Martyrdom of St. Jacques Hamel

"I have been living with this icon of St. Jacques Hamel since I began painting early Monday morning. Here it is, finally finished three days later. Anyone is free to print the icon for use in prayer at home, in a church prayer service, or at any prayerful event dedicated to peacemaking. Otherwise it is not for any commercial use, nor for any political or religious diatribe. 

"I am a Byzantine Catholic iconographer and sacred storyteller, and this has been my way to prayerfully tell the story of this martyrdom in France. Peace be with all of you. Shalom, Salaam, Pax -- Dr. Robert Bela Wilhelm"

Here is a photo of Abbé Jacques Hamel. 



And here is the Church of St. Etienne where he was offering the Sacrifice of the Mass when his throat was slit by a young terrorist.

When I first heard the news, I saw this photo of the French president meeting with the Mayor of the town.  The name of the mayor triggers the process for my painting this icon.

027a04897dff83979b8e52410dc5d192b92e7dec0421c0adbee618373bb2de1e 3751975
French President Francois Hollande (C) flanked by Hubert Wulfranc mayor of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray (L) and French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve (R), speaks to the press as he leaves the Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray's city hall following a hostage-taking at a church of the town on July 26, 2016 that left the priest dead. French President Francois Hollande that two men who attacked a church and slit the throat of a priest had "claimed to be from Daesh", using the Arabic name for the Islamic State group. Police said they killed two hostage-takers in the attack in the Normandy town of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, 125 kilometres (77 miles) north of Paris. / AFP / CHARLY TRIBALLEAU (Photo credit should read CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP/Getty Images)

The man dressed in the black t-shirt is Hubert Wolfranc, and I thought to myself: “Here is a Norman directly descended from the Northmen invaders.” These Vikings had conquered a huge area in northern France in 911 A.D.

Immediately, my mind went to the Bayeux Tapestry, a Norman work of art celebrating 1066 A.D. and the conquest of England by William, Duke of Normandy.  Looking at pictures of the tapestry, I began to imagine an icon painted in that style.

Here is a church shaped like the one in St.-Etienne-du-Rouvray:

bayeux main2

And here is a clergyman dressed in Roman Catholic vestments, much like the martyred Pere Jacques Hamel.

bayeux priest

And here are the violent acts of a thousand years ago, repeated in the little French -- against the priest, nuns, and lay worshippers just hours ago.


I began to imagine an icon in that Norman style, but it did not fit the aesthetics and spirituality of a Byzantine Icon.  It was too busy, too connected with the tapestry stitches of the Normans.  At the same time, I realized that a traditional Byzantine icon would take many days:  I did not have the wooden board on hand, only a canvas board. 

Nor would I be apply to spread half a dozen layers of gesso, sanding each layer before applying another layer of gesso. And then there would be the careful and time-consuming layering of each color:  darkest colors fully covering the white gesso, followed by light col0rs of clothing, followed by still lighter colors of the faces and hands, and finally the bright highlights animating the completed icon.

And so I decided to work quickly, with no gesso and leaving parts of the canvasboard unpainted.  Here is the icon on the first day:  

IMG 3531

The figures emerged on the second day:

Day 2 St Jacques

and finally the faces on the Third Day

Pere Jacques Hamal

The icon was now finished.

After posting it on a Byzantine Catholic facebook page, I was asked if this were truly a sacred icon, or simply an iconic picture.  Also, why did I say I “painted” my icon when most iconographers would say they “wrote” their icons.

And so I wrote the reply below to answer both questions:

"Perhaps you will find this interesting and helpful in understanding sacred icons. John and Dana. Two questions here are, and the first is about differences between ‘writing' and ‘ painting' sacred icons. These two English words are latter-day expressions of what was ambiguous in the original Greek. 

"The Greek word ‘graphikos'- as used in the word iconography -- means both writing (that is, lettering) and sketching (that is, a visual drawing). 

"Theologically, 'writing icons' was used to establish its close link with the Bible. The Bible was written, and the icons were a visual means of telling the images of the Biblical event. Hence, it was part of a technical jargon to justify the making of images, and rebuff the charge that icons were idols and condemned in Hebrew Scripture. 

"Finally, and this is very technical, a painting only became an icon when approved by church authorities in the Eastern churches. The lettering applied to the icon was the last step in finishing the painting: it named and thereby confirmed that this image was truly the Theotokos, the Transfiguration, etc.

"It was like the Roman church giving an ‘ mprimatur' to a book, confirming that it was Orthodox and not Heterodox. Hence, a church official did actual ‘write' the icon. But an artist ‘painted' the icon. 

"The second question surrounds the 'clear practice in writing an icon’. There is a spirituality that evolves with each step: first, the use of wood as the surface rather than canvas is in reverence for the Wood of the Cross. Then there is the long process of sanding and re-sanding, and applying many layers of gesso, reflecting simultaneously the uncreated light (white) and the act of creation. (J.R.R. Tolkien would say, if he were writing about icons, that the iconographer is a Sub-Creator)

“Next there are the dark colors that cover the gesso to represent the dark and the night that will be separated from the light by the human figures as they emerge... and on and on with other specific steps in the spiritual discipline of iconography. 

"I followed all these in my icon of the Martyrdom of Pere Jacques but in an abbreviated way. Why? Because I wanted to finish the icon in the course of three days (for symbolic reasons as well as an urgency I deeply felt) rather than the weeks, months, and sometimes two or three years that most of my icons require.

“Also, I practice iconography, not in the dominant manner of the academic schools, but rather in a folk style, much like the home-icons of Eastern Christians which are very different from the church-icons. 

"And though I am rooted in Byzantine sensibilities (I am Carpatho-Rusyn in my liturgical rite), I am deeply indebted to the spiritual dimension of Hispanic religious folk art. 

Here is the sacred art of New Mexico santero Nicholas Herrera

But I also draw on the rich Islamic-influenced Mozarabic frescos of early medieval Spain — especially with their bold and bright colors when I paint icons with Apocalyptic themes to supplement Gospel themes. 

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: The Beatus of Fernando & Sancha, Leon, Spain

"So it is all very complicated, but there are many ways of being an authentic iconographer without conforming to the norms of the academic schools centered on seminaries and monastic studios. 

"Forgive my lengthy response, but I am in regular practice of explains whenever people ask me about "writing" icons. 

"May we all grow in the image and likeness of the life-giving Trinity!


Your comments are welcome.  Email me here.

— Robert Béla Wilhelm

© Robert Bela Wilhelm 2016