Ask me anything!

So, while I’m taking a short break from heavy SCA sewing and research, I want everybody to help me keep my brain ticking.

Every week, or however often I get questions, I’m going to have a question/answer column here on my blog. Feel free to ask me anything about Roman and Byzantine history, textiles, clothing, etc, and I’ll give you a complete answer, or as complete as I can, with citations to send you on your way. General ancient and medieval history  questions can also be fielded if you’re looking for something more broad.

If this gets busy, I don’t know how many questions I’ll be able to answer, but I’ll do my best to make sure that everybody is covered.

Got a question for me?

Hit me up at syrakousina at gmail.com.

Surprise! Icon!

I took a break from iconography for a while because I felt like my art wasn’t up to snuff, and I was thinking of giving up. By the way: never give up. I had the pleasure of working at the Museum of Russian Icons over the fall semester of 2015, and I learned a lot while I was there, including getting the change to work with the entire inventory, and examine, and touch, period icons. While I was there, I went ahead and purchased some better accurate pigments and more gold, and decided it was time to get back into the swing of things. Initially, I was going to try my hand at turning an icon into my husband’s backlog scroll for the Order of the Silver Crescent, but then I got an offer I couldn’t refuse: Konstantia, my blue twin out in Calontir, was to receive her Herald Extraordinary, and the now-Gold Falcon Herald, Uji, invited me in on the shenanigans.

Initially, I was asked to just do the words. Here is what I came up with instead. Oops?

First, I purchased real icon boards from Pandora Iconography Supplies. It doesn’t have a kovcheg (recess), but that’s because those are expensive. Each 11×14″ board is $55 a piece as is, and custom made upon ordering.  I tried my hand at gessoing my own panels, and uh, yeah, nothing beats the real thing by the professionals, even at the price.

So I laid it out, as you do. The pattern is from an actual 13th Century icon of St. Gabriel the Archangel (Herald of God, and the end of the world, and stuff.) and is still popular today.

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Then I prepared the halo for gilding with real red clay bole, which I also purchased from Pandora. As you can see this go around, I also bole’d the edges. This is something I learned at the museum. It symbolizes the artist being mortal, and rough around the edges, therefore, it doesn’t get sanded and burnished like the halo does.

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Note the thickness of the application here. This is vital to a good leaf adherence. You literally just puddle the liquid bole on, try not to get air bubbles, and let it dry.

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After the nice thick layer of bole dried overnight, I burnished it with agate to bring out that blingy shine.

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After the gold leaf (23kt double gold in this case) was down, the sankir and roskrish are applied, including real vermilion for the cloak. That’s mercury sulfide. You know, death in paint form. (To quote my  grad school classmate and fellow SCAdian Wilhelm: “Only in the Middle Ages could something so mundanely boring potentially kill you.”) The stuff was like painting on a cloud though, but at $18 for a smidgin, I don’t see myself using it all the time. This was a special occasion that warranted potentially poisoning myself.

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I tested the shell gold on the vermilion once it was dry to see how it would turn out, and decided yes.
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And the highlighting process begins, with poor Gabriel looking as if he literally can’t even.

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Some hot dry pigment action:

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More highlighting:

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And then ALL THE SHELL GOLD. OMG, SO MUCH GOLD.

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*BLING!*

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Roll that beautiful inscription footage, ah yiss…

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And then, the actual “scroll” wording needed to go down. I based this on some period examples of text included in the borders of icons. I need to work on my lettering, but I think I did a fair job, considering this is my first icon “scroll” ever. I kept with the plain yellow ochre border, as it was an extremely common choice in period. It’s also affordable and predictable.

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And DING! SCROLL IS DONE! Words are based on the Akathistos Hymn to Mary.

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Gabriel can’t even. Literally.

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Obviously, I had to send it from the East to Calontir, and I managed to sneak it in the mail the day I left for Spring Break. Now that it’s signed, she needs to send it back so I can apply the oil varnish and make sure that it’s protected properly.

Oh, the kicker? I did her garb for her Stepping-Down from Gold Falcon, and surprise Herald Extraordinary bestowal as well. 😉 Which at least, she commissioned and knew was coming.

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I am so dead the next time I see her. *shifty eyes*

Icon do it! St. Lucia of Syracuse icon completed!

So last spring after another botched attempt at iconography, I was prepared to give up the art form entirely. I’m not a painter, and the stuff I draw primarily is Japanese anime, which is, uh, so not period or even appropriate for icons at all.

This fall, I was asked to offer my skills as an artisan to the East Kingdom gift baskets to be given out at Pennsic. I accepted, but I wasn’t sure what to do. I decided, reluctantly, to pick up the brush again, but first I needed to practice.

I invested in new supplies: new pigment colors, new brushes, real gesso, and bole and olifa from an icon supply place on the internet.  I also went and got some real gold leaf, despite still having way too much composite from my previous projects I should use up first. I have silver and copper composite leaves that I picked up cheap from an art supply store locally, so I wondered if they would be of any use on practice pieces before I potentially wasted the good stuff.

Most icons are done in gold, but there are a few in silver encasement. After I did some digging, I did find this 11th Century icon with embossed silver leaf, so I figured that was at least some evidence that silver was being used in period on icons.  I used this as an excuse to blow through 4 sheets of composite silver on this piece.

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Embossed silver icon from the 11th Century.

I chose St. Lucia since she was from the same town as my persona. Local saints were prized in the Middle Ages, and that’s a good enough reason to assume that I would have strongly venerated her. She is also a patron of seamstresses, so a little saintly intervention in the sewing room can’t hurt. 😉 There’s plenty of modern icons patterns to choose from on the internet, so I picked the one I wanted, grabbed one of my remaining Gessobords (This one is 9″x12″), played with carbon paper, and followed the same steps as I did previously, only on the pretense of leafing all the things. The leafing took about 3 hours. Even with the larger sheets of fake stuff.

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I soon learned that embossing composite leaf was not going to work. I did more damage than anything, so I repaired the leaf where I borked it up, and decided to leave it flat. There’s plenty of flat gold icons. I may not be able to find a flat silver one, but we’ll call this a creative anachronism. (I mean, composite after all.)

So the painting started, with the layers being applied over several days. Mostly snow days, thanks to the lovely winter we’re having in New England. (Lovely as in @@#!#$$!!!!)

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I started to get nervous as I began to work toward the upper most highlight layers, this is where I had screwed up before. So, taking deep breaths, and using my new, thin brushes, I worked carefully, putting in no more than 2 hours a day over the course of about 7 days total. The finished results shocked me, they shocked my husband, they shocked my friends. I couldn’t believe I pulled off an icon that well, looked like an icon.

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I did it! I really actually DID IT. The best part is that she’s for meeeeee! I get to keep her and admire her next to poor Archangel Michael and show her off in displays without feeling mortified at my attempt.

The only real thing I don’t think I will ever do again is leaf or gild an entire panel. It was a pain it the butt to paint over where it accidentally got on the drawing. In fact, her halo and inscription are actually in acrylic. I had to cheat in order to get anything on the leaf. I’m sure that the real gold won’t act like the fake stuff, but I’m not about to try it right now and find out. Let’s get better at what I’m doing before I start ruining sheets of 22k gold.

In the mean time, Lucia is aging over the next week or so before I seal the leaf and oil the painting with olifa. And I plan to bring her and some other goods with me up to Montreal for King and Queen’s Arts and Sciences next month.

I also re-did my Iconography page with a more complete gallery and link to my tagged archive. Do go check it out.

I’m feeling a bit rusty.

A pigment used for blush and lip stain from Egypt through Byzantium was red ochre. This is a very safe, non-toxic pigment that is derived naturally from iron oxide (rust) and hematite. It’s been used in artwork since the cave paintings in France, so we know it’s been around for a very long time, so use in cosmetics would make sense.

Like I mentioned, it was used as a blush, and a lip gloss. The Roman women were known for going a bit…overboard with their rouge, so sayeth Martial, who was convinced their faces would melt. Well, here’s my face, complete with annoying duck face (I HAD TO) slathered in rust. Really. Note my bathroom light for whatever reason makes my black hair look purple. It is not. It is black, but other than the the pigment looks correct.

This is 100% natural red ochre pigment that I use for my icons from Earth Pigments. I applied it to my face using  a modern angled blush brush.

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My right cheek I applied the pigment straight on with knocking the brush a couple times to remove excess. The resulted in…OH MY GOD. ORANGE CHEEK, with next to no fall out.

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My left cheek I used the brush after I had used it on my right, and it gave a nice bronzing effect. This would have been a lovely healthy glow that I think the Egyptians prized, but Roman ladies apparently were a bit more bold with their color usage.

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I applied the pigment to my lips using a Q-tip soaked in olive oil. The pigment still dried my lips out quickly, but it did not burn.

I assume once I get the chalk and vinegar face paste on there, it will look even more ridiculous. I will be making that up once I find powdered calcium carbonate, which is true chalk, versus the gypsum chalkboard “chalk” used today. I should be able to locate it in a vitamin store or a brew store.

 

Until then…rouge it up, ladies! *_*

Icon the Third.

Let me tell you all how hard it is to paint very light gray hair.

Also learned: Sometimes, your egg tempera medium just blows, and doesn’t work well. I had a really rough time dealing with my yellow ochre and vine black pigments this project, and I’m unsure why. Apparently it could do with the temperature of the medium (using it right out of the fridge) or my ratio of egg to wine.

This is an icon of St. Kenric I of Warwick, late King of the East. His martyrdom is signified by the wearing of a red cloak, and his death by black arrow is immortalized. This is a great schtick we have going in the East Kingdom right now as we try to discover the murderer of our former king. This icon is a donation to the Silent Auction we are running this weekend at the Coronation of Brennan and Caoilfhoinn to benefit the Royal War Chest Coffers.

I based this particular one off of an icon of Christ, and tried to mimic the earlier Orthodox church’s designs from the 6th and 7th Century, hence the freeform inscription, which reads, KENRIC BASILEUS ANATOLIKIS. “Kenric, King of the East.”

As you can see, I’m getting better, but not great yet. This was a great opportunity for practice, and man did it take some time.

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I’ll be making a page for my iconography soon. I figure it’s the best way to document my journey through the art form rather than scattered blog posts.

Artifacts of a Life recap

So last weekend (the 21st of September) was our Artifacts of a Life event here in the East Kingdom. There were some some amazing displays there!

The premise of the event was to create a collection of artifacts pertaining to your persona or another persona, something that they would have had during their life, grave goods, etc. I chose an 11th Century Byzantine woman, which, by the way, is rather hard. Because the majority of the artifacts we have from the Byzantine period are earlier.  Here is my display:

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Left to Right: Oxymel syrup, Icon of St. Michael the Archangel, Mosaic of a Black Dolphin, and a necklace of garnets and pearls based on one at the Met.

Here is a close up of the necklace. I totally failed in posting updates of me making it, but it took 2 seasons of Sons of Anarchy marathoning in the background to emulate the look. I swear my fingers still hurt looking at it.

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And the original:

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I tried to get a little bit of everything, namely aspects of a Byzantine life: Spiritual, Temporal, Wealth, and Food/Drink. I tied it together with that silly backstory I previously posted.

I did well, I learned a lot, and met some wonderful people. Although I did not win the category I entered, I did go home with an autocrat’s prize, that is a lovely HUGE book of Italian Renaissance paintings that is totally drool worthy. I can’t wait to do this again, I think next year my “persona” will be Roman Egyptian. 😉

Artifacts of a Life. IT’S HERE.

On the discovery of the artifacts:

While on my backpacking across Sicily, I decided to stop at an inn for the night in the city of Syracuse. The inn, which was more of a bed and breakfast by American standards, was in an old annex to an even older house. I’m not one for architecture, but if I had to guess, it was built during the baroque period, with some parts perhaps even earlier, but knowing how homes in the older parts of the world had a tendency to be rebuilt many times, it was difficult to say.

I was the only guest for the evening, and the older couple who ran the establishment put out their nightly assortment of rich Mediterranean pastries and gave me a unique beverage that tasted of honey and vinegar. Not wanting to be rude, I accepted the drink and cookies without question, and joined them at their table. Meeting locals make these journeys more enjoyable, with the exception of course, being the language barrier. My Italian was shaky at best, the same with their English, but I learned that the drink was an ancient recipe, one that would revitalize me after my long day of backpacking through the city.  After some additional language struggles, I did manage to communicate the purpose of my trip.

“I’m studying to be a classical archaeologist, and I enjoy trekking through ancient regions.”

The couple became incredibly excited, and without a beat, asked, in perfect form, “Can you speak Greek?” The conversation officially began.

The couple, named Marco and Maria, claimed they had a fine collection of artifacts they wished for me to look at. They explained that Maria’s family had roots in the Byzantine Empire, and Marco’s had hailed from a town in Thrace. They had sought refuge in Italy when the Ottoman Empire sacked Constantinople in 1453, bringing only what they could carry. I was intrigued, and yet somewhat unsure if these older Sicilians were simply trying to pull a joke on me. One can never be too cautious when traveling alone. Reluctantly, I agreed to view their so-called collection.­­

Maria took my hand gently, and we followed her husband into a parlor, where he slid several modern cedar chests into the floor. I wasn’t entirely sure what I was expecting, but I do know that when they were opened, I nearly stumbled back. These weren’t just any artifacts; these were museum-quality heirlooms that spanned generations. Jewelry, silks, pearls, Bibles, manuscripts, this was an unbelievable haul of personal, priceless treasures that had been preserved lovingly to protect a lost cultural identity.

Maria reached into one of the chests, and removed a few items that were gingerly wrapped in stained ancient silk. She placed them out before me: A mosaic with a dolphin on it, a necklace of gold, garnets and pearls, and an Orthodox icon of the Archangel Michael. I sat and blinked. These were not the typical goods of a poor, refugee family.

“My grandmother told me as a young woman that these are the oldest.” Maria began, “From before the Crusades. Her name was Anna, and she was part of the imperial family in Constantinople.”

I knelt down to get a closer look, and she lifted the necklace for me to see. “I was told that when my ancestors fled the city after it had been destroyed by the Turks, they had to save what they could from the old homes and graves. Looting had already begun by the infidels, so they had to hurry. The necklace they were able to save from Anna’s grave. The icon was in the family crypt, and the tile was once part of a large floor in the palace apartment that Anna was said to have lived in. Dolphins are a symbol of our family, you see, and also the old symbol of Syracuse before the times of Rome. My family goes back before the times of Alexander.”

I was unsure of the provenance of anything, but I promised Maria that if she would let me take pictures, I could bring them home and do research, then send her all the information. She agreed, and then I proceeded to go through the rest of their impressive collection. I turned in for the night as my mind reeled on what it would have been like to have been the last of the Byzantines, fleeing with what bits and pieces I could from the crumbling remains of the once glistening empire.

The next morning, as I prepared to leave for my journey, Maria and Marco saw me off with a small package of leftover pastry and a cup of strong Italian coffee…and a small box with the artifacts of the life of Anna, Maria’s eleventh century ancestor. Despite my protests, she urged that I keep them as a gift. She had no daughters of her own to pass them on, and this way I could study them, and perhaps place them in a museum for the rest of future generations to enjoy. The final parting gift was a small bottle of vinegary smelling syrup. Marco told me this was called oxymel, the beverage they had served me when I arrived, it was to be diluted in water, and used just as the Romans and Byzantines did centuries ago.

I placed the goodies into my already-full backpack, but allowed myself to take on the additional burden for these people who had allowed me, a stranger, into their home and hearts for nothing more than a night.

I present for you these artifacts today.

Sincerely,

Angela L. Costello
University of Rhode Island

Experiments in Iconography Part IV: Done.

Well, this didn’t come out as well as I had hoped. In fact, it doesn’t look anything really like an “icon” as we know it, but looking at some actual period ones from the empire, most of them weren’t as structured as the ones we see today from the Russian schools are. Which makes feel A BIT better, but meh. An artist is never happy with her work.

However, this was my first ever attempt at ANYTHING like this, my first use of painting from dry pigment, let alone using period materials, so I can’t really be upset with myself. I learned a lot, and I know that if I want to try this again, I have a good foundation of where to start. First things first: work on faces, and get finer brushes. I will include my “next time” notes with my documentation for Artifacts of a Life. Judges always appreciate learning about what you learned. It was a journey and a process.

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