Someone once called me a mystic without a monastery; traveling the countryside with a few icons and placing them strategically and comically where you would least expect them. I have learned God creates through us as God is the creator. In truth, my hope is to bring surprise and delight to any observer. My goal is to spark a renewed spiritual relevance for today, new iconography built on old theology.
At the age of 40, I innocently attended an icon writing workshop with an orthodox priest. That first introduction swept me up like a baptism, it felt like an alternative way of life in God. The egg tempera technique added to the experience reaffirming my deep love for Creation. The iconographer paints with traditional egg tempera; egg yolk + water mixed with million year old stone ground into a fine dust called earth pigments. Egg yolk represents the raw potential for life and the earth pigment, “eternity”, mixed together to create divine image. I can explain the mystical nature of this process, it can be summed up in the statement “God creates through us as God is the creator”. The work is deep and never the same; always new and a constant teacher. God creates and owns the Dirt!
All the experimental art mediums I have used throughout my life have been preparation for this work. I think now, “If I stop painting Icons, I will no longer paint at all.” It has been a privilege as well as a kind of joyous slavery to explore Christianity through iconography and prayer. For a while, I abandoned my friends and the outside world because I felt inspired and mystified by the process. My husband allows this sort of obsession and commitment, and does not doubt or obstruct my behavior, and for this I thank God.
Where do these ideas come from?
The Byzantine Church in Constantinople elevated icons as a way of illustrating and teaching church doctrine through biblical image. Very few books were available to the ordinary population, and they were expensive, besides most people could not read. Leave it to the artist of the time to take the revelation of Christ and put it down in picture form.
The early iconographers emphasized mystical awe and wonder which comes from “knowing” God. Byzantine style icons offer no expression; instead they are found gazing towards the viewer, blank with shock by the presence of God. No bleeding Jesus, sorrowful weeping mother Mary, wiggly baby divine or anguished suffering saints, these images are windows to a quiet reflective world.
For 25 years I have tried to respect and learn from the tradition, yet with a noticeable amount of kicking and screaming. I have a passion for these ancient images and will probably fail to reproduce the depth of mystery that the early iconographers offered. I am committed to use their artistic creativity and mystical data to record what we cannot see. It has been challenging for me to believe in faith that God has a hand in this practice I am so drawn to. My commitment to painting icons has been like a salmon swimming upstream; no idea when the struggle will end and continually questioning how much the river might change.
Artists transform ideas into icons
Experienced iconographers live in a twisted dimension: after long hours of repetitive painting (writing) theoretically you remember you are divine image. For me it came as surprise. The painting and mystical prayer is the ground for everyday work in the studio; the attempt to paint divine image enables us to realize something quite intimate about God, we create as we are created. “God” creates through us as God is the creator.
Internally iconographers believe “beauty will save the world”, the act of painting transforms us. Through the paint and the image I have found extraordinary beauty in humankind and my potential to see the divine in all things.
Mistaken or not there has always been a constant sense of having been called to do the work. Some say there is a purpose for each of us to be revealed and it may not be anything we expected. In truth for all of us, it is God who creates through us as God is the creator. I could have never dreamed two thirds of my life would be dedicated to painting icons. I paint because the results are always unexpected, beautiful and filled with the wonder of where spirit comes from.
Traditionally one does not sign an icon because the act itself is considered to be prayer, an ongoing conversation with God. As an artist I “imagine” new images from time to time. These images continue to transform me. With any luck, one day I will write one image of lasting beauty for humanity.
Peace Mary Jane Miller, Icons for a more spiritual tomorrow.
Wide assortment of books written on Icon painting https://www.millericons.com/books
Mary Jane Miller lives in San Miguel Allende, Mexico she is a full time Artist in Iconography and author in San Miguel Allende,