‘Splendour from Above’: Icons of Angels by Michael Galovic

I first met Michael Galovic through an icon painting workshop in the mid-1990s. His religious art not only covers a vast range of icons that draw upon his deep understanding and respect for the form from its earliest origins through to the present day but also covers contemporary work.

Michael’s most recent project has been a very challenging and self-imposed task. Its focus has been primarily on the representation of ‘the Celestial Ranks’, predominantly as shown in Orthodox art, but also with examples from late medieval, early Renaissance, and Islamic art. Each of the many wonderful images expresses what would seem almost inexpressible: non-corporeal beings made manifest. The exhibition based on this work, and which is currently on display between 9–19 March at the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture, Canberra, also highlights both the meaning and the beauty of the variety of portrayals, whether it be in terms of the images’ backgrounds or in such elements as the stunning array of angels’ wings. The icons in the exhibition illustrate a journey that is both geographical and through time.

My focus here, however, will be predominantly on his representation of two of the most significant and defining events in Christianity – the Annunciation and the Resurrection – as portrayed in the icon of ‘The Myrrh-bearing Women’, as well as the concept of the Trinity. Each image deepens one’s understanding of the religious art of the past and present, as well of a sense of tradition, while also expressing the perception and perspective of its creator:

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;

Selves – goes itself; myself it speaks and spells

Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.[1]

In terms of the Orthodox tradition, icons are perceived, Annemarie Weyl Carr observed, as participating in the divine:

As angels and saints are images of God, icons, in turn, are images of them and so participate in the emanation of their sanctity. The crucial synapse between divinity and created matter was bridged by the incarnation.[2]

The richness and variety of the icons is expressed through new iterations that nonetheless remain firmly grounded within the Orthodox tradition. The icons of the past were not mechanical copies of previous work. The tradition evolved not through meticulous repetition but through observing and understanding the symbolism and underpinning theology inherent in the creation of the icon. Each is also influenced by the time, background, and perception of the person making it.

To appreciate the beauty and theology of an icon is ultimately to be able to appreciate the immanence of God in creation:

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: Praise Him.[3]

The Icons of the Annunciation

Michael Galovic, Royal Doors, 2021. Egg tempera and gold leaf on gessoed board, 95 x 60 cm. Artist’s collection. 

Michael noted that his ‘Royal Doors’, an image of the Annunciation, is a work that has been 47 years in the making. This gives some sense of the process: it takes enormous patience in feeling one’s way into the image, as well as an understanding of the level of experience and technical skill needed to do such a work justice. It is a testament to Michael’s commitment to creating an image that brings alive the moment of the Incarnation in all its vividness and freshness. There is a wonderful balance between the sense of movement in the depiction of Gabriel, conveyed by both the pose and dynamism of the contrasting highlights, and the Theotokos’ acceptance, shown in her gently-bowed head and hand gesture.

It is difficult just to convey a sense of the intricacies of the craftsmanship required in the creation of this wonderful depiction of the Archangel Gabriel and the Theotokos. It began with the painstaking application of multiple layers of gesso to the intricately-carved wooden surface and then the gilding of the entire piece. This was followed by the meticulous translation of the drawn images onto the surface, with some parts being carefully embossed or stippled, as can be seen in the exquisite halos.

The actual painting of the image with egg tempera was a further level of challenge, with each layer needing to be completely dry before the next layer was attempted – often a matter of days, rather than hours.

The impermeability of the gold also makes it an exceptionally challenging surface on which to paint. The difficulty of the challenge is underscored by Eva Haustein-Bartsch’s comment, in her description of the Royal Door in the Recklinghausen Ikonen-Museum, that ‘what is completely unusual and probably unique about this door are the images painted on it over a gold background’.[4]

Michael has created a truly outstanding depiction of the imagery frequently used on ‘Royal Doors’, bringing together many theological and technical aspects of iconography to delineate the entry to the sanctuary, considered in Orthodox theology to be ‘Heaven placed on earth’, as it contains the consecrated Eucharist, the manifestation of the New Covenant.

Michael Galovic, The Annunciation 2, 2021. Egg tempera and gold leaf on gessoed board, 35 x 45 cm. Artist’s collection. 

The second Annunciation, in a more contextualised setting, also captures the moment of the Archangel Gabriel’s first addressing Mary. There is the same sense of movement as in the ‘Royal Doors’ in the placement of the feet, with the role of messenger indicated both by the rod

being carried and the hand gesture indicating speech. Mary’s gesture here is one of enquiry – ‘“How will this be”, Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”’ (Lk 1.34)

This icon again highlights that Michael’s work, while maintaining the theology and often the form of earlier icons, by no means consists of making a mechanical copy of an earlier image! The vivid light blues on a deeper blue background sweep through from the tips of Gabriel’s wings to the sleeve of his under-gown with the same tones used in a static mode in the pillar beside Mary. This contrast is repeated in the lower part of the icon, with the rippling effect of Gabriel’s hem counterpointing the ‘stillness’ of Mary’s undergarment.

Another beautiful detail is the way in which the beam of light, with its image of the dove representing the Holy Spirit, is transparently overlaid on the red cloth. Each detail is indeed meticulously placed and adds to the viewer’s understanding and reception of the image, with the draped red cloth indicating that the scene is taking place in an interior. The colour flows through to Mary’s cushion, the thread she is holding and her ‘royal’ footwear. This image again emphasises the way in which the same image (that of the Annunciation) can both take inspiration from the past and create a new and vivid image. This is what keeps the tradition alive and relevant.

Michael Galovic, The Annunciation 3, 2022. Egg tempera and gold leaf on gessoed board, 38 x 29 cm. Artist’s collection. 

The inspiration for the third Annunciation in the series came from a faded and almost unreadable copy of an Annunciation from sixteenth-century Russia, and which had deteriorated to the point that, while the basic structures could be made out, that was about all. Michael always enjoys a challenge.

The image is also a very unusual one in that it shows darkened apertures in both the buildings and the holes in the ground, especially the fissure appearing between Mary and the Archangel. This could conceivably be highlighting the significance of Christ’s incarnation through referencing those icons of the Crucifixion where there is a dark aperture beneath the cross, into which Christ’s blood flows, signifying the redemptive nature of his death. The Crucifixion is inherent in the Annunciation.

The dark spaces dramatically highlight the wonderful luminosity that Michael has achieved in the depiction of both Gabriel and Mary. It, possibly more than any other icon in the exhibition, illustrates the concept of feeling one’s way into the image. It required a deep understanding, much thought and subsequently a painstakingly slow application of layer upon layer of semi-transparent egg and pigment washes to create the tonality that brings the image to life.

Michael Galovic, The Blue Annunciation, 2021. Egg tempera and gold leaf on gessoed board. Artist’s collection. 

The fourth Annunciation is based on a fresco with a suitably-Aegean blue providing a background against which the figures and architecture stand out vibrantly, capturing the moment of the Incarnation.

These four images exemplify both the richness and diversity of traditions over at least four centuries and the value of bringing them alive in varied and beautiful iterations in the twenty-first century. While each highlights the role of the Archangel as the servant and messenger of God, as identified by the armband, and captures the contrast between movement and stasis, the nuances in the portrayal of Gabriel and Mary and the treatment of the backgrounds, ranging from the ‘uncreated light’ of the ‘Royal Doors’ to the texture and abstraction demonstrated in the three following images, exemplify the beauty, scope, and continuing significance of Iconography.

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;

Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is …[5]            

Michael Galovic, The Myrrh-bearing Women by the Tomb, 2022. Egg tempera and gold leaf on gessoed board, 45 x 35 cm. Artist’s collection. 
Michael Galovic, Angelic Exuberance, 2021. Egg tempera and gold leaf on gessoed board, 70 x 50 cm. Artist’s collection. 

From the Annunciation to the Resurrection

Gabriel’s role as messenger is also highlighted in the icon of ‘The Myrrh-Bearing Women by the Tomb’, a diaphanously-rendered image of the women visiting Christ’s tomb. The delicacy and aptness of the detail, such as the fruitfulness of the trees, illustrates the richness in the variety of the use of imagery in the context of the Resurrection.

‘Angelic Exuberance’ is another vivid expression of the Resurrection – a dynamic and powerful iteration of a golden Archangel Gabriel that captures the light and joy of the event in a contemporary image that also evokes a continuing tradition: that of the White Angel, which is a detail of one of the best-known frescoes in Serbian culture, situated in the Mileševa Monastery.

Michael Galovic, The Assembly of Angels, 2021. Egg tempera and gold leaf on gessoed board, 45 x 35 cm. Artist’s collection. 

‘The Assembly of Angels’ also includes the Archangel Raphael, whose name means ‘God has healed’. In conjunction with the image of Christ it highlights, for me, the nature of redemption through the Incarnation. The Christ Child is framed by an intricate rainbow-like aureole or medallion. The golden brightness in the central band of the medallion gives a wonderful vividness and focus to the work. This icon, in conjunction with its vibrancy highlighted through the angels’ garments and royal footwear, nonetheless seems to be set beyond time with a neutral background that portrays the figures as if floating in space. This feeling of weightlessness is enhanced by the folded position of the wings.

Michael Galovic, The Holy Trinity, 2022. Egg tempera and gold leaf on gessoed board, 38 x 29 cm. Artist’s collection. 

It seems fitting that the final image considered should be that of ‘The Holy Trinity’, which radiates calmness and certainty, as well as embodying a significant aspect of the development of portrayals of the Trinity. The process of the ‘three angels’ form for representing the Trinity began with icons of the hospitality of Abraham, which illustrated the visit of the three angels, in human guise, to Abraham.

This is a beautiful and elegant composition, based on a work by arguably the best Serbian iconographer – Zograf Longin. It is an icon that expresses the tripartite nature of God as expressed in the New Testament while highlighting the continued relevance and significance of the Old. Michael has dedicated a year to the completion of this project – one that needed fifty years practice and deepening of understanding for its making. He has brought alive the beauty and theology of differing traditions and forms in a way that is truly breathtaking.

℘℘℘℘

Kerrie Magee has an academic background in medieval studies and education. Her interest in, and respect for, icons began in her mid teens and has continued ever since. She has been painting under Michael Galovic’s tuition for over 20 years. She has worked in teaching and gifted education. She lives on Wallumettagal Country.
Michael Galovic is one of Australia’s leading icon painters and has been commissioned by churches and individuals around Australia to celebrate the tradition of holy pictures in new and dynamic ways. Galovic trained at the Belgrade Academy of Arts as a contemporary artist while also learning the many technical steps of using egg temperas and gold leaf, required by the careful process of preparing an icon. He arrived in Australia in 1990 and has since that time had many solo exhibitions in Australia and overseas including in Europe and the USA. While continuing the tradition of iconography he has also extended his approach to include insights from the Australian landscape, indigenous spirituality and more universal depictions of the presence of God in creation. He is a careful technician able to enliven the demanding requirements of the tradition while also offering visual innovations that explore the cultural convergence required of a multi-cultural Australia. His work is always visually rich, finely detailed with a great depth of colour and form. A skilled and insightful artist exploring the spiritual through his art. (Dr Rod Pattenden). Michael lives and works on the land of the Darkinjung people.

[1] Gerald Manley Hopkins, ‘As Kingfishers Catch Fire’.

[2] Annemarie Weyl Carr, ‘How Icons Look’, in Imprinting the Divine: Byzantine and Russian Icons from the Menil Collection (Houston: Menil Collection, 2011), 23.

[3] Gerald Manley Hopkins, ‘Pied Beauty’.

[4] Eva Haustein-Bartsch, Icons (Hong Kong: Taschen, 2008), 62.

[5] T. S. Eliot, ‘Burnt Norton’.

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