Images of the Divine showcasing local Iconography
By iconographer and exhibition organiser Sue Orchison.
Iconographers use this particular religious art form as a tool of evangelisation and personal prayer.
Archbishop Christopher Prowse will open the exhibition at 6pm and Apostolic Nuncio Archbishop Adolfo Tito Yllana will impart a blessing on the iconographers.
The exhibition at the Archdiocesan Offices, Haydon Hall, Manuka, will be open from Friday, 31 May, at 5.30pm. Opening hours are Saturday, 1 June, 9am-6pm, and Sunday, 2 June, 9-4pm.
Byzantine style iconography uses egg tempera which is one of the oldest painting techniques in the history of art. Egg tempera was used on the tombs of Egyptian mummies and has lasted thousands of years. Christians started using this art form in the 6th century.
Bishop Robert Barron, Auxiliary Bishop of Los Angeles, explains that Christ is the Icon (image) of the Invisible God, so his Church is the Icon of Christ, and the Icon of Church is revealed in a unique way of life of truth, goodness and beauty.
We can paint the image of Christ because Christ became man among us, and as he carried his cross to Calvary Veronica handed him a handkerchief onto which he pressed his face. This is the first icon and is called “not made with human hands”. It is the prototype for all icons.
An icon is designed to bring to a physical reality something that is spiritually present.
You are meeting Jesus in the icon; it is a doorway, it opens a gate into heaven.
For each iconographer the reason for creating an icon is to embark on a journey, in prayer, in which one comes to know intimately, not so much the process but the person. The person may be Jesus, his Mother or the saints. He must increase and I must decrease.
I have become passionate about Byzantine iconography. This method of painting uses egg tempera which is made from egg yolk, water and rabbit skin glue as a binder, wood covered in linen, pigments such as ochre, zinc and titanium, and precious metals such as gold and silver. An icon is full of symbolism. The panel on which the icon is painted and covered with linen is symbolic of the cross and the shroud of Christ. The materials encompass the elements of creation – water, plants, earth, metals and animal.
Egg tempera is a challenging medium and not many people use it nowadays. I love that fact that I use the elements of the earth and start from the basic ingredients to prepare a place for the head of Christ to rest, while being aware to follow the traditions of iconography which make icons a unique place of encounter.
My first encounter with iconography was at an iconography school at St Benedict’s Narrabundah. It has been running for about 20 years, co-ordinated and managed by Wendy Fisher-Hudson, with teacher French-Russian iconographer Patrick Bernard from Sydney. Many people young and old have written icons under Patrick’s guidance.
Other classes in Canberra have been given by experienced iconographer Mylene Mosella, formerly of the Chilean Embassy.
Like many artists iconographers seek to learn more and more about their craft. For the past four years I have attended a two-week annual course at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne led by Philip Davydov a Russian iconographer. At these classes I met Victoria, a woman from Tasmania, who is also passionate about iconography. She and I travelled to the Holy Land last year where we attended classes for five months at the Bethlehem Icon Centre.
The centre was established seven years ago by Englishman Ian Knowles for Christian Palestinians. He went to Bethlehem to restore icons in a Greek Orthodox church and loved the place so much he stayed.
I have always loved painting portraits and have found that since I started painting religious icons I have a purpose and richness in my work.
An icon is theology in colour. When I choose an icon to paint I study the life of the saint or the scripture verse it is depicting and am always amazed and awed by what I discover about each saint, mighty men and women of God.
An icon can take me weeks or months to complete. The board preparation takes about three days. It involves applying 12 layers of gesso and sanding the board to a smooth marbled white surface. Drawing and composition of the image can take many days.
At the same time, getting to know the saint and then applying the many layers of pigment mixed with egg tempera can take several weeks or months. After that, gold leaf is applied. The image then needs to rest for a time for the layers to meld before a protective varnish is applied.
I find working in the evening when the world is settling is when I can find the stillness and energy to paint.
I also enjoy the companionship of others as we work together discussing the process. I am in touch with iconographers from Bathurst, Tasmania, Russia and Bethlehem; we share our discoveries, ask for advice and rejoice in our victories.
Mary Clancy, from the Diocese of Bathurst, has written the Icon of Our Lady of the Central West which will be displayed at the exhibition. The icon Our Lady of the Southern Cross, hanging in the Military Chapel at Duntroon, is by Canberra iconographer Alan Pomeroy who will have several works in the exhibition.
Some aspects of icons can look strange to our eyes. The perspective of an icon is reversed – as Christ is the centre, not me. Garments, hair, plants, animals and buildings are stylized, as heaven is wedded to earth and the world of matter is shown as transfigured matter.
In an icon there is always an invitation to come and see; for example there is a place for you to sit at the table in the icon of the Trinity by 14th century Russian master Andrei Rublev.
Beautiful examples of icons can be seen in the Greek Orthodox Church in Kingston and the Russian Orthodox Church in Narrabundah as well as in some Catholic parish churches.
The face in the icon is the most important aspect an iconographer creates. It is the gateway to the spiritual depths of the human person. Painting an icon is a privilege and responsibility, as the artist seeks to draw back the veil on the mystery and give the viewer an encounter with the image represented.
As NZ iconographer master Aidan Hart says, “in the face of the saints we see the face of Christ shining forth”.