Art & Architecture
Beginning on Monday 27th April 2015, Cristinel Pâslaru, from Iaşi, in Romania, has been creating a new piece of devotional art for Newport Cathedral. Cristi’s work in this country has spread by word-of-mouth report of its quality and beauty. His work is also to be found in other European countries and he travels abroad to exhibit and to conduct master-classes in the painting of icons.
Members of the regular Cathedral community and occasional visitors have all been enthralled not only by the patience and skill of the artist but also by the beauty of the emerging image. Cristi is particularly glad to have been able to get to know the Cathedral and its unique atmosphere and ambiance during his long hours of work in it each day. He is clear that painting an icon where it belongs imparts to the finished image something of the unique spiritual character of that place and he has been particularly clear about that in this case. It is also evident that the object that is coming into being will immediately ‘belong’ in a real sense to this location and the Cathedral community, so many of whom have engaged so enthusiastically not only with Cristi and his remarkable and God-given gift, but also with the icon whose emerging creation they have witnessed.
The significance of icons and their new popularity
Icons are a form of devotional art with a long history in the Eastern Orthodox tradition of Christianity. More than mere artistic representations, they are objects of deep devotion, often seen as conveying the spiritual presence of the subjects they depict and bringing the one who prays before them into closer contact with what they are beholding. ‘Windows into God’ is one poetic description. In the past fifty years or so icons have been increasingly adopted as devotional symbols in Western Christianity, including the Protestant churches which have lacked a tradition of devotional representations since the Reformation. The fact that icons come from a tradition outside the controversies of the Reformation may have contributed to their adoption by mainline Protestant churches across the world.Cristi’s work holds a special place with regard to the Orthodox understanding of icons as bringing divine light to the one who prays. The faces of those he paints are often described as ‘luminous’, a quality which suffuses his compositions as a whole.
The unfolding process
Icons are painted on wood. In this case, the wood is lime and the board is produced by the monks of Stavnic monastery, near Iaşi. This monastery produces icon boards for many icon painters and Cristi has long used them. The board is then covered with layers of rabbit skin glue to seal any pores in the wood. Then canvas is glued into place to stabilize the whole work against cracking and flaking over the centuries. Next is applied a coat of gesso, a white plaster mixed with rabbit skin glue, water and oil. The image to be painted on the icon is then sketched so that the painted and gilded areas are delineated.
The area to be gilded is then painted in red pigment mixed with shellac, made from pond insects. The shellac helps produce a very even surface and, again, seals the surface for the crucial next stage. A layer of gold ‘size’ provides a ground on which the gold leaf will stick whilst the red colouring produces a lustrous and rich finish to the gold overlay. 22 carat gold leaf is then carefully added by hand. What looks a simple procedure is not for the inexpert hand, given the sheer cost of any waste resulting from flawed application.
After more than a week of work on the icon, the painting can then begin. Layers of colour are added across the whole surface of the image, as required, building up the depth and complexity of what is required in the final depiction. Different shades of the same basic colour produce the effect of fabric with the play of light upon its folds.
On Monday May 4th Cristi began painting the 'portrait' of Christ, the most significant part of the entire work. He had to go to the Deanery to paint at this stage because the excess of light in the Chancelof the Cathedral made the location unsuitable for the delicate and skilled task of judging shade and tone.
The Norman Arch
The pillars, most agree from their style, are Roman, and may have been brought from Caerleon to reuse in creating the arch around 1080, thus allowing a way through
from the original chapel to a newly built nave. The Corinthian capitals display a complex series of naive carvings which have been described as grotesque but robust but which have never been satisfactorily interpreted. Only two sides are seen, and it looks as if large leaves have been cut away to introduce religious subjects such as, on one side, the Creation, and the Trinity; on the other, possibly, a representation of the expulsion from Paradise. A quite different interpretation sees the carvings as a series of scenes depicting Noah and the Flood.
The church was, around this time, given to the Abbey of Gloucester, so it may have been the monks who created or commissioned the archway, and the nave itself. The decorations on the arch itself are remarkable for their state of preservation, which seem accounted for by the fact that is an internal entranceway and thus has never been subjected to the forces of nature. If you visit the cathedral, pause and examine the carvings ... perhaps you can perceive yet another interpretation!
The tower was built in the 15th century, at the same time as the north aisle. Near the top is a niche
containing a damaged statue said to be that of Japser Tudor, who was the uncle of Henry VII
and Governor of Newport from 1485 to 1495; thus it seems likely that he may have been
involved in some of the building works.
The damage to the statue is popularly thought to have been caused by a musket fired by one of Oliver Cromwell’s troops; it is more likely, however, that Jasper lost his leg and head as a result of natural process of weathering and erosion, since in the early nineteenth century he appears from prints to have been almost intact.
The bell tower houses 13 bells (the largest set in Wales). Records show that in 1768, there were only 5 bells, and by 1894, there was a total of 8. Over the 20th century, this number increased until the 13th was added in 1988. They are rung in the morning and evening every Sunday by an enthusiastic and loyal team of bellringers.
Octavius Morgan, in a paper written in 1854, describes the nave of St. Woolos thus: "The Norman arch ... leads down by two steps into one of the most perfect and beautiful Norman naves to be seen. The Church of St. Woollos was at a very early period given to the Abbey of Gloucester, and the Norman nave was most probably built by the abbot and monks ... It consists of an arcade of five arches with clerestory quite perfect, and the corbels now remaining in the aisle and clerestory windows above them show that there were originally lean-to aisles. At the East end must have been the high altar: but that wall has been cut through to lengthen the church, in the Decorated period, as portions of the arches show".
John Piper mural and window
As part of the upgrade from a parish church to a cathedral, the chancel was extended in 1962, and a new East window with a mural beneath were commissioned from John Piper, who employed Patrick Reyntiens to make the window, coloured primarily in gold and yellow.
The mural, painted on canvas, has a marbling effect which is Roman in spirit and echoes the western Norman arch.
For further information, please refer to the Illustrated guide book to St Woolos Cathedral by the Revd. Andrew Willie (2002), available from the cathedral shop. Also, a much older source is History of St. Gwynllyw's Church, Newport-on-Usk (1893).