This month the topic of our newsletter is contemplation and Icons. As I continue teaching Icon writing (painting), now online due to the pandemic, it seems important to post about the importance of linking prayer to the process of painting Icons. In order for the Icon to reflect God’s Presence, it’s very important for the iconographer to be in a state of grace and prayer while working.
Reflection on the saints being being painted and continuous prayer help to insure that the icon is an authentic expression of who the saint is when transfigured by God’s grace. This is the true likeness of the saint- his transfigured person through the light of God’s action upon him/her in their lives.
In The Eastern theological tradition, man is seen to be on a mystical journey that leads to “Theosis” or deification. Icons represent this union between God and man. The Icon is a manifestation of the presence of God. It draws and brings us into this Presence so that we can experience God in our soul. In this way we become a living icon of God.
Contemplation and Icons
In Byzantine religious culture, the purpose of meditation, prayer and contemplation was always to lead to enlightenment, that is, prayerful immersion in the rays of Divine energy as evidenced in the icon of the Transfiguration.
In Vita Consecrata we read this from Pope John Paul II, : We must confess that we all have need of this silence, filled with the presence of him who is adored : in theology, so as to exploit fully its own sapiential and spiritual soul; in prayer, so that we may never forget that seeing God means coming down the mountain with a face so radiant that we are obliged to cover it with a veil (Ex 34.33); in commitment, so that we will refuse to be locked in a struggle without love and forgiveness. All, believers and non-believers alike, need to learn a silence that allows the other to speak when and how he wishes, and allows us to understand his words”
Whereas St. Benedict, who has set the tone for the spirituality of the West, calls us, first of all, to listen, the Byzantine Fathers focus on gazing. This is especially evident in the liturgical life of the Eastern Church as the 2nd Ecumenical council in 787 makes clear, when it says : “What is communicated through the Word is revealed silently through the Image.” In Byzantine Liturgy therefore, Word and Icon complement each other.
Each of us is an Icon of God, and through prayer and contemplation, we are able to see our brothers and sisters as God sees them, and then bring this deep sense of God’s view to the process of painting Icons.
Hesychasm is a mystical form of prayer practiced by Byzantine Monks and iconographers of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Jesus‘s teaching in the Gospel of Matthew tells us that “whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you”. Hesychasm in tradition has been the process of retiring inward in order to achieve an experiential knowledge of God. The Jesus prayer, prayer of the breath, was commonly the prayer used when painting icons in this tradition.
The Jesus prayer is this, or a variation of it: “Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.”
And to finish, here is a quote from “The Message”, a treatise from fifteenth century St. Joseph of Volokolamsk:
“Wherever you may be, O Beloved, on sea or on land, at home, walking, sitting, or lying down- ceaselessly pray with a clear conscience, saying, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me,” and God will hear you.”
Equipped with prayer and contemplation, the iconographer is able to paint with God’s direction and all will be well!
Each month, we choose a topic relevant to the education of contemporary iconographers, and I invite you to make suggestions, submit possible topics, or write a guest post. Contact me!
Last March, I was blessed to teach an Icon workshop at Mt. Calvary Monastery in Santa Barbara, California where I met many motivated and interesting iconographers. One of these is Dorothy Alexander, an Iconographer in Santa Barbara who hosts a twice monthly Icon painting group at her home. The following is an article she has written about this group. An inspiring and much needed aspect of Iconography is community!
FROM DOROTHY ALEXANDER:
“Here in Santa Barbara, California, an ecumenical group of iconography students meet for Open Icon Sessions twice a month. These sessions have been on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic and will be starting up again on June 6, 2020.
Why do we meet?
We are admonished to encourage each other throughout the scriptures. “Therefore encourage one another…” I Thess. 4:18
“But encourage one another daily,…” Heb. 3:13
We share a common bond of desiring to create icons to the glory of God, that others will be drawn closer to God through the icons, and, most importantly, to encourage each other as we work on the icon of Christ in each of us.
Some iconographers have spent years in apprenticeships, travelled to distant lands to learn in specialized schools, others are self-taught, and others have attended many weekly iconography courses. There is not just one “right” way to come into iconography. Just as in our individual journeys in faith, God leads and directs us as we need, not as our neighbor needs.
“A very good piece of advice that I received at Seminary when we were leaving was to never paint on my own. Not only is it important to check in with other painters about theology and subject matter; we also learn so much from seeing our colleagues’ work in progress and discuss their use of materials and painting techniques…”
As the Finnish iconographer, Helena Nikkanen (a student of Ouspensky), painted and restored Coptic icons in Egypt (2016) it was a team effort. She was Head Restorer for the Society for the Conservation of Ethiopian Cultural Heritage.
Their four-person team discussed a lot of icons, each with their own area of expertise. In the production of the icon project, the face of Christ was a nun of Hanuna’s paintings; Manali was responsible for small details such as Coptic texts. Nikkanen made drawings of icons and nun Martha was responsible for priming the icons.
The St. Croix Catholic Iconographers Guild has worked on icons corporately the way Nikkanen suggests. They have also worked on jointly painting iconography on the interior walls of a church on Standing Rock Indian Reservation in July of 2019. https://www.facebook.com/groups/iconography/
Three members of our Open Sessions are making diptych icons to give to our priests at St. Athanasius Antiochian Orthodox Church. They can take these with them as they bring the Eucharist to parishioners. This idea was given to us by people in the Iconography Ministry at St. Kateri (https://www.facebook.com/groups/766736060032157/).
These groups have been examples of how a guild or group of iconographers can serve others to the glory of God. We are praying together, painting alongside each other, and someday we may paint an icon together to serve our community. We exchange books/teachings, share our struggles, and lift each other up in prayer.
The Group Formation:
In 2009 I first met with a group of egg tempera artists in the home of Theresa Rohter. Here is Theresa’s description of how that group came into being.
Adult Education in the 90’s had a watercolor class and the Instructor, Rose Margret Braiden, took some instruction on how to paint an icon and incorporated it with egg tempera. I happened to hear about the class and enrolled. I was the only one doing religious paintings, and only working with egg tempera while others were mixing water color with egg tempera. As I became better at egg tempera, an opportunity arrived in Santa Barbara; The Prosopon School gave a workshop at the Old Mission.
I took a few more workshops and as I developed skills in mixing pigments and working on icons, I invited a few people to my home that were interested in iconography. The rest is history.
Over the years I have developed lasting relationships with people that I have much in common with: faith and iconography.
After the tragic Thomas Fire and Montecito debris flow, Theresa was not able to host these sessions. With the aid of family, friends, and the Montecito Bucket Brigade volunteers, the cases of pigments which Theresa lovingly prepared and maintained were found. These are the pigments which we still use today. Each person who uses them donates $10 per session to replenish the supply.
From the Group:
The best way to get a feel for what we do as a group is to hear from the group. Several participants from the last six months were asked to contribute their thoughts on these three questions:
– How have these sessions aided your iconography journey?
– What do you value in our community?
– What is an unexpected benefit of painting/drawing icons together?
Here are their reflections.
Veronica Kortz with her tryptic icon
These sessions have aided my iconography journey by getting feedback from more experienced iconographers, helpful hints of how to correct, improve, and enhance our icons.
I value our community friendship, the sharing of insights, ideas, and support.
An unexpected benefit of painting/drawing icons together is the bond of prayer and fellowship in our community.
Nancy Kazanjian, our “Cover Girl” at an icon workshop
The Open Icon Sessions in Santa Barbara have enriched my life through Icon Writing. The supportive educational and prayerful environment touches deeply while developing further skills and understanding of the processes, application, and tools. The perimeters of our study are so broad and life enhancing that it is difficult to put into words.
Through our work we deepen friendships and respect towards one another. I value the principles of Iconography, and the foundation of shared faith. I treasure the time of reflective prayerful work. I am sincerely grateful for the generosity and the opportunity to participate.
Kristine Amerson with her Christ the Good Shepherd icon
Gathering together in Open Icon Sessions has blessed me in many unexpected ways. I was drawn into the iconography world when a friend shared an icon she wrote at a retreat. The icon spoke to me and although I did not have any formal background in art she encouraged me to prayerfully consider attending an icon workshop.
What I value most about our community is the diversity, unity, and companionship it offers. All are welcome; we encourage each other and share deeply in one another’s spiritual journeys.
An unexpected benefit has been the depth of spiritual connection I have found on this sojourn.
Sandra Talmadge with her Archangel Gabriel
The Santa Barbara Open Icon Sessions have been a life-line for me for many reasons. The sessions themselves are always done in a prayerful and respectful atmosphere. The clubhouse we meet in is spacious, comfortable, and accommodating, as well as having excellent kitchen facilities for our potluck lunches.
The more experienced offer input as far as each participant needs or wants. The schedule is completed far enough ahead of time to allow for planning. The email communications always include links for further education and interest.
Many masters cannot teach or organize; yet God has blessed us with an organized time of learning together in iconography.
What is more, all of this is done for the love of God. No one pays a fee unless pigments are needed. This has allowed me to continue my love of iconography, with excellent quality, even though I struggle with limited resources.
Terry Kanowsky (Photo of Cristy Maltese and Terry, on the right, having presented icons they painted for the homebound ministry at their church.)
One of the aspects I find so rewarding about Iconography is the time I find for myself and my spiritual center. These meetings enhance the sense of peace and accomplishment my Icon writing gives me. From the comradeship we have on the car pool up to Santa Barbara through the fellowship I enjoy with all the other Icon writers at the meetings, it is truly a “soul day” for me!
I love how we all share our knowledge and in so many ways our love of God and the beauty we create through His hand. In other art forms there is often a lot of ego involved in group get-togethers. But I don’t see that at the Open Sessions. Everyone is quick to help, encourage and share tools. The experienced writers have patience with less skilled or less experienced writers too.
An unexpected benefit is all I learn at each session. How to be prayerful, all aspects of the writing process….little hints, ideas and “best practices” are all things I take away from each meeting.
Nataliya Tinyayeva at an Open Icon Session
In my opinion the iconography sessions are a beautiful part of my spiritual journey.
It is the way to deeper understanding of what an actual icon is, how it can reflect the author, the writer’s skills and the spiritual side of the author.
I personally was always thinking that the iconographer has to be perfect. I was thinking I don’t deserve to write an icon and I am still kind of thinking this way 🙂
However, I understand that there are so many ways to write the icons, we all are human and we aren’t perfect. We can’t produce the perfections, but He can. Of the majority of icons done by good masters only a few of them are done with God’s Spirit. Of course it would be the best to study Iconography at the Orthodox monastery and learn all aspects of Iconography from monks, learn different perspectives of Iconography, but today we live in such a relaxed, chaotic, and weak world that even a small particle of light can become the huge help for people to unite in God. For me, this small particle is these Iconography sessions. It is the additional opportunity to think about God and focus on the Jesus prayer.
There is a quiet environment with spiritual music. It is a good place to be in prayer and to meet other people who want to be united with God, who want to reflect the face of Jesus, Panagia, and Saints into the wood. It is the wonderful opportunity for us to exchange our experience, to get skills from more experienced Iconographers and of course it is the way to improve the skills; because, who knows…. maybe one day somebody will venerate our icon and pray to God. Such thoughts could not only be the motivation to get better at Iconography but also give some inspiration. That is why for me those sessions are very important; I receive support and the desire to continue this journey. I wouldn’t have any confidence to continue Iconography without these sessions.
In a perfect world not only adults but also kids should learn Iconography as a natural way of living and growing. And wouldn’t it be wonderful if at least one child would continue the journey of writing icons and become a good master.
Andrea Carr at an Open Icon Session
I can’t begin to express what a blessing it is and how fortunate we are to have these Open Icon Sessions. Our group, which ranges from beginners to advanced, is so supportive of one another. We each have our own work space which is very ample, and I love it when one of the other Iconographers will quietly and prayerfully come up to my table to observe and then comment on my work. Our group is so insightful and we have all learned from one another. If I ever need help, there are many there for support and the suggestions are given with love and respect.
I have never returned home from one of these sessions without gaining invaluable instruction and I feel so much zeal and joy from our community. If I ever forget any of my supplies at home, our group is so generous with lending a compass or ruler and if we need to buy pigments or supplies, they are there at a very reasonable cost.
An unexpected benefit from coming to these sessions is that we get to hear from the members the retreats and classes they have attended around the United States or even internationally. I just dream when I hear these fascinating stories and we get to learn so much about icon history. And I can’t fail to mention the pot luck dishes we bring to class for our lunch. I have never eaten so well in my life and it is always gourmet and scrumptious. I have met friends that I will have for my entire life and we always keep each other in our prayers.
Martha Helkey is working on an Our Lady of Guadalupe icon like this one made by Tina DaRos.
I appreciate the time spent together with my fellow iconographers. It is a prayerful time for me.
Asia Ballew making a chalk drawing of St. Brigid, with Dorothy Alexander
It is amazing to connect with other American iconographers. It is wonderful to know that I don’t have to go to Greece or Russia to connect with other iconographers. Talented and gifted men and women are right here!
The Open Icon meetings are so uplifting, encouraging, and insightful. As one of the only young people in this group, I’m learning so much from the older, seasoned iconographers who have been passing on to me so much knowledge about this art.
Dorothy Alexander with two of her icons
While it would be easy to stay in my little icon studio and paint on my own, I have grown in iconography through the assistance of others in this community. The kindness, gentle corrections, and challenges have all improved my icons.
Nikita Andreyev, my first icon instructor, said painting an icon is 90% prayer and 10% brushwork. This statement has stayed with me as a foundation in my journey of iconography. For me this has been a spiritual journey and I am humbled when people are glad to receive icons which are never perfect, are definitely flawed, and truly made by human hands. I continue to strive to improve and encourage others to do the same. This community has been used by God to bless me
Praying that the Holy Spirit will guide us, we meet that our “…hearts might be comforted, being knit together in love, and unto all riches of the full assurance of understanding, to the acknowledgement of the mystery of God, and of the Father, and of Christ;…” (Colossians 2:2).
If you would like to be added to our email list please contact Dorothy at email@example.com.
Thank you, Dorothy, for contributing this article and for organizing your group of Iconographers. We welcome your ideas and feedback on future articles for the Association.
Teaching Icon classes as I do in monasteries, churches and art centers, the question that always arises at the end of class: How can I continue with Icon painting? Practice is what I always say. For that reason, this month’s blog for the American Association of Iconographers is a collection of information and links to help with further studies.
Ideally, someone who is learning to write Icons will choose a style or a teacher which whom to study. But even with that, one can only realistically take one or two workshops per year. What to do in the meantime? Here are my suggestions:
Using sketch paper and pencil, draw as much as possible. Copy Icons from books, prints, or the internet. Drawing is the number one art skill needed in Icon writing, as it is in all painting. Learning to think on paper is a valuable skill. A book that I recommend to beginners is: Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. You can copy Icons in some of her exercises and you will be surprised at how quickly your drawing will improve.
Sketch of Icon
Tonal sketch of Icon
Icon to be copied
Use watercolor paper and the four basic color of Icon writing: red ochre, black, white and yellow ochre. Make color and tonal studies of Icons on water color paper. Again, this simple practice will yield large results.
Icon Retreats and Workshops
For those who choose to study with me, here is a link to upcoming classes. My teaching method is always evolving and inspired by my prayer life. I particularly enjoy helping students who have had some experience writing Icons and now want to create their own Icon (still copied from before the Renaissance). If you do sign up for one of my classes and wish to do this, please email me well before the class date so that we can prepare you for getting the most out of the retreat.
Resources for viewing Iconographic Imagery
Kolomenskaya Versta is a site selling Icon books and materials. It is based in Russia and they regularly post free images to copy as well as links to all kinds of Iconographic information. Also known as Russian Modern Orthodox Icon, here is a link to their FB page.
“One of the tasks of the spiritual in art is to prove again and again that vision is possible; that the world, thick and convincing, is neither the only world nor the highest, and that our ordinary awareness is neither the only awareness nor the highest of which we are capable. Traditionally, this task falls under a stringent rule; the vision cannot be random and entirely subjective, but must be capable of touching a common chord in many men and women.” Roger Lipsey, “An Art Of Our Own, The Spiritual in Twentieth Century Art”.
Three months ago I gave myself a challenge: to write down everything that I thought was important in art and in Iconography and then to create a book. My Deadline was the Fourth of July and my target was 20,000 words. Yesterday I made my goal, with time to spare! Of course now the editing process begins, but I honestly know now that this path of spiritual discovery in art is as important as anything else I could imagine doing. For it is a research into human inspiration, philosophy, dreams, religion, politics, and moral development through the ages as evidenced in art, specifically painting and Iconography.
Icons in the Twentieth Century
In 1904, a small portion of Andrey Rulev’s Holy Trinity Icon was cleaned of the dark soot that had been its covering for centuries. This one act led eventually to a whole group of Icons in Russia being cleaned and “discovered”, and this, in turn, has largely contributed to the revival in Iconographic interest today. When the Trinity was cleaned and uncovered through restoration, crowds began making pilgrimages to see it.
In 1911, Henri Matisse visited Moscow and was incredulous at the power and beauty he experienced in seeing these Icons. So much so, that his art was strongly influenced by them for the rest of his life. He declared that the Russian medieval masters had already found what he had been seeking painting!
My new book will be about Iconography and its effect on the development of the best in modern art. Putting together the pieces of this puzzle has been illuminating. Wassily Kandinsky, the foremost pioneer of modern art, was not only deeply affected by icons in their painterly language, but also in the clarity and truth of the spiritual reality they conveyed.
Researching writers like Pavel FLorensky, Leonid Ouspensky, Roger Lipsey, Irina Yazykova, as well as modern master artists, I found there is a central theme of authentic spiritual experience throughout. Creating a modern spiritual language requires not only experience as an artist, but a spiritual lifestyle and practice that involves personal growth in Christ.
Color Theory, Materials, and Manuals
Combining the Iconographic and spiritual research with the specifics of making great art was part of my goal for the book. Icons combine two worlds- the spiritual and art. Spiritual development is essential, but so is artistic development. For this I will be including a Bibliography of artist resources and guides to egg tempera painting and old master methods and materials. Sharing all this exciting information that has taken me so long to find will, hopefully, make it easier for others who want to develop their craft and skill by classical painting information combined with the best in modern artists who pursued the spiritual path.
With God’s help, I expect the book to be ready to publish at the beginning of this fall, and will email the specifics. My intention and hope is that this book will help many serious iconographers and artists who wish to push forward in this challenging task of creating spiritual art that draws people to God. It is the job of making icons accessible to a world desperately in need of a change from materialism to God’s world of true spiritual life. For this, we need to open our hearts and let God lead the art out of the churches and into places where the unchurched can experience it. How? God only knows. But the icons then will become seeds carrying the faith and hope of God to the poor, the marginalized, and also the wealthy and priveledged. God will water the seeds and bring forth the harvest.
First, a thank you to all of you who have been subscribers to this blog over the last couple of years. Particularly, thank you for being patient with all the changes in format and stylistic content as I try to understand the needs and purpose of this community of Iconographers.
I have changed format again, this time getting closer to my original purpose of having a substantial list of Iconographic resources and links to help Iconographers in creating and learning about Icons. If you look at the left sidebar you will see a page of “resources” on which I have started to add links, and will continue with this throughout the year so that it becomes a valuable resource.
As it is New year’s Eve and we are on the verge of the Feast of Epiphany , here are some images of the Epiphany in different Iconographic styles, taken from a more nuanced article by Hokku about the wise men on the blog ” Icons and Their Interpretation”.
Icons for the Epiphany range in subject matter from stories of the wise men finding Jesus in a manger, to the Baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan.
Epiphany is described as the manifestation of Jesus to the Gentiles as represented by the Magi- who were not Jews but were from the East; it is also the church feast day commemorating the Epiphany on January 6; and a manifestation of a divine, supernatural being. Webster’s dictionary describes Epiphany as “ a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or experience.”
The birth of Jesus, the Son of the most high God in a manger certainly fulfills that definition. Epiphany represents the discovery that Jesus was born for not only the Jews, but also the Gentiles- for the whole world.
In the Baptism of Jesus Icon, we see in the central axis of the Icon, the God the Father, represented by the half circle at the center; The Holy Spirit, represented by the rays of gold coming from the half circle,and Jesus, the Son of God. In the Gospel, God’s audible voice announces “This is My Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Matthew 3:17
It is a revelation similar to the one of the magi- a sudden perception that transforms mundane, earthly existence into one of light, meaning, and grace.
Icons bring to our remembrance important Gospel and Old Testament stories that brighten our everyday existence. As we move into this coming week towards the celebration of Epiphany and then the Baptism of Jesus, let us pray together to receive an Epiphany of God’s grace in each of our lives today, and as Baptism makes permanent and concrete the role of God’s grace in us, may that sudden awareness be awakened and kindled as an important part of our lives in 2018.
The month of July has been consistently hot and so beautiful here in the Hudson Valley. Although temperatures usually reach 90 degrees+ each day, Icons are still being created and the Monday night class keeps working right on throughout all! Here’s a photo of Carol MacNaughtons’ Saint Michael in the process of being olifa-ed.
Also, now some works in progress photos for the Saint Kateri and Saint Isaac Jogues I am working on for the RCDA new Mausoleum. I love working large!
The Monday Night Advanced Icon writing class will be accepting new students after Labor Day: September 12. Please email if you would like to begin at that time. firstname.lastname@example.org
Also, Starting a 10 week Icon Writing Class in the Hudson, NY area, Thursday evenings, 6-9PM, September 15- December 1. email if you’re interested in attending: email@example.com
THE VALUE OF ICONS IN THE POST MODERN WORLD
Icons are conveyors of holiness, sacredness, beauty and God’s love for mankind. Because Icons are vessels containing these attributes, they are essential in the continuing formation of our society and culture. In a world seemingly gone mad, they are light filled and providers of God’s peace and love.
Icons that are created in an atmosphere of prayer to God, and with training in art principles and spiritual discipline cannot help but provide a spiritual compass to those viewing them. This kind Icon becomes a visible testimony of God’s grace as it blesses the creator and the viewer.
” There is a deeper realization of God’s Presence available to us. Through the coming of Christ and the Holy Spirit, God wishes to dwell within us in a new way: not in a mode of which we are largely unconscious, or as a kind spiritual atmosphere in which we simply live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28), but as a lover and a friend. (Song of Solomon 5:10). God wants His Presence to be consciously experienced by us.”
Above quote from the The Glenstal Book of Icons, Praying with the Glenstal Icons, Gregory Collins OSB.
To be consciously experienced, it is helpful to have holy images that serve as reminders and point the Way, even when our minds are engaged in worldly activities. It only takes a few seconds to shift our perspective to God’s perspective – truly the secret to a joy filled life!
One last thing worth mentioning: I attended the Kremer Pigments workshop on “Grounds” a through workshop on materials, conditions, and possible variations, and I would recommend it highly the next time they teach it. Kremer Pigments regularly gives classes and workshops on making paints and provides a wonderful resource of technical, hands-on information.
That’s all for this month. Enjoy the beautiful summer and please keep me in your prayers, as you are in mine.