Failures & Discoveries

Notes from an icon workshop

On the 3rd of December 1985, while we were working on the murals in the chapel of St Silouan, Father Sophrony told me: “Later, you have to write a book about our experiences; which colours were used, the mistakes you made and so on.” Thirty three years later I set myself to the task. The problem was how to present it all. Finally I decided to deal with my time of apprenticeship as a story, copied out from my notes and adding a few explanatory notes.


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Thirty-three years ago the author of this book promised her tutor, Father Sophrony, that she would publish an account of her creative apprenticeship under his tuition at an Orthodox monastery in Essex. Here is that publication, full of first-hand experience wonderfully recorded and preserved in a journal of projects, working with ancient techniques and reviving recipes used for icon painting, murals and mosaics.

In these collective workshops, innovations and competition were put aside by painters who were content with anonymity. Their spectacular achievements now fill the monastery and continue to make a daily contribution that deepens its communal life.

Orthodox monasteries often have icons, murals and mosaics, but this monastery is relatively new. It was founded by Father Sophrony as late as 1959. As a Russian painter called Sergei Semionovich Sakharov (1896-1993) he had studied art at the Moscow College of Painting. After fleeing to Italy, Germany, France and Greece, he eventually founded the monastic community in Essex.

Here the making and painting of icons, murals and mosaics became prolific, emerging from modest workshops to become essential features of the community, its life and its beliefs.

This intensely interesting, well-illustrated, and informative book reveals a devotion to traditional means and orthodox imagery, which in turn produces a beautiful art with no signatures. But this new art is also ancient, and its vitality remains far removed from the frenetic competition of modern art. Instead it illuminates and accompanies every stage of the monastic life.

John Milner
Honorary Professor in Russian Art, The Courtauld Institute of Art, London

Sister Gabriela studied iconography on the recommendation of St Sophrony before joining the monastery. She later assisted him in several artistic projects during the last years of his life. Her books are about what she learned while working with him on icons, church murals, and mosaics.

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Failures & Discoveries
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