Better late than never – St. Nicholas of Myra Icon

Story time with Auntie Anna:

Back in the day, which is always a Wednesday, before we began our Knowne World Tour, it was arranged for Jeff to get his Silver Crescent at the same event as his Maunche because he was leaving Portsmouth for San Diego. Because of this, scroll requests got backed up. I wrote the words for his Crescent that was read in court, but he had no scroll. I promised him I would write an icon for him. THEN-

He left for Caid.
I got assigned Konstantia’s Herald Extraordinary scroll.
I wrote my thesis.
I moved to Caid.
He deployed.
I got the gilding down on this.
His backlog scroll came in from the East, and it’s lovely and I gave up.
He came back.
I did things other than paint.
We moved to Trimaris.
I was like, “Oh I still have this.”
And he was like, “So where is it?”

Here it is. 3 years later.

Panel is one of my handmade ones on a birch art panel with my own gesso. It is a hot mess and was not easy to paint on. I noticed the places where I didn’t sand as well, or touched a lot during demos and displays were prone to pitting and bad adhesion of the tempera. On the bright side, a lot of the flaws I had were the same flaws I saw on very old post-period/in-period panels. So there’s that, I guess. If anyone can take my experimental art and actually like it, it would be Gieffrei, anyway.

Saint: Nicholas of Myra, known to most of us as Santa Claus, but also the patron saint of sailors, and, of course, heretic puncher supreme. The reason I chose him should be evident. (Hint: Nothing to do with punching heretics.) The pattern is modern. Most period icons of St. Nicholas are rather boring and rarely show him with a boat/in a boat. Those are all post-period.

Green sky/blue water = Jeff’s arms, sans martlets, though in retrospect, I could have drawn one in. Green is also his favorite color.

Silver Crescent is on the boat, not only because service to his kingdom, but also to his country.

Inscription around the border: Γοδεφρείδος, Αργυρά Ημισέληνος της Ανατολής. “Gieffrei (Godefredus in Latin and Greek), Silver Crescent of the East.”

Main inscription just says Saint Nikolas.

After it cures for a couple of weeks, I will oil it, let it sit for a month, and then it can join the gallery on the staircase as an actual scroll.

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The great shell massacre of 2018. Shells care of the Atlantic Ocean.

Progress Shots:

Finished:

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So pretty. So…messy compared to my porcelain palette.

The long awaited completion of the Alligator Coronet

Yay, after building this as a draft for weeks, it’s finally done!

If I would have made this out of leather, it would have been done months ago. This became an issue of scope creep, that is, the project just kept growing more and more out of my hands.

At first, Jeff was going to make it, then he decided I needed to learn. So what culminated was a joint effort of, “Hey y’all, watch this.”

I am a total metalworking rookie, and I think that it shows, but hey, I did the thing! The base metals are nickel silver and brass. It’s not really based on any one particular coronet, you see hinged crowns across the continent.

Timeline: February to July. I could have had it done sooner if we focused on finishing it. But once we missed the deadline of East Kingdom Coronation, our goal became Pennsic.

February:

We started with a mockup made out of cardboard. Pieces of cardboard were cut into plausible plaque shapes, and taped together. We used this to make a stencil.

March:

I was busy with conference prep, so things got pushed back, but I got to cut METAL. \m/ I couldn’t do everything, and it was very hard to shape the plaques on the bandsaw after I traced the shape, so Jeff had to nip them by hand. It took 2 days. I felt horrible.

 

My cabochons had also come in. I went with a swampy Ruby-in-Zoisite.

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April:

Time to figure out copper shapes for enameling, and the sizing. Jeff punched them, I dished them. It was a loud night in the garage.

We tried to gun through this, but ran into some hiccups. I did all the enameling and soldering on the ornaments. Yep, hurricanes. And one tropical storm for luck. One of my non-SCA hobbies is storm tracking, much to the chagrin of my Facebook friends once the season gets cooking. That and, growing up in Florida, living most of my life on the Eastern Seaboard, yeah, they sort of become a way of life.

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Jeff did the brass work on the edges and hinges, I helped only a bit with the solder but didn’t feel confident enough with the higher temp stuff.

At this point, we were pretty much out of time, but Jeff attached the bezels for the cabochons. I didn’t get pictures of it. Attempts at polishing with the wheel and dremel failed. We needed to use pickle. This was going to have to wait.

May:

I found the damn pickle solution, and had fun with it. It took off all of the fire scale, and then I went in with some baking soda solution to get extra crud off.

July:

I had to spend some time out of town for most of June, so aside from sewing, not a ton toward Pennsic got done. Time to revisit the coronet and finish this.

Jeff finally got a good polish on the wheel, and inserted the cabochons into the bezels.

Lacquer was painted on it to protect the metal, and let dry.

The ornaments were re-attached, and the rivets were cut. While Jeff did that, I cut the pearl for the tropical storm ornament in the front of the coronet.

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Pearl in the storm, and that is not an obscure sports term:

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Because of the weight of the metal, we needed to get a suspension in there for a lining. My husband concocted a system using cardboard to frame padding made from a tube of flannel and craft felt. It was then riveted to three of the alligators, and treated with Loctite.

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And then I got to play fashion show to make sure it fit. Some of my veils are thicker, but overall it fits well. The padding should squish down a bit, if not, gravity is definitely going to do its job. I haven’t weighed it. I don’t think I want to.

And voila! We did it! A week and half from leaving for Pennsic! It’ll be on display in the Known World A&S Display on Middle Sunday. If not, I think I should stick out in a crowd.

Is it perfect? No. It’s only the third metal coronet Jeff has ever done, and the first like this where stones were set and it was full of ridiculous detail, but it’s mine, and the imperfections make it better for it.

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Byzantium and conspiracy theories: because Prokopios – another short essay.

Continuing on my “I have all these ridiculous topics I’ve written about” side quest, additional digging into the bowels of my external hard drive has produced this gem.

Note that this one delves into the more complex nature of religion during the Byzantine period, but does little to define them for folks that are unsure of how the early church dealt with heretical sects. It’s not something that you see a lot of in the SCA side of things, because it’s incredibly dense material, and my paper only discusses them briefly. If this isn’t something you are familiar with, don’t be afraid to visit Wikipedia or other open source site that can help you understand these terms better. Hell, even my brain starts melting out of my ears when it comes to this level of study. My professor who taught us the basis for heresy in graduate school had gone to divinity school, and STILL couldn’t fully grasp it. This is some heavy stuff.

Again, any citations needs to be done from the paper directly, not my blog. Academia.edu link:

https://www.academia.edu/36922619/Prokopios_conspiracy_theory_Justinian_versus_the_Heretics


 

Prokopios’ conspiracy theory: Justinian versus the Heretics.
The religious reforms of Emperor Justinian I would continue to resonate through the Byzantine Empire well after his time, with his fingertips still reaching into the modern doctrines of Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. His combative stance against paths of Christianity labeled as heretical was notable, and his increased support of the Chalcedonian doctrine is what no doubt elevated him to Orthodox Sainthood. Though the eyes of the controversial 6th Century writer, Prokopios, a glance of Justinian’s attempts to win over the opposition can be seen, and blame is cast directly on the imperial monarchs for exacerbating the situation beyond control, perhaps for nothing more than to legitimize their rule.

Justin I’s reign presented a struggle in returning the doctrine of Chalcedon to the forefront of Byzantine Orthodoxy. It was clear that his successor, Justinian, would follow in these footsteps and continue the pro-Chalcedonian rhetoric from the throne, despite stiff opposition from outlying areas such as Egypt and Syria. Even before his ascension to the throne in 527, it was clear that the Chalcedonian doctrine was a cornerstone in his policies.[1] Despite evidence in that his wife, Theodora, may have been a follower of the anti-Chalcedonian school, and that he was willing to work with opposing doctrines as a way to find peace, the ultimate goal of Justinian was to appease the Pope in the west, not only to legitimize his rule, but also to create a smoother transition as he pushed to regain the lands lost once belonging to the Classical Roman Empire, and unifying his New Rome with Old Rome once more.[2]

The anti-Chalcedonian doctrine perceived the embodiment of Christ as being one person, one hypostasis, and one nature that was entirely divine, whereas the embodiment as codified by the Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon in 421, stated that Jesus had two natures: one divine, and one mortal. Another idea, Nestorianism, which is described as the true antithesis of Monophysitism, believed that Christ was even more complex by having two forms of hypostasis, mortal and divine. This view was rejected by Chalcedon, but many Monophysites believed that it was this Nestorianism that had won in the council. This was incorrect, and Justinian did attempt to correct this misunderstanding as an attempt to coax the anti-Chalcedonians into accepting what he was asserted the true orthodox doctrine. This failed, and the emperor was forced to save face and appease the Pope in more desperate measures.

Justinian’s marriage to Theodora may have been used as a method of reaching out to the anti-Chalcedonians. Prokopios, found this to be an appalling technique of policy when writing his Secret History. He claims that Justinian and his heretic wife did nothing independent of each other, but he believed that by pitting the opposing doctrines against each other in rival circus factions, that they may have deliberately prolonged the controversy, and created the illusion that the struggle was far direr than it appeared.[3] Surely, a marriage to a Monophysite could have and should have helped the tension between the opposition dissolve, but that was not the case, at least according to what Prokopios claims to have witnessed not just with the in-city violence between factions, but also in the alleged persecutions that the emperor performed against heretical sects. He paints the picture of a blood-thirsty demonical tyrant, out for the accumulated wealth of these practically backwater churches, for no reason but to attempt forced conversion, and the joy of spilling blood.[4] However, Prokopios contradicts his own views here within his Wars, were he expresses his dislike of the heretical doctrines, and also accepts them as false.[5] He never gives his support of the emperor’s alleged violence against these groups in Wars, but in Secret History, Prokopios seems to believe that it was all constructed by Justinian for his own benefit to legitimize himself on the throne. By pushing the doctrine of Chalcedon even in the most violent way, Justinian could effectively show the Pope that he was doing right, and perhaps as previously mentioned, regain control of the Italian peninsula with greater ease.

A point that may support Prokopios’ idea that Justinian and Theodora played the game of opposing each other for furthering their agenda would be Theodora’s own outreach to her fellow Monophysites in Constantinople. John of Ephesos, a Monophysite who according to Anthony Kaldellis in footnote 80 of his translation of The Secret History, was actually a missionary for Justinian sent to preach against Jews, heretics, and pagans, wrote a volume known as The Lives of the Saints, in which he praises Theodora for her good works in protecting Monophysites within the imperial capital of Constantinople.[6] If Justinian was so adamant on crushing these anti-Chalcedonians as virulently as Prokopios claims, why would he have allowed his wife to give sanctuary to heretics within the capital of his empire? In the same chapter, John of Ephesos states that Justinian continued to look after these Monophysites in the capital after Theodora’s death.[7]  Prokopios in that case may be correct in assuming that such consistent head-butting between the imperial couple was deliberate, and that Justinian overall did not generally oppose the idea of anti-Chalcedonians living safely, but was simply creating the illusion that actions were being taken to quash the heretical theories.

Prokopios’ views on Justinian’s actions against the anti-Chalcedonian heresies of the 6th Century may contain evidence that strife between the opposing Christian doctrines were deliberately escalated by the ruling heads of Byzantium in attempt to legitimize what the author felt was a farcical rule. By creating the illusion of consistent struggle against the heretics, Justinian could appease the Pope in the West, prove to the Chalcedonians that he was working in their best interest, and be successful while creating his own struggle with his anti-Chalcedonian empress in attempts to prolong the fight.

Bibliography

Prokopios, The Secret History with Related Texts. Translated by Anthony Kaldellis. Indianopolis: Hackett, 2010.

Prokopios, History of the Wars Books III and IV. Translated by H. B. Dewing. Cambridge: Harvard, 1916. Project Gutenberg Edition 2005. Accessed September 30, 2015. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/16765/16765.txt

Maas, Michael. Editor. The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Justinian. New York: Cambridge, 2005.

 

Notes

[1] Patrick T. R. Gray, “The Legacy of Chalcedon”, in The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Justinian, ed. Michael Maas. (New York: Cambridge. 2010), 228.

[2] Ibid. 229.

[3] Prokopios, The Secret History with Related Texts. Trans. by Anthony Kaldellis. (Indianopolis: Hackett, 2010), 10.13, 48.

[4] Ibid, 11.14, 52.

[5] Prokopios, History of the Wars Books III and IV. Trans.by H. B. Dewing. (Cambridge: Harvard, 1916), 5.3.5-9. Accessed September 30, 2015. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/16765/16765.txt.

[6] Secret History, 53, and page 145 in “related texts” of same volume.

[7] Secret History, 148.

Icon-a-long with Anna 6: Completion

So, I don’t have a ton of pictures of this, mostly just the end result. The total was 3 floats of highlights, then the embellishments, inscription, shell gold, and border. Total amount of time on this one board: 15 hours. A “light” amount of work. @_@

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After the 3rd day of painting.
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Done!

Use of a pattern doesn’t necessarily mean a copy, so I decided to veer from the original and give a contrast border. The inscription is in Latin, rather than Greek, since the original had the same (from what I could make out).

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I did have some issues getting lines thin enough with my brushes. I think it’s a combination of my own pressure, them wearing out, and just not being thin enough for fine line work on smaller details. For icons where I just do the head or bust, they’re probably still fine, but I need to invest in tinnier liners! I also got a bit carried away with the shell gold on the Hand of God, but everybody loves gold!

I’m also utterly surprised at how good the horse came out.

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It’s now setting up to be oiled in a few weeks, and hopefully dry before Pennsic and delivery to its commissioner. I hope they love it!

 

Next up is the War Sew-a-thon, but I’m hoping to get some paint down on the icon of St. Nicholas next, which is doubling as a backlog scroll for my husband’s Order of the Silver Crescent.

Icon-a-long with Anna 5: Highlighting

There’s not going to be many pictures from here on out, because I need to concentrate. So I probably won’t make another post until I do the finishing touches in a couple of days.

Anyways, the next step is layers of highlights and lowlights. This could be as few as two, or many, many more. So far, I’m thinking this is going to be a 3-highlight layer icon, but I could be surprised. Some areas, like the landscape, won’t need a ton of work, but the horse and skintone will take much more work. The detail lines are saved for the last day, along with the inscription and the outer border.

The trick with the egg tempera is to create different viscosities of the color to get the achieved effect. So you mix your color, then add water until you get what you need. This doesn’t always work smoothly and can take some time. Likewise, I had to go back and darken some of the more solid areas where the paint dried patchy. I lightened the background to create more contrast from the dark yellow ocher, and put back in the linework. Skin color takes on a chalky look, which is why the beggar looks a bit…weird, if not skeletal, this will soften up with the next layer.

This is when egg tempera gets fussy.  While it dries fast, it takes overnight to cure. If you go back over a spot that’s wet, or didn’t cure, fresh paint can take it right up and leave you a hole straight to the gesso. You can see that on the horse’s haunch in the picture below. The best thing to do when this happens is LEAVE IT ALONE. Let it cure overnight, and then revisit it the next day. You really only get 2-4 hours to work on it anyway before this starts happening pretty much everywhere if you keep touching things, hence why the daily limit is so important. This is when patience is key, but it’s also a lot of fun as each day you get closer to a finished piece. I worked on the board for about 3 hours.

I’ll see everyone in a couple of days when I’m ready to finish it, and set up for the long cure before oiling.

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Icon-a-long with Anna 4: Egg Tempera and Painting

Egg Tempera is a great medium, but it takes some getting used to. As far as iconography has gone, I have never used a ready-made paint. I have always used dry pigments mixed with egg binder, even in my not-so-great early pieces. I’ve since learned the quirks of it, but I still have a bit to go.

The binder is easy to make: egg yolk and white wine. The wine is optional, but it helps emulsify the egg a bit, as well as act as a preservative. Still, you only get a week, tops, with this stuff in the fridge after a day on your table.

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First, gather your supplies! The wine name made you giggle.

My mixture this go around was 2 yolks and about “that much” of white wine. I’ve gotten to the point of knowing the color I want for the right mixture. You can separate the yolk from the white by transferring the goop back and forth between the broken eggshell halves. Then you pop the yolk with a folk, and let it slowly drain into the jar, catching the membrane in the process. If the membrane goes in, it’s not a huge deal, but you just need to make sure you don’t suck it up in the dropper later.

As you can see, it’s not a ton of liquid in a standard size mason jar, but a little goes a long way. You use drops, not tablespoons.

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Once I get the magic liquid made, I go ahead and set up my table. I already had most of this out when the gilding started, but here you can see my collection of pigments, and that I taped wax paper down to protect my work surface. All of my pigments are from Earth Pigments or Natural Pigments, are are 100% natural earth or mineral colors. Mostly oxides, but also some crystals. The bagged jars are my quarantined toxic vermilion (mercury sulfide) and minium (red lead) pigments.

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Egg tempera is backward from watercolor, you start dark and then add highlight layers. It seems weird, but it works. In iconography symbolism, you continue to “play God”, and build the paint up from the protoplasm, into a glowing, holy image.

Starting with the sankir, or base skin tone first. I mixed Antica Green Earth, and Roman Black. Think about the skin color of the Greeks and Middle Eastern people where this artform originated: olive based. Again, start dark, build up to light.

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Dry Antica Green Earth.

 

Egg tempera can be fickle depending on how fine some of the pigments are ground, the material they’re made from, and how much moisture they suck up. Antica green is fickle and kind of grainy, so I had to adjust as I went along with more pigment, egg, or water, depending on my needs.

I made a ton of sankir, so I painted all three icons with it. This isn’t always the best approach and it sort of busted my flow for the rest of the day, but they all have the same base mix, which is good. The rest of this icon-a-long will be for St. Martin.

I don’t have pictures of work on Martin, because, well, I was painting. It’s a time consuming process, and it takes hours. Total amount of work today alone was about 4 hours.

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You work the paint in tiny brush strokes from a small drop on the board, rather than long strokes.

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The perfect cloak red in icons comes from vermilion, real vermilion. I have a few different reds, but nothing paints like the real thing. So the real thing needs precautions. I keep it quarantined in its own baggy, with its own tools. Instead of using one of my palettes, or shells (I do have shells, the porcelain is just easier to clean) I use a plastic spoon that I can keep separate. While vermilion is considered inert once painted, the dry form is still toxic, it is still mercury, and needs to be controlled.

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Of course, once I got started with it, a warm fuzzy thing decided to distract me.

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That’s Harald Hardrada, Varangian kitty, King of Norway, Maine Coon superfoof.
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That red, though.

I had to use a tiny bit of the minium as well. It’s one of my favorite colors. As shocking orange as you can get, and a fully period color.

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After getting tired, taking a break halfway for dinner, and coming back to it, and still getting tired while finishing up the background, which is okay, because more coats will make it more opaque, but I’m bushed. I know it looks super weird, but over the next few days, the icon should “appear” as I add the highlights.

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Icon-a-long with Anna 3: Gilding

So. Part of blogging a process as you go along means it’s harder to hide mistakes. Mistakes are a natural process of life, and as such, I hate them. But, as part of a learning process, I’m not sugar coating this post. I made some booboos, and learned that Florida humidity is unkind to the icon gilding process.

The icon process is pretty specific. You breathe an open-mouthed hot breath on the bole to create condensation, and the loose gold will adhere. It’s basically a form of water gilding with mouth moisture. (ewww.) But, this is symbolic of the breath of God, it’s also super period. After yesterday, I may have to cheat for the few years I’m down here.

I grew up in Florida, so the heat and humidity aren’t any sort of surprise. I don’t think I’m as tolerant of it as I used to be after living in New England and experiencing seasons, and living in perfect-almost-all-the-time Southern California. I learned how to gild in New England. I used fake composite gold in Rhode Island, but had graduated to real gold in New Hampshire. In retrospect, all of my icon work up there was during the winter. In California, I only gilded the halo of St. Nicholas, but I remember it being almost too perfect.

And now, I’ve returned to Hell Incarnate, and failed to prepare myself for the difficulty that awaited me. Anyways, here’s some pictures.

 

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Avengers assemble! 2 burnishers, some 23kt double gold loose leaf, and cut wax paper.

First thing first, I burnished the bole on the halos to a high sheen. I screwed up here. Twice, on both icons. I either pushed too hard, or it wasn’t set up right, because I ripped up spots of bole on each one and had to put more down, and let it set. This would bite me for the rest of the day.

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Michael’s halo partially burnished to a high shine.
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Burnishing Martin’s halo. This takes time. If you go too hard or too fast, you WILL rip up the bole.

Once I succeeded, I prepared the gold leaf. The easiest way to do this is to use wax paper to catch the leaf versus trying to use a gilders knife. At least, that’s the way I was taught?

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So shiny!
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Wax on…
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Wax off.
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You can cut the leaf once it’s on the wax paper with ordinary scissors. No cushion or knife required.

Once the gold was transferred to the wax paper and cut, all I had to do was breathe some hot air and slap it down, right? No. The first piece I used didn’t adhere at all. Naturally, I don’t have pictures of this part, since I was super perplexed, and then it became a fight. Then war was declared. And what is supposed to be a meditative, relaxing art for me turned into digging into the trenches and not coming out of the room until I had this gold down, dammit.

This was probably not the best approach. What I SHOULD have done, was troubleshoot via the internet and the scribal community.

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This is Martin, as I’m fighting to get coverage on one side of the halo after the first layer bombed. You can see the layers of leaf I was using to get it to stick, and how it wasn’t TOUCHING a few spots. Pinholes are normal, gaping holes are not. Layers are normal, layers that don’t cover gaping holes are not.

While I was getting frustrated, I must have spittled on the icon a bit, or too much condensation built up, and gold went down ONTO MARTIN’S FACE.

I honestly assumed that with the extra humidity, regardless of central AC, that the gold would be wanting to stick to literally everything, and I would have had the opposite problem. It wanted nothing to do with it. The equilibrium between the temperature of my breath and the board, or the amount of water in the air and my breath, must have  been off. Boards do absorb water, which leads them to warp with age, so it was suggested after my Facebook venting by a Trimarian scribe that I should put the board in the fridge for a while next time, to see if I can dehydrate it and cool it off, and get more condensation.

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Michael’s first layer. I was flabbergasted.

After the first round. I went downstairs, had some tea, and attempted to re-center myself. I didn’t take pictures of the gold on the wax paper, I wish I had: It was terribly patchy. And while it’s normal for it to come off in smaller pieces if I’m focusing on an area, it was doing that the whole time. I was getting bubbles and oxidation I had never seen before.

After my break, I figured enough time had passed for me to go ahead and burnish Martin’s halo. NOPE. It started great, and then the leaf just started coming right up, and exposed the bole. I gave up, regilded his whole halo, and decided that was enough handling of that icon for the time being.

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Shiny enough to reflect my phone and then…ACK!
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3 sheets of gold later: Those nice forehead smudges. I should be able to sand it down and paint over it, but that’s not the point.

I went back to Michael with a new plan of attack: Tenting the halo with the wax paper as I breathed on it, and then slamming the gold down quickly.  It seemed a bit violent, but it worked. I didn’t dare attempt to burnish.

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There’s still some exposed spots and pinholes, but I’ve decided to fix that with shell gold, and the painted halo outline.

For comparison, here’s Nicholas, who I gilded in California. Practically no blemishes, and a thickness nice enough to press a design into even on my rough, homemade board.

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I went downstairs after all of this, and had a stiff drink. This was 4 solid hours of work from start to finish. While one should take their time, that seems a bit excessive for simple gilding. The gold is down for these guys, but I need to reassess my approach now that I’m living in the swamp again.

Painting is up next. Let’s hope the threat of cockroaches eating fresh egg tempera doesn’t come true.