The first thing you see when you walk into many Roman and Greek Catholic church sanctuaries are ICONS...(picture/images) the name for moveable religious paintings. They are a flat picture of Christ, Mary or many of the saints.
At the Episcopal Church of the Advent, twelve Icons line the walls on both sides. And one graces the front of the altar. Right now it is the Annunication which tells the story of the Virgin Mother receiving the word that she will bear the son of God.
St.Luke , the physician, was the first iconographer. By tradition, an Icon is an unframed wooden panel about one in. deep in size onto which the surface is created in a definite style. Icons tell a story. By tradition they are called WRITTEN not painted,
Our Icons have been written by Barbara Thornton, a member of our parish over the past 15 years. She was raised in the Greek Catholic Church and “even at 5 years old” was fascinated by Icons. Though she had always wanted to have art training, it wasn’t until after she was married in the Episcopal church in Phoenixville that she began spending time learning about Art. She worked in Acrylics, drawing from a kit and joining Quaker State painters. This method is very popular today because the paint dries fast.
Fifteen years ago she received a call from our church secretary who said she had heard of an Icon training workshop in Asheville, North Carolina at the Kanuga Episcopal Conference Center. Every year since Barbara has joined artists there to focus on Icon writing which tells the story being created on a birchwood panel.
The birchwood is sanded many times, covered with gesso (a thick rabbit glue) and topped with burlap or a pure linen representing the shroud. It is said that the sanding is done about 10 times or until it is stabilized and smoothed out. Egg Tempera paint is then applied in layers. Tempera paint is dry pigments added to one egg yolk, mixed with vinegar and distilled water. The dry pigments are very expensive about $85 for a small amount. For example Lapis Lazuli, a dry blue mineral, is composed of small pieces of the lazurite mineral and small quantities of other minerals to produce the ‘azure’ color.
The format at the Center’s workshop each February is very spiritual. Barbara tells us: “Each morning we start with the Eucharist, then after breakfast, we proceed through the woods to the studio where we have a short prayer and a priest places the sign of the cross on our hands with sweet smelling chrism. It permeates the air with its sweet smell before we begin. There is a short lecture on the first stage of the Icon...then the music...Gregorian chant...and silence as we work. To begin we make the sign of the cross and ask God to guide our brushes on the smoothly sanded board.”
The afternoons are then spent in creating one of two Icons, one that is for beginners, and another for experienced artists, This year will be The Good Shepherd
and the other Elijah and the Raven.
According to Barbara the secret of icons is that they are like a prayer without words.
Our focus should be ”on sitting still and listening. Icons are a way to let God speak to us. They hold a divine mystery. If we sit long enough and listen to them closely, we may hear God’s voice as he speaks to us.” So the study of Icons allows us cultivate the awareness of God’s presence in our lives.
These are the Icons displayed on Advent ‘s walls: The Nativity, Moses Healing the Blind Man, St. Barbara, St George, Mother of Tikvin and Child, Three Faces of Mary (Bethany, Nazareth, and Magdalene, St Nicholas, The Mother of God, The Annunciation and the Crucifixion.
Christ the Pantocrator (creator of the universe) is in our children’s chapel. I have one at home given to me by my brother when he was in Rome, and another of Mary and the Christ child, which I bought at the Vatican.
On The Rev. Dr. Richard Kirk’s anniversary of his 60th ordination to the priesthood, I commissioned Barbara to create an Icon in his honor. It is St. Gregory of Nyssa. Rev. Kirk, rector at Advent for 17 years, wrote his master’s thesis on St. Gregory. It is on the small altar in our sitting area.
During this upcoming Christmas season, when you feel the need of silence, follow Barbara’s innstructions and receive the peace of the Lord through the written Icons we have here at Advent.
*JANICE KIRK has been a member of Advent for 28 years. After her first husband died, she came here to sing in the Messiah and ended up singing in the choir. The following Fall she joined the church and has been active as a Eucharistic visitor for 12 years. As a journalist most of her working life, she has written two books while here...Love Anew ( a primer on recovering from spousal grief with her husband Richard Kirk, whom she married in 1993) now in its second printing) and Diary of a Eucharistic Visitor (on her 12- year ministry). She also has been a guide at the Brandywine River Museum for 34 years and written many articles on art.