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.
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.
Inscribing the name of the icon is literally one of the most important steps in completing the process. Generally, the icon name or subject is written in the language of the people who will be using it.
But let’s say you would like to stay true to the genre and time period of the prototype and name your icon in Church Slavonic or Greek.
Below is a link to a lovely reference of common identifiers in iconography, translated to English and also written in Church Slavonic, Greek, listed with their respective centuries. See the two examples below of the name John:
Animal + Vegetable +Mineral = humble tools used in iconography. Among them, ochres, or raw earth, are the most beautiful, and simplest of pigments.
Early Futures – This amazing archive is an attempt to collect and catalog every ochre in the world, an idea that came to Heidi Gustafson as a calling, which is one of the reasons this is such a lovely story, as Iconography also comes to many of us as a calling.
Over 550 Samples
Heidi’s ever-growing archive has become a collaborative project with contributions from archaeologists, scientists, and creatives from around the world and includes over 550 samples of ochres. To see the collection of fabulous colors on her website, click here: Early Futures.
To read the article on Heidi’s work posted in The Colossal, click below:
Icons reflect creation redeemed, the ideal of man, eschatological man, pure without sin in contrast with man of the fallen world. Man is shown in Heaven as described in the Book of Revelation and also as reported during the Transfiguration. Here are some typical characteristics of the iconographic style:
Exaggerated Features: eyes, ears, nose are typically lengthened to show that a saint is one who contemplates divine mysteries, hears the word of God and follows it, smelling the fragrance of paradise.
Reduced Size of Expressive Body Parts: mouths and hands are smaller because a saint always listens and considers information with wisdom, before acting. Lips and gestures can be smaller and more refined because saints are full of divine power, so their words and deeds are very potent. They do not need to do or say much for a lot to happen. The emphasis is on saintly humility, without drama or self aggrandizement. (Fingers are the exception, however, as they are pictured as long and graceful.)
No Emotion – because a Holy person is calm, all knowing and doesn’t need to emote.
Saint is the source of light – icons show no shadow and no glint of reflected light in the eye of a Holy person, because they do not need created light. The saint is the source of light itself.
Position – full frontal or ¾ view. A Holy person is never shown in profile to ensure face-to-face interaction with the viewer.
Two Dimensional – because the icon represents another world without space and time, there is no need for naturalism of three dimensionality.
Two Dimensional Flatness helps the viewer to pass through the image in unity with the Holy person. Flatness denotes Heaven and the fullness of God, where there is no time and space.
Hierarchical Perspective – denotes spiritual importance – Christ is always the focal point, then Mary, all else is subordinate, which is why trees, rocks and mountains may depicted in icons as bowing to them.
Multiview Perspective – (AKA axonometric) allows for the front and back of buildings to be shown simultaneously because when we look at something of absolute purity, our knowledge does not need to be restricted by reality.
Sacred Geometry is used to order the icon for a well-balanced composition. The relationships follow Pythagorean ratios of 1:2, 2:3, 3:4.
Iconography in terms of symbols – A truly comprehensive resource for the iconography community, this secular website enables the viewer to learn how to identify symbols and saints in medieval art and read the legends behind the saints’ pictures. Everything is beautifully linked and has an extensive bibliography.
This site was prepared by Richard Stracke, assisted by Claire Stracke, for the Department of English and Foreign Languages at Augusta University. Dr. Stracke is Emeritus Professor of English in the Department, and Mrs. Stracke is a veteran of Davidson Fine Arts School and of several projects like this one.