Ongoing angels

The angel I began embroidering is still underway. The text “Gloria” got done and redone several times as I experimented with stitches for the lettering. The wings are currently on their third revision, as there needs to be the right sort of layout of feathers to please my eye, and I had only sketched it loosely. I took out the second try, drew a design more clearly, and am now re-addressing that. Not sure how I might vary the colors. I like the multicolored wings found in many depictions of angels:

Red and white wings for Saint Michael
Red, green and peacock-eyed wings on a Gothic painting of Saint Michael
Blue, gold and Peacock wings on this Saint Michael
Rose and slate gray/blue wings on an Eastern icon of Saint Michael.

There’s an enormous variation in the styles and colors of wings. Mine’s going for green and gold at the moment:

Experimenting with shading, metallic thread, pencil drawing, lettering and hands and faces.

On another note: I’d like to thank Sarah Homfray for her excellent, encouraging and calming series of embroidery videos which I watch repeatedly. And also Steve Young, a horse trainer whose long, real-time videos with chatty commentary are also great company while I stitch.

I really miss being around horses. Today my former trainer sent me a video of my elderly mare. She looks great for her age!!

Faces

I’ve spent the last couple years looking at a lot of old liturgical embroidery (in books, online), studying how faces are done. I’d helped a friend plan a machine embroidery of two angels a couple years ago and it was a lot of work getting the features just right. We worked with a professional embroidery machine programmer, and though she did a lovely job it was challenging learning how to communicate what we wanted. So they turned out well enough, but it was enormously time consuming. Then again, embroidering things by hand is time consuming. But sometimes doing something yourself is a time saver over explaining it to someone else.

So I had started practicing simplified ‘cartoon’ faces based on romanesque and gothic art, using Adobe Illustrator, thinking that if I could give the programmer vector art instead of paper sketches that might help a lot. But though I enjoy that process to some degree, I really enjoy working with tangible materials, and the other day decided to just pick a simple design and embroider it and see ‘where the shoe pinches’, as my voice teacher used to say. Doing reveals problems and challenges to work on in a way thinking about it never does.

I chose a simple angel in stained glass with heavy outlines and little detail, traced it with a pencil on a piece of white cotton (gently! so as not to damage my laptop screen!) Were I at home I would have printed it out and taped it to a window and then traced it using the window as a light box. But I am traveling, so very gentle pencil tracing is the solution. Since the main point was to just to practice, I didn’t worry about the exactness of the tracing.

Anyway, I started out outlining the head and features in dark brown, then filled in with a couple shades of pale pink. I’m not sure yet whether the heavy outline around the head was necessary, but given that these images will be seen from a distance, I think the heavy and simple features and outlines are helpful. I would like the fill to seem smoother, which might be possible with more careful stitching using my magnifier (which I don’t have with me).

Then I did the hair, starting with a dark ochre, then a medium ochre, and finally a pale yellow for highlights. I thought that turned out rather well, though here and there the direction of the hair got a bit random, as I ‘painted myself into a corner.’

Then I filled in the neck, and I will wait to see later if the ‘shading’ on the side of the neck looks okay or would be better done in another color or not done at all.

And then I thought I’d try some metallic thread I found on the trip. I started with three strands, which was not easy to work with. The thread is springy and stiff, and sometimes the three strands didn’t lay smoothly together and once one strand somehow fell out of the needle and got left behind for a few stitches. After a while I switched to using just one strand and repeating each stitch three times to give the weight and thickness I wanted. That was much easier. I started filling in the halo between the rays, making a contrasting direction with horizontal stitches using only one strand (with no repetition).

The metallic color is not exactly what I would prefer – a warmer gold is more to my taste – but it’s good practice, and a good way to get to know that kind of thread. All the thread is DMC. I’m using a piece of cotton like that found in bedsheets – it has a nice smooth surface and tight weave and stays put in the embroidery hoop without stretching or bagging too much.

We’ll see how this goes! I do hope you find these examples encouraging for trying your own projects.

Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus

Again, in Europe, I am struck by the number of holy things now languishing in museums. The thousands of holy relics, the thousands of abandoned altars. Were they simply profaned at some point, taken and displayed? Or was there some sort of ceremonial desacralization performed? Can you desacralize the relics of a holy man or woman from centuries past?

If angels attend to each church and altar, do they simply wander away when that church or altar is turned into a mere tourist site, with no further sacred function? Or do they linger there, guarding their posts until the end of time?

Having read that Saint Francis of Sales made a point of greeting the holy angels of the places he went and the guardian angels of the people he interacted with, I was touched. I hadn’t thought of that, but I’ve often prayed to the saints whose relics languish in museums. Perhaps many other Catholic tourists do the same, whispering prayers as they stroll through the galleries.

Painting the Heavens

Medieval illuminations often have interesting things going on in the sky.

Little angels peeking over the edge of heaven.
Patterns of blue-on-black foliage fill the sky.
The faces of dozens of angels looking upon Christ and the saints.
God the Father and an array of little angels worked in tiny golden brushstrokes.
Some beautifully worked foliage patterns in the sky.
The angels are obvious, but there is also delicate white filigree filling all the blue of the background and sky.
This one is full of obvious angels, but a closer look reveals myriad half-hidden angels, too.
Here the choir of angels frames an ordinary sky full of stars.
And here some rather cute angels peak down at the Virgin Mary from a sky full of stars.

Off Schedule

Despite Lent I am fascinated with Christmas: In reading about the Nativity I got sidetracked by the detail of swaddling clothes (previous post), and then by the annunciation to the shepherds. Here are some notes I copied from the Catena Aurea, in case such things interest you. In Scripture every word is considered, a person or event or detail is never mentioned without significance. Which leads to no end of little details to meditate on:

Ambrose: with what care God builds up our faith: “An Angel teaches Mary; an Angel teaches Joseph; an Angel the shepherds also…”

Chrysostom: “To Joseph the Angel appeared in a dream, as to one who might be easily brought to believe, but to the shepherds in visible shape as to men of ruder nature. But the Angel went not to Jerusalem, sought not for Scribes and Pharisees, (for they were corrupt and tormented with envy.) But these [shepherds] were simple men living in the ancient practices of Moses and the Patriarchs. There is a certain road which leads by innocence to Philosophy.”

Bede: No where in the whole course of the Old Testament do we find that the Angels who so constantly appear to the Patriarchs, came with light. This privilege was rightly kept for this time when there arose in the darkness a light to them that were true of heart. Hence it follows, and the glory of God shone round about them. He is sent forth from the womb, but He shines from heaven. He lies in a common inn, but He lives in celestial light.

Cyril: on anointing: Christ – anointed, like the kings of old, or by prophetic grace, like Isaiah says to Cyrus (Isaiah 45), or as in the anointing by the Holy Spirit, as God Himself anoints those who believe in Him.

Why do they keep saying he is in swaddling clothes? Not, as in my previous post, to emphasize that he was not naked, which probably was assumed, but rather to emphasize that he was not born into riches:

Bede: “the sign given us of the newborn Saviour was, that He would be found not clothed in Tyrian purple, but wrapped in poor swaddling clothes, not laying on gilded couches, but in a manger”

Maximus: “But if perhaps the swaddling clothes are mean in thy eyes, admire the Angels singing praises together. If thou despisest the manger, raise thy eyes a little, and behold the new star in heaven proclaiming to the world the Lord’s nativity. If thou believest the mean things, believe also the mighty. If thou disputest about those which betoken His lowliness, look with reverence on what is high and heavenly.”

Of the heavenly chorus singing: 

Gregory: “At the same time they also give praises because their voices of gladness accord well with our redemption, and while they behold our acceptance, they rejoice also that their number is complete.”

Origen: “How then does the Saviour say, I came not to send peace on the earth, whereas now the Angels’ song of His birth is, On earth peace to men? It is answered, that peace is said to be to men of good will. For the peace which the Lord does not give on the earth is not the peace of good will.”

Augustine: “For righteousness belongs to good will.”

The shepherds go in haste (Ambrose, “For no one indolently seeks after Christ.”). And they find Mary, Joseph and the babe, listed in that order… so not just Christ, but the Holy Family named so: first Mary, then Joseph, then Jesus.

Taddeo Gaddi, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The ugliness of evil

I’d often noticed that devils and demons in medieval art are particularly grotesque – they often have faces on their behinds, or asses for faces, and a hodge-podge of limbs, as if they were put together senselessly or blindly, without the harmony and order so vivid in the beauty of Creation.

It had not occurred to me, however, what a friend pointed out: that the same in more recent art are often rather romantic, admirable, or even beautiful. Sometimes that conflict is intended to disturb the savvy viewer, who knows that that which appears attractive is actually deadly. But sometimes the depiction is meant to encourage a certain sympathy for evil, as if finding evil repellent is just a silly misunderstanding.

I don’t know if this difference is always evident – but below a selection of images of St. Michael that I happened to have on my laptop for another project a while back, with a variety of manners of depicting the Holy Archangel’s conquest of Satan, at God’s command*:

*Except the one eastern-style icon, which just shows a noble portrait of the robed archangel.