Christ Church Cathedral can be thronged with visitors at times. “But when they come on the icon area, there is a certain lull,” says its dean, the Very Revd Dermot Dunne.
Gilt religious icons – of the Mother and Child, St George and the Dragon, the Archangel Michael and Jesus Christ – have been reproduced across Christendom for hundreds of years.
In Ireland today, it’s Dalkey-based artist Adrienne Lord who carries on the tradition for Christ Church, painting – or, to be exact, “writing” – new icons based on the old designs and ways.
In the cathedral, they clearly have an effect on visitors, says Dunne. “They feel that it’s a special space. The icons create this in this area. And people respond to it.”
From Architect to Iconographer
Near a large stained-glass window in Christ Church Cathedral’s ambulatory, ornate works depicting angels, saints, and Jesus Christ adorn the walls.
These scenes are richly coloured, bathed in deep reds and oranges, and framed in vibrant gold.
Visitors and tourists shuffle along. Some stop to take photos. Others quietly study each piece.
In one, the Archangel Michael carries a sword as his wings spread out behind him in a rush of gold.
Nearby, another gold-framed image portrays the transfiguration of Christ in soft blues and whites.
Many of the icons in this area of the church were written by Lord.
She never had a particular interest in religious art until an encounter about a decade ago. But she’s been writing icons since then.
Two decades after graduating as an architect in 1976, she returned to college and earned a B.A. in fine art from the National College of Art and Design (NCAD).
She focused on contemporary installation and photography until an artists’ retreat in 2008 sparked a new direction.
On the retreat in Athens, Lord planned to visit the Museum of Cycladic Art but found that it was closed that day. “I passed the Byzantine museum and I thought, ‘Museum, air conditioning, great. I’ll go in there,’” she says.
Inside, Lord saw images of “the Mother of God of Tenderness”– an icon that depicts Mary and the baby Jesus with their faces pressed cheek to cheek.
She would later write in an artist’s statement that the “tenderness” and “pensive sadness” of the Mother of God moved her during that visit.
When she returned home, she enrolled in an iconography course in Donegal put on by the Association of Iconographers of Ireland. As the years passed, she built up a body of work.
When she had enough for a show, she decided to try and display her icons in the Christ Church crypts, instead of in a gallery. Staff at the cathedral encouraged her to put on a joint exhibition with two other local iconographers.
The relationship has grown since then. “Adrienne is our chosen iconographer at the cathedral,” says Dunne, the dean of Christ Church.
Rooted in Tradition
“Originally, icons were for people who weren’t very literate in the Bible or literate in reading or writing. So, the image had to speak the message of the Bible,” Dunne says.
Even today, iconography, for many, is still very much a traditional art form.
There’s no putting your own spin on an icon. No artistic liberties, says Lord. “When you’re doing an icon, you’re actually reproducing a Byzantine model. So, you work from prototype.”
“You’re not trying to change it or put your interpretation on it. You’re trying to reproduce it as near to the original as you can,” she says.
Many iconographers travel to museums and monasteries in Russia or Greece for inspiration, where scenes painted centuries ago are still on display.
An icon like St George the Dragon-Slayer, for example, is always depicted by traditional iconographers in the same way.
It features the saint in action, sitting atop a white horse in a flowing bright-red cape. In the background are gold mounds of varying sizes and, in the foreground, a spear is driven into the mouth of a defeated dragon.
Lord painted this scene based on a 16th-century prototype currently on display in the State Historical Museum of Russia, in Moscow.
There are more contemplative pieces, too. Ones of the Mother that Lord saw in Greece. The icons differ greatly in their moods, but always illustrate Gospels and writings valued across the Christian faith.
“We all have our own style of painting but there’s no room for personal interpretation as such,” says Clare McReynolds, an iconographer and Derry-based editor for the Association of Iconographers of Ireland.
How to Write an Icon
“It’s a very slow process,” Lord says. An A5-sized icon might take 40 hours for her to create, whereas an A3-sized piece could take 100 hours.
The process requires intense focus. It can strain the eyes.
Lord works about six hours a day, often in two-hour blocks, and even goes abroad in the darkest weeks of winter. “There isn’t enough daylight. I can only work with daylight. I don’t use artificial light,” she says.
The icons are created on a sturdy but lightweight wooden board. Layers of gesso are applied to create a white surface. A drawing is transferred onto the wood, lightly etched, painted and then layered using a combination of traditional materials and methods.
Iconography is rife with symbolism, McReynolds says. “You start off with the wooden board and that represents the wooden cross.”
Lord uses 24-carat gold leaf as well as tempera paint that she makes from egg yolk, vinegar, water and pigments. She can’t make the paint in large batches because it dries out, so she mixes it as she needs it.
One process that Lord is fond of is called “sgraffito”. “You put on the gold and then you paint over it and then you scrape the paint away to reveal the gold,” she says.
The gold leaf makes the icons look much heavier than they actually are. In fact, you might not realise just how light they are until you’ve picked one up.
Once the scenes have been painted on the wooden boards, it can take up to four months for everything to dry and become completely stable, Lord says.
She estimates that she has crafted 20 to 30 icons so far. Nine of those icons are currently on display at Christ Church Cathedral.
“Her exacting delivery of the icon is second to none. And her whole process is authentic,” Dunne says.
Iconography in Ireland
“There’s a revival in iconography,” says Dunne. “It’s gaining popularity in spiritual and religious circles.”
The Association of Iconographers of Ireland was founded in 1992, and membership has grown by about 25 percent in the past 10 years, McReynolds says. It now has 95 members.
Every two years, the iconographer Eva Vlavianos comes to Ireland and holds a course in the Greek style of iconography. Between those courses, members of the association attend events, receive newsletters and updates, and keep up to date with each other’s work.
“We feel like we’re custodians of the craft,” McReynolds says. “Icons change you if you let them. They slow you down and they make you more humble.”
Next summer, Lord says she plans to display some of her new pieces, 20 or so new icons, at another exhibition in Christ Church Cathedral.
This will be the third show she’s had at Christ Church. She wants it to be a bit different: it’ll have a few “mosaic icons”, a method she recently has begun to explore.