” Just as we are responsible for what we eat, so are we responsible for the visual beauty we create. When we contemplate an icon, we witness the immense love of God and humanity…an icon is a visual prayer.” – Father Henri Nouwen
Sauntering up to me, glass in hand, a young urbanite asked me “Mary, why do you do it, why make such an effort to paint religious icons. Although beautiful this type of painting certainly isn’t as popular as other genres – like say – modern art.”
HHmm! What this young man said was true… and it gave me many hours of contemplation. Why do I paint icons? And why do I paint in such a difficult medium? Religious Icons are In the Soul, so I guess the answer to this question lies in my soul.
In all of my experience, of all the mediums and genres I have worked with, there is nothing as intimate or as soul reaching or as meditative as working with egg tempera and icon painting. The idea of moving small particles of sand around with a brush to create a divine image is exhilarating, it is contemplative and prayerful. Just as others find solace in yoga, meditation and prayer, so my prayers become visual through my icons. The challenge lies in transmitting this peace, passion, fear, sadness or joy and still abide by the artistic rules that govern icon painting, an ancient art handed down to us from byzantine times.
So what is an icon and what specific rules govern this genre?
As tradition dictates, I create my icon paintings on wood panels as in the ancient tradition, my medium is egg tempera, a medium that is somewhat difficult to control. A combination of rich earth pigments and water (the very nature of earth and man).
Continuing in the ancient traditions of an iconographer where there is no concern for true perspective, the subject matter in the painting often seeming flat – yet… there is still something there…something that draws the viewer in. Does this magic lie in the nature of the egg tempera, or is it the prayerfulness and contemplative spirit I am in when painting? This I do not know and I leave up to the viewer’s opinion.
Iconographers render physical shapes into gentle graduations of tone. Standing figures seem to float on their tiptoes, having no relationship to the ground whatsoever. Facial features are serious, almost other-worldly. They are expressions with no emotions. Yet somehow the colors, the shapes and the eyes offer nothing but emotion. The eyes reveal the soul’s yearning and the hands placed in a specific position demonstrate the desire to offer service to God.
The halos are not painted with egg tempera. An extra dimension is added with Pure Gold Leaf which encircles the head to remind us of our potential for divine knowledge and wisdom. Icons portray a link between the human and the divine inviting a mystical encounter between the person gazing and God. It becomes a place for an appearance of Christ, the Theotokos and or some Saint—and potentially opens the heart and mind of the viewer. It creates a place of prayer.
An icon is the window where the viewer participates in the event depicted and existentially unites us to the mystical…Imagine, all of this I paint… with infinitely small grains of sand and a little bit of egg yolk….I guess that is why I go against the strain of society. That’s why I paint religious work … in a time….when being religious is not the going trend.