This commission was a major challenge from start to finish. It is very difficult to create a new composition of such a well known and beloved Saint. We prayed for an icon that would bring to light a new, hidden side of St Columba’s personality. For that reason, we decided from the very beginning that we would aim for a visual expression of an aspect of the Saint’s inner life, rather than focus on a particular event in his historical life.
For a few centuries during the first millennium, St Columba’s Monastery on Iona was not only the heart of the Christian Church in Scotland, but also a major centre of art and culture. Iona’s cultural influence extended far beyond the Celtic Isles through the beauty of the illuminated manuscripts written by the monks on Iona. The Book of Kells itself, one of the greatest treasures from that time which is still in existence today, was painted in St Columba’s Monastery.
The Saints himself copied texts and created many manuscripts throughout his entire life. In fact, the very reason for his presence on Iona had something to do with such a manuscript. In his youth, St Columba was involved in a dispute over the rights to keep a manuscript he had copied from an original that belonged to St Finnian. This dispute escalated into a real battle, which led to the death of several people. As punishment, St Columba was exiled from Ireland, which is why he sailed North, to the Scottish Isles. Tradition tells us that his remorse was so great that he purposely kept sailing until he reached an island from where, looking back, he could no longer see his home country. This island was Iona.
This is how we arrived to the idea behind this commission: St Columba working on an illuminated manuscript. However, the really interesting aspect to me was the personal one. As he grew older, as he sat in his cell on the tiny hill close to the monastery church, copying some text or another, was that remorse still with him? Did that terrible fall in his youth still cloud his soul?
These are the thoughts that we hoped to show in the gaze of this humble, old monk. Because these are questions that affect all of us, and we all must – sooner or later – face this anguish. How does one relate to past sins? How does one face old age still carrying the weight of a fallen nature? How does one look forward to the Resurrection while also looking back to one’s past sinfulness?
We started from the intellectual idea of an icon depicting St Columba working on a manuscript. Prayer took us to the end of this journey, where we discovered that what was given to us was, in fact, something much deeper: as icon of repentance. This holy old monk contemplating the sinfulness of his youth is endlessly more relevant to our life than the historical reality of the depicted scene. The spiritual struggle of one’s inner life remains relevant regardless of age. Through this commission, St Columba revealed himself as a teacher of repentance, one who can lead us into old age and help us bring our repentance before Christ in a way that leads to our salvation, not to despair or abandonment.