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.
God shapes the universe with the aid of a compass. Within the perfect circle already created are the spherical sun and moon and the unformed matter that will become the earth once God applies the same geometric principles to it.
Thomas Aquinas said: “God, Who is the first principle of all things, may be compared to things created as the architect is to things designed (ut artifex ad artificiata).”
For most medieval scholars, science, and particularly geometry and astronomy were linked to the divine because God created the universe after geometric and harmonic principles. To seek these principles was to seek and worship God.
This illumination of TheDivine Architect was of particular interest to me, since the Iconography Institute is offering a class in Geometry for Iconographers, as the foundation of icons. As I delved deeper into learning about the image itself, I discovered that “The Divine Architect” was not an icon, rather an illumination from a Bible Moralisée, one of only seven completely illuminated bibles produced in the first three decades of the 13th century. This illuminated manuscript is now in the Vienna National Library. The others have been mostly parsed out and can be found in different parts of the world.
As I began to learn more about this image, I made a new discovery about the genre of Bible Moralisée, which is an illustrated bible consisting of over 1000 exquisitely crafted medallions that interpret the bible pictorially, accompanied by “moral” interpretation of the Bible, but in context of the times. This provides a fascinating insight into the medieval 13th century world, as the moral interpretations make comparisons to contemporary life that a 13th century reader would understand, highlighting many of the ideological, political and economic dilemmas of the time.
There are only seven extant illuminated Bibles Moralisée that were created for French royalty, because only royalty could afford to commission such extensive, expensive and exquisite works containing thousands of gilded illuminations. Each page pairs medallions from the Old Testament with the New Testament. At the time, pictures were intended to teach lessons in morality and these bibles were specifically written to teach morality to the French King, hence the name of this genre. “Both the depiction and text must be read because the images hold an interpretation of the world or moment in history, and details within the images hold symbolic meaning.” *
This Bibles Moralisée did not contain every Bible passage, just the most important ones; even so, it contained 5000 illustrations.
“The pictures are arranged in two parallel columns on each page, each column having four medallions with pictures. Parallel to the pictures and alternating with them are two other narrower columns, with four legends each, one legend to each picture; the legends consisting alternatively of Biblical texts and moral or allegorical applications; whilst the pictures represent the subjects of the Biblical texts or of the applications of them. The illustrations are executed with the greatest skill. The painting is said to be one of the best specimens of thirteenth-century work in all probability prepared for someone in the highest rank of life.”
According to Wikipedia, “Of the seven Bibles moralisées only one, manuscript Français 167 in the Bibliothèque nationale de France at Paris, has survived in its complete form. Français 167 can be traced almost without a break from its creation in Paris for King John II of France in 1349-52 up until now. The sixth of the Bibles moralisées is known now as MS Additional 18719 and is the least known of the seven, and is the work of well known late thirteenth-century English artist. Français 166 is the last of the seven fully illustrated Bibles moralisées.”
It was a fascinating journey to learn about this genre that began with the image of Christ the Divine Architect, which is a subject of Orthodox Icons.
Some interesting versions are shown below.
*To learn more about Bibles Moralisée, check out: Bible Moralisée, Codex Vindobonensis 2554, Vienna, Oesterreichische Nationalbibliothek, by Harvey Miller Publishers (1995)
We are going to use this quiet time to study and expand our knowledge of icons. Sometimes, this intellectual growth process takes second position to the busyness of the day to day, but now there is time.
See this link to an analysis of Theotokos of the Unburnt Bush, by Professor Dennis J. Sardella, docent at the Museum of Russian Icons: An Interpretation.
I’ve summarized of some of the features that make this a very unique icon:
Why is it called the “Unburnt Bush”?
There are a couple of reasons for this term: the first is that it represents the Virgin Mary and the second is that it recalls the time when God revealed Himself to Moses.
Virgin Mary: The Unburnt Bush appeared to be consumed by fire, and yet remained untouched or unburned by the fire, analogous to the belief that the Virgin Mary remained pure before, during and after the birth of Christ.
Conversation with Moses: In the Old Testament, God reveals himself to Moses in the “burning bush” which also remained unburned by the fire. “The early church fathers believed that the burning bush was not a physical phenomenon in which the bush, though on fire, was somehow miraculously protected from the destructive effects of the flame, bur rather that what Moses saw as fire was the uncreated energy of God (who according to Saint John, is light), and that God used the bush as a vehicle or channel through which to reveal Himself to Moses.” (From Professor Sardella)
Moses was standing on holy land. And the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed. And Moses said, I will now turn aside, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt. And when the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called unto him out of the midst of the bush, and said, Moses, Moses. And he said, Here am I. (Exodus 3: 2‒4).
History of the Icon
Traditional Use of the Icon: this icon was used traditionally in Russia as a talisman against fire. Most of the homes in this time were built of wood, and the threat of fire was very real and constant. Legend has it that a woman stood outside her wooden home holding the Theotokos of the Unburnt Bush icon; that night, all the homes in her village were destroyed by fire all around her home, which remained untouched by the flames.
“The Mother of God rescued people from fire many times, which is referenced in the troparion of this icon: “He hath glorified Her holy icon with many miracles / and gave it to the faithful to heal their illnesses / and to protect them from outbreaks of fire.”– From St. Elisabeth Convent
Beyond this legend is the icon’s historic origin that dates back to the Monastery of Saint Catherine in the Sinai Desert, one of the oldest monasteries in the world. It is believed that Saint Catherine’s was built on the rock where God appeared to Moses and where he saw the mysterious burning bush (although this is not universally agreed upon). Saint Helen, Constantine’s mother, had a small church at Saint Catherine’s built and enclosed by walls to protect hermits in about the year 330. Later in the 5th century, Justinian built the church and the monastery structure that is known today as Saint Catherine’s…a repository of some of the world’s oldest icons.
The Unburnt Bush Icon (Neopalimaya Kupina) supposedly reached Russia when an ancient copy was brought to Kievan Rus by the Palestinian monks of the Sinai in 1390, however, it is believed that this particular icon began being painted in the first century. Originally, the Theotokos was placed inside the burning bush. Over time, the icon became more complex.
Symbolism of the Unburnt Bush
The “unburnt bush” was the vehicle by which God’s revelation (fire) came into the world without compromising the integrity of the bush, as the Virgin Mary was the vehicle by which God’s revelation (Jesus) came into the world without compromising the integrity of her virginity.
To the Orthodox, the miracle of the Unburnt Bush is understood in the theology and hymnography of the Church as a prefiguring of the virgin birth of Christ. Other commentators identify the Unburnt Bush with the early Christians who suffered persecution at the hands of the pagan authorities but were never defeated.
Take these lines from the Akathist Hymn*:
The great mystery of your childbirth did Moses perceive within the burning bush. The youth vividly prefigured this, standing in the midst of fire and remaining unconsumed, O undefiled and holy Virgin. We praise you therefore in hymns to the ages (Ode Eight, The Eirmos).
* The Akathist Hymn and Small Compline are two services which are sung on the first five Fridays during Great Lent.
The same idea is present in Coptic hymns, for example:
The Burning Bush seen by Moses
The prophet in the wilderness
The fire inside, it was aflame
But never consumed or injured it
The same with the Theotokos Mary
Carried the fire of divinity
Nine months in her holy body
Without blemishing her virginity
There are MANY versions of this icon and if you visit the Museum of Russian Icons, you can see at least six that span from 1700 to 1890. This particular version of this genre dates to 1880 and is by far, the most serene, and visually pleasing of them for several reasons: peacefulness and harmony.
Feeling of Peacefulness & Harmony
What creates that feeling for peacefulness and harmony? Experts say it has everything to do with symmetry between the many figures, elegance in style, harmonic placement (likely due to geometry) and the icon writer’s choice of color. Imagine, there are 21 figures in this icon and yet there is no sense of crowding, or cluttering, or confusion, as what you often see in many of the others in this genre. The colors are calm as is the relationship between figures, which makes this a very peaceful, harmonically designed icon, ideally suited for prayer.
Unusual Feature: The Mandorla
The Mandorla is considered the opening to Heaven and is typically reserved for Christ in Majesty (Pantocrator) icons. This Mandorla is both the opening to Heaven and contains the symbolic eight pointed cross, the number eight representing eternity. The significance of the numerology of eight is also connected with the idea of new creation, or rebirth – which is one reason why originally baptismal fonts were octagonal.
A Mandorla is formed by two concentric circles that create a band filled with angels, as Isaiah reported in his vision, surrounding God’s throne. The angels could be seraphim, the highest order of angels who sing the trisagon, and who are bright red, as derived from the Hebrew word meaning “firey ones” or “burning ones.” There is some question about this because the number of wings on these angels is not six, which is how they are described in the Bible and how they are traditionally depicted iconographically.
The Eight Pointed Star
The eight pointed star is intended to denote the presence of the Ancient of Days and is formed by the superimposition of a rhombus over a rhombus that is turned 90 degrees. The red rhombus symbolizes the earth, while the green or blue one symbolizes the Heaven. Red also means fire, while green points at the bush, which is burning yet not consumed by fire. Red can be considered the flames from Heaven and also depicts the gospels as another source of God’s self-revelation, according to St. Irenaeus. Green or blue can both symbolize “creation” as opposed to the divine, so the twin use of the blue to represent the bush and the Heavens is appropriate.
In the corner of this icon we see the tetramorph of the four evangelists, although in this icon their representations are different from traditional depiction:
Depicted in this icon
Matthew = man
Mark = Eagle
Luke = Ox
John = Lion
Matthew – Man holding a book
Luke = Ox
Mark = Lion
John = Eagle
Inside the clouds are the angels and archangels. There are only three archangels listed in scripture: Michael, Gabriel, Raphael. According to the Orthodox tradition and noncanonical sources, there are nine, although this icon only shows eight.
Michael – “Who is like unto God?” – warrior angel symbolizes the power to overcome the enemies of God.
Gabriel – “The Strength of God” carries a branch to symbolize the annunciation.
Raphael – “The Healing of God” holds a small pot or glass vessel to hold myrrh, representing God’s annointing.
The following angels are from the Apocryphal Book of Enoch:
Jehudiel – “The Praise of God” holds a crown and three thronged whip.
Raquel – “The Friend of God” who judges fallen angels.
Selaphiel – “The Prayer of God” holds a navicula (censer in the shape of a boat).
Uriel – “The Light or Fire of God” who carries a fiery sword.
Because there are seven and not nine angels pictured, it is possible that these are simply generic angels. Nevertheless, the Theotokos’ central position surrounded by angels highlights her central position in the course of salvation.
Edges of the Icon
Four scenes from the Old Testament are on the edges of this icon. The author of the paper references Saint Augustine’s comment that, “the Old Testament is the New Testament concealed and that the New Testament is the Old Testament revealed,” as a way to explain the mirror image symmetry of Old vs. New Testament.
Top Left Corner: Moses and the Burning Bush
More specifically, the “unburnt” bush. Early Christian fathers believed that the burning was not an actual occurrence, it was simply a figurative way to describe the uncreated energy of God.
Top Right Corner: Isaiah’s Vision of the Lord & His Call
This is the scene in which Isaiah is cleansed by the touch of fire of God on his lips.
Bottom Left Corner: The Vision of the Prophet Ezekiel
This is Ezekiel’s vision of the gate being closed, which is a prefiguration of the concept of Mary’s perfection.
Bottom Right Corner: Jacob’s Dream
This is the dream in which Jacob envisions the ladder to Heaven, which is again a prefiguration of Mary, who is the bridge or ladder by which Jesus descended to earth.
Central Image of the Icon
In the center, Mary is holding Jacob’s ladder, reflecting the Orthodox belief that she was the “ladder” by which one ascended to God, or by which Jesus descended to humanity. The burning bush that called out to Moses was among the most mysterious of God’s manifestations in the Old Testament. This icon reminds us that we can enter into this same mystery through Mary.
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:
Christmas, Epiphany and the New Year are three wonderful ways to offer us hope and opportunity to approach life with a fresh, new outlook. Beginning January 8, 2020, Trinity will offer four Wednesday evening “Praying with Icons” classes taught by our Master Iconographer, Father Jon Buffington.
Learn about icons and how to use them as a liturgical aid for prayer and meditation on Wednesday nights.
December 17 is dedicated to the O Sapientia, O Antiphon as part of Advent. In the first centuries, the Church had a custom of praying seven great prayers calling afresh on Christ to come, calling him by the mysterious titles He has in Isaiah, calling to Him; O Wisdom. O Root! O Key O Light! come to us! This is the first of them – O Sapientia. “The Great Os”, on which the Magnificat antiphons used at vespers on the last seven days of Advent are based, praise the coming child.
In this icon, we see Christ as the Messenger of Great Counsel/Wisdom — one of two times in which he is He is shown with wings. His face is red because He is filled with the fire of the Holy Spirit.
This icon praises the wisdom of God, through which creation came into existence, and which is found, personified, in Jesus. It is unusual to find a depiction of it, but the title is one that is often ascribed to Jesus. When the earliest Christians were searching back through scripture for references to Jesus, the figure of Wisdom in Proverbs 8 and in the Wisdom of Solomon 7 resonated.
In the icon, the figure of Jesus stands just above Wisdom, claiming and affirming her as an insight into His own character. Mary and St. John the Baptist stand either side of Wisdom, and also attest to her as the likeness of Jesus, with all the authority of the mother and the forerunner.
Wisdom sits on the seven pillars on which the universe is founded; she is dressed in vivid colors, making herself available to us, full of energy and passion. There is nothing insipid about Wisdom: she is forceful and attractive.
The attention and praise that are given to her are channeled upwards to the figure of Christ, and from Him still farther up to the Father’s throne, where the angels echo earth’s praise.
There is no embarrassment at all about the identification of the feminine Wisdom with Jesus. St. Augustine talks about the “breasts of the Father” from which we are fed; Julian of Norwich describes Jesus as a mother pelican, tearing her own breast to feed her children; Jesus describes Himself as a mother hen; Hosea pictures God as a mother helping her infant with its first toddling, unsteady steps.
The O Sapientia
LATIN: O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodidisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviter disponensque omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.
ENGLISH: O Wisdom, who came from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from end to end and ordering all things mightily and sweetly: come, and teach us the way of prudence.
Another Sophia, The Wisdom of God
At the center of the composition is a representation of Sophia, Wisdom of God, as a crowned Angel with a face of fire and wings. Sophia is surrounded by an aura of Divine Glory and sits on a throne supported by seven pillars. Under the feet of Sophia there is a stone, as a symbol of all Creation being subdued to the Word of God. The right hand is depicted in an act of blessing, while the left one holds a scepter.
To the sides of Sophia, in typical Deesis composition, stand the Mother of God and St. John the Baptist. The Mother of God holds the text ‘My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices…’, while St. John’s text says ‘This is the Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world…’. Both the Mother of God and St. John the Baptist are represented with wings and they are wearing crowns.
Behind them follow St. John the Evangelist (‘No one has seen God except His only begotten Son…’) and St. John Chrysostomos. Bringing these two saints together emphasizes the same idea of an ongoing Revelation. The Evangelist and the composer of the Divine Liturgy are depicted in identical manner, with no difference of glory. This is a strong visual statement about Tradition understood as a path of ongoing Revelation as opposed to tradition reduced merely to a museum of ancient beliefs.
Higher still, the Lord Sabaoth sits on a throne of Cherubim and is surrounded by a choir of Seraphim. The text in His left hand has the ancient call: ‘Listen to me, my people…’. Around the glory of the Lord Sabaoth there are the typical symbolic representations of the four Evangelists (the angel, the lion, the bull and the eagle), the angelic hosts, the sun and the moon.
The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”
Mary Oliver (September 10, 1935 – January 17, 2019)
The holidays are an especially busy time of year that can leave us feeling breathless and bereft of creativity. This article came to me by way of a dear iconographer just at the moment in time when our instructors are discussing ways to keep peacefulness, interior calm, and concentration in the classroom, in a season when the world outside bustles.
You are in charge of your creativity, your power and your time.
So this week, I am linking to an article intended to inspire the artist within to to avoid self distraction at all cost — a quest to find creativity in solitude and moving toward the source.
For me, the takeaway message was that we have the power to control the degree to which we allow ourselves to be distracted. We choose whether or not to give priority to errands, chores and the “busy-ness” of life. We are also in charge of our inner voice and whether or not we allow it to be a distraction.
Mary Oliver wrote that creative work requires solitude, concentration without interruptions, including those interior behaviors and voices who can be the most difficult; they are negative self talk, criticism, doubt, to do list reminders, and behaviors that interfere with mental, emotional, and spiritual privacy.
Over 200 years ago, Eugene Delacroix lamented the necessary torment of avoiding social distractions in creative work — long before social media & screen time.
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:
Trinity has a beautiful tradition of displaying icons in the Labyrinth at the beginning of Advent. You do not need to be a member of this church or part of the Iconography program to attend. Everyone is welcome!
There will be a short program at 6pm, followed by an open walk of the labyrinth.
ICONOGRAPHERS: If you wish to display your icon(s) during the Icon Labyrinth Walk, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. Set up begins at 4pm on Monday, December 2; icons will be available for pick up after 8pm.