Canadian Iconographer Frank C. Turner

A well-known Canadian Catholic in the Archdiocese of Vancouver is Frank C. Turner, a baby-boomer actor turned iconographer from Holy Family parish in East Vancouver.  Frank was born and raised in Alberta where in his youth he was a dedicated altar boy, serving Mass in Latin at his country parish.  As a boy he remembers admiring paintings in the church of his youth, looking up at the decorated apse, seeing an image depicting the Blessed Trinity.

From the earliest age Frank was fascinated by the art and influenced by the spirituality of Catholic iconography.  Later his family joined the parish of Saint Albert, a beautiful historic church that sits atop Mission Hill in Saint Albert, Alberta.  On this same site the original mission was established in 1861 by the Oblate Fathers, who were missionaries in Canada, not known for being experts in the area of liturgical arts and design.

Nevertheless, here the Oblates built a beautiful red brick church, designed in the Lombard Romanesque style of northern Italy, where the young artist found early inspiration.  Frank recalls how in those years of his childhood the interior was painted in pleasant blues and golds with a sky-blue interior dome.  Then, in a fit of modernization the interior was gutted in 1971 and the church walls were painted entirely white.  Further, the modernizers walled off half the sanctuary to make a Knights of Columbus meeting room.

After seeing the interior lose all definition, Frank was affected by the absence and the loss and in some ways that experience led him on a mission to right that wrong.  Although Frank’s background and profession has been character acting on stage, in films and television – his filmography includes dozens of Hollywood films and TV – he began painting icons on the side in 1991.

It all began in 1989 when his wife saw a news item in The B.C. Catholic advertising a workshop with a Russian iconographer from New York named Vladislav Andreyev.  Frank attended the workshop and thoroughly enjoyed it. This led him to enroll in two more successive workshops in 1990 and 1991, learning everything he could from the supervised instruction of the master iconographer.

From the first lesson, Frank fell in love with painting, the art of Christian iconography – the visual quotation of holy images. The first work he completed was an image of St. Michael the Archangel.  He later attended various workshops on iconography at Mt. Angel Benedictine Abbey near Portland, Oregon as well as St. Gertrude’s Monastery in Cottonwood, Idaho.

Over the years Frank did his own research on the subject of icons and the science of iconography and its resurgence since the fall of Communism in Russia.  As he progressed as an artist, he even learned to build his own icon board and to procure the best pigments and even gold leaf, sourced from Montreal.

Later that same year Frank received his first commission, a request for a hand-painted icon of St. Raphael, which he sold for $250.  Over the years Frank has produced more and more works of art. His works appear in various Latin Rite and Byzantine churches and religious buildings in various provinces across Canada and beyond.

He was even commissioned to paint an icon for a small village in Lebanon.  In Vancouver thirteen of his icons are enshrined in the church of Corpus Christi. These were his first monumental pieces, commissioned by Fr. Donald Newman, a local priest who was an early patron who requested several works.

In 2003 Frank along with two other artists founded the Epiphany Sacred Arts Guild, a local organization for the promotion of liturgical arts based in Vancouver. For ten years he served as its president, helping to showcase works by local artists.

In 2007 Frank traveled to Italy and Spain where he was fully immersed for one month, visiting such art centers as Bologna, Ravenna, Assisi and Perugia.  In Spain he lived in an Augustinian monastery and visited the museums of Madrid, including the famous Museo del Prado, one of Europe’s finest collections of art.  In Europe he was fascinated to see the scale of artwork that many can only dream of and see in books, describing this as “something that does not compute, as one has to see it in person.”

As God would have it, Frank gradually transitioned from a professional acting career to a full-time artist. In 1997 he rented his first art studio.  From his studio Frank continues to create great works of art. He goes there most days for about 4-6 hours per day, working at his own pace.  Each year he works on a handful of commissions he receives, many of them private. For him, the act of creating an icon is a prayer itself with the action of prayer being the raising of inanimate materials to God.

Frank’s greatest iconic masterpieces are two monumental crucifixes located in Vancouver, one in the foyer of the Archdiocesan chancery pastoral center and the other in the sanctuary of the Cathedral of the Holy Rosary in downtown Vancouver.  The cathedral cross, which is suspended from the ceiling above the main altar, was commissioned for the Vancouver Archdiocese by Archbishop J. Michael Miller in 2015.  It took two intense years to complete.

The purpose of the new cross was to glorify God and help beautify the cathedral while giving a focus of attention for the faithful who visit and pray.  The Archbishop, an art enthusiast himself, requested a Romanesque style crucifix from the period of the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries.  The Romanesque style corpus is distinct from the Gothic style, which depicts Christ hanging from the cross in an “S” shaped agony with eyes closed.

In the Romanesque style, Christ is depicted almost standing on the cross, with eyes open, triumphant over death. This style is referred to as, Christus Triumphans (or Christ Triumphant).  The crucifix that was used as the original inspiration for the Vancouver cross was from Siena, Italy, modeled after the cross before which St. Catherine of Siena received the stigmata.  Frank had seen this modern version of the cross of the stigmata of St. Catherine while he was visiting Bologna, a creation of his mentor Don Gianluca Busi. This cross became the basis for the design of the Vancouver cathedral crucifix.

Interestingly, the crown of thorns is not depicted on this cross as this custom was not commonly seen until the thirteenth century.  The Vancouver crucifix was built by a local carpenter from Frank’s parish, Darrell Doering. The wood is approximately 4 cm thick and is made up of Baltic birch plywood trimmed with oak 2 cm x 7.5 cm.

From an early stage Frank envisioned incorporating a large rosary around the frame of the cross, in reference to the patronal title of the cathedral: Most Holy Rosary Cathedral.  The giant rosary surrounding the cross has some 223 gold beads, representative of the official 20 mysteries of the rosary: the Joyful, Sorrowful, Glorious and Luminous Mysteries.  Readers will be intrigued to know the beads were taken from old car seat mats made of rounded bamboo rounds that Frank picked up at a local thrift store. He took them apart and pegged them individually to the frame and covered them in gold leaf.

Meanwhile, the base of the painted parts of the crucifix is made of chalk powder mixed with animal skin rabbit glue, a universal traditional ground for painting, applied in layers and sanded smooth to the touch.

The images are painted in egg tempera, the traditional medium of iconography; a mixture of egg yolk, white wine and pigment.  The cross is distinguished by bright colors to emphasize the spiritual significance of the cosmic scene. The azurite blue evokes the heavens and unites both heaven and earth in the sacrifice of Calvary.

Azurite is one of the most precious of traditional natural pigments and therefore is particularly suitable for such a project, along with the gold leaf that has been applied with great care.  Above the arms of Christ are seen the letters IC and XC. These are the first and last letters of IHCOYC (Jesus, in Greek) and XPICTOC (Christ, in Greek).  On the halo of Christ are letters that denote “He Who Is,” or the name of God, a clear testimony to the divinity of Christ.

The two subsidiary figures of Our Lady and St. John are represented at half the scale of Christ, emphasizing the centrality of the mystery of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection.  The inscription above Mary’s shoulder is a Greek abbreviation for the Mother of God. Mary’s inner garment is blue-green, in reference to her humility while the outer garment is a rich wine red, in reference to her being clothed in divine grace.  This red pigment contains hematite collected in Marathon, Ontario while the highlights contain red ochre taken from the ground of Mother Angelica’s EWTN convent monastery in Alabama, a place of pilgrimage in the U.S.

The inscription above St. John translates into “The Holy John,” or simply Saint John.  The 22 karat gold leaf came in fifteen books of gold with each book containing a total of 25 3” x 3” squares, approximately 6,000 square inches.  In the areas where gold is seen, at least 2-3 layers were applied. Frank prayed a Gloria Patri as he waited for each gold leaf to adhere before putting on the next piece with a traditional squirrel hair brush.

The halo of Christ has the most gold, five layers: where Christ as king speaks through the image.  The crucifix was installed in the cathedral in 2014 with a special Mass in which it was blessed by Archbishop Miller in the presence of the parish community.  On the back is a painted ¼” stainless steel hanging plate, supporting the eye bolts used to suspend it from the ceiling, with these Latin words engraved: Adoramus Te Christe (We adore Thee, Christ).

There is also a bronze plaque on the back commemorating the dedication and blessing of the cross, a donation from the Abi-Rached family in memory of their beloved father, Georges.  Professor Georges Abi-Rached was a prominent engineer in Vancouver of international international renown and a devoted Catholic husband and father, originally from Lebanon. He reposed in the Lord in 2006.

Pastors or or bishops who may be interested in commissioning similar projects please feel free to see his website or contact Frank directly at [email protected]

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