How to commission a Celtic icon

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There is a tradition in the Orthodox Church that occurs at baptism: the catechumen takes the name of an Orthodox Saint as their Christian name, accepts the Saint as their patron, and places an icon of their Saint in their icon corner at home, which they use as a place of prayer. 

Stained glass representation of David, patron Saint of Wales

Stained glass representation of Saint David,
patron of Wales

This tradition emphasises the dependence each believer has on the golden chain of saints that preceded us into the Church and now accompany us enrobed in heavenly glory. By joining our prayers to the prayers of the Saints, we join in heavenly worship (Revelation 5:8). By identifying ourselves with the deeds of the Saints, we are encouraged to emulate those who emulate our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 4:16).

Many Westerners who enter the Orthodox Church, in their gratitude for the faithfulness of Eastern Orthodoxy, take names of famous Greek, Syriac, Coptic, Russian, Serbian and Romanian Saints. These are Saints who have played central roles in the life, history and memory of Eastern Orthodox Churches. These new Orthodox Christians are willingly identifying themselves with Saints central to the Eastern tradition. This is a good and honourable choice.

Yet there is another choice that is equally honourable. Some choose a Saint who reflect their own heritage. By taking the name of a Western Saint, they testify to the long and honourable tradition of orthodox Christianity in the West. Taking the name of a Western Saint demonstrates the universality of the Orthodox Faith.

Stained glass representation of Andrew, patron Saint of Scotland

Stained glass representation of the Apostle Andrew,
patron Saint of Scotland

For those whose heritage is found in the British Isles, it is only natural to want to identify with some of the many and famous Pict, Scot, Welsh, Irish and Anglo-Saxon forebears who were faithfully in communion with the universal orthodox Church. The British Isles have a long history of representing their Saints on stained glass windows. There is much within the indigenous tradition to draw from.

Now that the Eastern tradition has re-introduced orthodoxy to Britain, we are seeing an increasing number of saints being re-represented in the Eastern Orthodox iconic form. Many of the more famous British Saints are already available. 

 
Stained glass representation of Saint Patrick, evangelist of Ireland

Stained glass representation of Saint Patrick,
evangelist of Ireland

Here at The Good Shepherd, we have a cherished connection with the Celtic Saint Cuthbert. Saint Cuthbert served in the Kingdom of Northumbria in the seventh century, ultimately being consecrated as Bishop of Lindisfarne. Saint Cuthbert is the patron Saint of Northern England and is remembered in prayer at the conclusion of each Divine Liturgy here in The Good Shepherd parish.

Not every British Saint is as well represented in the iconic tradition and there are many Saints whose icon is yet to be written. Recently, one of our parishioners took the name Æthelwold, after the last sainted Bishop of Lindisfarne. Here is his account of commissioning a brand new icon of Saint Æthelwold.

— Fr. Geoff

 

Commissioning an icon of St. Æthelwold

At The Good Shepherd, we remember St. Cuthbert in prayer every week. I wanted to acknowledge the prayers of my parish but didn’t feel comfortable directly taking such a famous name. I was thinking about this as I explored a history of British Saints, which led me to learn about a series of Bishops at Lindisfarne, each of whom honoured St. Cuthbert’s memory.

St. Cuthbert’s immediate successor, Bishop Eadbert, founded a chapel to contain St. Cuthbert’s relics. Eadbert’s successor, Eadfrith, painted a gorgeous manuscript of a Gospel Book, to be used within the chapel’s services. Eadfrith’s successor, Æthelwold, had the Gospel Book bound so that it could be used during services. Each of these godly men honoured Saint Cuthbert, and by extension, honoured Jesus Christ.

I decided to take the name Æthelwold in honour of all these men who had honoured Saint Cuthbert. (Or, perhaps, St Æthelwold chose me.) I discovered that St Æthelwold had no icon, although there was a stained glass window carrying his portrait within the chapel on Farne island.

Stained glass window in the Chapel on Inner Farne Island

The stained glass window in the Chapel on Farne Island,
showing Ss Aidan, Cuthbert and Æthelwold

Further research showed that the stained glass window appeared to be a fusion of two saints named Æthelwold. The window seems to depict Æthelwold, the hermit of Farne island, who died in 691 AD. Yet he is carrying the Gospel Book that Bishop Æthelwold had bound sometime after 720 AD. It’s not surprising that the parishioners of Farne island might fuse their memory of two saints with the same name whose lives overlapped.

The decision to choose Æthelwold intensified over a six month period approaching my baptism. Yet Æthelwold has no icon. A month before my baptism, I approached Fr. Geoff for some advice about commissioning an icon of him. Fr. Geoff asked me how I was going to obtain a likeness of a saint after so many years. He was delighted when I related the existence of the stained glass window. Then he asked me which icon writer I was considering. I indicated that there were icon writers who took commissions for new icons trained in Melbourne, as well as in Mull Monastery, on Mull Island in Scotland. 

Icon of the Celtic Saint Thaney

Icon of the Celtic Saint Thaney

Fr. Geoff already knew of Fr. Serafim at Mull Monastery, having listened to many of his podcasts on Ancient Faith Radio, and advised me to take my commission to Fr. Serafim. So I went to the Mull Monastery website to see the types of icons they produce.

While there, I discovered the sobering story of St. Thaney. She was raped when just a young child and fell pregnant. Her family felt shamed by this and attempted to kill her to recover their honour. She survived the attempt and fled to the safety of a Christian monastery. There she gave birth to the man who would become St. Mungo.

 
 
Icon of the Celtic Saint Kenneth

Icon of the Celtic hermit, Saint Kenneth

Then there is the story of St. Kenneth, who sought solitude all his life. He lived just off the Isle of Mull. His heart longed for peace and solitude that he might experience a deep and real connection with Jesus Christ.

 
 
Icon of the motherly love of St Ita

Icon of the motherly love of St Ita

Showing the motherly heart of God is St. Ita, who is pictured lovingly entrusting the children God had entrusted to her care to Him. It is a poignant story that resonates with mothers everywhere.

 
 
Icon of Saint Drostan healing the priest Symeon

Icon of Saint Drostan healing the priest Symeon

And St. Drostan, who is pictured healing a priest named Symeon. 

 

Fr. Serafim’s description of the thought behind this composition moved me.

When we were working on the composition of this icon, there were a number of things I wanted it to convey. Priest Symeon (note his epitrachelion, a symbol of his priesthood) has his eyes closed, as a sign of the spiritual darkness which is fighting him. There is complete abandonment on his face. St Drostan is his last hope, and he places his soul in the hands of this holy man. I know from my own experience how much a priest longs to be blessed himself, to feel a hand over his own head taking away his sins, forgiving him, granting him light and the hope of a new beginning. A priest can hold his hands over hundreds of heads in a week, praying for all, absolving all, while his heart longs for a loving hand above his own head.

St Drostan does precisely that. His expression is loving, but focused and deep in prayer. He does not look at the kneeling priest, but at the Light pouring through his hands over Symeon’s hands, completely aware that this Light (not himself) is the source of all healing and salvation. Like all confessions, this icon depicts the meeting of three Persons, not two: the spiritual father, the son and God Himself. Symeon’s humility (he is kneeling before the saint) comes from his need and despair, but St Drostan’s humility (note his posture) comes from his awareness that he is doing God’s work, in His Maker’s presence (which is why he is slightly bowing, as if standing before Christ). I purposely chose not to depict St Drostan as a priest (although he was ordained), because I wanted to signify that spiritual fatherhood is not an exclusive charisma of the ordained clergy – the Tradition of the Church has kept the memory of simple monks (and, indeed, nuns) whom Christ had blessed for this particular work.

Finally, pay attention to the Light that crosses the icon diagonally, from the upper right corner to the lower left one. This Light, the Uncreated Divine Light, God Himself, descends from Heavens and first rests on the spiritual father. St Drostan’s hallo is ‘fed’ by the divine Light, as a sign that his holiness is God’s holiness – God and Man become one in His Divine Light. The Light then travels from the spiritual father onto his hands, as a sign that holiness is always translated into holy works. In this case, the holy deed is the healing, the restoration of Symeon’s sight, the very gift of the Divine Light from the spiritual father to his spiritual son, who have now become as one. in God’s Light.

Having been won over by his prayerful consideration of each composition, I clicked over to the bookstore and purchased the deposit to commission the icon.

Within a few days, Fr. Serafim contacted me to initiate the commissioning process. I explained my initial thought.

I am a catechumen at The Good Shepherd Antiochian Orthodox Church in Melbourne, Australia preparing for baptism and chrismation. Our parish has a special connection with St. Cuthbert because we merged with a congregation whose patron was St. Cuthbert and part of the merger agreement was that St. Cuthbert would be perpetually honoured at The Good Shepherd.

I intend to take St. Æthelwold of Lindisfarne as my patron and will use the icon as part of my prayer corner along with my wife's and daughter's patrons. What I have been drawn to in St. Æthelwold's life is his contribution to the veneration of St. Cuthbert: namely, he received the Lindisfarne gospel manuscripts from his predecessor and had them beautifully bound so the gospel book could be used.

Lindisfarne Gospel, preface to St. Mark

Lindisfarne Gospel, preface to St. Mark

Fr. Serafim replied that he knew the chapel containing the likeness of St. Æthelwold.

I know about St Athelwold and his link with the Lindisfarne Gospels because I have celebrated the Divine Liturgy in the abandoned chapel on Farne Island, where St Cuthbert lived as a hermit until his departure to the Lord, and the Altar window has a rather old, but still beautiful stained-glass image of St Athelwold holding the Gospels. I would be honoured and very happy to create an icon for him.

In the next round of communication, Fr. Serafim began the process to understand the composition.

Would you mind if St Cuthbert and St Æthelwold both appeared in the icon, or would you prefer one in which St Æthelwold is alone? I have no composition in mind, but it is worth asking since the two Saints have quite a lot in common and because of the connection between your parish and St Cuthbert.

Cuthbert and Æthelwold are already linked by their representations appearing side-by-side within the Farne Island Chapel. Having seen this, I agreed with Fr. Serafim’s idea and provided him with the likeness of the icon of Cuthbert at The Good Shepherd.

I also provided some initial thoughts on the narrative composition.

The two elements I definitely want in the icon are Æthelwold and the Gospel book. 

I didn't have this in mind, but your comment about the stained glass window mixing the two Æthelwolds raises a possibility in my mind, although it is historically anachronistic:

- How about if we feature both St Æthelwolds — the hermit and the bishop — together with the gospel book?

Given the narrative possibilities, it might seem quite natural for a scene encompassing:

- Both St Æthelwolds — with the Gospel book — perhaps placed upon an altar — and a heavenly St. Cuthbert blessing them.

I would like Ss Æthelwold's eyes to be oriented toward me as I stand in front of the icon.

Fr. Serafim responded:

Thank you for all of this, dear Æthelwold. I’ll need time to think, pray and then start working on a drawing with the iconographer. I’ll get back to you when I have something with which I am satisfied before we start the painting.

A couple of weeks later, Fr. Serafim emailed me.

Dear Æthelwold,

I pray this email finds you well.

I’m forwarding the four compositions with which I am happy to continue. I am happy with all four, so it is now your time to choose the one that speaks to you most.

Please pay little attention to details (faces, shapes etc) - these are only the initial sketches from which we start to paint. The only thing in which you need to focus is the actual composition, so you may discern which of the four you like best.

Enclosed were his four concepts. 

Ss Cuthbert and Aethelwold Concept 1

The first concept showed Æthelwold and Cuthbert interacting with the Gospel Book in a staid upright stance.

 
Ss Cuthbert and Aethelwold Concept 2

The second depicted a more dynamic interaction with more detail in the background.

 
Ss Cuthbert and Aethelwold Concept 3

The third introduced a glimpse of the heavenly using a mandorla. A mandorla is a device to reveal the glory which is beyond vision.

 
Ss Cuthbert and Aethelwold Concept 4

The fourth contains significant narrative elements, showing a close interaction between Cuthbert and Æthelwold, the writing of the Gospel Book, and Eucharistic elements on a table in front of them both while transcendent rays from heaven illumine them.

 

Given my desire to use the icon in my prayer corner, I wanted the participant’s heads to be looking fairly front on, to match the icons already in use in my home. I chose to proceed with the third option.

A month later Fr. Serafim sent me a proof copy. And a little while after that the completed icon arrived by mail in an incredibly well-wrapped box.

Icon of Ss. Cuthbert and Aethelwold

Icon of Ss Cuthbert and Æthelwold accompanied by Jesus Christ  

I am absolutely thrilled with the icon. Fr. Serafim built on my first few halting ideas and developed a powerful image with many layers of meaning. The delivered icon is far more than I imagined when I first commissioned the work. I pray that this work will witness to the ever-presence of our Lord and Saviour in the lives of every saint within His Church. 

— Æthelwold

 

Reading the icon

I was delighted to play a small part in the commissioning of this icon. When Æthelwold brought the icon into the parish to be blessed, I had the opportunity to observe a number of people’s reactions to it. 

The first reaction was generally to exclaim about the detail and emotions evident in the faces of Ss Cuthbert and Æthelwold. The hand of this iconographer captures so much more light and shade, so many more emotions than we generally see on Byzantine-style icons. But soon people’s eyes begin to wander across the scene as they unpack layer upon layer of meaning.

The setting by the sea, framed by islands, recalls the coast of the Farne Islands, which leads one to think of the encaved hermitages of Cuthbert and the hermit Æthelwold. But I also think it resembles the coastline that Fr. Serafim sees every day from his Monastery on Mull Island.

The haloes that surround Cuthbert and Æthelwold reveal the heavenly glory illumining the nous of every baptised and faithful Christian (2 Corinthians 4:6). 

Ss Cuthbert and Æthelwold stand harmoniously holding the Gospel. Æthelwold gestures reverently toward Cuthbert. The peace and harmony between the men remind me of Jesus’ words, “Where two are gathered in my name, there am I” (Matthew 18:20). 

St Cuthbert, in response, is gesturing toward the Gospel Book. For in the words of the Gospel we receive Jesus into our minds and our hearts. “He who has the Son has life” (1 John 5:12).

The Gospel Book stands upright, pointing into the heavens, and our gaze cannot help but rise heaven-wards, where, beyond the view of the naked eye, we are shown the heavenly Jesus, fulfilling His promise, “Surely I am with you always unto the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

Jesus’ visage is arresting and fierce, commanding our attention, and reminding us of St. John’s encounter with the risen Lord (Revelation 1:12–16). As C.S. Lewis once wrote, “It’s not like He’s a tame lion.”

Yet despite the fierceness of His visage, His right hand extends to us the sign of peace. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled” (John 14:27). 

In his left hand, He holds the Book of Life (Revelation 20:12), the ultimate, original and complete “Lives of the Saints” clutched close to his heart, where they are forever safe in the embrace of their heavenly Saviour.

As we gaze upon His glory, may you and I “see the True Light, receive the Heavenly Spirit and find the True Faith.” For then, your name and mine will be found to have been inscribed in that book eternally being held in the embrace of our fierce but merciful Saviour.

— Fr. Geoff 

 

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