relief carving

Carved and Coloured Icons - Beautiful but Why Bother to Carve Them?

There have been a number of articles published recently, following a show in Moscow, of carved icons of a Russian couple Rashid and Inessa Azbuhanov (their website is here and h/t Deacon Paul Iacono of the Fra Angelico Institute for bring these to my attention). These are exquisite works and are of interest to me particularly because I have to admit I have never seen anything quite like them. I am told that they are re-establishing the tradition of carved icons. These portray form through a combination of color and relief and in this sense are a halfway house between pure relief carving, which uses shadow to describe form; and the painted icon that we are used to. This presentation of course would be easily used for Western styles and I can see it very quickly adapted gothic style imagery and for the Western variants of the iconographic tradition, such as the Celtic. I would love to see some Catholic artists somewhere taking up the idea. This does raise the question in my mind (playing devils advocate here, as to why they bother? Is there any need for such a medium? I don't think that we should do something just for the sake of being different; but on the other hand should there be a compelling reason for in order to justify it? Isn't this just gilding the lily, so to speak? I think that the answer is that provided the image is beautiful and works within the limits that define the tradition, then the greater the variety the better. Each tradition must contain within it the principles that allow the creation of new works, even new variants on the style, so that artists speak afresh to each new generation. Any tradition that relies only on reworking or reproduction of the past will dies. It seems to me that it would be like asking why, given the idea that we have trees in the natural world, did God create so many varieties? For me, it is the fact that so many varieties, beyond counting, can exist and participate in unique ways the same order that makes all things beautiful and direct us to the Creator. If this is so, then it does mean that we should be open to new materials and media as much as a variety of traditional ones, so that would include, for example artificial pigments as much as natural ones (other things being equal). This latter point, incidentally, is not a new one in his book on architecture from the 1st century AD the Roman architect Vitruvius has a section devoted to a comparison of the relative merits of natural and artificial pigments! So here are some images: St Michael the Archangel, Kazan Mother of God, St John the Forerunner (the Baptist).

Icon. Kazan Mother of God

Icon.  Kazan Mother of God

Icon. John the Baptist

Icon.  John the Baptist


The Suffering and Death of Christ in 15th Century Relief Carving

Following on from last week's relief carvings of the Entry in Jerusalem, here are some images relating to the Passion: two Western 15th century relief carvings appropriate for Easter - the crucifixion and a deposition; and late gothic painting of a deposition.

The carvings are English in a gothic style (where there was no Renaissance). They are carved in alabaster which was quarried in Nottinghamshire. What is interesting is that when painting in the same century, the Flemish artist Rogier Van Der Weyden painted his figures as though they were occupying a foot-wide space projecting out to plane of the painting. Employing, very clearly, a far greater degree of naturalism than the English sculptors did, he nevertheless painted a backdrop so as to eliminate the chance of the illusion of too great a depth.

All of this helps to ensure that there is a balance between adherence to natural appearances, which communicates visual realities; and stylization through some departure from strict naturalism, which lends a symbolic quality to the image and communicates invisible realities. Keeping the image to a space that doesn't deviate far from the plane of the painting and restricting the illusion of depth communicates the presence of the heavenly dimension, which is outside space (and time).





Two Relief Carvings of the Entry into Jerusalem

Here are some images selected, at least initially, with Palm Sunday in mind. They have three things in common: they are of the same subject - the Entry into Jerusalem; they are both relief carvings; and they are both by Lorenzo Ghiberti. Ghiberti, who worked in the first half of the 15th century, is famous for creating the bronze doors of the Baptistry in Florence. The first is wood polychrome, that is painted wood, and the second is from the north doors of the Baptistry, cast into bronze.

Relief carving commonly seen in the sacred art of the Eastern church (I have written about this here). Its limited three-dimensionality ensures a flatness that suits the intention of the iconographic style to portray the heavenly realm, which is outside time and space. I would love to see artists from the Roman Church following the example of their Eastern brethren and producing relief carvings in Western forms. The most obvious place to start would be to develop the Western iconographic forms, such as the Romanesque as there are close parallels with what the East has done. However there is relief carving in more naturalistic forms too. Ghiberti worked in the period when the Renaissance and the gothic overlapped and to my eye, the polychrome reminds me of a gothic carving, while the bronze relief seems to have aspects of a classical naturalism that points forward the masters of a hundred years later.

The reason that relief carving might be effective today is that the strange world that it occupies, which sits somewhere between two and three dimensions always seems to lend to the image a symbolic quality. This would help to counter the great disease of modern naturalistic styles, which is sentimentality. All Christian art, no matter what style, involves a balance between naturalistic appearances and idealism (or stylisation) which communicates invisible truths (Pius XII talked of a balance of 'realism' and 'symbolism', in Mediator Dei). The tendency of artists today is to swing to the extremes. Those who wish to paint or sculpt naturalistically tend to forget the symbolic content; and I am suggested that relief carving would push them into including it.







A Carved Gospel Book Cover by Jonathan Pageau and Andrew Gould

Here is a gospel book cover. The relief carving in the central portion is by Jonathan Pageau a Canadian based in Quebec and the striking veneer frame is made by Andrew Gould who is based in South Carolina. Both are part of a group of liturgical artistans who call themselves New World Byzantine Studios. For the icon painters amongst you, they make gessoed icon boards with raised borders as well

Andrew told me that the inspiration for the marquetry work came from both Christian and Islamic sources. I am interested especially in his reference to the crossover between the Christian and the Islamic in geometric pattern. We have seen it before in articles about Romanesque Sicily for example. Here, Andrew describes how he based his designs on Greek designs from the 17th century (when occupied by Turks) and also modern Islamic designs from north Africa. He wrote as follows:

"My design for the gospel cover has two sources. In the 12th-13th centuries, it was common for the western church to set an old Byzantine ivory icon in a gold frame as a gospel cover. Orthodox gospel covers are usually a little different. They either consist of one large icon covering the whole cover, or five small icons (evangelist around the crucifixion). The former is impractical for stone, and the latter too expensive. So I decided to go with the western style in order to accommodate one of Jonathan's carvings. The back cover bears a second icon, with the resurrection. In Orthodox practice, the gospel is placed on the altar with the back cover facing up during Paschatide, so this icon must be on the back.

The marquetry frame around the icons is a style that was very typical in Greek Orthodox art in the 17th century. There is still plenty of furniture on Mt Athos and other old Greek Monasteries that is covered with this sort of inlay. It is really an Islamic style of woodwork, still current on Moroccan and Egyptian imports. I find it highly flattering to relief icons, and it reads very well in the dim light of Orthodox churches, so I advocate reviving this sort of ornamentation for Orthdox liturgical use.

I used marquetry inlay banding (which is available for musical instrument makers) and salvaged ivory from pipe organ keys. There is no specific explanation for the pattern itself, except that I wanted it to convey the power and significance of the events depicted."



The Relief Carving of Jonathan Pageau

Here is some relief carving by Jonathan Pageau, an artisan based in Canada. Jonathan is Orthodox and is working very much within the iconographic form, the principles of which he will not compromise, as one would expect. However when I chatted with him about his work, it struck me that as well the more familiar Eastern forms, he has an interest in traditional Western forms of iconographic art as well.He is happy therefore to consider the portrayal of some Western types that are not part of the usual Eastern canon. He works in wood and a soft soapstone from Kenya called Kisii stone.

I am fascinated by relief carving, and wrote an article previously about some the principles behind it here. I have limited experience of sculpting in clay, in which I created a full three dimensional form in a traditional naturalistic style. This was an additional class when I was studying primarily academic drawing and painting in Florence several years ago. At the level I was working at, I found it in many ways easier to pick up than painting. When painting, the artist has to process the information received via the eye from a 3-dimensional form in such a way that he produces a 2-dimensional image is absent in naturalistic sculpture. This conversion from 3-D to 2-D is not necessary in sculpture and the final image is 3-D also. So in this respect it is a simpler process.

I have not attempted relief sculpture but it always struck me as more complicated than naturalistic sculpture requiring a controlled conversion of 3-dimensional information - into a part 3-, part 2-dimensional image.

When I asked Jonathan about it, he described a process in which the 3-diminsional ideal is converted into a fully 2-dimensional image first – a drawing – and then this is converted back into the partially 3-dimensional form of the relief carving. So his first step is to draw the full line drawing, which must be just as detailed as if he were ultimately painting an icon rather than carving it. Next, this drawing is transferred onto the surface of the stone. He uses tracing paper to do this. Then he cuts around the main shapes to produce a vertical, stepped edge. After this the subtleties of shadow are introduced by introducing varying slopes on those edges and detail within the shapes. I asked him to send me some photos of work in progress to help give us an idea of the method. This he kindly did and these are shown below and right.

This means a relief sculptor using this method must be a good draughtsman. In contrast it is conceivable that someone could sculpt well in the naturalistic style, but is unable to draw well (and I have met one or two good sculptors who claimed that they couldn’t draw).

I have shown below completed works of a Russian Deisis, with Christ in glory (detail above), Our Lady and John the Forerunner ('Jean le Precuseur'); and of St George.

His website with more photographs and information is at .

Work in progress