This year I’ve been blessed with some unique commissions from outside the Orthodox Church – I love the opportunity to talk with Christians from other denominations and share our understanding of icons and the Gospel. One of these is the new icon of “Christ and the Rich Young Ruler” for the Dean of St John’s Cathedral in Denver, Colorado, the very Rev. Charles LaFond.
Most icons are commissioned, discussed and then go onto my waiting list. This one would have to be different and would have to jump the queue to be completed in time. Normally I would have said no straight away, but something about this icon and its theme intrigued me. I had heard this story before of course – it is the moment when Christ says “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter Heaven”. Like many Christians I was both baffled by the imagery but also struck by a few words in the sentence before when we hear “Christ looked at the young man and warmed to him”. Does this mean that before this moment, Christ had not felt warmth – or love – for this rich young person? What changed for Christ in that moment that it is marked in the gospel? Charles was very clear that THIS was the moment to be shown in the icon – that second when we are told how Christ felt agape for this person, who had approached him with such an important question. In our correspondence, Charles said “The wealthy need a savior too. And they know it. Their spiritual position is precarious even if not their social and logistical position.”
So we had a short length of time, a very clear purpose and moment to be shown and a commissioning client who really knew what he wanted this icon to communicate, as clearly as possible. Not having a prototype to work from was in many ways liberating: we talked directly about the biblical text, reading around the scene and description. Charles also brought in a passage from the Hebrew Bible, extremely relevant to the conference theme and also this icon:
Deuteronomy 8:11-20 “Moses convened all Israel, and said to them: Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes, which I am commanding you today. When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, an arid wasteland with poisonous snakes and scorpions. He made water flow for you from flint rock, and fed you in the wilderness with manna that your ancestors did not know, to humble you and to test you, and in the end to do you good. Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today. If you do forget the Lord your God and follow other gods to serve and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish. Like the nations that the Lord is destroying before you, so shall you perish, because you would not obey the voice of the Lord your God”
I looked at other icons and frescoes of this kind of interaction – Christ meeting the Samaritan Woman in particular, as we know this story and it is more frequently found in extant examples. Usually Christ is shown sitting while the other person stands, and so this is how I began the sketching out process. I roughly draw out the shape of the board and then do a few ‘brain-storming’ sketches to see what will work best.
Initially I drew the figure of Jesus sitting – traditionally he would sit and the crowd would gather and sit around his feet. Then I tried showing the Ruler kneeling or sitting, waiting to learn at Christ’s feet. However, Charles wanted both to be standing – this was a dynamic interaction between Christ and the Young Ruler, rather than a more simple ‘teaching’ scene. In the end, the form came quite naturally, as we are told in the Gospel of St Mark:
As He was setting out on a journey, a man ran up to Him and knelt before Him, and asked Him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments, ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” And he said to Him, “Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth up.” Looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him and said to him, “One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But at these words [a]he was saddened, and he went away grieving, for he was one who owned much property.
And Jesus, looking around, *said to His disciples, “How hard it will be for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God!” The disciples were amazed at His words. But Jesus *answered again and *said to them, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” They were even more astonished and said to Him, “Then who can be saved?” Looking at them, Jesus *said, “With people it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.”
Christ is ever so slightly taller, as He is mature in both body and of course His Divine Nature. He is clothed traditionally, with the red robe of His human nature adorned by the blue outer garment of His Divinity. He is shown with a clear, compassionate expression – with His right hand He blesses and I chose that His left hand should be open, extending towards this young man who has come seeking His teaching on life and how to be saved. It is not a begging, not a pleading, nor an order or command – it is an open, loving invitation to the young man (and all of us). “Here, take my hand, and I will lead you into Paradise”. He is shown not quite standing, not quite moving – Christ was about to leave at the end of a long time answering, telling parables, teaching. Yet He hesitates, having heard the direct question and honest response of this wealthy young man.
The Young Ruler is standing, having heard the reply and about to leave down-hearted while he is – obviously – dressed very differently. Charles and I discussed at length how we could show his material prosperity and how that should be illustrated. Garish colours? Gold and jewels? Furs even? It was very tempting to have some real ‘fun’ with this ensemble, to communicate just how extravagant his wealthy behaviour had become.
And yet there is nothing intrinsically wrong with his wealth – it is a fact of his life, like brown hair or a straight nose. I felt that although he was rich, he was not intrinsically ‘bad’ or tasteless in the way that using artificial pigments might convey. After all, we are told that he has kept all the laws from his youth and still desires salvation.
Here, a technical side note. The pigments that I use are, always, natural ones. They are formed out of the earth, metals, stones, even a precious gem or two, and ground up to be mixed with the yolk of eggs (from my garden hens) and water, with a little vodka. They have a quality and a life that is conveyed, imperceptibly, to our brain. I noticed one morning that as I sat down to work, the sunlight caught little tiny sparkles on the paint surface – minute stars, glimmering in the blue of Christ’s robe, as the azurite is particularly prone to this grainy quality (if too finely ground it will lose it’s colour). This means that the light not only penetrates through the layers of paint, onto the white of the gessoed board to reflect back at us the layers of colour, but that the light is being refracted and almost behaving in that chaotic, swirling way that reminds me of the waters before Creation – they are full of movement but not in a regular form. This is why acrylic paint and other artificial pigments do not fulfill the full liturgical, doxological, eucharistic theology of iconography – they can be unutterably beautiful and God may grant His Grace to work through them of course – but there is a reality in the very matter used in icons. I am so grateful that Charles understood all of this because my next step was not what we had discussed at all!
I sat down and gazed at the form of the young man. I had spent hours drawing him, over and over, until I got the combination of supplication, enquiry and so on combined with the transformed nature of the icon as right as I could. I knew that I wanted him to be bright. Yet as I sat there, I knew that, underneath the almost turquoise terre verte I wanted for his robe, there must also be a deep layer of azurite – the same as Christ’s robe. Here was a young man who wants to be saved, who wants to be with Christ – and yet he already IS and he already partakes of that Divinity in his person by virtue of being human and therefore already formed in God’s likeness and image. I had to find a way to show that all humanity, whether rich or poor, is a part of God’s likeness and that his wealth was no bar to this – if only he (and we) can recognise it. This led to a slightly different choice for his cloak – the inner red, which grabs our attention here and on his delicately shod feet, is a genuine (and poisonous) vermillion. This is the most intense colour I ever use and it certainly shouts more loudly than the red ochre. His outer cloak was also decorated – at the time I assumed they were ‘just’ pearls but Charles suggested this: who other than a very rich person would travel with such impractical, highly decorative garments? His shoes illustrate that he does not have to walk for miles – he rides a fine horse or is perhaps carried in a litter. His cloak is sewn with pearls and yet they would not help protect him from weather – this is all about display. An early form of wearing designer labels perhaps? His hem and crown are both gold, as is the decorative panel on his cloak. However, you might be wondering why I didn’t just use gold leaf, as there is lots of gold leaf on the background of the panel?
Gold, in an icon, is not used to depict the metal gold on this earth (or not solely that). In this instance, the gold in background is a 23 ½ carat gold leaf, water gilded and double layered over a red clay base. As simply put as possible, the gold is the presence of the unseen God “in whom we live and move and have our being”. He is closer to us than our own breath and yet cannot be seen with eyes. This gold is a reminder of that presence and part of the ‘transfigured reality’ that icons show us. When gold is used on a garment, it is not to show itself but the light of divinity transforming material, fabric, garments just as Christ’s robes were transfigured on Mt Tabor and the face of Moses when he received the tablets of the law – the Light of God transforms the very matter around us, as far as we are able to see it. So the lines of gold on the robe of the Virgin Mary, the lines of gold on the robe of an infant Christ etc., all are signs of the indwelling of God possible within His good creation when it is transmuted by His presence and in the fullness of its potential reality.
The crown, hem and cloak are therefore painted with a bright Italian yellow ochre, to illustrate the decorative nature of his garments but not their essence. They are finely figured in the Byzantine style of the 12th-13th centuries and I hope, communicate how wealthy this person would have been to wear such finery.
As he reaches towards Christ in supplication, there are other tiny elements in the icon which tell us both where it is from and where it is going: in the sea-green of the young ruler’s robes, Fr Charles saw a hint of the Scottish sea in summer; in his crown, there are faceted sapphires which suggest the saltire flag, the cross of St Andrew. At his feet, we can see the Colorado Ground Snake (sonora semiannulata) and scorpion, both native species of the region which call to mind the passage in Deuteronomy; behind Christ, there is in the distance a waterfall – He is the life-giving water which not only quenches all who thirst but is so essential for life in the hot, desertified country where this icon will live. Around Christ’s feet, there are a few native plants from the states around Colorado as well – Columbine, blanket flower and a reference to Christ as the vine.
There is also an element of ‘sacred geometry’ involved – between the figures, one can see the shape of a chalice, similar to those made by Fr Charles in beautiful pottery. There is a Communion taking place between Christ and this rich young ruler, similar to the Eucharist celebrated daily in churches throughout the world, and also a reference to the icon of the Rublev Hospitality of Abraham, which I was studying at the time.
I was sad to complete this icon – I am always reluctant to let them go, having been blessed by spending so many hours in prayer with them and getting to know the Saints or the passage of the Gospel in this case – but I am more delighted than I can say to know that it is going to be shared with so many who wish to bring the Gospel and good news of Christ’s love to more in the community and that it will be so well cared for, and prayed with, by Fr Charles. I should perhaps say, I feel sad but also immensely blessed.