A year before I became a Catholic, I went on a retreat to an Orthodox monastery north of Columbus, Ohio. The monks occupied an old farm house and converted the basement into a chapel, complete with large, colorful icons. Every morning I attended Morning Prayer while icons of Our Lord, the Blessed Mother, and the saints looked on. The images stared at us, speaking in a mysterious language I didn’t quite understand, as we gazed back at them.
After I became a Catholic the memory of those images continued to call to me. I dove into the history of icons. I learned that not only do people venerate icons in church, but it’s also common practice to have icons for private devotion. The more I read through the theology, the better I understood: The images represent windows into heaven and a place where the seen and unseen can commune with each other. As St. John of Damascus once wrote, “For the invisible things of God since the creation of the world are made visible through images. We see images in creation which remind us faintly of God, as when, for instance, we speak of the holy and adorable Trinity, imaged by the sun, or light, or burning rays, or by a running fountain, or a full river, or by the mind, speech, or the spirit within us, or by a rose tree, or a sprouting flower, or a sweet fragrance.”
In other words, we are transformed through the presence of Christ, the Blessed Mother, and the communion of saints. And this doesn’t have to happen in a grand cathedral; we can access God just as easily in our own homes.
With this thought in mind I jumped at the opportunity to attend an icon-writing workshop in Chicago. I wanted to see if the process of creating an icon (not just gazing at one) would be transformative. I also wondered whether I might simply end up spending the day painting a blob that looked nothing like Jesus.
When I walked into the icon studio of artist Joseph Malham my skin tingled as I gazed at the icons around me, all separate windows to heaven. I sat down at a long table. A white gessoed board, paints, brushes, and an enlarged image of St. John the Baptist (the Forerunner) lay in front of me. Despite my willingness,
I felt a twinge of nervousness. I am not an artist, and all those assorted tools might have well been instruments on a control panel of a Boeing 777. How would I even know where to begin?
But when Joseph came into the room, he instantly reassured me. “It’s okay if you’re nervous or have never done any art in your life,” he said. “Remember, you’re writing a prayer, theology, and a story. You’re transforming the wood, the paint, and the picture into something entirely different. And, hopefully, you’ll be transformed, too.”
He explained that iconographers call what they do “writing an icon.” People have believed for centuries that creating icons is a way of writing theology or telling a visual story that recalls the incarnation. Linette Martin, in her book Sacred Doorways: A Beginner’s Guide to Icons (Paraclete Press), writes that during the Middle Ages people believed that things could transform into other things. They grounded this belief in the transformation of the Eucharist, where bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ—a physical reality that points to an unseen truth. When artists create icons they do something similar and just as sacramental; their work reveals the unseen face of God.
When it was time to begin creating my own icon, Joseph clearly outlined each step: tracing the image on to my gessoed board, carving into the wood, and layering the paint in order to highlight the physical features of John the Baptist. What struck me about the process was how my breathing slowed. I emptied my mind of any worries and concentrated on each step. With each scratch of the wood and swish of the brush, I watched as a plain white board became transformed into something entirely different—something that opened my mind to God.
In order for this to happen, however, I had to give myself over to the discomfort of the unfamiliar process. Joseph explained that this discomfort is necessary because it forces the iconographer to let go and trust the image. This seemed like a very biblical idea to me. St. Paul writes in Colossians, “For you have died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (3:3–4). Writing an icon, practicing contemplative prayer, or being silent before the Eucharist all require letting go of ourselves and resting in the presence of Christ.
Writing an icon has always followed a set of rules regarding process and composition, and no iconographer signs their work. But back in the studio, Joseph explained that despite the universality of this practice, each of us would find our own style. Betsy Porter, an iconographer in San Francisco, writes, “Every iconographer develops a unique style and approach. The individual touch is readily visible in minor variations and in nuances of line quality, detail, highlight, and color. With concentration and persistence, almost anyone can learn to paint a beautiful icon.” While the practice of writing icons is accessible to anyone, we each have our own personal devotion, our own relationship to God.
After the workshop ended, I continued to write more icons, working on developing my trust in the divine. I discovered my style resembled traditional Mexican retablos, more folky and traditional than many of the familiar Eastern Orthodox icons. If you Google retablos, you’ll find images that, at first glance, seem cartoonish and strange. But a closer look reveals a deep devotion. Each image contains the playful seriousness of an earthy folk Catholicism expressed with humor, devotion, and a dash of macabre flavor. It’s probably way more reflective of my faith than I care to admit.
As I deepen my practice of iconography, my spiritual life grows ever deeper as well. As when I had to overcome that first moment of discomfort, I continue to go through the cycle of letting go of myself and living in the object of devotion that I create.
And when I gaze upon the icon I’ve written and see the face of God, I join with the centuries of iconographers who have done the same before me: Greeks, Russians, Copts, men, and women. Anyone can create an icon as a matter of prayer and devotion. Everyone can undergo that sacramental transformation of ordinary paint and wood into something divine. All it takes is a humble heart, a desire to pray, and the willingness to be transformed by the process. Iconography has always been a form of submitting yourself to God; when you start drawing a window into that unseen world, heaven will gaze back through your art. Be ready for that to transform your soul in a way you never expected.
This article also appears in the October 2016 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 81, No. 10, pages 45–46).