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Iconic Saint Ahab

There is an old Russian joke — perhaps even predating the 1917 Revolution — regarding history and its relationship with us: “The most difficult task for a Communist historian is to predict the past.” Facts drawn from the past can be marshaled to conform with the present; indeed, to appear that they have shaped it. Inconvenient bits of information are easily “misplaced” or countered with “alternative facts” to suit the prevailing point of view. The shape, the shaping, and the shaper.

”History” has become histories in our current deconstructed academic world as departments of history sprout free-standing programs for Black, Feminist, LGBTQ, and other cultural subgroups craving a place at the table of what has been the White Male European historical banquet, from which others had been consigned to the kiddie’s corner in another room. If that seems harsh or value laden, it wasn’t intended. But I can marshall several facts to support it. That’s what we do at Agincourt: predict the past.

In the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic, May Morris (Mrs William Morris) became the icon for feminine beauty. This portrait by Dante Gabriel Rossetti shows May as triplets, in wistful reverie with herselves.

Photography arrived on the scene almost simultaneous with the Pre-Raphaelites.

What began as a straightforward search for an Orthodox religious icon — representing Ahab’s situation on the interface between Eastern and Western Christianity; like many such lines — a militarized confrontation between contending ideologies — it has morphed into something unexpected: a hybrid representation of Saint Ahab, not straddling the breech between Rome and Constantinople, but sharing some of the imagery drawn from both Orthodox hagiography and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Religious icons seem more alike than different from an outsiders point of view, but that illusion of sameness comes from more than mere tradition. Their production must follow strict guidelines, adhering to an accepted canon of symbols and composition and rigorous technical processes. Tradition dictates that it be painted on olive wood which has been primed and sanded multiple times to the smoothest possible surface. It is painted with egg tempera, an ancient organic medium (using egg white) so durable that its colors are still vivid on Egyptian mummy cases more than 2,000 years old. The biggest surprise concerns the requisite gold leaf, the lustrous surface that surrounds each face: I was shocked to learn that its application occurs before any paint is applied. That’s right; the entire gessoed surface is covered with thin layers of gold and then almost completely covered with paint.

Symbols often come from the church’s official biography—hagiography—and in Ahab’s case it would draw from his status as a “red saint” martyred for his faith (rather than “white” who have led blameless lives). It might include elements which reference his work (a sailor turned pirate) and/or the means of his martyrdom (in Ahab’s case, being crucified on the mast of his own ship). Of course, attainment of sainthood also requires miracles—most often inexplicable medical cures; that, too, might be incorporated in the composition.

The Pre-Raphaelites’ philosophy was similarly driven by notions of moral rectitude; of living the very sort of “good” life encouraged by the cult of the saints. Artists like Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt [don’t you love those evocative names?] supported the notion of a moral art that was “not only beautiful”; they believed that art cannot please the eye until it has first addressed the soul. So what had initially seemed an odd amalgam—an Eastern art form fused to (filtered through) a Victorian art movement—now makes a sort of sense that deserves more investigation and thought. I’ll be surprised if it hasn’t been tried before. There is, of course, an actual artist at work on this component of the next Agincourt exhibit (in fewer than five weeks!), but does it also cry out for a backstory? Of course it does and that prospect makes me smile, because I feel a story coming on.


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