modern saints

Creating an Icon of a Modern Saint

With the announcement of the beatification of John Paul II someone sent to me this icon of him in which Christ presents the world to him. Painting an icon of a well known figure raises a number of considerations for an artist. How should an icon painter represent a likeness, especially when the person is someone whose face is so commonly recognized from photography, which doesn’t conform to the iconographic form? When painting someone for whom there is already an established prototype in the tradition, such as Christ or the Apostles, the artist relies on that.

The two requirements for a holy image were set out by Theodore the Studite. He is the great Father of the East whose writing, perhaps even more than John of Damascus, closed the iconoclastic period in the 9th century. The first requirement is that the image bears the name of the person depicted; and the second is that it captures his or her ‘characteristics’. I have written in more detail about this here. When we talk about ‘characteristics’ in this context, we are referring  not so much to a photographic likeness, but rather to those key elements (which might include physical attributes) that characterize the person and contribute to his or her uniqueness as a person. So it would include, for example, the physical attribute of shaggy hair and beard of the prophet Isaias; but also the tongs and hot coal that touched his mouth before he prophesied for the first time.

When painting an icon of a modern figure for whom there no established iconographic prototype, the painter will have to judge what those characteristics are. Then he will have to decide how much of a ‘portrait’ it will be. I have seen some icons of figures such as St Therese of Lisieux in which a naturalistic photographic-portrait like face stares out from a painting in which everything is else iconographic. There is a clash of styles and is a blend of naturalism and iconography that doesn’t make sense to me.

In this example, the iconographer seems to have resisted this temptation and has created something that is consistent with his own iconographic style. In doing this he has sacrificed elements of a more conventional likeness. I think this is the better approach. Notice how similar the facial features of John Paul II are to those of Christ. I don’t know if this has been done consciously, or if it is just the iconographic style of the painter coming through naturally in both. Either way, to my mind the effect works. Christ is the Everyman, the model for all humanity, so it is right that all saints, especially, participate in his humanity. This is done without sacrificing the individuality of the John Paul II. We see….

I have a similar problem to grapple with as I continue to paint large scale works for the chapel at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts. In the next few months I will begin an image of St Thomas More himself. This issue here is not that his photographic image is well known, but that his naturalistic portrait is. The familiar painting by Hans Holbein the Younger, is the definitive face of Thomas More. As a portrait it is wonderful, but it is not right for an icon. At this stage, my intention, rather like the this artist, is to make sure that the name, the characteristics of man and the style are all preserved (in this case I will be attempting to work in a gothic style rather than iconographic). There is a line drawing study for a painting of the whole family that Holbein made. Given that iconography and the early gothic tends to describe form with line (in contrast, baroque and High Renaissance art describes form with tone) this maybe easier for me work from. We shall see!

Below I show a larger image of the icon above.