Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Icon Retreat at St. Paul’s Cathedral, June 22 – 26, 2015

Overnight the Great Hall was transformed from meeting space to sacred place dedicated to the craft of Byzantine iconography. For five days, from morning to evening, 21 students set aside their jobs, their errands and their iPhones, and dedicated their time and attention to their chosen icons under the tutelage of iconographer Teresa Harrison.

Icon writing is a lesson in patience, perseverance, and prayer. Quite literally with icons, the medium is the message yes, but what every budding iconographer learns is that the message is also delivered through the process. It is not the finished product that is the gift, but the journey in creating it.

Worshipping with icons can be traced back to the 4th or 5th centuries. Writing icons is an age-old tradition with its roots in scripture, and St. Luke is historically attributed with writing the first icon (of Mary and Jesus). Writing rather than painting because each stroke of paint is meant to be a spiritual word, a layer of paint like a prayer, time for the layer to dry a time for silent meditation, and each repetition of this process a chapter, measuring out the scripture like beads on a rosary.

My icon was the center of my attention for the week. A fixed point around which the class rotated and metamorphosed from 21 individuals to a community of artists reaching out to one another to congratulate, console or commiserate every morning after we met for the Eucharist, led by the Reverend Charles Rines. During this ‘circle time’ we discussed our own spiritual transformations as the week progressed, or prayed for individual healing, or shared how the class provided context for our spiritual lives.

The typical day then continued with an approximately half-hour art instruction from Teresa. Those of us less experienced chose either the Good Shepherd or the Theotokos (literally, “mother of God” and the baby Jesus) to facilitate our instruction both amongst ourselves in small groups, and with Teresa. More experienced iconographers selected an icon of their choosing. It was wonderful to observe these talented people. While the very nature of icon writing is to represent a holy image faithful to color and pose prescribed by centuries of tradition, there are opportunities for artistic license that speak to the creativity of each artist.

Teresa has attended 10 years of retreats led by Iconographer Phillip Zimmerman and one by Russian iconographer Kzenia Pokrovsky and was then inspired to lead classes first for her husband the Reverend Edward Harrison’s parish at St. John's Cathedral, Jacksonville, FL and more recently Christ Episcopal Church in Coronado. She has taught throughout North and Central America for the past 13 years.

Her method of teaching makes the art form accessible to beginners: the gesso boards are prepared months in advance of the class by her carpenter brother, the medium is acrylic rather than the traditional (but more temperamental) egg tempera, and the gold leaf is supplied as commercially available thin sheets affixed to wax paper. Lest this seem sacrilege, those in the class experienced with both techniques affirmed that the modern methods do not compromise the final result.

Each day before lunch, Noonday Prayer was recited by Teresa, and then the group gathered for a meal prepared by Facilities Manager Bob Oslie. This time offered another opportunity for sharing and learning about each other. Seven of us from St. Paul’s, and then there was an orthodox Catholic priest, a Vietnam POW, an ovarian cancer survivor, teachers, a technical writer turned art collector, those with children struck with disease or dying too young…here we learned about the context in which everyone was experiencing the creative process and its relevance to our own struggles as we encounter everyday life.

For me personally there were several lessons. My own tendency to put off decisions that are difficult was something I encountered daily, despite the restrictive color palette of the Theotokos. There were still seemingly infinite choices to make regarding shading, wetness or dryness of the brush, color blending. It was easy to find convenient distractions, notwithstanding the code of relative silence imposed by Teresa. Even with the 40 hours of class time, I found it is possible to procrastinate some of these important decisions until the last day. Then you are faced with prioritizing. Then there is the issue of too much of a good thing, and not enough elsewhere. And when are you really done and ready to commit the whole thing to a protective polyurethane coat?

Physical limitations were another lesson. Some struggled with the issue of sitting for extended periods of time. Others like myself experienced dry eyes and the diopter limitations of my contact lenses. Shedding those, I was dealing with extreme myopia. In time, we all learned to compensate and in some cases join forces to pray for strength and healing.

On the fifth and final day, icons were transported by their owners to the chapel altar for the blessing. The Reverend Charles Rines gave a homily, performed the Eucharist and gave the final blessing. We learned that some icons would be gifts to friends who had requested them, or for family members. For those of us writing our first icons, they would be gifts to ourselves, reminders of a transformative journey.

In the Theotokos icon written by my hand, Mary gazes upon the infant Jesus, or maybe slightly past Him, pondering the miracle of life, or perhaps transcending time and space in understanding already His tragic end. The beauty and the mystery is that we don’t know, and we won’t know, until the icon is put to use in prayer.

  • Presented by the Cathedral Center for Performing and Visual Arts
  • Photos by Mike Roeder

-Julie McMinn

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