I’ve been studying and painting Icons for almost thirty years! Since I first began, the field of iconography has changed so much! There are so many more books on the subject, both “how to”, books about the history of icons, and how to pray with them. This is great news for all of us, I’m sure.
New Gilding Materials
At the same time, many, many, new products used for icon writing have come on the market. I invite any of my readers who has experience with these new products to please write about it so it can be shared and published here. Only in this way of sharing our experience can we hope to add the best quality to our icons and I know that we all want to bless the Lord with our most excellent work.
With this in mind, I’m currently preparing to teach an online icon writing class that, in addition to teaching how to paint an icon using egg tempera, will focus on how to gild using the Kolner Instacoll Gilding System. Many iconographers love this method because of its relative ease in application but particularly for its very shiny surface when it’s finished. I have experimented extensively with it and am happy to share some of the technical information I have observed.
First, applying one or two coats of shellac to the area to be gilded is most beneficial. The natural gesso is a porous surface, and even for other gilding methods, it is suggested to coat the surface with shellac thinned with denatured alcohol. I used a mixture that is 1 part blonde shellac flakes to 4 parts denatured alcohol. (This mixture can be stored in a cool dry place for several weeks only, so only mix the amount you think you will need.) You will find technical articles about this on the web- here is one.
Kölner Instacoll System
Next, I applied the Kolner Instacoll System BASE in two thinned layers. I thinned it a little with a drop or two of distilled water. This needs to dry completely- 1-3 hours between coats. It’s really important to avoid making brushstrokes if you want a very smooth gold surface. (You can clean your brushes with soap and water). The first coat must be completely dry before applying the second coat.
Next, I applied the Kolner Instacoll System ACTIVATOR. You can use a brush or a soft cloth to apply this to the base when it’s dry. You want a thin, even film over the base and it needs to dry before applying the gold leaf.
You can use either patent gold or loose gold with this system. I used patent gold leaf and a cotton ball to firmly push the gold leaf onto the surface. This takes some practice. Overlapping the gold leaf when applying it helps to give a smooth seamless look to the finished gold. After the whole surface to be gilded is covered, press down firmly again all the gold, using cotton balls- never touching the surface with your fingers.
Now for some gratification! When it’s all applied and pushed firmly into the surface, take a cotton ball or soft cloth and burnish gently to remove all the loose gold bits. As you do so, the most beautiful gold leaf shine appears !
As a note, I also experimented with the Kolner KGGG System FOND and Colnasize, but I prefer the above method as it is slightly easier and doesn’t require sanding.
Of course there are many other methods of gilding for icons- the oil method with different application and drying times, the water gilding method and The Dux water based size method. With experience, each of us arrives at our preferred method of gold leaf application. I hope this article has been helpful. Feel free to register for my online class in October to see this demonstrated!
This is a very good and short (7 1/2 minutes) talk on “Why Icons Look The Way They Do” by Archimandrite Maximos Constas, interviewed by Fr. Josiah Trenham.
THAT’S ALL FOR THIS MONTH. Be blessed and bless others,
Recently I have been reading a book by Sister Gabriela about Father Sophrony that includes many of his drawings and icons. I’m inspired by his approach and work and want to share that with you here.
While attending art school in Russia in the 1920’s, one of his teachers was Vassily Kandinsky. Soon after, Sophrony moved to Paris where he exhibited his paintings and was not interested in pursuing a Christian life. This changed drastically and in 1926 he entered the Monastery of Panteleimon on Mt Athos where he remained until finally settling in Essex, UK at the Monastery of Saint John the Baptist.
To learn more about Father Sophrony, please read Sister Gabriela’s excellent books: “Being, The Art and Life of Father Sophrony”, or “Seeking Perfection in the World of Art”, or “Painting As Prayer: The Art of A. Sophrony Sakharov.”
I include here several quotes from the “Painting as Prayer” book that I know will be inspiring to all of you as well:
“An artist is a person who believes with deep conviction in the rightness of what he creates; who devotes his entire life to art for mankind. Only in such people does the Divine spark burn, brightly an unquenchably. And this is what’s most important in art.”
This is a quote in the book attributed to Kandinsky: ” the artist must not consider himself master of the situation, but the servant of nobler aims- a servant whose obligations are majestic, distinctive, and sacred. He must nurture himself and plumb the depths of his inner life, he must conserve his inner life and develop it lest his outer talent becomes empty, like a lost glove, the empty and vain likeness of a hand.”
Painting as Prayer, Book by Sister Gabriela
“The Icon is an art which expresses the spiritual world in form and color. It is made with a stylistic language of its own which introduces the person looking at it into another sphere of being, another world of perception. Intentionally it follows a different logic of perspective and reality, placing emphasis on the inner life because its main purpose is either to depict the face of God or convey the soul of the saint or the essence of the scene being depicted. Deliberately this makes it somewhat abstract. The artist seeks divine inspiration for their work and in order to receive this, rather than some other influence, he needs a humble and prayerful attitude, recognizing that he is not master of the situation.
Inspiration from on high depends to a considerable extent on us- whether we open our heart so that the Lord- The Holy Spirit Who ‘stands at the door and knocks’ does not have to enter forcibly.
The iconographer will try to free himself from all that hinders or is contrary to the action of Divine Inspiration. This requires both humility and asceticism, but as ascetic feats may lead to pride, and thus deter grace, it is humility that is the essential part. This keeps him both open to others and their suggestions and open to grace. It preserves a rigorous questioning and checking in prayer with his conscience and with the ideal which is the humble example of Christ.”
Orthodox Journal Article
I first learned about Father Sophrony’s work from an excellent article on the Orthodox Journal. Here is the link .
“For me, the most fascinating part of the study was the subject of Father Sophrony as an iconographer. His approach to iconographic practice is described and this section is rich in quotations and comments of great interest. Sister Gabriela writes that by having “absorbed the iconographic tradition through observation and living with it, while leading a strict ascetical life…one’s understanding goes deeper, beyond the external aesthetic aspect.” “…he understood iconography in its essential form, as an inspiration for prayer, and a “springboard”, as he called it himself, to eternity. In this sense he was free from any attachment to any specific school or iconographic movement. His sole interest was to render the icon as authentically as possible.” As a result of this it is apparent that “One cannot classify his icons into any particular style or school. He took what he found best from each. His only concern was the icon itself, how best to express the given situation.”
In summation Sister Gabriela writes of Father Sophrony’s life that “This is the search for Christ, the yearning for close contact with Him and, within this, striving to portray His face in a correct and worthy manner, both in the inner life and in iconographic panting.”
Additional Link to Icon Gallery in Slovakia
I have recently seen a lovely online exhibition of Eastern European Icons at The Gallery of Icons. Here is the link.
That’s all for this month. Please email me with suggestions for future articles on understanding and appreciating icons.
The next icon class that I teach online we are painting an Icon of Mary Magdalene. In order to make an accurate copy of the prototype, I am researching the relatively scant information available about her and want to share some of that with you here.
The questions to ask are: “Who was this woman, what does she represent to us today?” I rely heavily on Wikipedia for this article, and I include the following:
“Mary Magdalene is considered to be a saint by the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran churches. In 2016 Pope Francis raised the level of liturgical memory on July 22 from memorial to feast, and for her to be referred as the “Apostle of the apostles”. Other Protestant churches honor her as a heroine of the faith. The Eastern Orthodox churches also commemorate her on the Sunday of the Myrrhbearers, the Orthodox equivalent of one of the Western Three Marys traditions.” Wikipedia
Early Materials: Who Was Mary Magdalene
“The earliest materials that refer to Mary Magdalene appear from two very different sources: the canonical Gospels of the New Testament, and a group of fringe materials that have come to be known as the Gnostic Gospels, which were rejected by the Catholic Church.” The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, by Jean-Yves Leloup.
I share Leloup’s thoughts that the path of Mary Magdalene emphasizes inner preparation, introspection, and inner transformation. “As one who has been cleansed from sin, who remains with Christ throughout his death on the cross; and who first witnesses, understands, and believes in Christ’s resurrection, she represents a human being who is open and available to true “inner knowing” and can see in deeper, clearer ways through a unique spiritual connection to both earthly death and the Divine.”
“Mary Magdalene, sometimes called Mary of Magdala, or simply the Magdalene or the Madeleine, was a woman who, according to the four canonical gospels, traveled with Jesus as one of his followers and was a witness to his crucifixion and resurrection. She is mentioned by name twelve times in the canonical gospels, more than most of the apostles and more than any other woman in the gospels, other than Jesus’s family. Mary’s epithet Magdalene may mean that she came from the town of Magdala, a fishing town on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee in Roman Judea.” Wikipedia
“Mary Magdalene’s epithet Magdalene (ἡ Μαγδαληνή; literally “the Magdalene”) most likely means that she came from Magdala, a village on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee that was primarily known in antiquity as a fishing town. Mary was, by far, the most common Jewish given name for females during the first century, so it was necessary for the authors of the gospels to call her Magdalene in order to distinguish her from the other women named Mary who followed Jesus. Although the Gospel of Mark, reputed by scholars to be the earliest surviving gospel, does not mention Mary Magdalene until Jesus’s crucifixion,]the Gospel of Luke 8:2–3 provides a brief summary of her role during his ministry: “Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.” Wikipedia
There Is No Direct Evidence to Support The Notion of Her As a Prostitute.
“The portrayal of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute began in 591 when Pope Gregory I conflated Mary Magdalene, who was introduced in Luke 8:2, with Mary of Bethany (Luke 10:39) and the unnamed “sinful woman” who anointed Jesus’s feet in Luke 7:36–50. Pope Gregory’s Easter sermon resulted in a widespread belief that Mary Magdalene was a repentant prostitute or promiscuous woman. Then elaborate medieval legends from western Europe emerged which told exaggerated tales of Mary Magdalene’s wealth and beauty, as well as of her alleged journey to southern Gaul (modern-day France.) The identification of Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany and the unnamed “sinful woman” was still a major controversy in the years leading up to the Reformation, and some Protestant leaders rejected it. During the Counter-Reformation, the Catholic Church emphasized Mary Magdalene as a symbol of penance. In 1969, Pope Paul VI removed the identification of Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany and the “sinful woman” from the General Roman Calendar, but the view of her as a former prostitute has persisted in popular culture. …
Mary Magdalene Was Probably From a Wealthy Family
The Gospel of Luke 8:2–3 lists Mary Magdalene as one of the women who traveled with Jesus and helped support his ministry “out of their resources”, indicating that she was probably wealthy. The same passage also states that seven demons had been driven out of her, a statement which is repeated in Mark 16. In all the four canonical gospels, Mary Magdalene was a witness to the crucifixion of Jesus and, in the Synoptic Gospels, she was also present at his burial. All the four gospels identified her, either alone or as a member of a larger group of women which includes Jesus’s mother, as the first to witness the empty tomb, and, either alone or as a member of a group, as the first to witness Jesus’s resurrection… Because Mary is listed as one of the women who were supporting Jesus’s ministry financially, she must have been relatively wealthy. The places where she and the other women are mentioned throughout the gospels strongly indicate that they were vital to Jesus’s ministry and the fact that Mary Magdalene always appears first, whenever she is listed in the Synoptic Gospels as a member of a group of women, indicates that she was seen as the most important out of all of them. Carla Ricci notes that, in lists of the disciples, Mary Magdalene occupies a similar position among Jesus’s female followers as Simon Peter does among the male apostles.”Wikipedia
Mary Magdalene is the only woman besides Mother Mary who is mentioned by name in all four texts., and her name is always listed first when the presence of women is noted.
Healed By Jesus of Seven Demons
Jesus heals Mary by freeing her from seven demons. Mark 16:9 and Luke 8:2. She is mentioned also as one of the three, along with Mother Mary and John the apostle who wait at the foot of Christ’s cross at the Crucifixion. John 19:25
And importantly we know that she is the first to see Jesus resurrected from the tomb: John 20:11-18, Mark 16:9, Matthew 28:9-10. It is because of this that she is considered to be the apostle of the apostles.
Because Mary was the first to witness the Resurrection, she was considered by the Apostle John as the founder of Christianity. This was long before Saint Paul had his vision on the road to Damascus.
Women at the Tomb
According to Matthew 28:1–10, Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” went to the tomb. An earthquake occurred and an angel dressed in white descended from Heaven and rolled aside the stone as the women were watching. The angel told them that Jesus had risen from the dead. Then the risen Jesus himself appeared to the women as they were leaving the tomb and told them to tell the other disciples that he would meet them in Galilee. According to Luke 24:1–12, a group of unnamed women went to the tomb and found the stone already rolled away, as in Mark. They went inside and saw two young men dressed in white who told them that Jesus had risen from the dead. Then they went and told the eleven remaining apostles, who dismissed their story as nonsense. In Luke’s account, Jesus never appears to the women, but instead makes his first appearance to Cleopas and an unnamed “disciple” on the road to Emmaus. Luke’s narrative also removes the injunction for the women to tell the disciples to return to Galilee and instead has Jesus tell the disciples not to return to Galilee, but rather to stay in the precincts of Jerusalem.
Another Account of Mary Magdalene and the Resurrection
Mary Magdalene’s role in the resurrection narrative is greatly increased in the account from the Gospel of John. According to John 20:1–10, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb alone when it was still dark and saw that the stone had already been rolled away. She did not see anyone, but immediately ran to tell Peter and the “beloved disciple”, who came with her to the tomb and confirmed that it was empty, but returned home without seeing the risen Jesus. According to John 20:11–18, Mary, now alone in the garden outside the tomb, saw two angels sitting where Jesus’s body had been. Then the risen Jesus approached her. She at first mistook him for the gardener, but, after she heard him say her name, she recognized him and cried out “Rabbouni!” of the grammar (negated present imperative: stop doing something already in progress) as well as Jesus’ challenge to Thomas a week later (see John 20:24–29). Jesus then sent her to tell the other apostles the good news of his resurrection. The Gospel of John therefore portrays Mary Magdalene as the first apostle, the apostle to the apostles.
The relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene shows us that Jesus did not reject women, but loved and welcomed women, sinners, and the weak.
The Relevance of Mary Magdalene for Christianity Today.
Another interesting book on the subject is Cynthia Bourgeault “The Meaning of Mary Magdalene, Discovering the Woman at the heart of Christianity”. In this book, Bourgeault re -examines both the Traditional and liturgical meanings of Mary’s role in the Gospels in the light of today’s hunger for personal spiritual understanding and meaning.
“ In the liturgy for the great vigil of Easter, one of the readings comes from the Old Testament book of Ezekiel:’I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.’ Ezekiel 36:26 It seems to me that this promise captures the essence of Mary’s Magdalen’s healing vocation to contemporary Christianity…”
Legends and Creative Imaginings
There remain many stories, legends and creative imaginings surrounding the person of Mary of Magdala. I close this article with a lovely quote from the Leloup book:
“Each morning, according to another legend, a group of angels lifted Mary Magdalene above the summit of the cliffs where she could listed to the entire choir of angelic hosts, the divine sounds of original and continuing creation.”
Until next month, be blessed and do your best to help and be kind to others. 🙏❤️
“Come then, let us run with him as he presses on to his passion. Let us imitate those who have gone out to meet him, not scattering olive branches or palms in his path, but spreading ourselves before him as best we can, with humility of soul and upright purpose. So may we welcome the Word as he comes, so may God who cannot be contained within any bounds, be contained within us...
Today let us too give voice with the children to that sacred chant, as we wave the spiritual branches of our soul: ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, the King of Israel. “ Saint Andrew of Crete
This month, as we all observe Lent in our prayer lives and churches, I have gathered a collection of Icons related to this season that encompasses the mystery and Passion of our Lord. If any of you readers have written icons on this theme, please send them in and I will post them on the FB page for the American Association of Iconographers.
Entry Into Jerusalem
“Seated in heaven upon Thy throne and on earth upon a foal, O Christ our God, Thou hast accepted the praise of the angels and the songs of the children who cried out to Thee: Blessed art thou that comest to call back Adam”. From the Kontakion for the Feast
The Holy Washing of the Feet, Icon
Peter, the Apostle is seated on a bench, on the floor is a basin with water, Jesus has his mantle pulled up to keep it dry, Jesus is wiping the with a towel Peter’s right foot.
The other disciples are grouped on the right and left sides, some are loosening their sandals, Christ is the only figure shown with a halo. Only two are shown without a beard, because of their youth.
This was a lesson in humility. Christ says that he gave them an example to be imitated by them.
The Mystical Supper
“As a mystical event, the “Supper takes place at every Divine Liturgy or Eucharistic Feast. “ Of Thy Mystical Supper, O Son Of God, receive me today as a communicant, for I will not speak of the mystery to thine enemies.”
A long table inside a house, usually Christ is seen in the center, his head inclines slightly to the right and with his right hand he blesses. Peter is seated on the right side and John on His left side- Jesus rests his hand on John’s shoulder. This is depicted in John’s Gospel, 13:23-24. Judas is stretching out his hand in order to dip his bread in the dish. Matthew 26:23
All the disciples are shown without halos. Halos are not proper before Pentecost. The disciples should not have their backs to the viewer.
The D shaped table was first seen in the 6th century Ravenna mosaics. Psychological perspective calls for Christ to be at the center of the table. ” ( Guide to Byzantine Iconography, Constantine Cavarnos)
The Crucifixion Icon
The Bridegroom of the Church is transfixed with nails. The Son of the Virgin is pierced with a spear. We venerate Thy Passion, O Christ. Show us also Thy Gkorious Resurrection.
“The traditional Crucifixion icon is a hand-painted icon with the scene of Jesus Christ’s Crucifixion in the center of the composition. Christ is usually surrounded by the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, St. John the Apostle, Longinus the Centurion, and several other onlookers. All the figures depicted in the Crucifixion icon show emotions associated with grief, but nothing suggests sound. Their mouths are not open, and the icon holds silence. Christ Himself is depicted with His eyes closed and His head bowed as if showing His last minutes of life on earth.
The composition of the Crucifixion icon also often includes an open cave with the skull and bones of Adam right at the bottom of the Cross. According to the legend, Adam’s bones, which had been buried under Golgotha by the descendants of Noah, appeared on the surface at the moment of Christ’s death due to a great earthquake that split apart the rocks. Christ’s blood flowed down from the Cross and on to Adam’s bones, bringing the redemption to the First Man and the whole human race.” to read more follow this link for The Russian Icon Blog.
Descent From the Cross Icon
The Descent from the Cross Icon, sometimes called “The Deposition”, shows Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus taking Christ down from the cross after his crucifixion. The Gospel mentions women attending, probably Mary Magdalene, Mary, the Mother of Christ and Mary Salome alongside St.John.
The aim of this icon is to impart the mystical, spiritual truth of the lamentation. The colors, the composition, and even the lines of the figures all lead the viewer upward, they raise our thoughts beyond the crucifixion to the upward movement of Christ himself and the Ascension. It’s a sacred and divinely inspired icon, full of truth and transcendence of emotions to the spiritual realm of faith and hope.
The Resurrection Icon
The Icon of the Resurrection evokes the fragrance of immortality and the fulfillment of the reclamation of Adam and all who have come after. The simple truths are depicted without theatricality.
“Though Thou didst descend into the grave, O Immortal One, yet didst Thou destroy the power of hades, and didst arise as victor, O Christ God, calling to the Myrrh bearing women, Rejoice, and giving peace unto Thine apostles, O Thou who does grant resurrection to the fallen. ” Kontakion for Easter
The Resurrection brings light and joy to all creation. May Pascha, Easter, and Lent be Holy and blessed times for you all and bring joy to your hearts.
Born in the 1360’s in Moscow , Andrei Rublev is widely considered the one of the greatest painters of Russian Orthodox Icons. For a large part of his life he lived in the Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra near Moscow and his spiritual teacher was St. Sergius of Radonezh. He was able to express the spiritual ideals of his time and integrate the tenets of Byzantine Iconography into his icons in a way no one has been able to do before or since.
Andrei Rublev , along with the icon painter Theophanes, painted the icons for the Cathedral of the Annunciation in Moscow. Theophanes is generally considered to have been Rublev’s teacher in icon painting and one can certainly see the similarities in their work.
The Moscow Icon painters of the early 15th century transformed the rather heavy Byzantine style of the iconostasis and Rublev was among those, along with Theophanes, who created the Russian style of the Iconostasis. This fully developed representation of the Festal Scenes along with the central figures of Saints John, Mary, and the Archangels Michael and Gabriel is often found arranged in tiers at the high altar of Orthodox churches. Many of these also include a tier of prophets as well.
Rublev and Theophanes introduced full figure saints into the Iconostasis as opposed to the Byzantine style of using half figures. This brought a much greater sense of presence to the icons, allowing the viewer to feel present with the saints as they worshipped.
The Assumption Cathedral in Vladimir was painted by both Rublev and Daniel Chorny in about 1408. They worked together also to paint the Trinity Cathedral at the Trinity Lavra between 1425-1427.
Rublev’s most famous Icon, the Trinity, now hangs at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, where it continues to stun viewers both by its great size as well as the artistic levels of excellence he was able to achieve in this work. St. Sergius of Radonezh consecrated his Monastery Cathedral to the Holy Trinity, “So that the sight of the Holy Trinity would serve to vanquish fear of the hateful strife within this world”.
Rublev’s work carries with it a luminosity and elegance of expression in the figures depicted. The harmony Rublev achieved through the use of sacred geometry in the compositions also evoked a sense of clarity and purity.
One of the key characteristics of Rublev’s works is spiritual harmony, the blending of both inner and outer beauty in the saints he depicts. This is an aspect of the Byzantine spiritual system- the harmony between beauty of body and beauty of spirit. “When the human being is wholly dissolved in Divine love, then outwardly he reflects the glow of his inner spirit.” St. John Climacus
Understanding as we do, the importance of keeping our gaze on things above, one can see that the ideals manifested so exquisitely in Rublev’s work would be good ones to bring forward to our world of today.
May God continue to bless the work of your hands, and may He guide our thoughts and actions that we could do all that is honorable and pleasing to the One we serve, Jesus Christ.
Although our inspiration for painting icons comes from early Christian icons, many iconographers today realize that in order for our icons to have a connection to our modern world, we need to understand that icon painting is still a living and developing art form.
If we widen our perspective to look at Christian art as well as icons, questions develop as to what the differences are between the two. While the subject matter might be the same, the function and purpose, as well as the form of an icon, is distinctly different from those of religious art.
The needs of our contemporary churches and worshippers need to be paramount in our thoughts as we contemplate subject matter and formalistic approaches to writing icons today. Whom is this icon for, whom will it serve?
“Contemplating a piece of work, we do better to think Whom is this work for? Whom will it serve? rather than How will it serve me? Once we find a path for our work to be of service . . . then our work goes smoothly forward. It is not about “us” anymore…Whenever we take art back to the realm of the sacred, whenever we make it an act of service in any form . . . we again experience the ease of creative flow and the lessening of our creative doubts. When we ask to “listen,” we create works worthy of being heard and we ourselves hear the heartbeat of our common humanity, which is grounded in divinity.” Quote from a Richard Rohr blog post where he quotes author Julia Cameron.
As we struggle to understand and make use of the vast canons and traditions of the church as well as those of iconography we can hope to transform our understanding and hope to transform the traditions through the filter of our contemporary church. From my studies over twenty years, I have developed an deep appreciation for Byzantine art and icons. In his book, Byzantine Sacred Art, Constantine Cavarnos states:
“Byzantine art has a religious function. It seeks to express spiritual things in order thereby to help man penetrate the mysteries of the Christian religion; it seeks to help man rise to a higher level of being, to lift his soul to the blessedness of God.”
Another quote from the same book describes the thoughts of Photius Kontoglou, an influential Greek iconographer of the twentieth century:
“Secular art is concerned with external beauty, whereas spiritual art is concerned with inner beauty. Kontoglou emphatically places inner, spiritual beauty above external beauty, and spiritual art above secular art. External, physical beauty, he remarks, is shallow and perishable, while spiritual beauty is deep and imperishable. Physical beauty arouses the outer senses; spiritual beauty the inner senses- it makes us feel reverence,, humility, contrition, the “gladdening sorrow” of which John Climacos speaks.”
There are so many facets of Byzantine spirituality that are evidenced in the iconography and traditions that are incredibly important and valuable to bring forward into our contemporary icons. This would be a service to our culture in many ways. This would make an appropriate topic for many future blog posts and I welcome articles that contribute to this work of discovery and reverence for the iconographic traditions.
It is part of the creative process to be able to remain creative as an iconographer while still upholding the canons and traditions. Evelyn Underhill, in her book “The Spiritual Life” describes another condition of creativity;
“Creativity is the activity of an artist possessed by the vision of perfection; who by means of the raw material with which he works, tries to give more and more perfect expression to his idea, his inspiration or his love.”
In referring to the modern iconographers’ training that impresses the importance of copying from the established Orthodox icons of the past Irinia Yazykova states:
“Many iconographers working today allow themselves to be imprisoned by tradition. Instead of approaching tradition creatively so as to develop it, they too often more or less blindly copy tradition instead. And yet, an image that is not a product of the artist’s own inward spiritual experience cannot be received as a revelation by the viewer.” Irinia Yazykova, Hidden and Triumphant.
As such, it is a balancing act between giving form to the aesthetic tradition as well as the theological meaning of the icon. The service an authentic icon can render to one’s church and community is to express meaningful content in a form that conveys both beauty and prayer.
Today the majority of iconographers are women who have achieved professional success and have moved beyond copying of prototypes into development of new icons of their own.
If this subject is of interest to you, Iconographer Betsy Porter will be hosting an informal online discussion with other interested iconographers on the subject of “Icons and Religious Art- What’s the Difference?” Participants will share images and thoughts on Sunday, September 19, 2021, 5PM EST through Zoom. This is a group that she has been hosting through St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Fransisco for over a year. Here is a link for that meeting.
Here is a link to an article I wrote on “How to Gesso Icon Boards”– it is a description and also contains a link to an excellent video by Paul Stetsenko that demonstrates the whole process.
During the pandemic, being isolated and shut in for months, I began to realize what the life of an anchoress must have been like! By focusing on my prayer life and the practice of icon writing, I have been able to draw near to God more frequently and with greater concentration experience the silence of my heart than would otherwise have been possible. For that reason, I have begun writing an icon of Julian of Norwich with great joy and received many discoveries in the process. I share with you here some of what I have learned about her.
Born in 1343, Julian lived in the wake of the black plague and lived as well, through the peasant’s rebellion of 1381, and the persecution of the Lollards. May 8 is the Day Dame Julian is remembered in the Church of England, the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She lived a life of seclusion as an anchoress at the Church of St. Julian in Norwich, England for most of her adult life. Through a window to the outside world in her cell, Julian was expected to be available to provide prayer and counsel to those living in the city of Norwich. Julian sought holiness of life and communion with God in order to be able to intercede more effectively for others. Aelred, the author of the Ancrene Riwle, a tract written in 1200 to guide anchorites and spiritual recluses, summarized the ideal anchoress’s prayer:
“Embrace the whole world with the arms of your love and in that act at once consider and congratulate the good, contemplate and mourn over the wicked. In that act look upon the afflicted and the oppressed and feel compassion for them…In that act, call to mind the wretchedness of the poor , the groan of the orphans, the abandonment of widows, the gloom of the sorrowful, the needs of travelers, the prayers of virgins, the perils of those at sea, the temptation of monks, the responsibilities of prelates, the labors of those waging war. In your love take them all to your heart, weep over them, offer your prayers for them.”
After a serious illness, which she prayed to receive, Julian began seeing visions of God. These visions became the source of many “showings” that is, revelations given by God to Julian. The following are some excerpts from these visions. As Julian gazed on the Crucifix, during what she thought was the end of her life, Julian received the first of her visions on the Trinity:
“in the same revelation, suddenly the Trinity filled my heart full of the greatest joy, and I understood that it will be so in heaven without end to all who will come here. For the Trinity is God, God is the Trinity. The Trinity is our maker, the Trinity is our protector, the Trinity is our everlasting lover, the Trinity is our endless joy and our bliss, by our Lord Jesus Christ and inner Lord Jesus Christ.”
And I leave you with her most famous quote: “Jesus answered with these words, saying: ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’ … This was said so tenderly, without blame of any kind toward me or anybody else”.
Excerpts from Grace Jantzen’s “Julian of Norwich” are quoted above.
I first met Sue Valentine during an extraordinary Icon workshop I taught in March, 2020, at Mt. Calvary Monastery in Santa Barbara California. It was extraordinary for several reasons- first, we all were just beginning to understand that Covid was seriously dangerous, but our worlds hadn’t changed yet to quarantine measures. Extraordinary too, because sadly, Mt. Calvary monastery is now closed forever. And then there were the students- such an interesting and dedicated group, of which Sue was one. Recently I have seen how profoundly moving her icons are and they are developing in such a wonderful way that I invited her to share about her experiences with Icon writing and here is her article:
The Suffering Servant
While new to iconography, I have appreciated from the very first icon I wrote just one year ago how God is using icons to speak to me.
I have been considering God’s call to be a servant, and learned I both significantly misunderstood how highly the Lord thinks of His servants, and also how profoundly they suffer. These days I ponder these things as I paint.
I find I am becoming used to the conventions in icons: a blue outer robe representing Christ’s divinity and a red inner robe representing Christ’s humanity. Then the Lord pointed out there is no blue robe in this icon, because as Philippians 2:5-8 tells us, Jesus voluntarily removed His blue robe when He came to earth to become one of us, to serve us, to suffer for us, and to save us. Then, in Matthew 27:28, after Jesus was arrested and convicted, the soldiers stripped Him of His humanity, removing His red robe, and mocked Him, pretending to worship Him as a king, all the while spitting on Him and beating Him.
Jesus’ servant life and suffering stripped Him of both robes.
With the icon now complete, as I gaze on it, I’m feeling the robe I have painted on Jesus is somewhat jarring. I’ve introduced alizarin crimson, a new color for me. I can’t even remember why I chose that color. Only later do I realize that when the soldiers stripped Jesus of His red robe, they put on Him a scarlet robe which is what I have painted. This icon is the picture of Jesus, not robed in humanity, but covered with the soldier’s scorn for His kingship as they dressed Him in a scarlet robe. With that realization, I see more fully what He suffered and the servant life I am invited into.
Jesus is no longer robed in scarlet, in red or even in blue, all of which I can attempt to paint as I am learning this new way to pray. What I cannot capture or even attempt is what I know is true of Jesus now and read in scripture: Jesus is finally robed not in finite colors, but in the splendor and majesty He deserves.
John the Theologian
This is John the Theologian. John is my favorite gospel, and this is the icon of the gospel writer John who had incredible revelations of the Lord later in life, and he wrote them down.
He has an ink well at the ready, and an angel whispering inspiration in his ear.
The verse written in the book is John 16:33 “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
I have been wrestling with the Lord about how to live out my calling as a teacher. The Lord has told me until those opportunities open up, I should write. But writing seems less appealing to me.
So when asking the Lord, “Why this icon of John?”, He reminded me that this type of painting is called icon writing. If this is the kind of writing the Lord wants me to do, then I’m very interested.
This is my first larger icon, 16 x 20”. I chose it because my daughter was struggling severely, and I felt I needed to sit with many faces of grief, from the demonstrative Mary Magdalene with her arms raised to the strangely peaceful woman in green, as they mourned over the body of Jesus and as I mourned.
Just the process of painting a larger icon forced me to sit with those feelings of grief longer.
This is another 16×20” icon, and a sequel to “The Lamentation.” Jesus is now risen from the dead, leaving only His graveclothes behind, so I am surprised this icon is never called “The Resurrection.” Of the many renderings of this icon, I chose this one because Jesus was still visibly present, even though only one of the women noticed He was there. Their focus was on the grave clothes, and so, largely, was mine. I was feeling a kind of desolation, but at least Jesus was with me.
I found this icon very difficult to do and the larger format made that more plain to me. There were long periods when I could not work on it at all. I didn’t even know what I was feeling, and I sought the Lord for insight. Finally, the Lord gave me a word for it: disorientation, which is how I titled this icon. That word helped me unpack what I was feeling. Things were moving very quickly in my life, I was under intense stress, deeply sad, and in shock. I was just hoping that as I painted, the Lord would keep speaking.
The turning point in completing this icon came when the Lord told me that the graveclothes were my false self. Like Jesus, I needed resurrection. I needed to arise from those graveclothes and leave them behind.
As soon as He spoke that to me, the work accelerated and was completed quickly and set in motion the courage to make other changes in my life as I embraced what gave me life.
Sue Valentine is from Chicago. She has a B.A. in Behavioral Science and an M.B.A. from the University of Chicago, has a certification in Spiritual Direction from North Park Theological Seminary, and is a licensed minister in the Vineyard Church. She is a worship leader, teacher, contemplative, practicing spiritual director and aspiring iconographer.
That’s all for this month. If you have a suggestion for an article or wish to submit one, please contact me for submission requirements- we are always looking for articles that promote the joy of icon writing!
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!
During this time of pandemic it’s good to think about Icons of healing and restoration. There are many that come to mind, but Saint Raphael seems particularly appropriate as he is the patron saint not only of travelers, but also of physicians, nurses, and medical workers. For this reason, I am offering an online icon painting class in September where we will write an Icon of Archangel Raphael. His feast day is September 29, and is celebrated along with Saints Michael and Archangel Gabriel.
The story of Archangel Raphael is beautifully told in the book of Tobit in the Apocrypha. Raphael means God heals. In the book of Enoch he is believed to have healed the earth when it was defiled by the sins of fallen angels. In John 5: 1-4, the Gospel speaks of the pool at Bethesda where many sick people gathered, awaiting the movement of the waters. “An angel of the Lord descended at certain times into the pond and the water was moved. And he that went down first into the water was made whole of whatsoever infirmity he was under.” Because of the healing powers associated with Raphael, he is considered to be the angel in that Scriptural story.
In the book of Tobit, Raphael appears in the form of a man who will accompany Tobias on a journey. To the recently blinded Tobit (Tobias’ father) Raphael says, “Take courage, the time is near for God to heal you. Take Courage” Tobit 5:10.
During the journey, Raphael heals Sarah of the demons that plagued her so that she could safely marry Tobias. Tobit is also healed of his blindness by Raphael. When Raphael finally reveals his identity as an angel of God the two men were afraid and fell down, but Raphael said to them ” Do not be afraid, peace be with you. Bless God forevermore…I was not acting by my own will but by the will of God. Bless Him each and every day and sing His praises….. They kept blessing God and singing His praises and they acknowledged God for these marvelous deeds of His, when an angel of the Lord had appeared to them.” Tobit 12:16
In this story and also in the meaning of the name Raphael, credit is given to God who heals, and it is to God that the angels and the saints point and direct our worship and attention.
Raphael is thought to guard travelers on their journeys and is sometimes depicted with a staff and also holding fish which relates to the healing of Tobit’s blindness with fish gall as directed by Raphael. In Europe Raphael is known as the protector of sailors and is shown in a relief on the Doge’s palace in Venice with a scroll saying “Keep the Gulf quiet.”
Raphael is sometimes thought of being one of the three angels who visited Sarah and Abraham. He, along with Archangels Michael and Gabriel were sent to fulfill God’s will concerning Sodom, Sarah and Abraham.
Flannery O’Connor is believed to have said the Saint Raphael prayer at the beginning of each day:
“O Raphael, lead us toward those we are waiting for, those who are waiting for us; Raphael, Angel of happy meeting, lead us by the hand toward those we are looking for. May all our movements be guided by Your light and transfigured with your joy.” Amen
During these difficult times of pandemic, let us pray often for those afflicted and for all those doctors, nurses and medical workers who are at the front lines of this battle. And we pray also for the speedy discovery of a vaccine cure, in Jesus name, Amen.