Several weeks ago, on a visit to Shrewsbury School to write about its Ancient Library, I took this photo inside the school chapel. I'm afraid it doesn't do justice to what I saw, but even with my iPhone camera, you can tell that the artworks, by painter and carver of sacred icons, Aidan Hart, are not only stunning but hark back to an ancient tradition. Aidan Hart is no typical modern artist, but he's an artist of prodigious talent and we're privileged to have him living and working in our town. A few days ago I met Aidan at his studio in the English Bridge Workshop and had the chance to talk about his life and work.
Aidan grew up in Auckland, New Zealand. He read English Literature at university, then taught in secondary school. His father was a civil engineer and both his parents had a love of art, which Aidan did too, spending his spare working on sculptures.
In 1983, however, as a result of his studies in Early Church history, Aidan’s life took an unexpected turn, one that was to have far-reaching consequences. Having previously attended both Baptist and High Anglican churches, he converted to Orthodoxy. ‘I found an emphasis on whole-person commitment to God,’ Aidan said, ‘body, soul and spirit. I warmed towards that.’
Becoming Orthodox affected not only Aidan’s life of prayer but his life as an artist too. He began making carvings on religious themes and also studying the human body, which led him into painting. In particular, he started examining icons, taking them apart in an almost forensic fashion, applying his analytical mind to what he found, asking what were the component parts of beauty and why icons were so beautiful.
In addition, Aidan studied Philokalia, a collection of writings on prayer. It struck him that the word meant love of the beautiful. Prayer, he said, was beautiful as well - a work of art as much as any icon. But what was an icon, I wanted to know. Was it just a religious painting, which was how I guessed most people, including myself, thought of it? Or was it, as Aidan seemed to be suggesting, something more?
An icon, Aidan said, was a painting of a holy person put together in such a way that one could be lead through the image to the actual person depicted. A window between heaven and earth, he called it, one that abstracted the human form to express the spiritual. To make an icon, Aidan said, he had to be able to discern timeless principles and express them in his own indigenous way. His icons, for example, draw on the Celtic and Romanesque traditions as well as the Byzantine. He’d lived in Greece for a while, on Mount Athos during his years of training as an Orthodox monk, and that had influenced him, and he’d also travelled widely in Russia and Serbia, learning a lot about icons from the people he’d met.
Currently Aidan is one of only three or four other full-time icon painters in the UK today. He has two years’ worth of commissions ahead of him; a second studio out at Pontesbury [where his Royal College of Art educated assistant, Martin Earle, helps with carving commissions]. In addition he has another assistant working from Telford making his icon panels, doing gesso work and preparing cabinets to house the icons. Aidan has also written a book on icon painting, and he founded and teaches the Diploma in Icon Painting for The Prince’s School of Traditional Arts.
All of this is a far cry from the hermit’s life that for many years was Aidan’s, lived out on the side of the Stiperstones. Rural myth has it that back in those days one of Aidan’s many visitors was Prince Charles. I put this to Aidan, and he smiled. No myth, he said. Prince Charles did visit him, and these days Aidan sees him as a patron and a friend.
Aidan is now married, and has a young family. Looking back, he says that his years as an Orthodox monk, committed to prayer and the hermit’s existence, was actually one of the busiest periods in his life. Icon commissions were coming in. His daily church services took about four hours. He had twenty acres of land to manage - which he did by planting 5,000 trees - and then of course there were the visitors.
People were curious about monastic life. Aidan’s existence was hard for modern minds to grasp. He was a rasophone monk - more than a novice, but one who’d not yet taken final vows. As it turned out, Aidan left the hermitage without taking those vows. ‘I was able to leave behind another hermit in my place,’ he said. ‘And I may have left the institution, but most definitely I retain the inner calling. I clearly see my ministry as an iconographer. However strange as it may seem, as a hermit I had surprisingly little time to paint.’
Nowadays, Aidan supports his family primarily from his commissions for church icons, carvings, frescos and mosaics. He also gives talks and lectures and tutors. The day after I interviewed him, he was heading out to Huston, Texas to finalize details for a large church mosaic commission that will be made here in Shropshire in sections before being sent over to Texas. Snippets of mosaic were dotted about the studio - faces here, a single eye there. On Aidan’s drawing-board was a half –finished icon.
‘It’s all about depicting the world as seen through the eye of the spirit,’ Aidan said. ‘What a finished icon presents you with is a transfigured world. An icon isn’t naturalistic, but it is realistic. In the way that Moses saw the burning bush alight but not consumed, and the disciples saw Christ’s garments shining with light at his transfiguration, so an icon depicts the world aflame with the presence of God.’
Icons, Aidan said, had their place in the Western tradition every bit as much as that of Eastern Orthodoxy. It all came down to understanding that worship was due to God, and venerating anything through which God presented himself. ‘Icons are an affirmation of the incarnation,’ Aidan said. ‘What they’re showing is that God has become man in Christ. That's what the Christmas story is all about.
'We all have images that are important to us,' Aidan said, 'but those images differ depending on who we are. All of us are made in God’s image, but it takes an attitude of humility to see the God-likeness in each other. A good icon doesn’t distort reality, but transfigures it. Everything in the icon tells you something. There’ll be a bright sadness in the saint’s expression, a balance between joy and compassion, and everything placed around that central figure will have spiritual significance.’
Even the actual, physical making of an icon, Aidan said, breaking down its component elements into a form of Nativity, is a bringing together of heaven and earth. The pigment of the paint speaks for the mineral world; the egg that binds the paint for the animal world; the wood upon which the icon is painted for the kingdom of the vegetable. And the icon painter’s is a priestly role, binding the elements together, discerning the word of God in each created thing.
All Aidan’s icons are painted in egg tempera, with some use of gold leaf. Once icons were painted in melted wax, Aidan said, in a technique taken from the Romans, but it’s many centuries now since egg tempera became the preferred method for iconographers. Wax deteriorated over time and oil paint darkened, whereas egg tempera clarified. ‘But it requires more precision to use,’ Aidan said. ‘You can’t just slap it on.’
The mosaic commission in Houston is on the themes of the Crucifixion and Resurrection and each piece will be a massive 18’ x 12’. Other commissions Aidan is currently working on include a two metre high stone Mother and Child for Lincoln Cathedral, two icons of British saints for Hexham Abbey and an Annunciation for Caius College, Cambridge. In the pipeline is a fresco for a Benedictine Catholic monastery and a Prince Charles commission to sculpt all the members of his immediate family [so far Aidan has completed the marble bust of The Duchess of Cornwall].
Previously Prince Charles commissioned Aidan to sculpt a bust of Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London, and Patrick Holden, then chairman of the Soil Association. Prince Charles is a major patron of Aidan's work, his commissions including a fresco, about five icons and three sculpted portrait busts.
In addition, here in Shrewsbury Aidan teaches the Diploma in Icon Painting, which is a part-time three-year [four years for those who want to learn fresco-painting] course, running for a total of twenty-one days a year. Though part of The Prince’s School of Traditional Arts, which is based in Shoreditch, London, the Diploma is taught in Meole Brace, on the outskirts of Shrewsbury, at the Trinity Centre. Currently it has twelve students from all around the country and beyond - three commuting from Ireland, Germany and Sweden. This is a huge commitment, but icon painting, Aidan said, required a long period of training. Setting good foundations was vital. Aidan expected his students to work for five to eight hours a week in addition to their time in school.
I got up to go. Time to leave. Aidan had an icon to finish before flying out to America next day. It was good of him to make time for me. I picked up my bits and pieces, which included a modern icon, painted on glass, which I’d bought in auction at a Hall’s general sale. Aidan liked it. It was Polish, he said. A bit Chagallesque. Quite unusual. It was amazing what you could pick up in Hall’s sometimes.
Was there anything I’d left out, I asked. Anything I hadn’t brought up, that Aidan would like people to know. ‘Life with God is beautiful,’ Aidan said. ‘It makes you beautiful. I’m trying to bring seeds of Paradise into the world, so that people can nurture them and make them into little trees.’
For any of you interested, Aidan’s book is called ‘TECHNIQUES OF ICON AND WALL PAINTING: Egg Tempera, Fresco, Secco’. It’s the most comprehensive book to date on the techniques of icon and wall painting and it can be bought HERE [LINK].