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.
This month of May, we celebrate Mary, Mother of God, with our prayers and special Icons. This month, Mary Jane Miller, a member of the American Association of Iconographers, has written an article expressing her views of Mary and how perceptions of Mary have changed through the centuries. Here at AAI we are open to informative articles about Iconography from our members, and will publish them from time to time. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information if you are interested in writing or publishing an article about Icons that would benefit the Icon writing community.
Mary Icons: a New Contemporary Trinity by Mary Jane Miller
There are three classic prototypes of Mary Icons. Their collective messages point towards a new contemporary trinity of interconnections. As our society has changed, the concept of Mary and her message brings to light provocative and meaningful perspectives on loving. It has been through contemplating her image, and painting icons of her that I have come to realize a deeper mystical message. Her popular iconography may have the keys to how we are to care for creation and one another in the world.
Mary looks directly at the viewer, beckoning us towards poised stillness and constant prayer with palms extended outward in total surrender to what she receives. She contains the Creator of the Universe in her womb.
Mary Icons of the Theotokos
Mary is portrayed as the feminine energy which tenderly nurtures Jesus to become a teacher, rabbi, master and lord. She is the icon which reminds us to love one another, to love life, and to love creation.
Mary Icons of the Hodegitria
Mary becomes a mystical location, she is the challis that holds the “Way” in her lap. She offers us an example of one who can show us what is necessary to give ourselves to God and one another. We like Mary are called to release to the world what we most love and cherish.
The image of Mary has mutated many times throughout centuries of iconography. From the mother of creation Diva, to a Mother of God gazing into the unknown, to a weeping, anguished mother of Jesus she has changed as our society changes. The Renaissance painters in the 16th century changed her image into a more human mother, one of pain or of joy. Mary’s identity has given rise to many doctrinal wars, decrees and debates but her image is more than cult, idol, mystery or divine. She is a fountain of motherhood image, triggering great reflection and contemplation, and she has triggered a wonderful epiphany in me.
Mary Icons Defined Through History
Theologians of the Middle Ages deliberated in detail the Forever Virgin condition of Mary. They had to answer how it could be that Christ was born to someone as common as one of us? Since ‘ Christ is All man and All God ‘ , His mother would have to be, in some way, all divine. The Roman Catholic Church fashioned the idea of the Immaculate Conception. The concept of Mary being miraculously conceived was declared doctrine in 1854. It was a theological creation which became dogma at considerable expense to women. It made her more perfect and exhausted than any women’s capacity to achieve. Ironically, Mary was lifted to the highest place among men, yet somehow, though she was seemingly divine, she had no voice and no ability to act in any other way but constant surrender.
Nearly 100 years later another detail of her divinity needed clarification. Since Mary was immaculately conceived then where would her divine body go at her death? The Orthodox Church specifically teaches that Mary died a natural death, that her soul was received by Christ upon her death, and that her body was resurrected. On the third day after her ‘ repose ‘ her body was taken up into heaven. It was decided Mary did not die but rather “slept”. This statement became an Article of Faith in 1950. The Roman Catholic institution needed an example of undefiled sexuality, perfected womanhood with divine meekness and they found it in the Virgin Mary, from beginning to end.
We are now living in 2019. Where is Mary’s message and identity now? Has it changed or will the theologians of this age allow a change?
I have painted many images of Mary and I believe she continues to send messages to us today. The wisdom that women have learned through years of service and observation have undoubtedly helped shape society. I believe one critical message we have yet to understand is that humanity does not own anything, we have been lousy stewards of creation. In actuality we share our common energy and common space on the planet. Mary is the queen of teaching us to love. Over time, I have become increasingly aware of all that we have been given. How have we nurtured it? Will we one day be able to Give It Back to the world? Mary gave away the very thing she loved the most. It takes enormous selfless love to do such a thing.
I find it ironic that Christian mystics, mostly men, have spoken and expanded the spiritual understanding of God for nearly two thousand years. In doing so, they have controlled and shaped our society. Mary has not spoken, making our understanding of her elusive. Mary is a woman who, by her human act, gave birth to the most transcendent truth which is love, a love completed in offering. This is by far the very thing the world needs for its healing.
The next three icons illustrate a new teaching and trinity: to receive, nurture and release. The interconnection between these three states of being are precisely the clue we have to discover a new future. It is found in the value of being loved and loving another with no ownership. The idea is not only Christian, it teaches a new attitude towards creation. It is obvious to everyone how much humans are creating. It is obvious how much we love what we create. Will we come to a time when we have the wisdom to give away to the world what we have created? Nothing is truly ours, it never has been. It is all the potential of Love that has been given by God that makes any of this make sense.
Mary Jane Miller
Author Bio. Mary Jane Miller is a self-taught Byzantine style iconographer with over 28 years of experience. For the first 15 years she produced unique and unorthodox collections of sacred art and continues to have them exhibited in Museums and churches in both the United States and Mexico. Miller writes luxuriously, blending historical content, and personal insights to arrive at contemporary conclusions about faith. The author of 4 self-published books include Icon Painting Revealed, The Mary Collection, In light of Women and The Stations. Miller has been published online and in publications such as Divine Temple Russian Orthodox Journal, Faith and Forum Magazine, Liturgy Today and Profiles of Catholicism. She teaches 4 courses annually, 5 day immersion workshops throughout the US and Mexico. website: www.sanmiguelicons.com and http://sacrediconretreat.com/
Thank you so much, Mary Jane, for your thoughts and images of Mary. Next month, the blog will be on the topic of Light and Color in the Icon.
December 2, we enter into that period of Advent that is so full of excitement and anticipation. How appropriate that it comes for us in the Americas at a time of profound seasonal change- the end of summer and the beginning of winter. Advent marks the end of all that we know belonging to the old Testament and the beginning of the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophesies with the birth of Christ, our Redeemer.
Advent is a journey into the heart of promise and fulfillment with the Birth of Christ.
We share the hope of the Archangel Gabriel and Mary and witness the incredible faith journey that began the earthly life of Jesus Christ. Mary models for us the essence of spiritual preparedness, the willingness of a faith filled acceptance of God’s will manifesting in her life. Her surety and preparedness for this miracle is again a model for us to develop such a surety and willingness for all that God has for us.
Byzantine Iconography and Advent
And there is a similarity between Byzantine Iconography and Advent. Canon Edward West, in his article on Byzantine Religious Art said that an Icon is “notably the reflection of something which exists, but in its own way, it conveys something which actually exists and conveys it really….Byzantine religious art is concerned with conveying truth, witnessing to the truth, and indeed, making it possible for the sensitive and aware Christian to have some part in that truth…”. The birth of Christ 2000 years ago allows us to be in the present tense with God today, to experience His love, protection and guidance. One could also say that Icons share in that ability to bring us into God’s presence, as symbols of the incarnation.
Canon West, who was a noted Iconographer in addition to serving at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City for over forty years, goes on to say that what makes an Icon important is, “that it is a meeting point of this continuum from the past with the vertical thrust of the Spirit of God at the right moment- in terms which the individual Christian can understand. It is essential that we remember this attitude about Tradition. The Byzantines were concerned in Witnessing to the Truth.”
Icons in 2019
May we all be blessed with Mary’s patience, devotion, and willingness to carry out God’s plan in the coming year. May our Icons be bearers of God’s Grace and Presence as we move towards a world where Holy Scripture is made visual through the sacred imagery of Icons and made available to all those who seek Him.
With world catastrophes like the Hurricane devastation in Puerto Rico, the Caribbean, and earthquakes in Mexico, we have so many urgent applications for our prayers during our icon writing practice. May God continue to send help in many forms to those people afflicted by violent storms. Provide homes, food and safety, O Lord, and bring forth your victory and hope where there is despair and destruction, we humbly pray.
Recently, during the Healing Icon writing Retreat I gave at Holy Cross Monastery, we daily put our prayer requests in a basket on the Icon table and prayed over them during our prayer times together. The subject for the retreat was the Archangel Raphael, and we completed the icons in time to be blessed on the feast day of St. Michael and the Archangels! Each day we spoke about different aspects of the story of Tobit, Tobias, and Archangel Raphael and contemplated the healing aspects of the story, from the fish trying to bite Tobias’ foot, to Archangel Raphael bringing transforming a dangerous woman into a suitable wife. Our Icons are reminders for us of God’s intervention in our lives, and the role his heavenly angels play in bringing His divine will into the experiences of our lives.
In working to understand and define what is meant by American Iconography, I think that religious freedom plays an important role. This country was founded, in part, on the hopes and dreams that new settlers from many different European countries had for freedom to worship in their individual ways. They wanted to express their ideas of how God manifests in their lives and form communities to worship and pray together. There was a great diversity of expression in the Christian communities, and yet each was given the space to develop and grow, peacefully.
Ideally, America is still that country that respects and allows for individual religious freedom. Just as Icons are meant to depict a transfigured reality, I think we iconographers are asked to call forth the best in our worlds, to stand for positive change, and to show others how we can pray and experience God even in a very troubled world.
In Icon writing, we look for examples from the early centuries in order to understand and be inspired by the universal spiritual truths they contain. The American philosopher, John Dewey says of a work of art, eg. the Parthenon, that it ” is universal because it can continuously inspire new personal realizations in experience.”…”The works that fail to become new are not those that are universal but those that are “dated”. He goes on to say “The enduring art product may have been, and probably was, called forth by something occasional, something having its own date and place. But what was evoked is a substance so formed that it can enter into the experiences of others and enable them to have more intense and more fully rounded out experiences of their own.” (Taken from “Art as Experience” by John Dewey)
All this to say that an Icon writer must not only use examples from the past, but must also be able to convey the action and presence of God and the saint depicted through his/her prayers and spiritual efforts of today in order to be an authentic Icon.
Early Celtic Prayer from St. Patrick’s Breastplate
Christ as a light illumine and guide me. Christ as a shield overshadow me.
Christ under me, Christ over me, Christ beside me on my left and my right.
This day be within me and without, lowly and meek yet all powerful.
Be in the heart of each to whom I speak, in the mouth of each who speaks unto me.
This day be within and without me, lowly and meek yet all powerful.
“Advent asks us to keep vigil for the Christ who comes to us anew in this season. It invites us to keep our face turned toward the horizon in hope. But Advent asks us also to open our hearts to the Christ who keeps vigil for us, the Christ who stands not on some distant horizon but, instead, is already with us, waiting for us to open our eyes to his presence that stays with us always.
As Advent begins, may you be blessed in your vigil: the one you keep, the one being kept for you. In that vigil, may you find your deepest welcome and know yourself at home. Peace.”
The word Advent comes from the Latin, “Adventus” which means coming. It is the beginning of the Liturgical year and is a time of preparation, looking forward to the celebration of Christ’s birth. As Iconographers, we rejoice in the implications of this time waiting, the coming of Christ, the Word made flesh. Truly a symbol of Icons where we write the Image of Christ in remembrance of His HolyPresence and action upon us. During Advent we open our hearts to His influence and love in joyous anticipation of a life filled with the fulness of His Spirit.
I love this Icon of Christ in Glory, especially at this time of year. The predominant colors of red, green and gold ochre are highly symbolic and offer a clarity and simplicity found especially in Advent. Red and green are opposites and in Christ, both heaven and earth are united, within the context of gold, the color of God’s Presence and light. The four Evangelists in the corners remind us of Christ’s birth as a fulfillment of both Old and New Testament Prophesies.
In the two unfinished stages of the Annunciation Icon below, written by Jennifer Richard-Morrow, they graphically depict a sense of waiting, the form is visible, but the details are coming slowly, eventually creating a dynamic picture of a very exciting event in the life of Mary.
In Advent, I think of Mary- her waiting. Keeping her focus on God, her savior, prided a faith filled context within which the waiting became joyous. Her whole being was trained through prayer and family lo
ve to honor God’s will and to rejoice that she was chosen for the difficult and perilous mission of being the mother of Jesus. She believed God was doing great things for her. God’s will, not her own. “Oh, how I praise the Lord, my savior.” Luke 1 :46.
I encourage you to meditate and reflect, with a Madonna Icon if possible. God has called each one of us. May we wait with certainty and joy as his plan unfolds.
Brother Aidan, a Benedictine monk of the Holy Cross Monastery, has a weekly blog that this week begins a meditation on Advent and fasting. “Learning How to Fast”. He talks about how important it is to allow ourselves to experience the feeling of emptiness. We need to experience hunger in order to know what we are truly hungry for.
“Although Advent is not a penitential season, it is a season of waiting and watching, a season of expectation. Our Christmas celebration will be all the sweeter if we sit in the gathering darkness of winter and allow ourselves to long for the dawning of the light rather than turning on every lightbulb in the house in an effort to cast out the shadows. Let’s relearn how to fast. It will make our feast all the more joyous when it comes.” Brother Aidan, Holy Cross Monastery
“For a true Iconographer, creation is the way of asceticism and prayer, that is, essentially, a monastic way.” Leonid Ouspensky; The Meaning Of Icons
Sending love and prayers this beautiful Advent Season. May you experience the love of God and Mary especially this Christmas.
Good question. When we speak of Greek Iconographers, or Romanian, or Russian, or English we immediately have a picture in our minds of what those “styles” look like. Even the contemporary European and Eastern Iconographers, while experimenting with new ideas, are still working from the old style. That old style consists of illustrative images, cartoonish almost, with a kind of light and form that differs from “natural” light and form, but it is varied in interpretations.
America as a country is home to people of many different national origins, so our nationality is defined more by citizenship and allegiance than by ethnicity. After many years as a “melting pot” of different cultural ideas, America has come to have its own identity, even amongst diversity.
So what does an American style of Iconography look like? Many American Iconographers I know have styles that are derived from the teachers they studied under. So much so, that one can see their Icons and immediately know whom they studied with. In part this is due to the notion that copying is the approved way of making an Icon.
In my training, I was taught that we always use models for our Icons created before the Renaissance and this is because after the Renaissance, the age of humanism dawned and people created art not to glorify God, but to glorify man’s achievements. I was and am so grateful for this awareness, for it helped to break me free from the traditional art college training I had had and allowed me to see a more ancient, God centric approach to making art.
That being said, I do however, owe a lot to some of the really good art teachers available in the art world.One of those, Arthur Wesley Dow (1857-1922) said “Good drawing results from trained judgement, not from the making of facsimiles or maps. Train the judgment and ability to draw grows naturally.” So this more experience based approach to drawing is what I use in creating my Icons. I research, find models from before the Renaissance (or just at the turning point- a time when many painters were trained first as Iconographers), then spend time praying, reading relevant Holy Scripture, the saints’ biography, listening to sacred music, and enter into a prayerful creative experience with the Creator. This last, being in a prayerful state is of the highest importance in the “writing” of an Icon.
That is the gift of the practice, it lifts us up out of our intellect into our creative selves, that discipline of getting past the chatter of the mind is facilitated by the practice of prayer and painting. (paraphrased from Tim Hawkesworth).
This being said, one would not wish to ignore the importance of Tradition in Icon writing. “Since in its essence the Icon, like the word, is a liturgic art, it never served religion, but, like the word, has always been and is an integral part of religion, one of the instruments for the knowledge of God, one of the means of communion with Him.” Leonid Ouspensky, The Meaning of Icons. It is not a question of either or, but both and.
I know that many of my students’ Icons are reflective of a deep relationship and personal experience with God. An example of one student’s faith and desire to bring others into relationship with God, is Dahlia Herring’s Icon of Jesus pulling Peter from the water. Another student, W. Michael Shirk, an Independent Catholic Priest, writes his Icons while praying constantly, and this is often reflected in attention to detail.
When I wrote my Icon of the “Entry Into Jerusalem”, I was identifying with Jesus and thinking about the human aspect of what it’s like when one goes forward to one’s destiny. His looking back seems so human, and his movement forward, Divine. As an artist I gain strength and guidance from this moment, and I keep this Icon to remind me to pray for God’s will, not mine.
This country is so vast geographically, and there are many Iconographers in each of the 50 states. I hope someday to have a list of all the American Iconographers and their contact details on this site, in order for people to contact them for commissions and classes. I do get asked if I can recommend an Iconographer in different cities and hope to be able to serve as that kind of an association for Iconographers in the future.
Please contact me if you are an Iconographer, if you’d like to be listed on this site with a link to your website.