The following article was written by Jane G. Meyer as a part of her series Behind the Book, and posted on OCN’s The Sounding. It is an interview she conducted with iconographer Aidan Hart about his new book, Techniques of Icon and Wall Painting.
While on the topic of iconography, I’ll take this opportunity to ask for your prayers as I prepare to defend my thesis. If all goes according to plan, I will be defending it on Tuesday, May 22, the day after my name’s day. (My professor thought it a good idea for me to defend close to St. Constantine the Great’s feast day so that I might have the blessing and prayers of my saint – I hope I will have them!)
Behind the Book: Efforts to Raise the Bar
by Jane G. Meyer
This month in Behind the Book, we interview iconographer Aidan Hart, author of Techniques of Icon and Wall Painting. With hopes of raising the current standards of iconography in the West, Mr. Hart has written a 460-page icon painting manual published in 2011 by Gracewing Publishers. In his thirty years of experience, Mr. Hart has seen a welcome rise of interest in iconography, but, in his opinion, much of this interest has resulted in poorly crafted work. His book is designed to show that iconography is a serious and demanding sacred art, requiring hard work, a strong spiritual life, and good intentions. Through his experience, he has seen that there is a need for a detailed reference book that could be used as a sort of textbook for teachers and students alike.
The Summary: Techniques of Icon and Wall Painting is a comprehensive guide to the theological and technical aspects of painting icons and wall painting. It is the most complete book every produced on the subject in the English language. The book describes in detail a range of traditional methods, most notably the membrane technique, as well as the better known proplasmos technique. Although designed primarily for the practicing icon painter, there is a wealth of material for the general reader interested in the icon tradition.
Aidan Hart has supported himself as an artist these last thirty years. Born in the United Kingdom and raised in New Zealand, he began his art career as a sculptor, and began carving relief icons in the 1980’s. He spent twelve years as a novice-rasophor monk within the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Great Britain, spending two of those years on Mount Athos at the Iviron Monastery, and eventually lived as a hermit in a small-holding in the hills of Shropshire, England. “In the year 2000,” Mr. Hart explains, “with the blessing of my bishop and spiritual father, I finally decided it was best if I left the hermitage to concentrate just on my work as an iconographer.” Two years later he married, and in 2009 he founded “The Diploma in Icon and Wall Painting” at the Prince of Wales’s School of Traditional Art.
Designing the diploma program, completing private commissions, and working on the book made for a busy time in Mr. Hart’s life. “I support my family from my work, so it was at times a juggle balancing the need to earn money by continuing commissions and to continue writing.” He received two grants, which allowed him to work full time on the book for four months, but it was largely written over a three-year period in the early hours of the morning. And as the project progressed, the scope of the book grew. From start to finish it took five years for Mr. Hart to complete. His initial proposal to the publisher was a suggested book of 200 pages with 50 color illustrations and 50 black and white illustrations. Instead “it turned out to be 460 pages with over 450 colour illustrations and 160 drawings!” This allowed Mr. Hart to go into considerably more detail than he’d originally thought possible. And he purposefully steered away from spending a lot of energy discussing both the theology and history of icons. “There are already numerous good books on the subject,” he states, “I chose rather to concentrate on technique, and on those elements of theology and history needed to illustrate my points about the dynamic nature of healthy iconography.”
With thirty years under his belt as an iconographer, coupled with his life as a monk, and travel to Russia and Greece for additional study, Aidan Hart has developed many deep opinions concerning his art. “Many people have the false impression that traditional iconography is an unchanging, monolithic, copyist’s affair,” he says. “I wanted to show that, when it is healthy, the tradition is dynamic and extends the iconographer’s creative faculties to the fullest. There are of course parameters within which the iconographer works,” he continues, “but these are rooted in the way things are—in ontological reality rather than in arbitrary laws laid down by man.” When asking Mr. Hart about the intentions of the book, and about the current state of iconography in general, he replied, “I believe that the Incarnation of God implies that it is natural and commendable for Christian communities within each culture and each epoch to develop their own unique expressions of their life in Christ. The Church thus responds to its particular pastoral needs, expresses its particular charisms, takes on the ‘colour’ of what is best in its surrounding culture.” He continues, “I wanted to write a book which provided a theological, historical and technical foundation for such an authentically Orthodox iconography to develop in the West. I saw that while there is the undoubted need to guard against Orthodoxy’s ‘westernization’ in the pejorative sense, we need also to be positive about the ways in which the Church in the West can ‘tell in our own tongue the mighty works of God’ (Acts 1:11).” He even hopes to encourage a Western school of iconography that is “fully within the theological parameters of the Orthodox tradition but which also draws on all that is good or potentially good in western culture, past or present.” He states that he hopes to see a “harmonizing” of church architecture, icon screen design and wall painting so that it would be integrated with a particular locale or parish, “rather than merely importing designs from other environments without any attempt to harmonize.”
Mr. Hart has seen first-hand that iconography can be approached as just another craft or pastime. “I wanted to help raise the standard of iconography in the West by producing a book that showed that it is a serious and demanding sacred art, and not a pious hobby… the interest in iconography has also had the unfortunate effect of producing a lot of badly crafted work, much of which gets into churches.”
Mr. Hart relates a story of one of his own recent wall paintings, in particular, a 31 x 14-foot fresco for which he “for the first time used a technique that I had written about in the book but had not yet practiced (that used by Panselinos on the Protation, where egg and limewater is mixed with the pigments at the later stage of fresco painting).” He says, “It was very satisfying to test a technique that scientific analysis suggests was used in the past and find that it works!” Mr. Hart hopes that the book will inspire other experienced iconographers to experiment with traditional but forgotten methods they’ve never tried, and conversely hopes those who are commissioning icons might learn to raise their expectations and not accept poorly painted works.
Often, when a person is working on a project of this scope, not only is there something of value to share with an audience once the project is completed, but there is also a changed author because of the long and involved research and writing process. Mr. Hart created the book on icon techniques to be a comprehensive teaching tool for others, but it also taught him several lessons along the way. He writes, “I learned the importance of clarity when teaching; of explaining the reasons why things are done the way they are so that a student paints with understanding.” He also muses on how the process affected him spiritually. “ Often I thought: who am I to presume to write about icon painting when I still consider myself a learner? The only thing that kept me going was the idea of sharing my experiences with fellow learners: readers could take what they found helpful and leave aside what was not. I suppose,” he continues, “I felt a moral obligation to pass on what I had learned. Also, my students had often pressed me to write things down into a book. So I suppose the whole book was born of obedience, and what comes of obedience is blessed.”
To find out more about Aidan Hart, his iconography, or Techniques of Icon and Wall Painting, visit, www.aidanharticons.com.