How to create something new without stepping outside tradition. Those who have ever attended an icon painting class will know that the method of teaching is to copy an existing icon and that deviation from the prototype is usually flatly forbidden. This is an important part of the training – provided that the student is given an understanding of what it is he is copying and why the artist who painted the prototype made the decision regarding style and content that he did. This experience can lead some to conclude erroneously that there is no room for any creativity or originality in icons. In fact while originality from the artist is never sought as an end in itself, sometimes it is necessary – when for example there is no existing image of a particular saint.
The icon top left is St Winifred (also spelt Winefride), a Welsh saint from the 6th century. This was painted by Aidan Hart the English icon painter. I haven’t spoken to him about this, but I am not aware of any other icon of St Windfride and so I conclude that he has created this.
Aidan had created a number of these icons of ancient British saints and I have heard him describe the general methods he uses. He researches the saints so that he can work out what visual features characterise the saint and then includes these in the icon. So here for example, she is wearing the old habit of a religious and has the staff of authority of an abbess. Then, he looks at his library of existing icons and as far as possible makes a composite picture from these to create the new icon. Only if he cannot do this does he introduce something completely new. I do not know for certain what his inspiration is for St Winefride, but it struck me that it might be this icon of St Theodosia (below) which comes from Mt Sinai and was painted in the 13th century. I know that he has based his style on the golden age of icon painting that this belongs to. It is a Greek style in which has a relatively high level of naturalism (for icons) and so modern Western people tend to relate to it easily. It almost looks as though Aidan has copied it from a mirror! It might be that the similarities are incidental, and Aidan did not base the original on this, but nevertheless, if I were faced with the problem of creating something new, this is where I would have gone to create St Winefride.
I recently decided that I would like to paint an image of St Winefride too. I grew up near the pilgrimage site in Wales and for personal reasons had prayed to St Winefride. I promised her that I would paint a icon of her and donate it to the community of nuns who run the residential retreat centre at the tow of Holywell in North Wales where it is situated. I added to the image the palm branch of a martyr and the well to depict the source of the healing waters which still flow today. I have also added the Romanesque or gothic style border, which characterises the Western sacred tradition of the Roman Rite and which I always like to include in my work. As always, I think Aidan does a better job, but I am happy nevertheless that this image will help the prayers of future pilgrims to Holywell.