A Jewel Box by the Sea

An ancient Kent church that for 800 years has stood on a hill looking out towards Whitstable Bay, over marsh, creeks and boats, is to be transformed into a Byzantine jewel box of dazzling icons.

An ‘icon screen’ will be built in the Anglican parish church to exhibit dozens of superb icon paintings, in the contemporary Byzantine tradition, by leading artists from all over the world.

This unique installation, part of the Canterbury Festival in the autumn, will give St Peter’s Church, at Oare, near Faversham, the temporary impression of having an iconostasis. This is a central feature of all Orthodox churches, separating the sanctuary from the nave and representing the place where heaven and earth meet.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, explains: ‘Icons are neither simple pictures nor little isolated spots of divinity scattered around. They are a way of experiencing the force of the Divine.’ He has a special interest in them, has written eloquently on the subject, and has his own extensive collection of icons in Lambeth Palace.

Icons belong to a living tradition, he says. ‘Not only are icons still being painted featuring the classic scenes from Christ’s life: as new saints are created, new scenarios become possible.’

The exhibition at Oare, entitled Divine Dimensions, will bring together many international iconographers, who will contribute works of their choice. Its creator is local artist Ann Welch, who is a student of iconography. She explains: ‘We shall create a contemplative space, the icons being accompanied by music and candlelight.’ One of her works is installed as the Dedication Icon of Rochester Cathedral.

‘Art often reflects the spirit of the age in which it was created,’ she adds. ‘This exhibition will reflect a spirit both of international co-operation and of ecumenical purpose. I hope it might also reflect the passing of an era of divisiveness and greed.’

During the period of the show, 17 October to 1 November 2009, a series of related events will be held. In different strands of Christian worship, there will be Orthodox vespers; Gregorian chant in the Roman Catholic tradition; and, on All Saints’ Day, November 1, Anglican choral evensong.

An evening of violin music and poetry on October 22 will be in celebration of the life and work of Philip Sherrard, an English poet, translator and theologian who was an expert on the heritage central to the exhibition.

Sir Richard Temple, one of the world’s leading collectors of icons, will give an illustrated lecture, Icon: Tradition and Symbolism, on October 28.

Another talk, Letting the Glory Through, will be given on June 18 by Canon Christopher Irvine, Canterbury Cathedral Librarian and art specialist.

An educational programme involving Kent school students is also planned.

Icons (from the Greek eikon, meaning image) are pictures of Christ, the Virgin Mary, angels, saints, and events of sacred history, used since before the fifth century for veneration and as an aid to devotion, particularly in the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches. Believed to proclaim the Incarnation of Christ, typically they are in Byzantine style, two-dimensionally flat-looking with an arresting gaze, painted in egg tempera on wood, and often with elaborately decorated gold or silver. Icons may also be in fresco, mosaic or encaustic. Icon painting, a symbolic art, is a thousand years older than European painting.

In modern times a great flowering of icon painting has brought new vitality to the old idioms, as the artists in the exhibition will show. Co-ordinated worldwide from Oare, they were able to exchange images and unifying ideas by e-mail. They include:

Former students of the Prosopon school of icon painting, many of them now masters in their own right. The school was founded in the twentieth century by a Russian now working in New York.

Elena Antonova works in Moscow; Irina Bradley in England; Irene Perez Omer is a Venezuelan-born artist working in Texas; Ariana Cuartas Villegas, from Colombia, is also based in the US.

A central icon of the iconostasis is the work of Sergei Taracyan, a Russian artist who lives in a remote hermitage five hours’ drive from Moscow. (He is beyond the reach of e-mail: messages were left for him with one of his students in the capital.)

Marek Czarnecki is a Polish-American icon-maker who works in a Russian style; Sylvia Dimitrova, born in Bulgaria, was formerly an artist-in-residence at Wells Cathedral and shortlisted for a European Women of Achievement award.

Dr Stéphane René, perhaps the world’s leading exponent of neo-Coptic iconography; Aidan Hart, whose frescoes are in Prince Charles’s chapel at Highgrove; Ian Knowles, a notable iconographer doing restoration in Jerusalem; Eva Vlavianos, a Greek restorer in Paris; Fotini Maragou, an artist from the Greek island of Lesvos; and Dr Guillem Ramos-Poqui from Barcelona, whose book on icon technique was the first of its kind in Britain.

Peter Murphy, of Broadstairs, whose works can be seen in Hereford Cathedral and Tewkesbury Abbey; Sarah Prosser, also of Kent; Amanda de Pulford, of Faversham, who is the creator of the Dedication Icon of St German at Peel Cathedral on the Isle of Man; and Pia Carnell, of Rochester, who was introduced to iconography by her mother in Finland.

Sister Petra Clare, of Scotland, whose latest work is at the Shrine of St Jude, Faversham, and Sister Esther Pollock, the founder of the British Association of Iconographers, will also show icons.

Visitors to the exhibition will be able to view the stages of icon production and their theological meaning by watching a film of Vladislav Andreyev, the founder of the Prosopon school.

Professor Robin Cormack, of the Courtauld Institute of Art, London, will open the Oare exhibition. He co-curated the recent Byzantium exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts.

Almost all Christian icon imagery was whitewashed from English history and heritage in the aftermath of sixteenth-century political and religious upheaval. In Eastern Orthodox churches, however, the ancient tradition of icons was kept alive, and it is hoped that this exhibition will shine light on their glory.

St Peter’s Church is on Church Road, Oare ME13 0QB, a five-minute drive north of the delightful old market town of Faversham (which is at the eastern end of the M2, 10 miles west of Canterbury). Access is easiest via the Western Link road off the A2 on the west side of Ospringe village. Faversham is about an hour by train from London Victoria; Arriva bus 333 runs to Oare hourly from near the station.

Near the church are Oare Marshes Nature Reserve, the Saxon Shore Way long-distance coastal footpath, the historic Oare Gunpowder Works, and two artists’ houses participating in the Canterbury Festival artists’ open house trail. If feeding the soul has left your body hungry, you can find sustenance at the Castle pub, and at the Three Mariners which is listed in the Good Food Guide.

David Gwyn Jones

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