Icon of St. Michael the Archangel for Count Ioannes’ Silver Rapier

It’s always a fun occasion when you find out a good friend is getting an award that means a lot. In this case, a good friend, Count Ioannes Aurelius Serpentius, was being awarded the Silver Rapier in the East Kingdom for prowess on the fencing list field.

Being that mean sneaky friend that I am, I offered my service as the scribe for this award, and put in the request with Tyger Clerk of the Signet. Once things got out of the holding pattern, the date for the award was moved up a bit, so I had to jump in on this a bit earlier than planned. Dropping my list of silk banner commissions and other projects to the wayside, I allowed the scroll assignment to take the wheel.

I ordered a finished panel from Pandora at a size a bit smaller than I usually go, 9.5×12.5″ versus 11×14″. It wouldn’t change the size of the cartoon I would have to make from the original, but make it a bit easier to ship from Trimaris to the East in a flat rate box. I would just have to get a bit creative with the scroll text.

I went ahead and did that first while I waited for my order to come in. Knowing it would have to be short and sweet, I went through a selection of Byzantine kontakia to find one that I could rework into an award for martial prowess. Of all things, I landed on the Kontakion of the Annunciation of the Most Holy Theotokos, dating from as early as the 6th Century: (Theotokos translates as Mother of God. This is a hymn to the Virgin Mary.)

To thee, the Champion Leader, we thy servants dedicate a feast of victory and of thanksgiving as ones rescued out of sufferings, O Theotokos; but as thou art one with might which is invincible, from all dangers that can be do thou deliver us, that we may cry to thee: Rejoice, thou Bride Unwedded.

And then my reworking into a secular scroll:

Kontakion of the Awarding of the Silver Rapier to Count Ioannes Aurelius Serpentius:

To thee, Ioannes, we, Wilhelm and Vienna, King and Queen of the East dedicate a feast of victory and of thanksgiving. O Ioannes, but as that art one with might which is invincible, from all dangers that can be do thou deliver us, that we may bestow upon thee:  A Companion of the Order of the Silver Rapier. On this day, November 17th, at our One Hundred Minutes War, Anno Societatis LIII.

There is a bit of fun irony here. The first being that the award was being given out just a few days prior to American Thanksgiving, and two, it was Ioannes’ birthday. So for his birthday, the royals dedicated a feast of victory and thanksgiving, which would be a very period thing to do to for a peer being bestowed an accolade of some type. In the Byzantine tradition, commemorations of an individual would be held on birthdays, and anniversaries of death. The document that was involved with my thesis/Compleat Anachronist, includes Kale Pakouriane authorizing a bequest of icons to the monks of Iviron to be used in the commemorative feasts for her husband, Symbatios, who was buried at the monastery.  I have yet to pinpoint if icons were used for awards for living individuals, but I admit I haven’t chipped away at that research as much as I should be.

Finding the right icon to pattern turned out to be harder. The East Kingdom loves giving out “alterative” scrolls to the traditional ink and pergamenata creations by extremely talented scribes and artisans, so I knew I was throwing my hat into the pro ring. I decided it was going to be Michael the Archangel, since he is the patron of basically all things martial including fencing. Archangels are also not inherently symbolic of any one faith, as they exist in all three of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), Zoroastrianism, and I believe also in the modern religion of Baha’i. They have considerably ancient roots and were prevalent during the classical through medieval periods in three continents, thus making them generally a safe choice to be enjoyed by all.

But I needed to find a badass Michael. Most period icons are of him standing in splendor or just a bust. These are lovely pieces, but I needed more pizazz. I found it in this considerably late Russian piece that is inching out of period, though some Cavalier fencers would say not, so this is my nod to those folks who bend the rules in one direction, just as I bend them in the other.

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Easy peasy. Totes.

Of course I couldn’t find something simple. The palette was dark, probably from the aging of the pigments used, it was probably made on a much larger scale that I was about to try with, so some details were going to be skipped. I decided that I would leave the earth, the devil under Michael’s feet, and the figures to the right (our left) of Michael, who I would attempt to transform into Count Ioannes and Countess Honig. The orb would be used for the order’s heraldry.

Sure. No problem. I had weeks still.

First, I had to revisit the hell that is gilding in Florida. It was suggested that I use a mixture of gum arabic and honey to make an adhesive for the gold. And that is what I did. What I didn’t do, though, was give it enough time to dry. This resulted it some of it squeezing out from under the leaf, and taking some gold with it. Because of this, it took me some time to get smooth, even coverage, and I ended up using 2 full leaves of double ducate 23k gold on that small halo. I decided that panicking over the smeared gold was going to be useless, so I sanded it with my agate burnisher once the gold was set, which took 48 hours, despite us having a cold front at the time. I got an okay burnish, but since I had a nice thick layer of gold in addition to the bole beneath it, I pressed designs into the halo to make it look textured, and hide my flaws.

Then the protoplasm went down a day later. I wanted that gold as set as possible to avoid any more mistakes….except…that…wow, that sankir (skin color base) was wicked dark. I had overestimated the deep palette a wee bit, and understimated the richness of my blend with the egg medium. It was just Antica green earth and Roman black, and I have had it go on more translucent before, so the only person to blame was myself for not testing the color first. I also bit down and did the cloak in real vermilion (mercury sulfide, for those playing at home), because it is the accurate color, and nothing paints as nicely as it does. This put it immediately into the “DO NOT LICK” category of SCA art. Pretty much everything else is an ocher pigment, including the ultramarine blue and the crimson red used on his leggings. You can see how the vermilion looks a bit more orange against the crimson, which is what I saw looking at the original.

So on my first day of brush-on-board, I created a super dark, toxic ethereal being.

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The next day, I basically had to sand off the sankir on Michael’s face, and hand-draw in the facial features so I could actually do any highlighting. The end result was a bit creepy, if not demonic. It gave me the jim jams.

So now, Michael was super dark, toxic, and demonic. Where was this going?!?!

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But I recovered after a night of crabbing to Gieffrei, who reminded me that Ioannes would be happy with a stick figure as long as I drew it. Unfortunately, I wasn’t happy, but I was determined.

The first workover of highlights gave him a grumpy old “can’t even” look. Angels are androgynous and youthful. So that wouldn’t do, and would need another pass. I was pleased with the way the delicate florals came out on the cuirass and leggings. I put in an evil eye amulet for luck. You should be able to see it dead center.

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I devoted an entire Sunday to getting the highlights down in two sessions. It’s not always a good idea to go over tempera layers a lot in the same day because it can pull up the paint and expose the panel. You have to let it set and harden overnight for best results, but I bent the rules. I put in what I think was two 4-hour sessions that day. Break time was spent grocery shopping and eating dinner, despite insisting that I needed no sustenance. My husband thought I was going insane, but I couldn’t pull myself way, and the time was well worth it.

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And then the gold happened. This is watercolor, not shell gold, but the set I have is great. Archangels are divine, and as such, can be slathered (tastefully) in gold. And that’s what I did.

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I gave myself a couple of days to allow for the paint to cure and harden, as I mulled over how I was going to do the border and words. I needed a contrast, and the only color I could think of would be Venetian red. It’s not my favorite pigment to work with since it tends to stay grainy and fight back against the medium by not absorbing it well for some reason, but it did come out the way I wanted it to after two coats. I also got the inscription down in my nice watercolor gold, and the border.

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The text would need to be white to pop, but I also need to give that tempera a solid 24 hours of curing time before I attempted to write on it. Once that day passed, I went in there with a ruler and white colored pencil, and gently laid out the text. I decided that the words “Order of the Silver Rapier” would be done with the white gold in the palette to emulate silver, and to give a subtle sparkle. Gold was used as the spacers. I am not a calligrapher, and painting with a brush is hard, but I got it cleaner than I expected to.

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And the finished wording:

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Some cleanup work with the Venetian red, and VOILA! DING! Scroll is done!

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Comparison with the original. Naturally, there was no way I could make an exact copy, but I think I did the piece justice in my own style:

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And then the attempts to take as many artsy shots as possible on a solid background under my desk lamp to show lumanescence. Tempera is naturally shiny, so gold leaf and metallic paints just add more shiny, and this wasn’t as easy to photograph as say, a more flat painting would be, hence the varied angles to get different results.

This entire icon was painted almost entirely with a 3/0 brush. After completing it, I went out and purchased a 12/0 and 20/0 for even finer detail now that my skills are being honed.

I’ve been waiting for weeks to post about this. Secrets are so hard to keep when you’re excelling at something. I’m sad it had to depart to its new owner, but I know his face, and the face of those assembled at court will make it worth it.

I was super nervous shipping it north, even though we had time, the weather was starting to turn in New England, I was hoping it wouldn’t get stuck out in the snow or get soaked in a Nor’easter downpour. There was a massive sigh of relief once I heard it was received safely.

…Of course, I still need to oil varnish it. But that can’t be done until their Majesties provide their John Hancocks.  😉

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