The Transformative Power of the Icon

Many academic and theological articles have been written about the transformative power of the icon. This story is about the transformative power of our own icon of the Myrrh Bearing Women.

Trinity Iconography Institute follows the most ancient tradition in Iconography, creating icons from natural materials sourced from animals, vegetables, and minerals.

Before the pandemic in early 2020, we ordered a professional, custom-made icon board from a European workshop which was donated to the Institute by Trinity Episcopal Cathedral. This board satisfies the animal, vegetable, mineral categories as it is Linden wood, gessoed with rabbit skin glue and French rouge (calcium carbonate). Our pigments are sourced from Florence, Italy, from a shop that serves Uffizi conservationists because these pigments are closest to those used by the Renaissance Masters who relied on natural earth and ground minerals. We mix these natural colors with a blend of egg yolk and red wine vinegar and paint in the technique of egg tempera dating to the earliest centuries of Christian sacred art. Even cave paintings used red earth (red ochre). To add to the icon’s transcendent quality, we applied 23.75 karat Italian gold leaf, which represents “The Uncreated Light” in icons.

Geometry

This journey began by creating the under-drawing utilizing millennia old geometric scaling techniques to expand Leonid Ouspensky’s icon (our prototype) from its original approximate size of 15 inches to meet our needs at 4 feet.

After we transferred the drawing to the gessoed icon board and painted the under-lined image, we invited students of the Trinity Iconography Institute to participate in the painting process. Over the course of half a year, thirteen different students worked under the supervision of Fr. Jon Buffington, Ania Kocurek-Williams and Christine Thum Schlesser. Hundreds of transparent layers of natural pigment and half a year later, the painting is complete, resting at the back of the church while another transformation takes place.

Original Cathedral Plan

This is the original plan for Trinity Episcopal Cathedral from 1904.  Notice the smaller, mirrored interior arches right and left of center. 

For some unknown reason, the right arch on this original Cathedral plan was never constructed. The wall was simply flat and the area below it became an unused area of the church, despite its prominence at the front of the congregation. Artistically, it is no surprise the space languished. It is likely the result of a lack of balance and symmetry to the other side of the church. In iconography, we talk about “harmony” which is created by proper underlying geometry. It isn’t something you see; it is something you feel. This may also include “balanced asymmetry” but asymmetry by itself simply leans toward a feeling of imbalance or lack that “you can’t quite put your finger on.”

Transformation

The Myrrh Bearing Women icon transformed the iconography skills of many students; it brought many different people together and its theme and multi-cultural representation is intended to speak to everyone.

The icon now rests peacefully at the back of the Cathedral following its completion, allowing the egg tempera pigment to cure before we apply varnish and donated pearls in the corner of each carved Trinity symbol.  

The Myrrh Bearing Women waits for its new home to be constructed.

Notice the Scaffolding?

Icons have the power to transform us, through prayer and throughout our work on them. This icon continues its transformation, now on the Cathedral building itself. The plan has always been to hang the Myrrh Bearing Women opposite the Trinity icon (left arch over the baptismal font), which offers both aesthetic and thematic balance; three angels, three Marys in an icon of identical size.

There was one glaring difference:  the Trinity icon hangs in an arch and the wall intended for the Myrrh Bearing Women is a flat wall, even though original Cathedral plans show a matching arched wall. It’s a mystery as to why it was never completed. Perhaps the space was waiting for this icon!

This is the scaffolding Gardner Grice & Jim Hebert climb to build the arched wall.

The challenge is now in the past, as Gardner Grice, Head Sexton has officially finished “building the Cathedral” to plan by creating the arch that was always meant to be there.

Jim Hebert (left), Facilities Manager and Gardner Grice (right), Head Sexton, lay out and fabricate the arch template on the floor of Kempton Hall

Jim and Gardner created the template for the Cathedral arch on the floor in Kempton Hall and then transferred this pattern to the Cathedral wall.  Gardner’s family history includes ship building, and having built boats himself, he remarked that building this arch was simply the reverse of constructing a ship’s hull.  You can visualize his comment by observing the wooden shape laid out on the floor above.

Notice how the arch behind the scaffolding mirrors the arch over the Baptismal font

As you can see from the scale of the scaffolding photo (above in right corner), it is much easier simply to say the arch was “transferred.” Transferring the arch really meant hoisting every stick of wood up a multi-level scaffolding, after first climbing the multi-level scaffolding during the intense heat of August, which rose to the Cathedral ceiling to their tiny, elevated work space. After a twelve hour day of climbing and building in the intense heat, Gardner and Jim finished framing and sheet-rocking the arched wall on August 11, 2021.

Soon, we expect the arched wall to be plastered and textured to match the existing walls in the Cathedral.

Sacred Art Presents the Visual Story

When you contemplate sacred art, you not only open your heart to the work before you, but also to practicing openness to the beauty of God as He illuminates each moment of our days.

“Understood correctly, appreciating and understanding art is a profound form of prayer. It changes us. Or rather, it will change us if we allow the Holy Spirit to utter within us the total of yes of Jesus to the Father. “

Sister Wendy beckett, english hermit & art expert

This transformation to the Cathedral, necessitated by the icon, is creating a place of beauty and contemplation that conveys the joyous message of the Resurrection. The icon visually conveys a crucial element of the Christian story when reading the Cathedral from left to right.

On the right, Trinity’s patronal icon of Rublev’s interpretation of the Trinity tells the story of the “hospitality of Abraham,” and teaches us about the importance of kindness to strangers, love of neighbor. Afterall, we never know if we are interacting with God Himself. This icon also presents God the Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit as three angels — the natures of God.

Moving our eyes to the center of the Cathedral, we hear and feel the liturgical message with words and music. We observe the beauty of the liturgy, the organ, the flowers and see the presence of the Lord in His house in the presence candle hanging before the Aumbrie, over which the icon of the Christ in Glory is placed.

Soon, we’ll be able to look to the left and read the message of the hope and joy of the Resurrection as told by the icon of the Myrrh Bearing Women in which the three Marys walked to Christ’s tomb on the Sunday following crucifixion. Two of the three Marys in the icon are holding urns containing sacred oils of Myrrh and Frankincense to anoint Christ’s body in accordance with Jewish law. On their way to Christ’s tomb, a tremendous earthquake so violent it scared away the Roman soldiers guarding the tomb, caused the large stone to roll away from the cave’s entrance. Seated on the stone, was a radiant angel who told the women not to be afraid, that Christ was no longer there, and that He had risen! The icon shows the empty tomb with burial shroud and neatly folded headcloth. This icon of The Myrrh Bearing Women tells how Resurrection was revealed first to these three women, who then run in haste to share the good news with the apostles.

Visually, we move from Love of Neighbor and introduction of the Trinity, to the beauty of the liturgy in words and in music, ending with the message of hope through the Resurrection — completing the message of truth and goodness through beauty.

Please keep an eye open for the next update on the beautiful reverse side of this icon.

Blessing of the Icons

May 10, 2021 marked the conclusion of our Fall Iconography program with a beautiful blessing ceremony in the chapel at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral.

Our four beginning students wrote the Holy Mandylion (Holy Face of Christ) shown below; our eight intermediate/advanced students wrote St. Cecilia, patron saint of music and a total of thirteen icons (including one instructor icon) were blessed into service with blessings bestowed on the iconographer and the icon itself.

Nathan LeRud, Dean of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral presided (and was one of our beginning students) along with Father Jon Buffington, Master Iconographer of our Program. Similar to the multi-sensory liturgical practices of early Christians, this blessing involved the senses of sight, sound, and touch. The beautiful blessing of a visual liturgical art is spoken and includes touching the icons with the sign of the cross using Chrism oil and asperging them with Holy Water.

You can view the eight minute video on Trinity Iconography’s Facebook page, by clicking this highlighted link or clicking the photo below.

Our beginning students wrote the Holy Mandylion

Students & Their Completed Icons

If you are interested in learning the liturgical art of iconography, please visit our class page and know you are welcome to join. No previous art experience is required.

Icon for the Fall 2021/2022 Beginning Class – The Holy Mandylion by Ania Kocurek Williams
Icon for the Intermediate/Advanced Class 2021/2022 – St. Luke the Evangelist will be taught by Father Jon Buffington

The Heart Behind the Icon

St. Michael the Archangel
Written through the hand of Laurie Muench

Interview with Laurie Muench, one of our more advanced iconographers.

Tell us about yourself:

I am a member and parish administrator at St. Barnabas Episcopal church in McMinnville.  My husband is the church organist and I have two grown sons.  I’ve been an Episcopalian for five years – I started the job even before deciding to be baptized into the episcopal church.  Before that, I was a Mormon. 

Our parish has been supportive of my iconography studies, always giving me time off to attend the summer classes.  St. Barnabas offers a scholarship, the Homestreet Fund, to support women who are furthering their education.  They chose me as one of the scholarship recipients and sponsored one of my summer intensive sessions.  I am going to write and donate an icon to the parish – we’re still in the process of deciding which one. 

Before iconography, my artistic work was in graphics using an ipad.  It’s so different from painting because it’s easy to instantly delete mistakes on an ipad!  You can’t do that with paint.  The last time I painted was over 20 years ago, and my work back then wasn’t great!  I was familiar with working and mixing colors, but I didn’t know the name of the pigments as they’re used in iconography. 

Today when life is so stressful, iconography is how I relax.  I have my little painting corner set up in our dining room.  I sit there, while my husband practices the organ, and painting takes away the stress. 

What made you decide to try writing an icon?

I had always loved how icons looked, but in my Mormon community they were considered idolatry and were not encouraged.  After leaving the Mormon church, I became keenly interested in icons and very much wanted to write one.   I attended an art exhibit at Trinity Episcopal cathedral where the institute had a table displaying icons and information.  My husband saw it and pulled me over – right then I signed up for a class!  My first class was the icon of the child Jesus: Jesus Emmanuel.  That was in the summer of 2017. 

Since then, I’ve taken a class every season, including the advanced class this past August. 

My first experience with the institute was one of the week-long intensive sessions.  That was a great beginning because I was completely immersed – it’s good to learn the basics this way because you don’t forget over time, as can happen when classes are just once a week. 


What would you like people to know about the Trinity Iconography community and classes?  What advice can you give someone who is interested in iconography?

Anyone who wants to, should try it!  Some join without any art experience and they do great.  It’s such a learning experience and everybody’s icon ends up so beautiful.  They all turn out really well.  Everyone is so friendly and supportive.  I always tell new classmates how I’ve made many mistakes, it’s a class to learn, so mistakes are ok!  Fr Jon has so much knowledge and Ania has been a wonderful addition to the program.

It’s important for people to know that they don’t need a background in art!  The Iconography Institute trains anyone of a Christian denomination.  It’s open to everyone who wants to learn. 


How has writing an icon (or icons) changed you, what have you discovered?

During my first icon, there were points of frustration and tears because I didn’t think it would turn out well.  My image of the young Jesus looked terrible at one early point!  It was such a relief when He finally did turn out.  Still, sometimes things don’t turn out exactly the way you want.  I tend to fuss and make it worse.  I am a perfectionist and not a patient person and I’m learning to relax and let it go.
 
Learning to write icons has given me a higher appreciation for how much work is put into them and the spiritual process behind it.  It is a constant process of trying to put yourself into a spiritual place while you’re working on the icon.  I think it’s increased my own spirituality.  I’m a busy person but this is the very last thing I would ever give up.  I will always make room for my iconography classes.  I need that in my life!


Which icon has been your greatest challenge? 

My most difficult icon was the Archangel Michael posted here.  It is an intricate icon with beautiful wings, flowing robes, and I chose gold for the frame and background.  Gold is so difficult for me!  (We use 24 karat gold leaf.)  It got smeared and mushed.  The gold is terrible, I still need to redo it.  The truth is I still haven’t finished this icon.  All but the gold is finished. 


Which icon has been your favorite? 

Honestly, that same Archangel Michael!  It’s such a lovely icon and I need to finish it.  Another favorite is the Theotokos of the Sign.  Both are complicated and beautiful. 

This summer I wrote my “pandemic icon” on my own outside of class: The Lady of Vladimir.  It’s a tender icon.  Baby Jesus has His hand wrapped around Mary’s neck and He’s looking at her with adoration, such a loving look.  She looks at the viewer and her expression is both sad and compassionate.  It’s beautiful.  I loved doing that for the pandemic.  There are many people who pray to Mary for support during this time so it seemed like the perfect subject.

Icons at Maryhill Museum of Art (part 2)

(part 2 of 2 posts)

This is the final continuation of the first post on the icons at Maryhill Museum in Goldendale, Washington. These icons were gifted to Sam Hill by Princess Marie of Romania in 1926.

Mother of God, Joy of All Who Suffer

Mother of God, Joy of All Who Suffer
Mother of God, Joy of All Who Suffer, 19th Century
Egg Tempera on Wood Panel

The original icon of this type was in Moscow by the middle of the seventeenth century. In 1711, it was brought to St. Petersburg and the Tsarina Elizabeth Petrovna built an ornate church for it there. The image was popular throughout Russia during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and was used as a protection against all kinds of illness.

The Mother of God is shown here wearing a crown and holding a scepter in one hand and the crowned Christ Child in the other. A congregation of suffering humans is gathered below her.

Saints at the left:

  • Saints Zosima
  • Theodosia
  • Basil, Paul
  • Peter
  • Haralampos
  • Antipas

Saints at the right:

  • Nikita
  • George
  • Anna
  • Cosmas
  • Damian
  • Nicholas
  • John Chrysostom

The figures in the left border are: Saints Basil the Priest, Makarius, Demetrios and Theodore the Monk.

At the far right are: Saints Artremios, Anastasia, Basil and Mary of Egypt.

The Slavonic text below the Mother of God reads, “O all hymned Mother, bearer of the holiest of the holies Word, accept what we offer now, deliver us from every attack, and deliver from the coming torment all those who cry to you.

Quadripartite Icon with Mandylion

Quadripartite Icon with Mandylion
Quadripartite Icon with Mandylion, late 19th Century
Egg Tempera on Wood Panel

Upper left corner: The Mother of God, The Life-Giving Spring (or Well of Living Water).

Upper right corner: Is a scene reproducing an icon of the Mother of God of Unexpected Joy. It alludes to the story of a man who was praying to the icon as he contemplated committing a misdeed. Noticing wounds on the Mother and Child, he asked, “Who has done this?” The Virgin replied, “You and other sinners.” This conversation is shown coming from the mouths of the man and the Virgin.

The inscription below the icon provides the context – “A sinner was in the habit of praying daily to the most Holy Virgin, reciting the words of the archangel.”

At the lower right and left are two very popular Russian icons: The Fiery Mother of God and the Kazan Mother of God. Our Lady of Kazan is considered the protectress of all Russia and of the Tsarist house of the Romanovs. Miracles have been attributed to this icon since 1579, when the image was dug up by a young girl. It is also thought that the Kazan Mother of God (Kazan Madonna in the West) was first written by St. Luke the Apostle, the first iconographer.

The Mandylion (Icon Not Made by Human Hands) is at the center showing a cloth bearing a miraculous image of Christ’s face. We know this icon in the West by many different names, Veronica’s Veil, Christ the Physician, Christ the Healer, etc. The Mandylion is considered to the be first of all icons, made by the icon Himself, Christ.

Left Border: St. Theodore the Righteous, St. Peter the Apostle, St. John the Evangelist and Archangel Michael

Right Border: St. Mary of Egypt, St. Eudocia, St. Parskevi, St. Charalampos

Sign Mother of God

Mother of the Sign
Sign Mother of God, First Half of 19th Century
Egg Tempera on Wood, Glass Beads, and Glass Jewels

Beaded icons are common in the East, often embroidered with pearls and jewels. This is a form of an Oklad (Russian, meaning covered) or Riza (Russian, meaning robe), which are more typically silvered metal coverings with openings designed to reveal portions of the underlying painted icon. They are designed specifically for the icons they cover as a way to protect them.

This icon depicts the Mother of God during the Annunciation, as she responds to the Angel Gabriel (Luke 1:38): “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to they word.” The terms “Virgin of the Sign” and “Sign Mother of God” refer to the prophesy of Isaiah 7:14, “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” The image is also referred to as a “Platytera” (Greek, meaning wider or more spacious) which is why she is shown in the orans position (hands open to the sky). By containing the Creator of the Universe in her womb, Mary becomes Platytera ton ouranon (Greek, meaning “More spacious than the heavens”).

The practice of using rizas originated in Byzantine times. They were meant to honor and venerate icons and the Holy figures depicted in them. In churches and in private homes, candles and oil lamps burn near icons. Incense is also a frequent component of church services and personal prayer. Rizas help protect the painted portion of the icon, which can darken over time with this exposure.