ABINGDON, Va. – Abingdon’s St. Thomas Episcopal Church has now completed its collection of 22 religious icons depicting the life of Christ, all created by Mexico’s Mary Jane Miller. The last one, entitled “Mystical Supper,” illustrates the famous Last Supper, which Christ hosted for his disciples the night before his tragic journey to Golgotha.
The final icon was first unveiled to the public on Abingdon’s July First Thursday night, during an appropriate three-hour window of quiet sanctuary mediation time.
Aside from the “Last Supper,” other panels were all purchased by the church between 2006, through the generosity of a private donor. Beside this event in Christ’s life, other icons depict the Holy Trinity (a traditional starting place for icon artists, referencing the 15th century Russian work of painter Andrei Rublev), The Annunciation of Mary by Gabriel, the Nativity, Jesus in the Temple at MidPentecost, the Holy Baptism by John; John the Baptist in the Wilderness, and Jesus’ healing of a lame man at Bethesda.
Others illustrate Jesus casting out a demon, Mary of Bethany washing Christ’s feet, and Christ’s transfiguration before Peter, James and John, while joined by Moses and Elijah. One can additionally gaze upon the raising of Lazarus, Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, His crucifixion, entombment and His descent into Hades. Following resurrection, Jesus is depicted in one icon with the doubting apostle Thomas; in another, revealing himself to Mary Magdalene, “the Apostle of the Apostles.”
Besides her Annunciation, Christ’s mother figures in a Pentecost icon, having succeeded her son as a leader now revered as “the Queen of Heaven.” In yet others, she is also seen as an infant, with her mother, Saint Anne, at her own nativity; at her presentation to Zachariah, to receive her education in the Holy of Holies; and at her dormition, or “great sleep,” while taken to heaven by Christ. IMAGES for PURCHASE original size 40.00
Icons are sacred images
St Thomas Episcopal church’s collection is embellished with decorative metal (in this case, pewter) in bas relief. The technique evolved from early Christian mosaics and encaustic (beeswax with color pigment) portraits of early saints. Icons were declared blasphemous and forbidden from 726 until 843, but reinstated by two Byzantine empresses, Irene and Theodora II, during the 9th century. They flowered in the Byzantine 12th and 13th centuries in both Greek and Russian Orthodox churches.
Icons are referred to as “written,” rather than painted. They are to be viewed as objects of meditation. Iconography is governed by strict rules: Replicated motifs, traditional techniques, stylistic details conforming to standardized patterns. There is almost no concern for true receding perspective; they appear flat, eschewing the sensual pagan musculature of Greco-Roman depictions.
Figures often appear to be floating. Facial features are elongated, especially the nose; expressions are serious, stark and struck with awe. Eyes reveal the soul and hands show service to God. According to Byzantine tradition, halos encompass our five senses and reveal our awareness of the divine.
Remembering the Artist
Any number of Abingdon residents no doubt remember Miller, an outgoing, assertive earth mother, once a regular member of the town’s art colony. She designed the original logo for the Peppermill Restaurant, an employee of the cave house craft shop as well as participating in any number of solo and group exhibitions.
Shortly thereafter, having made a regional splash through this spiritual work, she moved permanently to Mexico, where she teaches in a monastery’s prayer group. The monastery is near her home and the couple’s studios, in San Miguel de Allende, in Guanajuato, Mexico.
Miller and Gomez have been collaborating on art for 20 years. Gomez, who works in all kinds of materials, adds “repousse,” to his wife’s work. (The technique evolved and was widely utilized by the 8th century.) Repousse refers to the hammering of silver or pewter into flat sheets. It is then engraved and tooled on both sides to create form and designs which ‘cover’ the precious icon image.
Icon writing is a path, and Miller walks it. As icon writers do, she fasts and prays before beginning to “write,” and is silent while working, entering into meditative spiritual experience.
As tradition dictates, Miller paints on wood panels in tempera, which is egg yolk mixed with earth pigment and water. The ancient technique goes as far back as mummy painting in ancient Egypt. Sometimes she adds a small amount of vinegar or oil of cloves as a preservative. She also uses 23k gold leaf. Finally, finished works are varnished.
The icons feel very much at home in Abingdon’s 1925 Episcopal Church, a tiny, stone historic district jewel, based upon a 14th century English Tudor Gothic chapel design. (The local congregation goes back to 1841.)
Miller has published five icon books: A coloring book journal; another on icon writing technique, yet another devoted to her series depicting the Holy Mother, still another offering templates for one’s own painting and contemplation; and yet one more, on entering the icon process and its resulting spiritual enrichment.
Miller says icon creation’s intention is to ask, “Whose are we?”
BUY BOOK “Combining the physical painting and a life of prayer enables us to explore and enter into our relationship with God and His creation. The discipline…allows one to make contact with something deeper than what you’re painting. The faces reflect the somber, the challenged and the martyred,” she said.
“I find myself wondering, ‘What, besides spiritual awe, are icons trying to tell us about the highest and best experiences of our human condition?’ The answers lead us back to our faith and hope as spiritual people.”
Icon creators, she points out, believe beauty can save the planet.