Prophet Elijah illuminated in iconography workshop
In the hands of 13 amateur icon painters, the Prophet Elijah leapt from the pages of Scripture to vivid life atop small canvases.
Dressed in a moss-green robe – to symbolize his years of prayer and fasting in the wilderness – the holy prophet of Kings and Malachi is shown perched in front of the cave where he made his home. The painted scene depicts Elijah holding out his hand to accept a piece of bread from a raven, a reminder to icon-viewers of how God took care of the prophet during his time in exile.
“It’s such a humbling experience,” noted Jane Morris, a Covington resident who painted Elijah at the Mary Queen of Peace Parish Center at a weeklong iconography workshop led by twin sisters Ethelee Morgan and Shirlee Vale.
“When I painted my first icon – Our Lady of Mount Carmel – I identified with Mother Mary and what she went through,” said Morris of the prayerful art. “Now I’m identifying with Elijah and dealing with trusting God and knowing that he will provide. I’m struggling a lot more with (painting) Elijah because that is what I’m struggling with now – trusting that God will provide.”
Artists guided by Holy Spirit
Instructors Morgan and Vale, both Benedictine oblates and retired high school teachers, have led a dozen icon-painting workshops at northshore Catholic churches since 2009, with past subjects including St. Nicholas, St. Raphael the Archangel and numerous vestiges of Christ and the Blessed Mother. Although no prior art experience is required to create an icon, participants must be willing to work reverently and patiently. The simplest icons require a minimum of 40 hours to achieve their characteristic veneer of smoothness and saturated color.
“It’s a form of prayer. That is why Shirlee and I love it so very much,” said Morgan, noting that students frequently will arrive early and stay late to apply the thin layers of tempera gouache paint to their 10-by-12-inch boards. “The (rule) that’s most important is that you’re not jealous of your neighbor’s work because the Holy Spirit works through each and every person in a different way every time they do an icon.”
During last month’s workshop on Elijah, each daylong session began with a prayer asking the Holy Spirit to guide the iconographers’ hands and for the intercession of Mary and of St. Luke, who created the first icon – of the Blessed Mother herself.
After having their wrists anointed with oil, the artists hunkered down to complete the first step of the painstaking process: tracing over an outline of Elijah’s official icon and a piece of carbon paper to transfer the basic shapes of the artwork onto their boards. Backed by Gregorian chants and other sacred music, hours of painting ensued, with students applying a palette of pre-ordained colors to Elijah in “paint-by-number” fashion.
“My fear was that I’d spend a lot of money and end up with a lot of junk,” said Art Seghers, a parishioner of St. Benedict Church in Covington whose rendering of Elijah was his first foray into iconography. “But my icon is looking very lovely. It’s intense and it (involves) a lot of detail – you want it to look like somebody.”
Guiding each workshop is the official, Vatican-sanctioned icon of each saint, prophet or Biblical event. Morgan, a parishioner of St. Jane de Chantal in Abita Springs, and Vale, who worships at Mary Queen of Peace, decided to do Elijah at the suggestion of Father Kenneth Allen, St. Jane’s pastor.
“You can’t just take any old picture, do (a painting of it) and say it’s an icon,” Morgan said, noting that despite their medium, iconographers do not refer to their work as “painting” but rather as “writing” – a means of connecting the Word to art.
“We say we write them because it is like writing Scripture, and you’re not privileged to change that,” Vale said.
Telling a story through art
The sisters were introduced to the sacred art in 1999 when Morgan admired a pair of icons made for St. Francis Xavier Church in Metairie by New Orleans-born iconographer Raymond Calvert. After meeting Calvert at a retreat, Morgan and Vale began taking classes from Calvert and his mentor, Pennsylvania-based master iconographer Phil Zimmerman.
The sisters discovered a 2,000-year-old art that was full of precise guidelines. For example, the eyes of an icon subject are always brown – or “burnt sienna” – and halos are rendered in 24-karat gold leaf. The paint – either egg tempera or acrylic – must be applied in six or more super-thin layers and then varnished. The usual rules about using shadow to create depth and perspective do not apply, Vale notes.
“You don’t put the highlights like you would in a portrait because the light does not shine upon (the saints). The light emanates from them,” she said. “So if they’re holding a chalice, or wherever the flesh is (shown), we usually try to make it brighter to show their holiness.”
Features, including hands and feet, are typically depicted out of proportion with the rest of the body, or large on one figure and small on another, said Vale, offering the example of the icon of the Visitation of the Blessed Mother.
“Elizabeth’s hands are larger (than Mary’s) because she’s receiving graces from Mary,” Vale said. “It’s the same thing with St. Joseph and the Christ Child. Joseph’s hands are huge – he’s protecting Christ, but he’s also receiving graces from him.”
Colors are also significant, with the earliest icons using two main hues: red, representing divinity; and blue, representing humanity. In the icon of Elijah, the prophet’s holiness is reflected in his scarlet cloak. Other colors have a less obvious backstory, said Vale, pointing again to the icon of the Visitation.
“Elizabeth’s undergarment is olive-green because that’s the color you usually use for John the Baptist – because he is out in the wilderness – and (Elizabeth) is pregnant with him,” Vale said, adding that icon subjects are never depicted smiling and often are shown “floating” beyond the borders of the picture like “free spirits.”
“We’re depicting them in heaven and they do not show human emotion,” Vale said. “So people who want these beautiful faces that are smiling – that’s not true iconography.”
The icons were incensed and blessed with holy water by Deacon Timothy Jackson on June 22 at Mary Queen of Peace Church.
The next icon workshop, which will focus on St. Francis of Assisi, will be held July 22-27 at St. Jane de Chantal Church, 72040 Maple St., Abita Springs. Classes are filled on a first-come, first-served basis and cost $410. All supplies are included. For more information, call Vale at (985) 845-1008 or Morgan at (985) 892-0857.