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