Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Iconization of Thomas Ken

    Saint Thomas Ken by Michel Lafleur (2017) 6" x 8", oils on toile

Thomas Ken (1637-1711), though a somewhat obscure English ecclesiastic, is nonetheless a household name in certain obscure American households, and one particularly well known to me: viz, my own.  A saintly character who became the Bishop of Bath and Wells, he was most notable for two public acts of conscience.  In the summer of 1683 he refused the request of King Charles II’s advance man to give temporary housing to the famous royal mistress, Eleanor (“Nell”) Gwyn, maintaining that “a woman of ill repute ought not to be endured in the house of a clergyman, and especially the king’s chaplain.”  More famously he was one of the non-jurors: a few bishops who at the time of the Glorious Revolution refused to take an oath of fealty to the new king, William of Orange, on the grounds that the old monarch, James II (abdicated or deposed, depending upon your ecclesiastical politics) was still alive.  When I was talking about the inconveniences of resolutions and vows last week, I should have included oaths.

Both of Ken’s actions, and especially the second, took cojones; but his fame in the Fleming household is based on mere calendrical accident.  Ken’s is remembered in the Anglican calendar on March 20.  That is the day Joan happened to be ordained to the priesthood, making him a kind of spiritual patron for her.

That is the first part of the “set up” for this essay.  The second introduces the “Haitian barbershop art” project of our formidable son Richard.  He spends a good deal of time in Haiti, and has taken a great interest in the Haitian art scene, being a regular at the Ghetto Biennale.  There is on the island an amazing flourishing of “tonsorial art”—that is, paintings (rather in the genre of British pub signs) identifying and adorning barbershops and beauty salons, very numerous in Haiti’s service economy.  Richard has been trying to connect some of the artists with potential American clients.

            None of this was at first in my mind as I slowly was developing an idea for the perfect Christmas gift, the idea of a commissioned icon of Thomas Ken.    I knew that, if nothing else, such an image would be unique.   Initial investigation revealed problems.  The first was the problem of a model or prototype.  Ken’s extant iconography is meager.  There is a portrait in New College, Oxford; but aside from that there is little more than the usual author’s portrait etchings in old books--a gloomy-faced senior citizen wearing what look like ecclesiastical pajamas.  The second is that there are not all that many Anglican icon-makers.  I did come upon a very promising one, a woman in New England who does exquisite golden pieces in neo-Byzantine style.  She was game to give it a go, but at a price I could not afford.  Then I thought of the Haitian portraitists with whom Richard is connected.  

            Richard has been helping some of the Barbershop Painters to supplement their income by doing commissioned portraits, based on photographs, in their distinctive vernacular styles.  You send an artist a photo of Uncle Fred with a few general suggestions about size and so forth; the artist does the rest. 

            The word “icon” perhaps requires a little demystification.  It is the Greek word for pictorial representation as image (imago) was the Latin word.  It has come to mean particularly a “religious picture”, though we also have “Civil Rights icons,” computer icons, and other secular icons galore.  In Christian history icons/images have been used both in the decoration of churches and for private devotion.   In popular thought they are particularly associated with the eastern Orthodox churches, though in fact the surviving iconography deriving from Latin (Roman Catholic) traditions is more extensive and more diverse.  Religious pictures have been controversial.  There were major movements of theological image-smashing (iconoclasm) in the East in the eighth and ninth centuries and in the West in the sixteenth.

            We do not know the names of most of the creators of medieval religious art, and the small works of Orthodox devotion we are most likely think of as “icons” may seem characteristically anonymous.  But the name of the fifteenth-century Russian painter Andrei Rublev became widely known through a famous Soviet film.  We think El Greco began as an “icon”-painter, and there are others.  The creator of the world’s first known commissioned icon of Saint Thomas Ken is named Michel Lafleur, and more of his work (both tonsorial and portraiture) can be seen here.  

            The process by which he created the icon was wonderfully medieval.  In writing a doctoral dissertation on the illustrated manuscripts of the Roman de la Rose I discovered the extraordinary degree to which medieval painters regarded themselves as technicians rather than expressive creators.   A scribe needing an image of Lady Fortune might write the simple instruction: “Draw a picture of a woman with a wheel here” and get what he wanted.  Above all, the painters were expert copyists of approved models.  Unfortunately, the only model I could provide for M. Lafleur was a grim neo-classical line-etching.  He did a wonderful job of “byzantinizing” with golden hues; but he couldn’t do much about the weird cameo thing at the bottom of the oval architectural frame.