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Painting that is also teaching

01 August 2014

Nicholas Cranfield on an artist of today who is working in an ancient tradition

The transfiguration: Hart's 2006 icon, from the book under review

The transfiguration: Hart's 2006 icon, from the book under review

Beauty Spirit Matter: Icons in the modern world

Aidan Hart

Gracewing Publishing £14.99


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AIDAN HART is one of the leading practitioners of icon-writing. There are examples of his work not only in Orthodox churches such as St Mary's Cathedral, Camberwell, and the Church of the Holy Fathers in Shrewsbury, but also in Anglican places of worship. A school in Shropshire, a Cambridge college, Carlisle Cathedral, Hexham Abbey, a chapel in Bedford, and St Clement's, Leigh-on-Sea, all have icons written by him.

Rather more surprisingly, since the Orthodox East and Latin West are often at odds, so, too, has the Roman Catholic Benedictine Abbey of St John at Collegeville, Minnesota, in the United States.

For three decades, Hart, a former Baptist, who spent time on Mount Athos as part of his journey into the Orthodox Church, has enriched the contemporary way of seeing God through the ancient practice of meditative painting. This publication consists of eight essays that explore both his methods and also the teaching behind the work of God.

The essays hinge on an understanding of the Transfiguration, a major feast of the Lord which has long lost in the West the prominence that is accorded to it as its due in the East. For it was on Mount Tabor that, when he was transfigured, Jesus revealed the original nature of mankind arrayed in divine glory. Our response to glimpsing that glory may best explain why icons have now become so much more widely used outside the Orthodox tradition.

The book is shot through with quotations from many writers, including St Gregory Palamas, the last of the Great Theologians; the Russian Orthodox Bishop Makari Gluharev; St Maximus the Confessor; and the church Father St Gregory of Nazianzus. These draw out the theological threads that bind and explain icons.

The author also argues that the origin of much European abstract art can be found in the desire to return to simple forms expressed by artists such as Kandinsky and Brancusi, who grew up in a world dominated by Orthodoxy.

Several of the essays read like carefully considered sermons; and I especially valued Hart's insights into the nature of Church as corporately prophet, priest, and king, manifested in the poet, conductor, and artist.

The collection is rounded off with a witty little short story showing that Hart is good at narrative writing as well as writing about painting. It is a wonderful retelling of the transfiguration, in which The Boss takes three of his friends, including Rockie, as recounted by a goatherd.

The Revd Dr Cranfield is the Vicar of All Saints', Blackheath, in London.

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