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.