An icon of Saint Thomas

The gift of an icon of Saint Thomas from members of the community of Exeter Cathedral, UK.

“Just as when you depict Christ you depict a humanity soaked through with a divine action, so with the holy person you depict someone who, in union or communion with Jesus Christ by the power of the Spirit, is likewise carrying, transmitting divine agency, divine light.” Rowan Williams, 104th Archbishop of Canterbury.

From a lecture given at the Royal Academy of Arts in 2009 in which Dr Rowan Williams explored aspects of how icons are, amongst other things, practical aids to meditative prayer. You can find a link to the full lecture here.

There is something very prayerful about icons in the Orthodox tradition; they are more than pictures, for they each tell a story. Some icons quite literally tell a story for they depict a scene from the scriptures of the life of the Church such as the Transfiguration or the Resurrection or the day of Pentecost. These narrative icons are particularly used during the church’s year to give another visual aspect to the telling of the story through the liturgy. But even icons of Christ or the saints tell a story; as Rowan Williams suggests in in the quotation above, and which is explored very fully in his lecture on the subject, a depiction of Christ in an icon is to depict his full humanity and his full divinity; to depict a saint is to show the difference that knowing Jesus Christ made to that person of faith.

Some people say that icons are written rather than painted, insofar as they tell a story that is true. But icons are also artistic and are, indeed, painted. Some of the confusion comes from the different words for icon in Greek and Slavonic. (See Orthodoxy & the Sacred Arts. Ed. By J.A. McGuckin, pub. Theotokos Press, New York, page 176). As Eileen McGuckin, who has painted icons in New York for many years, once remarked:

“In my understanding of the modern iconographer’s vocation, one’s duty is to combine the joy and passion of fine art with the sense of the energy in the light of the holy Kingdom, whenever one can. Bishop Kallistos Ware was once asked at a conference by a zealous youth: ‘Your Grace, what is necessary to become an iconographer?’ His reply? ‘I think, to start with, one needs to be able to paint.’ (Ibid. page 179).

Following several visits by Exeter Cathedral parishioners to Saint Thomas Church over the past three years, a group decided that they wanted to give an icon of Saint Thomas, our patron, as a thanksgiving for the hospitality they had received and as a link to Exeter Cathedral. The iconographer, John Coleman, had previously written icons for Lambeth Palace, York Minister, Exeter Cathedral, Truro Cathedral, various monasteries, retreat houses and parish churches.

(fig. 1) In this new icon, Thomas is depicted holding a scroll in his hand, a common device used in iconography to depict that he has the rank of an apostle; scrolls represent holy wisdom and are also held by prophets. In the Orthodox tradition, Thomas is usually depicted as a beardless youth, unlike icons of some of the other apostles such as Peter and Andrew. Together with other carved images such as that above the High Altar and the frieze above the Fifth Avenue entrance, this new icon will add a further dimension to celebrating the life and ministry of our patron saint.

The icon has been painted a traditional manner and with traditional materials. First, a board of solid wood (in this case, oak) was created and the carpenter marked the back of the board accordingly. The board was then prepared with the gessoing of the surface of the panel. Gesso is a fine chalk powder mixed with natural bone glue. Ten layers had to be applied until a smooth surface was obtained suitable for painting on.

(Fig. 2) On October 11, 2016, John began the task of carefully drafting the icon drawing onto the panel. Members of Exeter Cathedral came to his studio to see for themselves the progress and two of them, Andrew and Pat Gullock, painted in the two black dots that would become the pupils of the eyes of Saint Thomas. They were the very first strokes of paint to be painted on the icon. Over the next months the rest of the image was inscribed and written accompanied by prayer and further visits from parishioners, each of them contributing a symbolic stroke of paint or some gilding onto the image.

(Fig. 3) The paint used is natural pigment mixed with egg yolk tempera and 24ct gold leaf used for the gilding.

On Saint Thomas Day, December 21, 2016, the iconographer painted in the letter ‘A’ of the English inscription of the name Thomas, and on Christmas Day itself, the last letters were written ending with ‘S’. Thus, on the feast of the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ – our Lord and God - the icon was completed.

(Fig. 4) Since then it has been drying and curing in preparation for its journey to New York. On September 10, when we shall keep our patronal feast, the icon will be on display in the church and at 4pm evensong will be dedicated and hallowed. There is a traditional ceremony for the hallowing of an icon and the icon is traditionally anointed with holy chrism. After its dedication, the icon will be placed on a stand at the back of the nave near the entrance doors. With flickering candlelight reflecting off the lustrous gilding it will be a beautiful reminder of the difference that Jesus Christ can make to anyone who wishes to follow him.