Bulgaria, Love and St Benedict
Silvia Dimitrova's icons harness the Christian traditions of the East and the West
republished, with permission, from The Times, 28 March 2009
by Bess Twiston Davies
Tomorrow night the Archbishop of Canterbury is to unveil a sumptuous icon of the Crucified Christ. Bordered red, painted in rich brown and edged with gold leaf, this Orthodox icon is the new processional cross for the parish of St Peter’s Eaton Square, London.
Behind it lies the extraordinary story of a Bulgarian iconographer, Silvia Dimitrova, 38, who arrived in England on a two-month commission a decade ago and never left. In 1999 she was invited to England by the Benedictine monks of Downside Abbey, near Bath, to paint an icon of St Benedict. She fell in love with Simon Potter, a teacher at Downside School, and was married to him in August 2000.
Once settled at Downside, she turned for help to the monastic library. The result of this research and subsequent chats with the Downside monks is an unusual image. It shows Benedict hooded and clothed in blue in the centre, while small insets line the icon’s edges, each depicting an episode from his life. It now hangs in the entrance hall to Downside School. In September Dimitrova is to paint Benedict again — this time for Worth, the Benedictine Abbey in West Sussex originally founded as a junior settlement to Downside.
“St Benedict is very special to me because he brought me to England,” says Dimitrova, who is now permanently based at Downside. She paints in the crowded yet cosy studio which doubles as a sitting room in the flat she shares with Simon, a housemaster and design teacher. He cuts, seasons and prepares the wood on which his wife paints her icons.
“I would be completely lost without him. We are a complete team,” says Dimitrova, who has also developed non-religious folklorish paintings in a romantic Bulgarian style reminiscent of Russian fairytales. Her main focus, and source of work, however, is painting icons. It is a spiritual process from start to finish, she says.
“An icon is a prayer and a meditation,” says Dimitrova. “I pray as I paint. Icons are not supposed to be signed because the artist is expected to be just the medium who brings down a message.”
Often, Dimitrova, now Downside’s artist-in-residence, turns for spiritual inspiration to the austere side chapels of the magnificent Gothic abbey. A favourite spot is the Lady Chapel, where the altar cloth is decorated with a fringe in the colours of the Bulgarian flag. “Downside is a splendid setting. It is wonderful to have the presence of the monks; they are very special, and to be able to discuss with them the lives of the saints,” she says.
Religious freedom was absent during her youth at the tail end of communism. “When I was a teenager at boarding school, there was an attempt to celebrate Easter in a beautiful church. But we were not allowed to go. We were caught on the way there and sent back to the dorm,” she recalls.
Dimitrova encountered icons first at home, when her parents, themselves artists, went through an icon-painting phase. “As a little girl I was fascinated by the gold paint and these solemn-faced characters,” she says.
At art school in Pleven, northern Bulgaria, iconography was not on the timetable. But having learnt the rules of iconography later from a master iconographer in Sofia, Dimitrova has adapted them to the saints and traditions of Western Christian art. In 2000, for example, she painted an exquisite set of iconographic Stations of the Cross, which are pinned every Easter to the pillars which line the nave of Wells Cathedral. Painted on a background of gold leaf, they follow Orthodox colour schemes, so Christ wears blue “the colour of royalty” but Mary, purple.
The rules are strict: “Each saint in the Orthodox tradition is associated with a particular colour,” says Dimitrova. “This was because in an earlier age when many people were illiterate, having a colour scheme allowed believers to distinguish which saint was which.”
An icon of St Mellitus, painted by Dimitrova, was commissioned by the Bishop of London, the Right Rev Richard Chartres, in 2004. Other examples of her work may be seen at the chapel of Hertford College, Oxford, and the Bishop’s Palace in Wells. Last year she was commissioned to paint quatrefoil — shaped panels on a theme of reconciliation for the chapel there.
Like Dimitrova’s recent Eaton Square commission, some argue that this signals a new openness in the Anglican tradition to iconography, a far cry from the Reformation when religious imagery was shunned as papist. In part, this is because the character of the Church of England is evolving, says the Rev Nick Papadopoulos, vicar of St Peter’s. “Anglicanism is not English any more; it is global.”
Half-Greek and the great-grandson of an Orthodox priest from Cyprus, Papadopoulos felt that an icon-style cross would introduce his parishioners to a new spirituality.
“An icon is a window into the divine, into the eternal, and the thing about windows is that they can be looked through both ways,” he says. “When I pray before an icon I believe myself to be in the presence of the divine as I am before a sacrament. It is about God taking the stuff of the earth and transforming it with his presence.”
Initially, Papadopoulos was drawn to Dimitrova’s distinctive use of colour, and “fine, clear lines”. They create “a very powerful beauty”, he says.
Tomorrow night the icon will be dedicated by Dr Rowan Williams at a Compline service for Passion Sunday. The church’s musical director, Andrew-John Smith, has composed some music based on one of the Gospel narratives of the Passion for the occasion. The service is to begin in silence, with lights subdued. But the observer may see in the shadows a slight woman with dark hair: Silvia Dimitrova.
Bess Twiston Davies works for The Times Register section and is a regular contributor to the Faith page and Times Online. For further work by Silvia Dimitrova, see Graham Kings, ‘Icons: an Evangelical Anglican Perspective’.
These posts are by guest authors for Fulcrum