The war in Ukraine leaves us searching for ways to help to make a modicum of difference; we realize individuals cannot possibly donate enough money, or necessary material goods to fill the monumental need. Thankfully, relief agencies are capable of providing meaningful material support. But as iconographers, we can offer spiritual support, prayers, and love through the icon of the Protectoress who can intercede on behalf of the faithful to God. We wish to offer spiritual support to Ukrainians through the gifts of the Holy Spirit by creating icons of the very strongest possible image, that of the Most Holy Mother of God and her protecting veil.
The prospect of re-creating this ancient image, relied upon for centuries and based on the Marian apparition that first appeared during war and siege of Constantinople, into a tiny pocket icon for those on the front lines, quickly blossomed into a community service project uniting iconographers and iconography supporters throughout the state. We began producing icons of the Theotokos of the Protecting Veil, on miniature, handmade, durable icon boards. Iconographers of the Trinity Iconography Institute began this project during Lent as a work of charity and hope to finish shortly after Easter.
The Theotokos of the Protecting Veil, also called the Protection of the Most Holy Mother of God, is the icon image that appeared in the air above congregants in the Church of the Blachernae at Constantinople in the 10th century, holding her veil above them as a sign of protection during times of war and siege.
This image is known as “The Protectress” and its origins date to the earliest-known Marian hymn/prayer, found written in Greek on a Coptic papyrus from Egypt. It is generally known by its first words in Latin translation, Sub Tuum Praesidium — “Under Your Protection.” Though it is fragmentary, the missing parts may be supplied to read:
Ὑπὸ τὴν σὴν εὐσπλαγχνίαν – ”Under your compassion καταφεύγομεν, Θεοτόκε – We flee for refuge, God-birther Τὰς ἡμῶν ἱκεσίας – Our petitions μὴ παρίδῃς ἐν περιστάσει – Do not disregard in affliction ἀλλ᾽ ἐκ κινδύνων λύτρωσαι ἡμᾶς – But rescue us from danger μόνη Ἁγνή, μόνη εὐλογημένη – Only Pure, only Blessed.” *
“We flee under your compassion for refuge, Birthgiver of God (Theotokos); do not despise our prayers when troubles surround us, but deliver us from danger, only pure one, only blessed one.”
Our Holy Mother is not approached as an intercessor or intermediary, rather directly for her powers of deliverance. The icon “Protect us with the Shelter of Your Wings”, is an icon in the same vein as the one we chose, and is believed to have entered Russia via Ukrainian engravings in the latter part of the 1600s. For these reasons, we selected the image of the Our Holy Mother to provide comfort, protection, and deliverance to the people of Ukraine during this time of war.
Each icon is handmade by a group of iconographers who have donated their time and materials on behalf of those in Ukraine. We created the icons in the ancient tradition, gessoing the tiny boards, and painting them with egg tempera and natural pigments of ground earth and minerals. The blessing, “God Save You” is written in Ukrainian on the back of each board, translated by a Ukrainian language expert for our project. The boards are varnished with a very durable marine finish, to help them survive in a rough pocket; each board has a tiny key chain affixed to help unite it with other valuables. The icons will be blessed before they leave the US.
*Prayer found on “Icons and their interpretation” blog, Protection Images East and West
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.
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
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.”
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.
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!
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 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.
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.
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.
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.