By MICHELLE SCHMIDT
Creating an icon is a union of art, theology and prayer. While the image develops in predictable ways, the soul is the canvas where the creative work happens. The visual result is valued not primarily for its creative process or aesthetic quality, but for its ability to facilitate connection with God. Iconography — “writing” icons — is really, then, a form of prayer.
“Icons are a communion between heaven and Earth, material and immaterial, divine and human,” explained the Rev. Damian Higgins, a priest-monk and iconographer at the Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Redwood, Calif.
An Ancient Art Trend
Iconography goes back centuries, almost millennia. But there’s a growing interest in the practice nationwide, said Higgins, who recently led a five-day iconography retreat at St. Gertrude’s Monastery in Cottonwood. Higgins has been creating icons for 24 years and teaching the art for 15.
The retreat drew participants from the region and as far away as Boise and even Texas. As you might expect, most had a Catholic background, but some were Protestant and others didn’t even consider themselves religious. Nearly twice as many people wanted to attend the retreat as there was space available, which was also the case at a retreat Higgins led in South Carolina the following week.
Higgins had no explanation for the trend, though he’s observed a recent broader return to many traditional Christian practices by both Catholics and Protestants.
Teaching Traditional Processes
People come to the retreats for different reasons, but there are two main ones. Some are there to learn an artistic process, while others are there for the spiritual element — some want both.
Egg tempera is an ancient painting technique that Higgins uses for his icons. He mixed the egg yolk, water, vinegar and natural pigments in the nearby kitchen and set it out for use. Using natural materials not only controls toxicity, but Higgins feels the natural materials integrate on the canvas — in this case, a treated poplar board — better than synthetic materials.
Higgins does minimal teaching; most of the work is self-directed. Many at the retreats have little to no artistic experience, so Higgins assists people one-on-one. As he does, clusters form around him to watch and learn from his guidance.
The Canvas of the Soul
Everyone at the retreats participate in the artistic process. But for many, there is an unseen process — a spiritual one — also at work.
Take Diane Halpin, who came to the iconography retreat from Boise. It was the first time she had left home in three and a half years, since her husband suffered a traumatic brain injury that left him in need of constant care.
She’s not an artist, her background is in science and business. The half-finished canvas in front of her was her first painting. She compared the process to learning a foreign language.
But the challenge was more than just learning to paint. Silence, aloneness, mistakes and insecurity are part of the process and facing them hasn’t been easy. But easy is not where she’s been and it’s not what she’s after. What she wants, she said, is transformation.
“It’s more about my soul,” Halpin said. “It’s about my ability to let go and not perform. I’m learning I can make mistakes.”
And underneath the honesty and difficulty radiates a joy and contentment.
“We’re fulfilled in moving toward the divine,” she said. And for her, this artistic prayer process has been an opportunity to do so.
Future iconography retreats with Higgins at St. Gertrude’s are scheduled for Aug. 10-15 and in 2015 on Feb. 8-13. Registration and additional information are available at www.spirit-center.org.
Schmidt can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (208) 305-4578.
The basic characteristics and theology of icons, according to the Rev. Damian Higgins.
Subject matter: The subject matter is always religious, usually depicting Jesus, Mary, saints or angels.
Light: Because the person depicted is in heaven, the origin of light and life, light always originates from the people themselves, indicated by the halo that encircles the head.
Perspective: Images often employ a reverse perspective where the vanishing point is at the point of viewing, opening wide toward the distance. The icon becomes a window into heaven, where all things begin and have no end. It is only where the viewer is, on Earth, that things die and disappear.
Dimension: Icons are rendered in a flat, two-dimensional style, typically either by paint or mosaic. Three-dimensional compositions and sculptures were considered idol-like and could detract from the worship of God.
Symbols: All icons contain symbolic items and colors that refer to spiritual truths and pertain to the identity of the person depicted.
Layers: Painted icons build layer upon layer of paint, which gives the work a luminous quality. Some icons have a prayer written as a first layer, which is covered but remains a part of the piece.