Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Icons in Grand Barachois

The historic church in Grand Barachois is full of radiant light - not just the glow of the sun's rays streaming in through its tall windows, but an inner illumination generated by a series of traditional icon paintings. Artist Luc Castonguay has produced an exquisite group of images that refer (as genuine icons are meant to do) to  sacred works of Russian masters. The small exhibition mounted in the former sacristy offers viewers more than the dazzle of golden halos adorning Biblical figures; one comes away with insight into an ancient practice that is based on prayer, governed by rules and aimed at mediation with the divine.  While contemporary art emphasizes personal expression and novelty, the icon maker remains almost anonymous and forever faithful to the past.  Imagine an invisible hand.

L'Eglise St.-Henri-de-Barachois, built in 1824, is one of the oldest standing Acadian churches in N.B.

Luc Castonguay, "Entrance to Jerusalem" from a Russian icon
"Entrance to Jerusalem" (detail)
The icon maker refers to his craft as "writing an icon" rather than painting. There is dictation directing the careful work, from the studied lines of historical examples, the time-honoured techniques of teachers and  inner discipline that reflects reverence for sacred subject matter.   This art form is rigorous and sober and often involves a period of fasting.

Luc Castonguay, "The Visitation"
"The Visitation" (detail )
Entering a place where stylized figures are flat, facial features are elongated, perspective is wonky and pictorial elements are out of proportion may seem strange, but the icons depict scenes and symbols that are meant to be other-worldly, so all the oddity and quirks settle after a while and begin to look perfectly correct.  I love the distorted architecture in the background of  "The Visitation", fantasy buildings with pink towers draped in red cloth to mark the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Each step in the process of icon writing is a refined symbolic gesture that traces a path from material to spiritual.  A table in the gallery holds the tools of the iconographer's studio: lime wood panels, rabbit glue, chalk, natural pigments, wine, eggs, vodka and 23 kt. gold leaf.

Natural pigments include azurite, vermilion, and lapis lazuli.  These are ground and mixed with egg yolk and wine.

The final touches are pure white highlights that add a spark to the image, like the tiny crescents that glimmer in the eyes of an archangel.  The faces are far from life-like, but look as if they are illuminated from within.

It is an uncommon (and oh, so refreshing!) experience to find oneself face-to-face with purity, grace and timeless beauty in a work of art.  I leave the gallery feeling blessed.

Aidan Hart, a scholar and iconographer who lives in a hermitage in Shropshire, England, states the following:

"Father Vasileios, the abbot of Ivron monastery on Mount Athos once said to me that there are epochs where it is difficult to get things right artistically and there are epochs where it is difficult to get things wrong.  We are in the former type of epoch.  The mechanisation of our age and the desire to build quickly has meant we are not surrounded by the beauty that comes from using natural materials.  Our intuition of what looks right and what doesn't is not so developed if we grow up amidst the cheap and synthetic and the ugly.  Mass production means we can make more easily but not always more beautifully."   

-"The Renewal of Sacred Art: Timeless principles and Contemporary Challenges"  2013

Luc Castonguay, "Angel of the Golden Hair" from a Russian icon, 12th c.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Peas, Please

The Acadian gardener from across the street took one look at the system of stakes and netting installed in our backyard and suggested that I've gone overboard, planting 22 double rows of peas.  Last year's crop was so delicious that I decided to go big in 2013 and build on beginner's luck. I listed my reasons for loving peas.

  • they like cold weather
  • they are fast-growing and early to harvest
  • they do not attract insect pests
  • they contain saponins, a healthy blend of phytonutrients with anti-oxidant properties
  • they add nitrogen to the soil, replenishing the garden for next year
  • they can be blanched and frozen  (much easier than canning)
  • they taste so green

Perfect peas

In order to deal with the bumper harvest we set up a pea-shelling station in the garage.   Robert constructed a work table from a sheet of plywood and some old pallets.  On these hot, humid, July afternoons it is pleasant to sit on a high stool absorbed in the hands-on, repetitive task of shelling peas while listening to a symphony of lawn mowers and weed-cutters performed by the neighbours.  It's not as gentle and pastoral as the tinkle of cowbells that M.F.K. Fisher associates with pea-picking in the Swiss Alps in her "Alphabet for Gourmets", but the drone of lawn maintenance machinery is the typical soundtrack for this exceptionally verdant Canadian summer.

Timing is important to make sure that the natural sugar in the peas doesn't turn starchy, a loss that can ruin the flavour within a few hours of picking.  The fresh peas are rushed to the kitchen, blanched for two minutes in boiling water, chilled in a sink of ice and packed into freezer bags.

Cooling off

 I was thrilled to find a simple recipe in a Swiss cookbook that makes good use of the empty pods.  As the harvest is processed,  I prepare large batches of this soup and freeze it without the addition of cream (that rich ingredient is entirely optional, and can be added later, if you wish, at the time of serving).  In the middle of January, a bowl of pea soup will bring back the joy of mid-summer bounty; the memory of a mountain of crisp pods in a wicker basket on a makeshift harvest table.

Swiss Peapod Soup

6 cups pea pods, topped and tailed
1 tbsp. butter or margarine
5 small onions, chopped
4 large outside lettuce leaves
6 cups chicken stock
1/2 cup cream
salt and pepper
chives for garnish

Melt butter in a large saucepan over low heat, add the onions, cover and let them sweat for 8-10 minutes. Do not brown.  Add the peapods, lettuce and stock to the pot and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat and simmer, covered for 20 minutes or until tender.  Puree the mixture with a stick blender or food processor.   Strain the fibrous strings from the soup by pressing through a sieve.  To serve hot, return to the pot, add cream, salt and pepper, and reheat without boiling. To serve cold, chill for 2 hours, swirl in the cream, sprinkle with chopped chives.

Lunch is served at the Peabody residence

"If even a few of the pea pods begin to ripen, young pods will not only cease to form but those partly advanced will cease to enlarge... It is inexcusable that a gentleman, having a garden of his own, should be served with peas otherwise than in the very highest state of perfection, which they are not, if allowed to become too old, or too large."                                      

- Fearing Burr Jr., "The Field and Garden Vegetables of America," 1863