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Contemporary Icons: Gold Silhouettes

Contemporary Icons

My newest series of Gold Silhouette paintings are meant to be contemporary icons, modern interpretations of traditional icons. Whether architecture or figure, even landscape, my work has always centered on a theme of convergence between heaven and earth. Similarly, these new mixed media pieces juxtapose the expressive minimalist quality of my figure drawings with the other-worldly materials of metal leaf and paint inspired by iconography. 

gold mixed media painting contemporary icon

Entrance, Mixed media on panel painting, 6×8 ©Michelle Arnold Paine 2019 Click to Purchase

Windows Into Heaven

Icons are intended to be “windows into heaven”. They are not “magic”, but rather invitations to prayer, communication with God. Traditionally the gold represents divinity and heaven. The painted figure of Jesus, Mary or a saint is set on a gold background to represent their presence in heaven. The painting represents their presence to us, the viewer.

In traditional iconography the gold is perfectly smooth, burnished and unbroken. However, in my paintings the metal leaf imperfectly covers the panel, uneven and broken.  There are technical reasons for this – brass leaf does not burnish as smoothly as real gold, for one thing. But on a deeper level, I can’t see too well from here that burnished perfection which icons are supposed to represent. The perfection of heaven is made visible through our fallenness.  From here I only see bits and pieces. Grace, in spite of our imperfections.

14th Century Annunciation painting.

Annunciation by Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi. 1333, Uffizi Gallery Florence, Italy.

Paintings such as this Annunciation by Simone Martini had a profound impact on my spiritual and artistic journeys when I experienced them in person during the three years I spent living and working in Italy. Painted in 1333, the painting blends techniques of Eastern iconography with the “new” Western trends towards more emotional and expressive poses and more dimensionality in the figures. This style was called “International Gothic” because it brought together diverse artistic traditions in a moment of increasing trade and cultural dialogue around the Mediterranean. I believe we are once again in a moment where Christian art needs to draw from a diversity of artistic traditions in order to speak to our time.

Gold Silhouettes

Gold and silver leaf with female silhouette mixed media contemporary icon painting

Opening 2, 6×8 Metal leaf, oil paint and alkyd resin on panel. ©Michelle Arnold Paine Click to Purchase

I often return to certain imagery again and again in a variety of media. In this series I return to reflecting on the door to heaven. Through Christ we are invited to enter heaven, which had been closed to us by the sin of Adam and Eve. I have been working for some years with imagery of the open door, whether in oil paint, monotype or ink. I wrote about it in my blog post last month.

In this painting Opening 2 I borrow imagery directly from my monotype Opening from a few years ago. The pointed arch directs our eyes towards heaven, the swoosh of paint in the lower segment of the painting alludes to the descent of the Holy Spirit at the Annunciation. Heaven came to Earth in the Incarnation. In this way, these gold silhouette paintings open the way to preparation for the Advent season this year. Figures in a heavenly gold atmosphere remind us that we are created in the image of God. As works of art they show us our heavenly destination to which each of us is called.