Artist finds calling after leap of faith

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 October, 2011, 12:00am


Lino Wong Wing-kuen never imagined he would find himself standing on a creaking scaffold painting the ceiling of a Greek church.

Wong, 43, graduated in architecture from the University of Hong Kong two decades ago.

But his passion for painting took him to Italy a year later, where he was planning to study art.

Things didn't go as planned in Florence. It was an expensive place to live and, unable to afford the high rents, Wong was offered a temporary home in the Santa Maria a Cintoia Church by Don Rino Perbellini.

He stayed there for 18 years and became fascinated by religious art.

It was the icons - the flat pictures of Christ, Mary and others painted in egg tempera on wood - that caught Wong's eye. The style was begun by the Orthodox Church and was widespread before the 8th century, but sparked debate over whether they were idols banned in the Bible. The iconoclasm died down eventually, but the art continues today.

Unlike contemporary art, the painting of icons is governed by strict rules. Artists cannot create their own versions, but must follow a set of historical images.

'Artists usually express their own feelings in modern paintings,' Wong said. 'An iconographer, however, aims to stir people's feelings by recreating an icon.'

Wong graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence in 1996 with a diploma in painting, and continued down the iconographer path in Italy. Seven years later, he went to the Greek island of Rhodes to learn from a local iconographer. He followed that up with tuition under two more experts in Genoa, Italy, and again in Greece to refine his skills.

While anyone can paint icons on wooden boards, only authorised iconographers are allowed to paint them on the walls of a church.

'There was a man weighing more than 200 pounds [91kgs] who assisted the Greek master. He painted the background and patterns, while the master drew the saints' faces and their clothes,' he recalled.

'We both painted on a scaffold, which was creaking [under the weight]. We used rulers to draw on the ceiling.'

While pasting gold flakes - which symbolise the sacred corona - on a wooden board covered in gesso, a type of plaster, takes skill, the most demanding part is to get the eyes and expressions right, Wong said.

Painting icons has undergone something of a revival in Europe recently, with many commercial schools offering classes.

For Wong, who is Catholic, it is important to respect the religious basis of the art. 'I pray when I paint icons,' he said.

His 26 works will be exhibited at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception parish office building in Mid-Levels from today to October 16, and at the Mother of Good Counsel Parish at Ng Wah Catholic Secondary School from October 17 to 28. He will teach 29 students how to paint icons next week before returning to Italy.

His painting Baptism of Jesus can be found on the walls of Santa Maria a Cintoia Church.