When I discovered painting and meditation in the icon tradition, I revived the embers from my desire to explore new religion and spirituality. In 1985, I wondered into a small Anglican church in Virginia for refuge. Sitting alone for an hour in the cold empty surroundings of the church, I heard a voice saying, “Be not afraid, I go before you” ( from my book In Light of Women ). This event launched a “life of prayer and dedication” to a God both unseen and unproven. Still, after three decades, I cannot say I know the fullness and complete dimensions found in what others call divinity.
Merging meditation and painting marked my transformation and perception of the world. The painting with egg tempera and earth pigments gave me a new understanding of the nature of reality. Working daily with small dust practicals of mother earth changed my life as a Christian and gave me a profound desire “to be healed … to surrender … [and] to be known by Christ” (my book, Life in Christ).
1. Painting and meditation and my questioning mind.
For the first two decades, I meticulously examined sanctioned images passed down by the Orthodox Church. I could no longer avoid the questioning their meaning. I boldly asked,.“Where are the women?”.
Frustrated by the fact that there are only fourteen images of women in a canon of over 500 images, I started designing my own images to include women. As a cradle Episcopalian, I was raised in a faith community that thinks and inquires. The Episcopal cannon opened the door for women’s spirituality when they allowed ordained women on the altar. This event acknowledges the important role women have always played in the bible. My work with sacred art manifested a desire to include women through painting and meditation.
2. Permission to create Paintings.
I gave myself permission to create a series about Mary Magdelene. How rebellious she must have been. Her courageous dedication to Christ is a beautiful testament for the contemporary female anywhere in the world. The Gospel of Mary Magdalene and The Codex of Akhmim 1896, also called the Berlin Codex, a Coptic manuscript from the 5th century AD, was a pure inspiration for painting and meditation.
3. Meditations on Mary
Did the life of Mary Magdalene, Mary of Egypt, the women who washed Jesus’s feet and Mary the sister of Lazarus overlap? Are their identities merged, confusing them as the same? I am familiar with the orthodox icon of Mary of Egypt, and became suspicious that perhaps the images of Mary Magdalene somehow overlapped her painted image and meditation. Historically, Mary of the Desert depicts the life of a female mystic, with her long hair and sparse garment. How often long hair is associated with prostitution?
There is no evidence to suggest that these two women overlapped in history.
Indeed, there is no historical evidence to suggest that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. She is only apocryphally regarded as such because she was conflated with the woman who anointed the feet of Christ, by Pope Gregory the Great in a sermon of 591 AD. (from my book In Light of Women )
Mary of Egypt has long hair as a prostitute but Mary Magdalene might not have shown her hair so abundantly while following Christ with the other apostles. Painting and meditating on women in the bible made me realize several women in the New Testament are all identified by the name of Mary. This curious detail eludes to a larger community of female followers of Christ who were obscured in scripture.
4. For 2,000 years, women have been placing ourselves into the story.
We’ve been written out, yet we know intuitively we were there, and continue to be there. I have nothing against the Church or the way they framed women when painting or meditating on the Christ story. I have nothing against scripture. The culture may have influenced the writing and the teachings. Their Divine Word of God has been bias to the detriment and inclusion of what women have to offer.
5. New meditation on old painting ideas.
My collection of new contemporary icons is based on scriptural scenes and endeavor to put women back into the story. “Women imagine were at the Baptism of Christ, in the River Jordan, at the Last Supper and at Pentecost, even if we not represented in theology, image, or text, she writes” (Life in Christ, page 75). My icon of the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost exchanges six women from the bible beside the other male apostles.
From my meditations, I know all the apostles and followers received the Holy Spirit.
My nonconformist approach to this subject-matter has been met with hostility by the wider community of iconographers. There is a hierarchy of authorities who [defend] the practice that I call “the icon police”. They are obsessed with making sure that nobody goes out of line … and [nobody] alters the ‘truth. Such individuals have a legalistic and narrow attitude towards painting and meditation and its power to change us. They believe, along with many priests of our time, that there is no need for the insights and perspectives of women to develop.
By way of example, I have received criticism for including images of the Earth in my icons. No sanctioned iconic image represents the planet earth. The early iconographers could not have known they lived on a planet. It is important to represent, through painting and meditation, a growing awareness of how humanity relates to being on a rock hurling through space and time. It is not only my belief that human beings exist on this Earth created by God. Let us rejoice and be glad.
BIO Mary Jane Miller.
A self-taught Byzantine style iconographer for 3 decades, born in New York and living in Mexico full time. Her collections of sacred art are contemporary, with a proficient command of egg tempera. The work is extraordinarily rich in style and exhibited in museums and churches in both the United States and Mexico. As an author, Miller blends historical content and personal insights to arrive at contemporary conclusions about faith. BOOKS Mediation and iconography, Icon Painting Revealed, Mary in iconography, In Light of Women, and Life in Christ. Website: http://sacrediconretreat.com/