Gilding

Nope, not “gliding.” “Gilding.”

Many of you know that I am an iconographer. I write icons in the Orthodox tradition (Russian and Greek). I’ll write more on the fact that it is referred to as writing rather than painting another day.

Here’s an icon of St. Mark, the Evangelist. There are traditional symbols for the evangelists, and St. Mark’s is the lion. You see that lion alongside of the saint, also holding the Gospel.

I try to faithfully render pictures that tell the story of God, of Jesus his son, of the Holy Spirit, of the saints. Icons are viewed in that tradition as a window into heaven. They date from a time when most churchgoers were not literate, and much like stained glass windows in the Western church, they speak to those stories. They also give a way to focus one’s prayers, praying to God or asking the represented saint to intercede on one’s behalf.

The process of making an icon can be described in its simplest terms as “paint by numbers for the spiritual,” since the iconographer is usually copying an old icon from the masters, making a cartoon (an outline sketch) of the image to transfer onto an icon board, and painting it in following the traditional colors used in such icons.

There’s one step, though, that’s a little more challenging, and that’s gilding. The gold you see on the icon is not paint. It’s very thin sheets of gold leaf. The gold leaf is fragile, difficult to handle, and hard to get perfect on the icon, particularly when there is a large area to be gilded.

There are different ways to prepare a base to receive the gold leaf, but the final step before putting down the gold leaf is by painting it with a glue called gold size. Some iconographers make sure the base is colored with a gold-ish color called yellow ochre, others color it red, so that if there is any detail scribed into it, like the rim of a halo, it shows through as red in a beautiful way.

So here’s the board that was used to craft the icon of St Mark. In this photo, it has been prepared, with the area to be gilded painted red, and the gold size brushed on.

In this case, I’ve chosen to do the gold leaf first. In other icons, like this one where there’s very little that will be gilded, I do it last. That’s a personal preference.

So back to gilding the board, once the gold size is partly dried to a tacky state. Some brave souls use loose gold leaf. They’re light as a feather and you cannot breathe or they’ll float off or crumple off. I use what’s called patent gold leaf, where the leaves are gently atteched to a piece of carrier paper. Then I’m just transferring it by pressing down on the gold pieces and lifting off the paper carrier. it looks like this:

Looks pretty messy, doesn’t it? Not to worry. It will get better as it proceeds. Not perfect – only God is perfect – but better. Sometimes you need to go back and patch a bit here and there. Sometimes you leave it a little messy. The Spirit guides you as to when you’re done with the gilding.

What’s the point of gilding? To draw the eye to the glory of God, to the faith of the saint, to keep one focused as one prays through the icon to God. History nerds will remember the iconoclast movement, which saw all artistic renderings of God and the saints as idolatry (8th-9th Century in the Byzantine empire) and sought to destroy them. But we believe it is a bridge too far to destroy all artistic renderings of religious subjects. God has given us all our senses and all our gifts the better to draw us near to the divine. Why take away a tool for drawing us close to God?

So people like me do this work as a spiritual practice, to guide our own prayer lives and (we hope) draw others into prayer and adoration.

Why do I write about gilding in iconography today? What does it have to do with our conversation about church life? More than you might think.

You know the Scripture passage from Matthew: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they toil not, neither do they spin…” And we know of that oft-misquoted line from Shakespeare’s “King John”: “…to gild refined gold, to paint the lily…” What we seem to be hearing is that doing this kind of work of decorating is a waste of time and an example of ridiculous excess: it’s gilding the lily.

And that’s true in some cases. But I’d also make the point that the intent of the thing is what matters. Gilding in iconography is intended to give a glimpse, albeit an imperfect one, of the glory of God. It’s meant to help us focus in our prayers to God, to look upon something without being distracted from lesser matters.

That’s a whole different kettle of fish (or bowl of molten gold) than those who gild things to make themselves look important, or to try to impress that something is luxurious for the purposes of wretched excess, viz.:

If the intent is the glory of God – think of the soaring arches of the ceiling of the great Gothic cathedrals, reaching up to heaven – I think there’s value in the gilding. Otherwise, not so much.

What does the glory of God look like in your space? Is it about proving that you can afford to do it, or is it about the glory of God? I’m grateful for the gifts of architects, artists and iconographers in many of the holy places I’ve visited around the world. Even in mosques where representative art is considered idolatrous, the renderings of the Quran script are aesthetically magnificent.

So intent is one thing. The other, related thing is sort of a cost-benefit analysis, but from a spiritual angle. Yes, something may be beautiful. yes, it may be for the glory of God. But if the cost means we cannot afford to care for the needy, we’re missing the point of relationship with God. Does this thing get in the way of our mission as a church or does it augment it? I can make a good case that art in the service of the sacred is capable of drawing people toward recognizing their need for Christ in their lives. But if I’m all about the art and not about the purpose of being church, I’ve gotten distracted.

You’ve experienced this. I’d wager, as have I. I’ve visited churches where the whole conversation was about the silver Communion vessels reputed to have been crafted by Paul Revere. When I asked about mission and outreach, I got blank stares. I’ve visited tiny churches that were down to only a dozen or less parishioners but they wanted to talk about how all their dollars went to keeping the building looking beautiful. I’ve been to places where the aesthetics were exquisite but the vibe was cold as ice.

I’ve also been to places where there was peeling paint and the organ hadn’t been attended to in decades, but there was a powerful feeding ministry. I’ve been to places where the parking lot was where all the potholes go to live after they’ve been obliterated in fancier places, and attended Bible studies where the conversation was deep and rich and searching. I’ve been to places where the hospitality overcame the chaos of a beat-up space, and then some.

And I’ve been in places where they were somewhere in the middle between the two extremes. That’s probably true for most of our churches, isn’t it? But here’s my point: gilding is beautiful and a powerful adjunct to the paint, but if we forget what it is for, and to whose glory it is used, it really is missing what we are invited to be as church. We’re gilding lilies instead of using the gilding to shine a light on the glory and love of God.

Aesthetics can be a path to God and a vision of God through human understanding. Let’s use the beautiful in service to the good, and all shall be well.

…and now I’m going downstairs to the craft cave to write icons. More on this topic and others soon.

As always, feel free to share comments pro and con regarding these thoughts, which are purely my own. If there’s a topic of interest you’d like me to chat about, let me know.

Stay cool if you’re in a hot place, and stay warm if you’re in a cool place, and look for lilies, be they gilded or not.

Mary+

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