The Twelve Believers project is a celebration of those whom Christ celebrates, the fruit of a deep engagement with the Gospels for the building up of faith in our own day. As I have begun working with artists to create new icons of the Twelve Believers, I have quickly reached the limits of my competence. I am not fluent enough to properly guide the artistic aspect of the project on my own.
What is more, while it is a fairly straightforward and ordinary project to populate a room in one’s private home with icons, the iconography for the Twelve Believers project has a public role to play in establishing an identity for this group of saints within the life of the Church. The artistic challenge and opportunity is, as one potential collaborator put it, “making every single image function together with the ‘team’ of other images.” If done well, this “will give a feeling of ensemble and create a stunning impression” of the group as a whole, aiding their reception as such within the Church.
Therefore, I am happy to announce that Andrew Gould, principal designer at New World Byzantine and founding editor of the Orthodox Arts Journal, has agreed to join the Twelve Believers project as my artistic advisor. Under God, Andrew’s guidance will greatly improve the outcome of the iconographic aspect of the project.
The primary conclusion from my initial conversations with Andrew is that the icons of the Twelve Believers are to be structured as a deisis, that is, a representation of Christ in Glory at the Second Coming, with the Mother of God and John the Baptist in supplication on his right hand and his left. For example, here is a deisis from Federico José Xamist, one of the iconographers working with the Twelve Believers project. The deisis tier of a traditional iconostasis, particularly a Russian one, proceeds outwards with Archangels Gabriel and Michael, Saints Peter and Paul, etc. For us instead it will be the Twelve Believers arrayed down the sides of the chapel, as follows:
|Virgin Mary||St. John the Baptist|
|St. Mary of Bethany||St. Justa|
|St. Peter||St. Veronica|
|St. Nathanael||The Sinful Woman|
|The Wise Scribe||St. Dismas|
|St. Zacchaeus||The Samaritan Leper|
|The Centurion||St. Bartimaeus|
Each portrait icon of the Twelve is to be 18 by 24 inches, framed alike, gaze outward, head inclined toward Christ. Each will vary from its neighbors in style while remaining equal in artistic mastery, each uniquely evoking the attraction we ought to feel for these reflections of the image of God. For, in Andrew’s words:
Icons reveal the beauty of the Kingdom of Heaven to our physical senses, inspiring our love of God and His saints by means of eros. Upon seeing a great icon, one may feel wounded in the heart by erotic love, and may want to skip across the room and kiss it, and never part from that beauty.
The icons at the front will be the largest and most visually sumptuous, with burnished water gilding and jewel tones, perhaps all on one panel, perhaps on separate panels of equal height, perhaps hinged in a triptych.
In this context, the Twelve Believers join the Virgin and the Forerunner in supplication to Christ on our behalf, and we join with this cloud of witnesses in prayer and worship. Christ holds the text (whether in a book or scroll), “Well done, good and faithful servants.” Of course, Christ himself is the Faithful Servant, himself explicitly and directly praised by God at his Baptism and again at his Transfiguration. Likewise, Virgin Mary is praised by Archangel Gabriel, and John is praised by Christ before the people. Their specific words (or acts) of faith and God’s specific words of praise are inscribed or represented in a manner suitable to each composition:
Many individual details will need to be decided as the project unfolds. As these details are discovered, the above framework will ensure that we unite the creativity and individuality of each artist into a coherent whole. Thanks be to God!
The next step is to finish forming the team of thirteen iconographers, understanding that some changes to the roster may occur here and there as the project unfolds in the coming years.
It is important to assemble the full team up front in order to ensure a stylistic balance, and also for more pragmatic reasons. On the one hand, many artists have years-long waiting lists. On the other hand, the intended use for these icons goes beyond their private display. I have commercial intentions. As one friend describes it:
This project would make a great book, with the icon for each, description of the biblical material about them, the traditions in the church about them, and reflections/meditations on their examples of faith (sort of a follow up to Hebrews 11).
While it would be crass to reduce the Twelve Believers to its commercial aspect, it would also be short-sighted to ignore the question of properly licensing these works of art for such uses.
Which is to say, there is much to be done. Lord, have mercy!