My iconographal mistakes might surprise the viewer in an extra ordinary unorthodox way. Three of my icons in particular fall into the category of ironic errors. Mistakes are inevitable while learning to painting Byzantine icons. Message or Revelation, whatever the outcome, any small subconscious missteps shift the theological norm and challenge orthodoxy.
No Mistakes in an Icon
I was taught, one who writes icons cannot ‘go back’, ie rewrite an error or correct a drawing. Taken seriously this is an interesting trade mark attached to this discipline. If iconography is a prayer form, one cannot go back after an hour of prayer and take back the words said to God. If each stroke is a prayer there are no mistakes. The act of painting an icon becomes complete prayer which includes forgiveness. Any error is nothing more than a moments message or revelation noticed or not.
I had one student who painted a hand with six fingers, actually that is not uncommon. She asked me to ‘fixed it’. After fixing the one hand, the next day she somehow had painted the other hand with six fingers. I glance with a smile at her fingers.
Mary of Egypt receives the Eucharist.
In my Mary of Egypt icon, notice the host floating in mid air. I have no idea to this day how that happened or when. I am pretty sure classic byzantine icons of Mary of Egypt do not include a floating Eucharistic host. However, I can imagine Mary might have hallucinated the host floating in mid-air given her austere lifestyle.
Is that small but significant defect meant to be a message or revelation for me or the viewer? Crazy situations often arise during Eucharist. I have had the host drop from my tongue, and had the priest catch it. Once I saw a ray of sunshine landing on the host placed on a tongue in Mexico at exactly that moment revealing its true grace. Why would I be surprised to find I a floating host painted into a byzantine icon of Mary of Egypt?
Deep mid night blue backgrounds are common in byzantine icons, especially in Greece. I diligently copied the center mountain on which Christ is transfigured from another icon. Christ stands in radiant white in between Moses and Elisha as they appear transparent and ethereal. The story illustrates the multi-dimensional nature of God, and creation where past, present, and future merge. For centuries theologians have told us we are more than just flesh in this world. The corporeality expressed first in Jesus Christ. We are told that death is not final, and we are all meant to be transfigured one day.
The icon message and revelation redefines time and space when the two prophets appear beside Christ. I got carried away and made the mountains they are standing on ethereal as well. These two prophets bring into question what we might think of as real is not real. The viewer is left to meditate on the icons message or revelation and evaluate how committed he or she is to this one dimension as being real. If Elijah and Moses can be seen in two dimensions, why not us along with the mountains and the rest of creation?
Mary of Egypt talks to and John the Baptist
The creation of this icon is unprecedented, it appeared suddenly; I mean the idea and image were inspired. Few icons in an iconographer’s collection underscore personal interior changes like this one did for me. It was the first icon I ever painted outside of tradition, as in I invented it. John holds an empty scroll while conversing with Mary of Egypt, their common foundation is cracked or cracking from dryness or age. Finding these two desert mystics in the same icon fulfills one of the great iconographical Byzantine Icon precepts; the distorting of time and space.
Mary of Egypt and John the Baptist lived at different times and, therefore did not know one another. John lived at the beginning of our Lord’s ministry, delivering his message of repentance to his followers. Legend says Mary of Egypt was a desert mystic filled with wisdom and living the life of an ascetic centuries after the death of Christ. These two face one another as a pair male/female mind and intent. They are also outside time/space partners. One of them gets his head cut off for speaking truth; the other lived isolated in the desert where silence is a perfect companion.
What is Revelation?
All three of these byzantine icons were completed around 2001. Contemporary women icon painters, like myself stand firm in the desert on cracked ground and on a mountain top of traditional beliefs. Iconographers seek Christ in the church, in rituals, in prayer, and ultimately find Him uniquely within. The ideology and interpretation within iconography is bound to change. The message and revelation happens for us through the time we spend repeatedly painting the same image.
Contemporary iconographers cannot ignore science, philosophy, psychology, and new found sacred texts. Accidents with paint confirm the presence of Christ and are subconscious revelations revealed in paint. I believe the mystical Christ lives abundantly within each of us and is revealed when we allow our minds and hearts to question what is reality. Where your treasure lies there will be your heart. The gospel of Mary Magdalene expresses, ‘ Where your treasure lies there will be your mind’. Subtle or outrageous errors are treasured message and revelation which abundantly bubble to the surface through my heart and mind. Thank you God.