Jay Johnstone has recently burst onto the scene as a Tolkien artist. His images of Tolkien characters are distinctive – he paints figures from The Lord of the Rings in the style of Christian icons.
Johnstone’s work was spurred by a recurring dream he had, in which he found himself in a Celtic church, attending what he believed to be his wife’s funeral. Walking down a corridor, he discovered an altar covered in icons and illuminated manuscripts. One of these icons appeared to be an image of his wife. However, the icon contained Tengwar script (a form of Elvish lettering invented by J.R.R. Tolkien), instead of the typical Greek lettering of Christian iconography. At that point, he realised in the dream that the other icons nearby also contained the same Tengwar script. When he focused his attention on these icons, he realised that both they, and the original icon, actually portrayed Lord of the Rings characters, including Éowyn, Aragorn, Gandalf, and Arwen, painted as if to suggest recognisable iconic figures such as the Virgin Mary, Christ, and Moses.
After he woke up from the initial dream, Johnstone painted a panel of the hall of Théoden which he saw from one of the dream manuscripts, and then dropped the paintings for 3-4 years until he had the dream again. After a second occurrence of the dream, he began to paint the icons he had seen.
However, he continued his series by painting Frodo, without intending at first to paint him iconically – “just adding to the set,” he said in an interview with Transpositions. This was the first time he had added a new iconic figure to the ones in his dream, and he began to think about the justification for painting Frodo as an icon. For Johnstone, the key question was: Why did Frodo take the Ring to Mordor, when he could have remained safely in his hobbit-hole in the Shire, or safely at Rivendell, having handed off the burden to wiser minds? Johnstone’s answer was, “He can only be doing this because he believes it’s the right thing to do. It’s the godly thing to do. It’s the saintly thing to do. It’s the good thing for humanity. He wasn’t doing it for himself; he was doing it for everybody else.” That saintly character of self-sacrificial love justified Frodo’s halo.
Johnstone faced a similar problem when he decided to paint Isildur, who is killed in an Orc ambush on the banks of the Anduin after cutting the Ring from Sauron’s hand in the Battle of Mount Doom. Though he has acted heroically so far in his life, Isildur is generally considered to have sealed his doom when he took the Ring for himself instead of destroying it. Johnstone considered Isildur to have been “corrupted” the moment he took the Ring by violence. If he had survived, Johnstone believed, the Ring would have made him a servant of Sauron, and he would have become a more powerful version of the Witch-King of Angmar. Johnstone illustrates this corruption by cloaking Isildur in dragon iconography, and symbolises his new bond to Sauron by clothing him in a belt and baldric patterned with the Eye of Mordor.
To save Isildur from final corruption, and to ensure that the Ring would be first hidden and then found again at the appropriate time, divine Providence dictated that Isildur must die. In addition, Johnstone argues, divine Providence dictated that Isildur must die in water, because water was the domain of Ulmo, one of the gods most friendly to the inhabitants of Middle-earth. Johnstone argues, based on the difficulty the Ringwraiths experienced in crossing water in The Fellowship of the Ring, and the Ring’s long dormition in the Anduin, that water had a cleansing and shielding effect on evil, through the power of Ulmo. Therefore, when Isildur is killed in the Anduin, he not only pays for his sin in keeping the Ring, but the corruption the Ring worked in his soul is washed clean in a type of baptism. Therefore, Johnstone argues, in his death Isildur becomes a martyr, dying so that the Ring can be saved in the Anduin for its future destruction. He is therefore worthy of veneration within the Secondary World of Tolkien’s story.
Johnstone is very clear that he is not creating religious icons to be used for veneration in our Primary World. They are not a replacement for icons of Christian saints, and he is not claiming that Tolkien’s characters have a Primary World existence in which they deserve veneration. Instead, he is participating in Tolkien’s activity of sub-creation. He imagines a parallel world in which the activity of The Lord of the Rings took place during our Dark Ages. If such a world existed, these characters would have been saints, and medieval monks and iconographers would have depicted them as such. Johnstone is painting the icons that those imaginary iconographers would have created. His icons are artefacts from a Secondary World.
Johnstone says, “I’m not painting religious paintings, I’m painting icons that people would have perceived from a mythical past. I’m not trying to re-create a religion icon. I’m trying to re-create icons of a myth.” He is trying to share an experience of his soul:
I couldn’t paint [these paintings] without doing the dream, without being in the church, without being at the funeral, without seeing the iconography, without trying to paint it. And so it’s quite bizarre that out of a dream, new concepts are born… I’m not an academic by any stretch of the imagination…But I’m having these new concepts and talking to academics about them, and they’re saying, “No, I think you’ve got just cause to think like this, and I think you’ve opened up a whole new stream.”
Jay Johnstone’s icons can be viewed at Jay’s Tolkien.
All images (c) Jay Johnstone, and used by permission of the artist.