Iconography is an ancient spiritual practice whereby the writer (artist) creates images of persons or scenes from the Bible and saints of the Church.
Icons differ in many ways: they are written according to a prescribed set of canons (rules) making them holy and independent of time and space. They cast no shadows. Once blessed, the icon then becomes energetically connected to it's heavenly prototype—it is essentially "Living Art."
Absolutely! The possibility exists of leading others into heresy. This would be a grave sin in my case. Knowing Scripture, studying under a master iconographer and extensive research guard against this.
In 2006 I was on pilgrimage in the Holy Land. A fellow pilgrim told me of a master iconographer, Dmitry Andrejev, who gave workshops once a year in Denver. I attended at the first opportunity! Afterwards, I abandoned all other art forms as iconography was a perfect match for my passion and particular artistic skill set.
As for the technical aspect, I have attended a number of workshops, read numerous books but am largely self-taught. I am also a graduate of the Denver Catholic Biblical School. This combined with the lengthy process of converting to Catholicism greatly formed my spirituality.
Yes, I have been artistic as long as I can remember and am experienced in a variety of media. I would say initially at least, it is a hindrance—especially if you've never used egg-tempera. The brain must think in reverse when working from dark to light and in layers. Natural pigments are especially challenging as each has it’s own unique properties. Some are gritty, some are smooth and creamy, while others are best suited to the transparent layers. This is completely different from oil or acrylic which are uniform in consistency. Interestingly, people with no artistic skill whatsoever often produce some of the best icons at workshops precisely because they have no training nor preconceptions. They don’t have to consciously reverse their brains.
Icons are written (painted) on a hardwood panel, usually poplar or birch. Linen is then glued to the board and several layers of gesso are applied giving a nice smooth and absorbent surface for the gold leaf and egg tempera. Layers of pigment are applied alternating between opaque and transparent using a “floating” technique (as opposed to brush stroking). Once complete, the icon is sealed with a linseed and stand oil mixture. There are 22 steps in the creation of an icon—each having a practical and spiritual purpose. You can learn more about the steps by clicking on the Process Page.
The context in which it will displayed is the first step: will it reside in a church or home? Next the subject of our icon is discussed. Some people already have a favorite saint in mind but not always. I can guide you through this process as there is a vast array to choose from. Finally, many factors determine the price of an icon: size; shape of the board (rectangular, arched); whether or not the board is to be braced (preventing warping); intricacy of pattern; amount and intricacy of metal work (gold and/or silver) and shipping. Icons are designed to last for hundreds of years! Whatever your budget, generations will be inspired by their beauty and heavenly connection , drawing the viewer ever more deeply into the mystery of the Incarnate God.
There are no random elements—everything has purpose and meaning—even colors! Icons are a visual language containing within them all of salvation history.
Let’s look on the Gallery Page at St. Kateri. This is an icon of a relatively contemporary woman—the first Native American to be canonized. She was a Mohawk Indian of the Turtle Clan and lived an extraordinary and exemplary life. Her features and clothing tell us she was Native American—these are factual elements—not in the sense that she actually looked like this, but it is a reference to her ethnicity. Next, we notice her inner garment is white, representing her inner nature. This symbolizes purity as she remained a virgin. Her outer garment is blue, representing heaven and historical accounts report she wore a blue blanket. This is her outer nature. From the colors alone we realize we are looking at a very holy woman. In her halo are stylized lilies. Now we have a double reference to her virginity, an especially noteworthy virtue as this was unheard of in her culture. We see she holds a cross and a rosary, both of which she showed particular devotion. The border surrounds her with tribal “spirit” turtles dancing in celebration. This is an uncommon element but I felt it extremely important to acknowledge her clan.
Kateri never abandoned her “native-ness” She was not shipped off to some faraway convent to become a nun. Rather she lived in community with her people yet was completely devoted to Christ. I have great admiration and respect for her ability to walk this fine line. We as Christians today also walk a fine line—living a spiritual life which is counter-cultural to the earthly world. It should be noted that the real Kateri was probably not physically attractive. Her face was scarred and an eye damaged due to smallpox. One foot was damaged and she walked with a limp. She also fasted to extremes and was quite thin. However, as Catholics we believe we receive a glorified body in heaven. I chose to represent her in this glorified state, reminding us the possibility of holiness exists for us all.
It is a practice akin to meditation. I fast from meat and listen to chant music or paint in silence. I begin with the iconographer’s prayer then control my breathing as I pray the Divine Mercy. As I paint I focus on different aspects of the technique or subject. For example, step 6 is the application and preparation of liquid clay. This is the foundation for the gold leaf. I am reminded of Adam whom God created from the dust of the earth.
There are other Biblical references to God as “Potter.” The potter must purify the clay removing the rocks until only there is only pure dust and adds water—wet but without form. Secondly, the weak clay is shaped. Finally, the clay is hardened and made strong by fire—the vessel for holding the spirit becomes stable. We can see there is a correlation between scripture, iconography and our own spiritual formation.
Prior to conversion I was like the clay full of “rocks.” As I grew closer in relationship with God, these rocks were removed (certain behaviors or ways of thinking). Slowly, I began to be formed into a Christian. There would be many spiritual tests and trials along the way as I was “fired” and made a stronger Christian. I meditate on the process of my conversion and the manifestation of God in my life and my attempt to be a godly person. So clay represents the human and the gold represents God. Of course this is an ongoing process, but it is a tiny example of the infinite ways in which one can grow deeper in relationship with God through iconography.
Isaiah 43:1, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”
As I read on through verse 7, God makes it clear He is my protector, my savior; that I am precious and loved by Him. He is my Creator and my purpose is to glorify Him.
At age 40 I was diagnosed with cancer. It was a huge wake-up call. What had I done with my life up to that point? What purpose did I have? I was disappointed with what I saw. Praying at Cabrini Shrine outside of Denver, I begged God for my life. If He spared me, I vowed to do whatever it took to become Catholic. I would read the Bible from cover to cover. I would offer a day of thanksgiving every year for 5 years at Cabrini on the anniversary of my surgery, and I would go on pilgrimage to The Holy Land. Nineteen years after my diagnosis I have now embraced Orthodoxy. Icons are part of my everyday life—it just made sense that they would also be part of my liturgical experience as well.
Surprisingly it is not converting others to Orthodoxy, although I obviously would not be opposed to it! Conversion is the job of the Holy Spirit. I desire only to expose people to an ancient form of art and spirituality with which they may not be familiar. I believe we are all on a quest for a higher sense of purpose, of being. Iconography is the path I have chosen, or, perhaps better said, it has chosen me. I pray my journey inspires others to begin or continue on their journey, whatever that may be. I encourage my fellow human beings to be their highest and best selves, to use their lives, talents and treasure in service to The Creator and thus to each other.