Achievement of Arms are a period way to show off one’s accomplishments in the SCA, as combined with one’s heraldic device. I had the great fortune to create a conjugal coat of arms for my Byzanbestie Anna and her husband Gieffrei, and ended up also blogging the process, too.
Let’s start off with the details and definition of what a heraldic achievement of arms actually is. An ‘achievement’ is a full formal display of a coat of arms. This form of display is normally used in very formal situations, and can be used for decorative elements, banners, and of course, on scrolls. An achievement is one’s heraldic device surrounded by all the extra elements accorded to an individual by their rank in the SCA according to their kingdom’s sumptuary laws. Most of the elements, however, are optional and do not have to be displayed. Further bits of interkingdom anthropology: Ansteorra registers…
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.
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.
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?!?!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
And the finished wording:
Some cleanup work with the Venetian red, and VOILA! DING! Scroll is done!
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:
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. 😉
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I have a few commissions coming up, and I decided I wanted to blog(ish) the process rather than keep it under wraps, since they aren’t gifts. I had to decided if I was going to do it on Facebook between my personal account, or my SCA persona page (which I rarely post on), and decided that I should just put it here, so it’s more accessible for those that don’t spend their day on social media as much as I do. It will also help me be more accountable in making regular updates.
So, to begin, let’s talk about the actual surface on which to be painted.
Icon boards, in their most simplest, are layers of gesso (calcium carbonate and hide glue) on a sanded and prepped wooden surface. Well-made boards have a layer of linen glued to the surface of the board before application of the gesso. In early period, this was mostly basswood. In early-modern and modern icons, it’s typically poplar. Both woods are still available today, of course. Basswood is not that durable, it’s a soft wood used for wooden models. I do have a panel of it somewhere I plan to paint someday, but until then, I spend money and have other people do this for me.
I have made my own panels. They are not good, but I did it. Using pre-sanded and drilled birch panels from an art store, I had a heck of a time applying gesso and sanding. This is not the job for me. And that’s okay, because the creation of icon boards is an artform in its own right, and was probably done by a different person in period than the actual painter. The Norman has more experience with woodworking and patience than I do, so my own boards are on the horizon, just not imminently so.
I purchase my high-end boards commercially. And by “commercially”, I mean, from Pandora Icon Supplies, which is a subsidiary of the Prosopon School based here in the states. They are not “manufactured”, because, much like high end papers for the C&I community, it requires a level of craftsmanship, and the price reflects this, so I’d call them more of a purveyor of fine art supplies. I just recently made an order after scrimping and saving for 2 years just to buy new materials, but they’re worth every penny. Sometimes there’s a turnaround time, sometimes they ship right away. These are handcrafted, so you have to anticipate some leeway. Pandora offers a lower-cost alternative in the form of the birch gessoed panel, which is still professional grade, but does not have the same thickness or carved surface of the fine icon board. Their larger fine board will have the slats in the back to help control the inevitable warping over time. Smaller boards, like the one I have below, do not. I can’t currently justify the cost of a larger, high-end board until I use up my supply on hand. I already want to start hoarding these like fabric.
Basswood, poplar, and birch are all Old World AND New World woods. In Europe, “linden” is the name of basswood, and “aspen” is used for some poplar variants. Black poplar is probably the one that was used most for boards in period, and that also grows here in North America. The taxonomic differences are probably minimal, which means that if someone were to go to a hardwood supplier here in the states, they would get wood suitable for making panels, without having to spend an exorbitant amount of money importing something we don’t have.
My current collection. The top row I have 2 11″x14″ Pandora “BGP” (Birch Gessoed Panels), which is a more affordable way to invest in a well-made board without breaking the bank, next to my own smaller panel that is currently getting worked on with St. Nicholas. At the bottom, you have a larger 10×15″ BGP still wrapped in paper, and a fine, 8″x10″ poplar panel with a kovcheg (recess). The BGPs pictured here were $60 a piece, and the fine board was $80. My 8″x10″ panel was like $20 of supplies a lot of swearing.
My upcoming projects are a commission of St. Martin of Tours, and St. Michael the Archangel for myself, because I need to start keeping some art. St. Nicholas of Myra as the patron saint of sailors is for my husband.
Coming next: Patterning the icon, and preparing the surface for gilding.
As I’m knee-deep in the pre-Pennsic grind, churning out commissioned garb orders and working out more than I have in years (I’m running again, HOORA—oh my knees!) I often find my mind wandering into just strange thoughts. Sometimes when I get angry, I get these negative thoughts that totally affect my performance, so I’m trying to focus more on happy thoughts and Tinkerbells and pixie dust and all that sparkly crap. Unfortunately, I haven’t found the right happy thought to make me fly just yet, but I did start chatting it up during epic moments of sewing procrastination with the other half on what we like the most in the SCA, and court came up.
Not everybody likes court, in fact, I’ve done my fair share of skirting out of courts early, usually for food or “OH GOD THIS IS NEVER GOING TO END HELP.” (If you’ve ever been to Birka? Yep.) So I’m not innocent here. Not by a long shot. However, sometimes it’s the little things at court that makes it totally worthwhile. The point of going is to see somebody you may know get recognized for their awesome, right? So, we thought for a bit, and decided on what we like seeing at court the most here in the East. Obviously, it’s always great to see someone you know and love getting recognized, but what about those folks you don’t know?
A peerage is always great. That’s the epitome of awesome, your SCA master’s degree that can even come with a hood…or spurs, spurs are cool too. It’s always awesome to see somebody be elevated, their emotionally charged ceremony leading up to the moment they swear fealty as a master or mistress of the realm loaded in their new regalia.
And then there’s always the basic Award of Arms, and watching the recipient become totally enchanted at the sight of their first royal scroll and being called Lord or Lady for the first time, and remembering when we were called up there once, blushing, and unsure of how to act in front of royalty.
Then there’s the other awards. In the East, we have one tier of Kingdom awards, called the Orders of High Merit, which are our highest awards (SCA Bachelor’s Degree?) that bestow on the recipient an award of arms if they don’t already have one. I know some kingdoms have both AoA and Grant of Arms level awards, which is kinda cool as well. We also have a variety of unique kingdom awards, such as the Queen’s Honor of Distinction and King’s Order of Excellence that aren’t always given out, those are a lot of fun to see as well.
However, my personal favorite, and I think that Geoffrey was in agreement with me as we sat here on the couch planning and making leather coronets for some friends of ours, is seeing someone receive a court baronage. When you get that, you’ve reached a pinnacle of recognition by the crown that they’re giving you NEW JEWELRY. You get a shiny for your head and you get to be called Your Excellency. Your very excellence made you well, excellent. 😀 Plus, they’re always a surprise award, unlike a landed baronage which requires an investiture (also cool to watch and a good excuse for a party) so the new baron or baroness has no idea what’s going on, and almost always gets misty, which makes me get misty. That doesn’t mean that the kingdom likes you, that doesn’t mean that a polling order says you’re good enough, that means the royalty REALLY REALLY LIKE YOU! Plus, then you get to ask Geoffrey and I to help make you a leather field coronet, and get surprised again when you see it. 😉 It’s becoming one of Geoff’s favorite crafts, even.
Which brings me to my final thought for the evening on the subject, overall, I think being a part of someone’s award, from the AoA through a baronage or peerage, makes it even more special. Because not only is someone you know getting recognized, you personally helped in a way to embarrass, I mean, award them, for their awesomeness. I think that’s part of the reason why I’m slowly getting into calligraphy, because being a scribe puts you in a great position to share the award experience with the deserving parties.
Feel free to comment on your favorite part of court or award given in your local kingdom or barony. 🙂 It’s always cool to see other perspectives.