Icon Carving of Christ Pulling St-Peter from the Water.

By Jonathan Pageau on December 3, 2015
Christ Pulls St-Peter from the Waters. Jonathan Pageau

Christ Pulls St-Peter from the Waters. Linden and gilding. 4′ x 5′. Carved by Jonathan Pageau.

Since I began icon carving full time 4 years ago now, I had a secret list of the things I wanted to make, certain objects and images that were dear to me.  To my own joy and surprise, I have been progressively checking off items from that list with ongoing commissions, making even those objects and icons I did not think could find patrons such as complex reliquaries, wedding crowns, opus sectile icons or the image of the Holy prophet Jonah.

One of the images I had secret hope of making is Christ pulling St-Peter out of the water. For those who have read some of my writings one can quickly see how it encompasses so much of my vision of the incarnation, of death, resurrection and the pastoral reminder on where to focus our eyes when advancing into the chaotic world.  So last year, when a patron commissioned this icon at a size of 4’ x 5’ for St. Peter Orthodox Church in Bonita Springs, Florida, I was ecstatic.   This is the biggest icon I have carved to date.

In working out the drawing for the icon carving, I based the composition on my favorite version of this event, a 12th century mosaic from Sicily.


Many details are different, but the basic composition is the same. I reduced the size of the boat to make it less overwhelming and to fully have St-Peter under the boat.  I also wanted to make sure we could see at least the eyes of all the Apostles.  I changed Christ’s left hand so that instead of holding a scroll, it was placed in a position suggesting the upcoming motion, the rising of St-Peter.  I also added a few details, such as a dragon head on the boat and I changed the shape of the mast and sail to suggest a Chi-Ro.

Drawing process of St-Peter on water

Process of the drawing from first sketch to finished sketch. This drawing was small, 8′ x 10″.

One of the things that kept changing as I worked on the drawings was just how deep Peter was in the water.  The priest of the parish, fr. Hans Jacobse, commented that he really wanted the water to be high up on his body to give that sense of sinking, but this created some challenges for me because I still wanted us to see St-Peter.  Wood is generally opaque to say the least. In the mosaic version, there is wonderful use of transparency and so I began pondering just how it could be possible to at least suggest transparency in wood.

Final scaled drawing. The level of water on St-Peter will still change in the final carving.

Final scaled drawing at 4′ x 5′. The level of water on St-Peter is higher than on the sketches and will still change in the final carving.

Icon in process, attempting to find ways to show the transparency of water.

Icon in process, attempting to find ways to show the transparency of water. Also notice that in the final image, the water goes up to St-Peter’s shoulder.

I wanted the composition of the water to say something about the event and so beyond suggestions of transparency to show that St-Peter is actually in the water, I also designed it so to have a wave wrapping around his right foot in an image of the Psalms:

The cords of death entangled me; the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me. The cords of the grave coiled around me; the snares of death confronted me. (Psalm 116:3)

The water under Christ’s feet in contrast seems to shoot out from under them, organized by their contact with them. I gilded some of the water to add to this sense of the organizing and transfiguring effect Christ has on creation.


The wave wraps around St-Peter’s foot.


Water seems to organize itself at the touch of Christ’s feet.

Visually, I was looking forward to taking further the experimentation in carving water I had begun in my icon of Jonah. I wanted to create a sense of almost overwhelming movement which would contrast with the vigorous yet safe relationship established between Christ and St-Peter. Christ holds St-Peter by a firm grip, reminding us of the grip Christ has on Adam in the icon of the resurrection. Their gazes are fixed on each other, Peter with a hint of surprise and Christ with calm compassion.




When Christ appears to the Apostles floating at sea, the waters are rising in a tempest. Christ approaches them above the flood, mastering the chaos, the chaos of the primordial waters, the chaos of the passions, of doubt, of all that is in the world of death. St-Peter is the only one to dare walk out with Christ, but because of this boldness, when peering into the storm he panics and sinks. Which one of us has not experienced this? We can imagine St-Peter crying out:

Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in the miry depths, where there is no foothold. (Psalm 69: 1,2)

But the face of Christ appears to him through the waves and his hand reaches to catch him. We can hear St-Peter confess:

He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. (Psalm 40:2)

This is St-Peter, the son of Jonah, both the stable “rock” and the one who sinks, the bold fisherman who finds the gold coin in the fish’s mouth, but also that one in constant danger of being swallowed by the sea.

This is his story repeated over and over in the Gospels, the story of the one who recognized Jesus as Christ then immediately called out by Christ to “get behind me Satan”, the one who tells Christ he will never deny him then deny him three times as the three days of Jonah in the fish, the three days of Christ in the grave. To meditate on this cycle in the story of St-Peter is to pierce so many mysteries of the Church, so many signs of the times and so many cycles in our own lives.

What is the end of this, what is the end of this story? When Christ appears to the disciples on the Sea of Galilee after his resurrection (John 21), it is the same sea in which St-Peter sank when attempting to walk on water. St-Peter recognizes his Lord on the land, and this time he does not walk on the water. This time his boldness leads him to dive into the deep, to put on his garment and voluntarily plunge, then to be asked three times by Christ: “Peter, son of Jonah, do you love me?” It is not when we walk on the water that we are closest to Christ, but it is when our boldness serves humility. It is when our boldness leads us to die that we are closest to the image of Christ. What impossible thoughts to consider, what scandal it is to fathom such things?

Coming back to our icon, we can say without hesitating that the image of St-Peter being pulled out of the waters is an image of our salvation in so many ways, and I find great joy in having made it.  I hope it will be a blessing for the parish to which it is headed.

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Process of Icon Carving



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  1. D. Jean Pierre G. on December 3, 2015 at 3:10 pm

    Très beau travail Jonathan, beaucoup d’expression dans les visages, organisation de l’espace et dessin superbes. Bravo.

    • Jonathan Pageau on December 6, 2015 at 10:06 am

      Merci Jean Pierre. Je suis content de savoir que nous avons des lecteurs francophones!

  2. Anne Ryan on December 3, 2015 at 3:47 pm

    Thank you so much for sharing this exquisite work with us. I am so very happy to see masterpiece quality in this most difficult form/

    • Jonathan Pageau on December 6, 2015 at 10:04 am

      Thank you Anne for your kind words. We need to also be thankful that there are still patrons out there willing to take a risk on such a big and expensive work as well as give the leeway to an artist to push things further.

  3. Andrew Gould on December 3, 2015 at 4:12 pm

    A masterpiece of the highest order. Astonishing!

    My favorite detail is the Viking-like prow on the ship – a pagan monster fleeing the sanctification of the waters. And a bit of an iconographic curiosity – a wood carving depicting a wood carving.

    • John Tkachuk on December 3, 2015 at 11:06 pm

      Note to Andrew Gould:
      “An icon making an icon!”

    • Jonathan Pageau on December 6, 2015 at 10:02 am

      I knew you of all people would catch the relevance of that detail.

  4. Georgine Steenhuis on December 4, 2015 at 12:21 pm

    Thank you very mutch for the possibility to see your work. It is very inspiring.

  5. kleio on December 4, 2015 at 2:50 pm

    Breathtakingly beautiful! May God always bless you!

  6. Hamilton Justiniano on December 4, 2015 at 3:48 pm

    Excellent Jonathan! An amazing example of a very clear conception and fresh interpretation…It goes to show how much freedom we have to creatively solve a compositional problem within the perameters of a given prototype. The waves in particular capture the event very precisely– a very effective use of “abstraction” in an icon as a means of symbolically conveying meaning.

    • Jonathan Pageau on December 6, 2015 at 10:02 am

      Thank you fr. Silouan. You are one of the people who has helped me see how much we can push an image that at first glance looks completely standard in its composition, but in the details, the manner and the small details goes deeper into the subject. Only someone who is is not an artist, or at least not a conscientious one, and has not been forced to meditate on the actual making of art can say dismissively that the “manner” of fabrication of an image has no connection to its meaning.

  7. benmarston on December 4, 2015 at 7:17 pm

    loved looking at this. Your wood seems to hold much more detail than my basswood. Wish I could make the class in SC. needing to stay ahead of my cataracts!

    • Jonathan Pageau on December 6, 2015 at 9:56 am

      Hello Ben. Good to hear from you. As you know, you would be more than welcome at one of my workshops. There are a few tricks to make the basswood hold more detail, one is to go back in with the knife after it has been lacquered to do corners and spots that are fuzzy. Another is to use thin exacto type blades for little details.

  8. Mary Lowell on December 5, 2015 at 9:39 am

    What a joy it has been to watch the progression of this masterpiece from conception to completion! It began as a desire in the hearts of Fr. Johhannes Jacobse
    and Jonathan Pageau, two men with no prior knowledge of each other. Fr. Johhannes, pastor of St. Peter Antiochian Orthodox Church in Bonita Springs, FL, longed to have an icon that expressed the evangel mission of pulling souls from the waves of the world in chaos. Jonathan Pageau, a man of themes, longed to pull images of “Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection” from the woodblock. But there is a third operative in this work. God bless the donor without whom we would not have this accomplishment to celebrate. Congratulations to all for this newborn masterpiece!

    • Jonathan Pageau on December 6, 2015 at 9:53 am

      Thanks Mary. It is always amazing how things come together the way they do. You are right that our patron deserves special thanks as she was willing to go out on a limb and pay for something she could only guess at how it would end up. Finally many thanks to you as well for being the secret link between all of us and the one whispering trust across borders!

  9. Fr. Hans Jacobse on December 5, 2015 at 10:23 am

    We are very grateful Jonathan for the beautiful icon you have created for our parish. This is an important event the contours of which I still don’t comprehend completely but when I do I will write you and let you know what they are. This is more than the placement of new icon or liturgical item. It has to do with prayer, creativity, and the future of St. Peter’s Mission that will reach into the next generations. Most important is the congruence between beauty and God — the created and Uncreated that is revealed through the interplay of the material and non-material and reach into meaning and purpose in profound ways.

    Again, not quite sure yet what the implications are but they are there. Give me some time to let the intuitions crystallize into concepts and then I will be able to write about it.

    Thank you very much for such a superb and beautiful work.

    • Jonathan Pageau on December 6, 2015 at 9:49 am

      Thank you fr. Hans for your insightful comments and thank you and your parish and especially our patron for taking a chance on such a large and complex object. Hopefully it will be a small witness as your mission parish is a witness in the chaos of our world. Hopefully I will have a chance to come by and see it in place one day.

  10. Nancy Forderhase on December 8, 2015 at 8:18 am

    One of the back stories behind this icon is the “back.” This was not a small, carved icon created while sitting; instead it required carving while standing and at odd angles. There is a deep love involved in creating this masterpiece, but also some physical pain from the process of creation. Knowledge of that makes this masterpiece even more precious to St. Peter’s. To Jonathan, our deep appreciation.

  11. Steve C on December 15, 2015 at 9:36 am

    The placing of the gilt, the primordial and convoluted spirals, where does one even start? Captures the immanence and transcenence of the divine person wonderfully!

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