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Can Small-Scale Illumination Be Adapted for Large-Scale Liturgical Art?

In response to a recent article in which I proposed the English gothic style of the School of St Albans as a possible model for today one reader asked what I felt was a perceptive question. He wondered if this style, which had been done in miniature in the pages of a book could be adapted into large scale works.

I think that it was a fair point to raise. In all the examples I gave, there was an intimate feel to the compositions that one could imagine being in a psalter but not necessarily 10ft long behind the high altar! Also, the narrative style of some the compositions, for example this one of the papal legate at work, is different to most large scale works.

In response to the reader, I do think that the School of St Albans can be adaped to a full liturgical style. I think that what our questioner is seeing in the examples I showed is not so much as a result of the style, as it is a reflection of the composition. These pictures were designed by Matthew Paris to speak to a text which is close by; and relate to the viewer in an intimate way, because he knows that the viewer’s nose is just a few inches away.

In contrast, when the artist is painting on a large scale and knows that most people will be seeing it from a distance he will alter the composition accordingly. Also, any good artists will consider the setting for his work and try to make it speak appropriately to other pictures and the general architecture around it. That means that an illustration in a book is very different from an altarpiece in design.

I will try to illustrate with examples that I have created from illuminations how I have approached this problem. Not all are in the St Albans style, but I hope they illustrate the points I am making. This has been a process of learning for me. I have been discovering these principles as I have been going along, and please bear in mind that as I look at them now, I don’t think that all of the following are perfectly successful by any means, but at least you can see what I am trying to do. As an artist I try to be critical of what I do so that I can improve. (On that point, I am different from many artists. I don’t agonise over how bad my work is. When I first complete a work I am almost always pleased with it. It’s only as time progresses that I start to see my flaws!).

So here’s the first example. I saw the following image of St Michael and the devil, which is from an German early-gothic psalter. I decided to adapt it for a large scale work to go in Thomas More College chapel. The image I created is 6ft x 3ft and hangs high up on the wall behind the altar. The bottom of it is perhaps 10ft from the ground. I have deliberately made my composition less busy so that it will have an impact at a distance. In the development of the underlying line drawing I deliberately made the figures slightly more naturalistic in style, because I felt that these would connect with the contemporary viewer more easily. I looked to Greek style icons from the same period for inspiration here, especially in the drawing of St. Michael.

Similarly, the following is an image from the Westminster Psalter, so is a page from an illumination from the St Albans period. In composition, this is more devotional and less of an ‘illustration’ with a more modelled, colored-in approach. I’m guessing that this isn’t by the hand of Matthew Paris, but by another artist. So, here it is, Christ in majesty. I don’t know precisely how big it is, but it is a single page in a book. Certainly not altarpiece size.

I based my Christ in majesty on this, and painted it on a wooden panel, slightly bigger than the St Michael, about 6.5 ft long.

Again, in the drawing stage, I made the drawing slightly more naturalistic. In the coloration, I looked to the style of 20th century Russian iconographer called Gregory Kroug. The way I have painted the blue robe of Christ is based on him. I added the green and red angels after seeing this in a 16th century Christ in Majesty in the Russian Icon Museum in Clinton, Massachussetts. This was a large wooden panel of similar size so I felt happy that it would work in a design for a large piece of liturgical art. I felt that it wouldn’t look too busy to have all this detail in these read and green areas because at a distance each colored area looks like a shimmering single mass of bodies – they are so strongly bound together by the common colour.

The following is another page from the Westminster Psalter.

It is King David, with the harp, the author of many of the psalms. This is a devotional piece and meant to be more intimate than a large piece hanging on the wall of a church. The version I did is was about 10 inches by 8 inches. I painted it on paper in egg tempera. I did simplify some areas a little, but for the most part in design terms left it pretty much the same as the original.

Now here is a different point. The coloration of the Matthew Paris works is very controlled, typically light washes with minimal modelling, and often the ground, in this case parchment is visible. Is there any precedent for this light ethereal touch in a liturgical setting?

I think there is. It is in the Russian style of icongraphy from the classic period around the 15th and 16th centuries.

In contrast to the highly modelled Greek style, which we might see if we visited Mt Athos or Mt Sinai, the Russian style of the period, epitomised in the work of Andrei Rublev or Dionysius, relies on line to describe form. The coloration is flat color achieved with washes and the modelling is minimal – just a light sparkling highlight in most cases.

You can see two examples below. In other respects these are not like the Paris drawings, which are more naturalistic in style, but the restraint used in painting is similar, I suggest.

When commentators describe these Russian icons, they feel that this is a less-is-more approach. What appears shallower physically draws us into something deeper spiritually. My thinking – only time will tell if I am right – is that this is what we can hope to replicate in looking to the School of St Albans too.

Here is an example of a Matthew Paris painting:

Based upon this, I painted my chivalrous Knight of the New Evangelation. like the David, I created this as a devotional piece, egg tempera on paper. I didn’t want to leave the paper as plain white (which would have been too sterile, I thought) so to give interest, I painted a ground with several very light mottled washes of grey-blue and a pale earth red.

In doing the above, I found it difficult to be restrained in the painting. It is very hard to know how to do so little painting and description of form in color well. I always want to give more visual information when I am painting and I had to force myself to stop. It does mean that what detail is in there, has to be absolutely right. If the features of the face, however sparsely reprented are not absolutely accurate then our mind’s eye interpolates gross distortion from them.

There are some modern iconographers who are creating work with similar restraint today and creating liturgical works. There is one point in there approach that I would adopt in my adaptation of the St Albans style to large scale works. Rather that leaving the ground bare, I would introduce interest by putting the line and light washes on carefully selected colored grounds. Notice how in the following examples, the base color can be quite strong, but it is usually mottled. This is an influence of 20th century art, I suggest that works very well in this context.

The paintings above is by Irena Gorbunova-Lomax, a Russian icon painter who lives and teaches in Belgium. In my St Albans work, I plan on using this approach, but have slightly paler ground colors and even more restrained modelling, so that the line dominates more.

This painting below is by an unknown Russian painter. Neither of these are on a large scale but they are liturgical in form and I think that compositionly these can be adapted to large scale work in the way I described at the very beginning of this piece.

It is is in the line drawing that so much will hinge if this is to succeed. This is where individual styles will come through and the most successful ones will be those that connect with people today. My personal inclination is to look to the traditional canon of iconographic images and to make the drawing conform to the iconographic prototype, albeit in a Western, naturalistic way (a sort of updated Romanesque, influenced by Matthew Paris).

In the examples below you can see drawings that I have created that come originally from different stylistic sources. It will be the common approach to painting such images that will give a unity to them as part of a characteristic tradition.

And as a final example, here is another devotional work on paper, based upon an image from the Westminster Psalter. Something else that I would add everytime, is the ornate Romanesque style patterned border, which is not so common in Eastern iconographic styles.

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