On most Saturdays, I spend noon until two with several other women writing icons. No, not painting, although it looks like that is what we're doing. It's writing, much as medieval monks who transcribed copies of the Bible wrote those beautifully illuminated Scriptures.
Our teacher is Russian. She is a noted writer of icons and restorer of them, whose work is in churches here in the Washington area as well as in Russia. She is very tall and very thin and smells of cigarettes. We love her and fear her a bit.
We say a prayer to St. Luke, patron saint of iconographers, before we work.
The work is an act of meditation, not of creativity. It's more like paint-by-numbers for spiritual folk. We choose an icon we want to copy (those monks again), trace the basic bones of the picture, shade the back of our tracing with the side of a pencil, and scribe over the lines to tranfer it onto a gesso-prepared board. We paint black lines over our paler transfer lines. We paint shadows, using a dilute version of the black paint. The paint, by the way, is gouache, thinned with an egg mixture (equal parts raw egg yolk, distilled water, and red wine vinegar).
We gild the halos, using varnish and 24-carat gold leaf.
We begin to paint, layer on layer, going from the dark, flat, base layers of color through more and more translucent, lighter colors. The picture goes from a two-dimensional cartoon to an extraordinary portrait with dimension and depth and richness. We add touches of white (knuckles, the bulge of a forehead, finger- and toenails). We write the name of the icon in Russian or Greek as the original had (Maria, or Christos, or Paulos, or whatever) rather than its title (Virgin of Hodegetria, or the Rublev Trinity, for example).
Everything in the form has a meaning. The Virgin, in the icon I just finished, elegantly gestures to the infant Jesus. The Virgin of Hodegetria, she who points the way, is pointing to the infant, who looks slightly perturbed. Foreheads have three bumps. Feet have beautful, delicate sandals. All form has meaning. I may not understand all the meaning, but its subtext informs the icon.
I am still clumsy in the work, having just finished my first icon. Irena corrects much of what I do, making it look better, not because she wants me to look good, but because it is a prayer, or a means to prayer, and she wants to help me perfect it. A visual spiritual director of sorts. She sits next to me ("No, no...what you doing? Stop! Stop!) taking the brush - red sable 00 - from me, and with a steady, sure hand, fixes my mistakes ("See form? Once again, follow form.") She is impatient with those she has to correct over and over. She is infinitely patient with the little 6 year old girl one of the women has adopted from Russia, who speaks a blend of Russian and English, and is heartbreakingly sweet as she plays and we paint.
Yesterday, Irena returned my first icon, the Virgin of Hodegetria, having done some final touch-ups and varnished it. It is beautiful, but I find I don't feel pride at my accomplishment. I feel grateful, as for the opportunity for prayer. I began it in January. Icons don't go quickly. My friends Mimi and Karen are doing copies of the Moscow School Christ Pantokrator, a challenge, since the original is in a different medium (encaustic, which uses wax) rather than our familiar gouache egg tempera. There are almost a year in to the large icons, and are close to being finished.
I am already deeply engrossed in my next icon, John baptizing Jesus. John looks appropriately wild, with dreadlocks in his hair and beard. Jesus stands in the rushing water, perched on books stacked cruciform, with little fish and sea snakes swimming around him, and four angels looking on from the right. Doing the lines for transfer has taken me two full two-hour sessions ("No, no...just bones of form, not every line.") It's slow going, because the icon is so very detailed, and the forms are small.
The drawing of this new one has gone better than the last one. I realized as I did more painting where my errors in making the transfer copy were - things didn't line up properly, the drape of fabric was wrong, the infant's fingers were awkward. I'm starting to understand the underlying rules of form. Now I am surer of the lines, how a form is always complete, not stopped midway across a figure. I will shade and transfer the picture to the board next Saturday, I hope. We may get the gilding done (very exciting) as well.
This act of meditation, this act of prayer, sitting in a church basement every Saturday with eight women who range in age from 35 to 85, has been a gift. We sit, we gossip gently, we talk theology, and we sigh. Sighing is an essential part of iconography, because we have to concentrate so hard sometimes and we're never completely happy with what we've done - it's hard to see the finished product when there are so many steps to get there. Sighing is the davenning of the iconographer - a physical adjunct or enhancement to the prayer itself.
Some elements of the Reformation spoke to the avoidance of worship of physical forms of the divine - a response to the beautiful but perhaps overblown art and statuary of the Catholic Church. At first, this icon work seemed too focused on the thing, and I was troubled by it. But more and more, I see it as the ancient Church did. We pray through the icon, not to it. It is a means to conversation with God, like walking a labyrinth. And the act of writing one is a means as well.