I made this specifically for my friend in the East Kingdom Artisanal Exchange for this fall. Typically, Mary would be in red, but since this was based on an in-joke between the recipient and her friends, I put her in blue. Aside from that, I can happily say that my skills have improved since my last attempt. Egg tempera is a tricky medium.
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.
Angela L. Costello
University of Rhode Island
Here’s some action shots of my last 2 days of work. I have to let it cure overnight, so I can’t put more than a few hours of work in at a time. That and my eyes start going “NO.” And I get impatient.
Egg Tempera is a solution of egg yolk and white wine. I had a heck of a time separating the egg, then puncturing the yolk, but I was able to make the solution with some pinot grigio.
You add this to natural, dry pigments.
Then you start laying down the sankir, or skintone layer, and eventually all of the dark under layers. This is called the roskrish. This is what I got done last night.
Today I started the highlighting process, and it was uh…interesting at first. It’s a system of layers and building, so I had to step back, think, blend, curse, re-blend, paint, curse, try again, etc. Either way, Michael is starting to get that “illuminated” look that is typical of most icons. I feel I should be finished in the next couple of days. I don’t think I will have time tomorrow as my last class gets out rather late, but Wednesday afternoon I should be able to put a good dent into it.
I’m fairly pleased with how it’s coming out so far, and can’t wait to see the finished product now.
I DOOD IT.
Well, so far. I got the gilding down tonight. This makes me insanely happy, since it was probably the part I was most worried about.
After the pictures were taken, I burnished the leaf, and used a modern sealant that came with the leaf because, well, I’m a rookie, and I’d rather be careful while I learn. So tomorrow I will try mixing the natural pigments into egg tempera, which is going to be the next hurdle.
When many people think of the Byzantine Empire, they probably think of one of these shiny things:
I am not a religious person mundanely, but I’ve always found the artistry of Orthodox iconography to be hauntingly beautiful. Icons have been a part of the religious tradition of Greece and Russia since the Byzantine Empire, and come to find out, the techniques used to create them are pretty much spot on to what have been done in period as is used today.
So today, I spent quite a bit of money on supplies to get started on attempting to paint my first icon, using period mineral pigments and composite gold leaf (No way I can afford the real stuff right now.) I did cheat a bit with getting gesso boards instead of preparing my own with poplar wood, rabbit skin glue, and natural gesso, but I only have so much money for this, and I’d rather not spend hundreds on creating something that I may completely screw up. Even the pigments I got, although natural, are not top of the line. I will be mixing them into egg tempera, the period method of using egg yolk and white wine to create a paint medium.
I’m pretty excited about starting this project. I’m also scared to death. So this will be the next multi-post series here on ye olde Anachronistic and Impulsive.