San Rocha y San Roque

Sachaqa Art Residency Amazon Peru 2017 - 18.

Sachaqa My home for the next few months.

Sachaqa My home for the next few months.

In December 2017, I left a grey and cold London, England to travel to Peru. My destination Sachaqa Art Centre in the village of San Roque de Cumbaza, San Martin region situated in the lush Amazon jungle where I would be based for the next four months.  I had visited Sachaqa, which means spirit of the forest in Quechua, five years previously. Then I learnt about locally sourced natural pigments and dyes made from plants and fruit as well as the art and craft of the Quechua, the indigenous people of the area.  My focus this time was to create an icon of the village’s patron San Roque or Saint Roch. The Directors of Sachaqa had re-started the patronal festival two years previously and it had brought the community together including the three local churches, who normally had little contact with each other even though all are situated in the same plaza.  People from surrounding villages also travelled and took part in the three-day festival.   The enthusiasm and energy created by the festivities was the inspiration for my return to paint an icon of Saint Roch. 

Study from Lamas.

Study from Lamas.

Study from Lamas.

Study from Lamas.

With generous support from the Bishop Radford Trust I was able to travel to Peru and work with local people in San Roque and surrounding villages, researching the story of why the village was named after the French saint and how the people related to him today.  Saint Roch, or Rocco, lived in the 14th century.  He is a Catholic saint, a confessor whose death is commemorated on 16 August and 9 September (in Italy) but celebrated on the 23rd July in the Amazon village.  He is specially invoked against the plague as well as being patron saint of dogs, falsely accused people, bachelors, and several other things.

To start my research I travelled to Lamas a small town over an hour’s drive from San Roque de Cumbaza, where there is a large Quechuan community.   Every Sunday in the lower plaza elders from the town gather in traditional dress to perform a ritual where dancing arm in arm they move rhythmically in a group.   I was transfixed by this simple and yet powerful event.  The women seemed especially prominent, and expressed a strength and steely determination.  Like many people in Peru today the majority of the Quechua follow the Catholic faith but they have also weaved their own spiritual and cultural beliefs into Christianity.  A strong and resilient people I left Lamas with many ideas for the icon.

Next I travelled to Chiricyaku a two-hour walk from San Roque where I spent the night. Here I had the privilege of meeting Don Miguel Tapullima and his family.  The Tapullimas are Quechua and have been guardians for over 150 years of a statue of San Roque brought from Spain by Father Sossimo Rivers a Catholic priest.  Don Miguel introduced me to San Roque who lives in his own little house with a Quechua bag slung over his shoulder.  Next to him is a smaller house was a statue of San Antonio adorned with traditional Quechua ribbons. I felt honoured to be in the Tapullima's and the saint’s presence.

After these excursions I started planning the icon design.  In dialogue with local people it became clear the icon should celebrate the Quechua, their traditions, culture and spirituality. The saint would be Quechuan rather than a western representation.  I also wanted to celebrate Quechua women and decided to include a female version of the saint in the icon.

As the design progressed I sought a local wood craftsman who could make the icon panel.   On a guided trek further into the jungle I met Johnny Aubert.  Originally from Lima, Johnny and his wife lived in San Antonio, a village about 15 minutes from where I was based.   Through conversation Johnny shared he was a wood craftsman and had been regularly commissioned to create and build furniture, fittings and altars in churches.  Looking at photographs I could see his work was beautiful.   I told him about my project and he agreed to create the panel as well as a frame from local timber.   He eventually settled on working with local cedar sourced from driftwood in the Rio Cumbaza.

Once the design was complete and the panel ready, I began painting using my own pigments and pigments I collected from the Huallaga Rio near the small town of Chazuta a two hour drive away from San Roque and the Rio Cumbaza near Sachaqa where I often swam.  I also used achiote a dye made from a fruit which the Quechua men use to decorate their faces.   Slowly the icon and the saints began to emerge.    Progress was slow due to the heat, humidity and rain.  Time was required for each layer of tempera to dry before the next colour could be applied.   Insects were also a problem and indeed three days before I was due to depart Sachaqa cockroaches ate areas painted in indigo (a pigment made from plants) and strangely an arm of each saint which bore skin lesions. Thankfully the cockroaches were not interested in saints’ faces.

Collecting pigments from the Huallaga Rio

Collecting pigments from the Huallaga Rio

While at Sachaqa I also led a number of classes teaching visiting artist’s how to paint with egg tempera and natural pigments, as well as sharing the prayerful and spiritual discipline of icon painting.  Dialogue with people from the local churches also continued.  Plans were also formulated for the villager’s patronal festival in July where the icon would be carried through the village.  The icon’s home in between festivals is in a beautifully crafted kiot (small sealed cupboard) made by Johnny, which would be placed in a little outdoor shrine designed by me in the grounds of Sachaqa allowing the icon to be a place of pilgrimage for people to visit and pray.  The Directors of Sachaqa agreed to be the guardians of the icon.

The icon was blessed with water from the Cumbaza.  My prayer is for it to be a symbol of fellowship and unity and a beacon for pilgrims to pray and meditate before as they seek guidence and answers for their lives. 

In the completed icon San Rocha’s gaze is direct while San Roque looks beyond, a reminder for the viewer and pilgrim to consider the wider world when praying. Both saints gently support symbols of nature, the colibri (hummingbird) a symbol for ancestors in the Quechua culture and an amazonian tree, a symbol for the gifts nature gives, as well as an important Quechuan symbol. On the saints arms are skin lesions as San Roque is invoked against the plague. Behind the saints the hills of the San Martin region where the Quechua live and high above them a star inspired by the Inca cross.  The little dog in the frame is a reminder that the saint is patron saint of dogs and the Quechua step symbol around the frame symbolises continuity and everlasting life.

Nixon and Angel building the little house where San Roque will dwell.

Nixon and Angel building the little house where San Roque will dwell.


Prints of this icon are available for sale here   

Icon Painting Course - Emmanuel Church West Hampstead

I am leading an icon painting course starting January 2017. It will be held in the recently renovated Emmanuel Church West Hampstead which now has wonderful new community space and underfloor heating!The class begins the 28th January 2017 and is for adults with any artistic ability or none! Cost is £250 with all materials included.Book your place by emailing reganenquiry@outlook.comscreen-shot-2016-12-23-at-18-51-52 Map to Emmanuel Church West Hampstead.screen-shot-2016-12-28-at-15-33-04 

The Black Robin

Regan O'Callaghan Black Robin and Archangel Michael Icon, Religious Icon, egg tempera on gesso,


The Black Robin and Archangel Michael

The Black Robin lives in the Chatham Islands off the east coast of Aotearoa, New Zealand and like many birds they have had an immense struggle to survive as a species.   The Black Robin had succumbed to the introduction of pests like rats and along with the destruction of their habitat stood very little chance of survival.  Extinction seemed inevitable for the robins.   In 1980 there were only 5 individual birds left in the world!   They existed on a windswept scraggy rock called Little Mangere Island and of these 5 there was only two females and of these 2 only one was fertile.  Her name was 'Old Blue'.    With the plight of the robins being so dire the New Zealand Wildlife Service had to act quick.   Don Merton an experienced conservationist set in motion a plan to move the remaining birds to Mangere Island and have eggs from Old Blue incubated by Tomtits.  Through trial and error and over a number of years the Black robin population slowly increased.  Today there are about 250 Black Robins all descended from 'Old Blue' who lived to the grand old age of 14 which is a remarkable feat when the average life expectancy for the species was between 4 - 10 years.    Thanks to Old Blue, Don Merton and Kiwi innovation the Black robin continues to be still with us today.

In this icon dedicated to 'Old Blue' we see her take flight as Archangel  Michael the protector of the universe oversees and guards the whole of creation.


Prints are available here

Titanium white pigment

Regan O'Callaghan Religious icon, Jesus, Pantokrator, egg temperaTitanium white pigment: a metaphor for modern times.

I learnt a very important lesson when I started to write religious icons do not use Titanium white for mixing especially for skin tones.  If you do the colour becomes bland and greyish or at best  Miami Vice pastel‚ as I call it.  Instead Zinc white should be used as it mixes with other pigments and lightens and works with colours rather than overpowering them like Titanium white does. Zinc white is less opaque making the coloured undertones more nuanced to a greater degree than pigments mixed with Titanium.

Zinc oxide was first suggested as a pigment in 1782 while it wasn't  until 1916 that Titanium white pigment suitable for artistic purposes was introduced replacing Lead white which had been restricted because of its toxicity 1.   Titanium it seems has become the white pigment of our times.

Titanium white is used in writing/painting icons but only sparingly. Traditionally the very last thing an iconographer would do is apply the highlights to the eyes of the saint with Titanium.  This is done on the edge of the iris but the pupil does not have a highlight for the figure portrayed ‚ is outside the condition of time.2  The true source of Light shines from Divine presence and permeates all things.  This in itself suggests unity, balance and perfection which is what an icon should reveal.

Broadening out this theme of unity and balance consider practices, structures and political and economic systems which when left unchecked or when a mandate becomes too large have a negative or destructive effect on people and the environment.

In his book Columbus and other Cannibals‚  Jack D. Forbes describes the Native American term Wetiko as referring  to a cannibal or, more specifically, to an evil person or spirit who terrorizes other creatures by means of terrible acts including cannibalism.3  Forbes then defines Cannibalism as the consuming of another  life for ones own private purpose or profit.4 Cannibalism as defined by Forbes is not the literal eating of another mans flesh but rather is the act of consuming the other, their values, their culture, their land and their voice by a oppressive regime intent on overpowering and destroying for its own benefit. This destructive culture is understood as rife with sickness, Wetiko.   A major symptom of Wetiko is greed particularly for wealth and power.

I don't agree with everything Forbes writes but I do appreciate what he says about the spread of this sickness.  This greed for wealth and power is not a trait of one particular race or culture but rather can be found everywhere.  But when this greed becomes normalised or excused  a culture becomes unbalanced and the tilt towards the greedy results in the manifestation of huge social injustice, disempowerment, then eventually a slow emergence of  simmering discontent and finally a full blown rage by the oppressed.

Also as a counter to the call for justice, some people in positions of power will use smear tactics and gross generalisations to undermine voices of dissent against greed and social injustice.  Such tactics are the domain of the intellectually lazy and greedy.  Their voice is in part motivated by a fear of loss, loss of wealth and status and yet calls for social and economic justice do not require this but rather ask for a system where people and nature are  not chewed up and spat out for the benefit of a few.  As we all know greed will always be part of this world but when the colours and diversity of this world become muted by a small overpowering element it becomes time to act.

Perhaps if we begin again to understand and believe in this world as an icon of beauty and that its mix of colour expresses a divine truth then we might begin to wake up from this slow destructive illness that can cloud our vision and harden our hearts.  Titanium white has its place on the universal palette but only in small controlled applications.

1:  Pigments through the Ages‚  The Technique of Icon Painting‚ Guillem Ramos-Poqui, Morehouse Publishing, 19903:  Columbus and other Cannibals‚ pg. 24 Jack D. Forbes Seven Stories Press 19794:  Columbus and other Cannibals‚ pg. 24 Jack D. Forbes Seven Stories Press 1979