shropshire in England and his website is He is an excellent teacher (which is why I kept on going back to him) and he is just putting the finishing touches to a book about the techniques of icon painting in egg tempera, fresco and secco, to be published later this year.

Aidan Hart's Icons in Fresco

When I was in my early thirties (quite late to be making these decisions) I made an earnest decision to try to learn icon painting. I telephoned the only icon painter I knew, someone whom I had met once about five years earlier. Since I had met him, Br Aidan had spent a number of years on Mt Athos and on returning to England had founded a hermitage, that of SS Anthony and Cuthbert in Shropshire, England. I asked him to teach me icon painting. It was interesting that in response he was interested in my reasons for wishing to paint, rather than my natural ability. He asked me first why I was interested in icons. I had converted to Catholicism just a couple of years earlier and I explained that I wanted to learn to paint to serve the Church. Then (and I can’t remember precisely how he phrased the next question) he asked me what, if anything was possible, I would like to do with my art. I told him that I wanted to be able to paint something like the Sistine Chapel that really gave glory to God on a grand scale. He didn’t laugh (which is what I was half expecting). I remember him saying, ‘This sounds good.’ Then he paused and said: ‘I’m frescoing the chapel at the hermitage at the moment. Would you like to come and stay with me and help me?’ This was extraordinarily generous of him. So off I went to stay with him for a week and this was my introduction to frescoing. I was shown how to mix the plaster, how to apply it, and then how to paint onto the partially hardened plaster. He had built a wooden container about 2ft square and 2” deep to contain an area of plaster. As an exercise, I painted on this a copy of a Minoan fresco from Crete. After this introduction to the medium, I assisted him with the chapel itself, mostly lifting and grunt work. The most valuable lesion was watching Aidan doing the painting. Aidan was much better at painting than me, but also, as a result of being a hard-working hermit and farmer, he was also in much better shape than me. My recollection is that I was not particularly helpful and did most of the grunting, while he did most of the lifting. Nevertheless, by the end of the week he did allow me to assist in some minor detailing on the chapel wall and painted some faux drapery. He had a tiny chapel, perhaps 15ft square, which he frescoed from floor to ceiling. The iconostasis separated a sanctuary about 4ft wide from the body of the chapel. Once it was finished, to see a church painted from floor to ceiling took the breath away. Fresco is a medium that is not seen very often today. A summary of the method can be seen on Aidan’s website here, along with more of his work. There are some considerations that ought to be considered. First, the pigment is painted onto wet plaster which can be worked on for about a day after application. This means that there is always visible join between one day’s work and the next. The easiest way to stop this being too much of a distraction is to consider how much you can do in a day and allow the plaster line to coincide with a line in the final composition. It also means that in order to cover large areas (even those areas in this chapel would be very large paintings if put onto panel or canvas) the artist needs to be able to work expertly and fast. Aidan is both expert and fast, but even it is noticeable that he rations the time-consuming modeled areas to those that really need it, the faces. In the areas of drapery, for example, he relies far more on flat colour and line to describe form than he would in for example, his panel icons. This is fine for icon painting, which relies on line strongly to describe form. In more naturalistic styles, the ability to summarise form into simple shapes of tone with minimal blending is necessary to cover at speed those areas that are not the primary focus of interest. This is immensely difficult. This is why one can never cease marvel at the skill of, for example, Michelangelo or Raphael in their work in the Vatican. Also, deep shadow is difficult to portray in fresco. In this respect it is rather like egg tempera. Dark colours are possible, as we can see in Aidan's work, but they tend to look flat, rather like soot sitting on the surface, rather than creating an illusion of deep space in the way that a transparent glaze of dark oil paint does. This is not a problem for the iconographic form which deliberately seeks to destroy the illusion of space. It also makes it very good for decorative or patterned work which relies on flat areas of colour and tone that contrast with each other. In those forms that rely on deep shadow, the problem is more difficult. The naturalistic painters particularly those working in the styles of the High Renaissance and the baroque had to adapt by learning to work in a higher register of colour as effectively a half of the spectrum of tone is denied to them. This involves great skill. I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the work of Tiepolo, which has a distinctive light, airy feel. The high register colours he uses in his oil paintings look to me like oil versions of those that you see in fresco. Tiepolo was an expert in both media. I cannot prove this, but it has occurred to me that perhaps the restrictions placed by fresco open up the route to the developments he made in his oils. All the frescoes shown are by Aidan Hart at