Writing an Icon for the First Time: The Mother of God of Compassion

June 28, 2009

Writing an Icon for the First Time: The Mother of God of Compassion

During the week June 22-26, 2009, Teresa Harrison (http://www.teresaharrison.com/) offered the privilege of learning to write an icon under her tutelage at Christ Episcopal Church, Coronado, CA (www.christchurchcoronado.org) .

Having been praying for years for God to make such a class possible, you can imagine with what joy I received the news. This class has been simultaneously one of the most exhausting and most blessed experiences of my life. I loved it so much that I cannot wait to take another class, even as I struggle to recover.

Writing an icon is not about the paint or the artist, except as God uses both to bring the icon into being. The iconographer is merely a vehicle for God’s grace. God became incarnate and provided us with a living image of Himself, an image humans could see, touch, smell, hear and speak to. Is it possible to be any closer to God than we are when allowing Him to flow through us to bring His Holy Word into being? Perhaps it is a little bit like being a God-bearer one’s self, making Him known to the world.

We call the process “writing” and not painting because an icon is the written Word of God. The brush is used as it is in calligraphy and not as in painting. We use the brush as a pen to write.

Teresa presented the class as five day silent retreat, beginning with Eucharist at 8:30 AM, offered with us by her husband and rector of Christ Episcopal Church, Father Edward Harrison. Writing an icon requires silence as we pray to God for guidance, honoring the original intention of the original icon. It is part of icon lore that the first iconographer was St. Luke, author of the eponymously named Gospel and Acts. This is why St. Luke is often pictured with a paint brush. It is said that the very first icon, Mary and Holy Child, ever written was by Luke. It may even be that the icon we worked on, Mother of God of Tenderness, is a copy of that very first icon.

Every icon is a copy. The writer does no individual work but sees herself as an instrument in the service of a long tradition. The act of writing an icon is meditation/prayer. The copy corresponds in full to the original and is not less “worthy”. It represents the presence of the depicted person(s). So an icon of Christ makes Christ present in the room where the icon is, not only in remembrance, but in actuality.

Each day we spent some time checking in with each other preceded a beautiful opening prayer offered by one of the attendees. For the most part we worked in silence, usually with Gregorian chant or contemplative music in the background to keep us grounded in silence. Occasionally we would get up to whisper a question to Teresa and receive her whispered response. We started our work with the Sign of the Cross and the Prayer Before Working on an Icon:

“O divine Lord of all that exists, Thou hast illumined the Apostle and Evangelist Luke with Thy Holy Spirit, thereby enabling him to present thy most Holy Mother, the One who held Thee in her arms and said: “The Grace of Him Who has been born of me is spread throughout the world. Enlighten and direct my soul, my heart and spirit. Guide the hands of thine unworthy servant so that I may worthily and perfectly portray Thine ikon, that of thy Mother, and all the Saints, for the glory, joy and adornment of Thy Holy Church. Forgive my sins and the sins of those who will venerate these ikons and who kneeling devoutly before them, give homage to those they represent. Protect them from all evil and instruct them with good counsel. This I ask through the intercession of thy most Holy Mother, the Apostle Luke, and all the Saints. Amen”

It is humbling to stop and remember that, just as in the hymn “For All the Saints”, the members of the class were not only asking for the intercessions of those who have been canonized but also by all who are part of the Body of Christ, living or in Heaven. This means that we also prayed for each other through this prayer.

It had been my intention to make a photographic record of the process of my icon. On the very first day though, I was so glad finally to be at an icon workshop, I forgot to photograph the blank board covered in gesso, (quite a process in and of itself, http://www.teresaharrison.com/IconBoards.pdf), the black and white outline on my board or the end of the first day’s work when most of the outline had been colored in.

The first day could be compared to coloring in a coloring book as it was important to stay within the lines, building layers of paint gradually to build up an opaque base upon which to write the details that make the icon come alive.

This first layer is intentionally flat, preferably with no visible individual brush strokes. Such flatness is intentional and desirable. Teresa told us that the subject of the icon is not an endpoint, but a window opening the way to become closer to the subject of the icon and ultimately to God.

When I studied painting in college, we were taught to be painterly, to leave something of ourselves in the brushstrokes. It is just the opposite in writing an icon. There should be nothing of the hand that wrote it in the finished piece. I had to fight against what I thought I knew about painting and what I might wish to communicate about myself and be subject to God in the work.

Perhaps it is best to say now rather than later that the image being written is not itself the object of worship. It serves as a vehicle to transport to God the awareness of the one using the icon. The subject draws the worshiper into the spiritual reality which the image merely represents. Teresa called icons “visual incense.”

Gradually that first day, I sank into the work, unaware of time or those around me except when I had to find a tube of paint, clean my palette and wash my brushes. This was not very often since I could not bear to leave my work.

Teresa told us that iconographers have always painted the dark parts first, adding the lighter shades. “The light pierces the darkness,” it says in John’s Gospel. Most of the time, I prayed the Jesus Prayer and I found the rhythm of breathing conducive to the work. It also helped to block out sounds.

At the end of the first day, I gazed at my wood covered with large areas of solid color. We had painted all the skin with “sankir”, the initial underpaint tone, which cover the faces and other parts of the body; leaving the sankir exposed to create the shadow areas.

Gotta tell you my first reaction to sankir was, to paraphrase Pogo, “This looks like spuk.” The closest description I can some to sankir is a very dark olive green, one of my least favorite colors and here I was swiping it all over the faces of Our Lady and Jesus. I really felt they deserved better. Teresa’s response to my doubts? “Have faith,” she reassured me. “Just have faith.”

As I gazed at my blobs of color, I doubted the optimism, “Of course, I can do this,” with which I started the class. How could I take these colors, most of which I did not like because they are the warm earth tones and I really really really like the cool, jewel tones. But the warm earth tones are the traditional colors used and no wonder as the original pigment was rock ground up into egg yolk. As I experienced my doubts I also remembered something Teresa stressed: it is not I who wields the brush but God. I was as much a tool as were the paints, brushes, surface and palette before me.

Once I had my first look at what had happened so far, I felt Mary and Her Son with me. How does one describe this? They were there, as simple as that. No, I couldn’t see them, but some part of me apprehended their presence in that place within which is too deep for words but is just pulsatingly aware.


The second day we worked on the robes and Mary’s veil. Having started with the dark colors, we gradually used lighter and lighter shades to add dimension to the clothing, to paint the draping folds, to make it look like actual garments. The light pierced the dark and behold we had stuff that was recognizable as clothing.

The third day was the day to do the faces and hands. That’s intimidating: to turn blobs of spuk into recognizably human faces. Teresa demonstrated how a very few strokes of paint turned blobs of hideous color into beautiful faces. We had started with the dark olive nastiness and the light really did pierce that darkness to become something lovely. I can’t claim to have done the face myself. I did the best I could and one by one all of us turned to Teresa to fix the faces on the boards.

As I worked on Mary’s face, I thought of something I often think about: that she was the one woman in all the world, in all of history to say “yes” to God, to take the risk. I have often wondered to how many other virgins God had offered to be the earthly mother of the Incarnate Lord and why it is that Mary, of all of them, was the one to offer herself back.

Something disturbed me about the smallness of their lips but then I realized they were compressed into a pucker. The image catches them just before they exchange sweet kisses. I felt like an intruder.

The fourth day was gold leaf. Oh my. Gold leaf. Prized by Christian artists for millennia to convey holiness, other worldliness, sacredness and I was going to get to mess around with it. This is exactly what I did. I had always imagined that applying gold leaf was easy. Prepare the surface, lay the sheet of gold over it, lift the sheet and behold the gold only where it was wanted. No such thing. The whole sheet would come off and I would have to take the brush reserved solely for the use of gold, give it some static electricity by rubbing it in my hair and sweep it over the surface to retrieve all of the extra gold so that it could be placed in the wood box where all the gold scraps are reserved so that they can be used in other places, such as Jesus’ clothes. Gold leaf is too expensive to waste a smidge.

The last day was for finishing up the background, the details around the halos. Because I had not wanted to get stuck in rush hour traffic and be late, I was usually thirty minutes early. As a result, my work was finished first and I could sit with the icon and pray with it. Exhausted yet exhilarated, I allowed the icon to seep within me until it seemed for an all too brief moment that Jesus and Our Lady were actually present in the room with me.

Teresa plans to offer other workshops and I cannot wait.

Further Reading:





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