‘Icons are often referred to as ‘windows into the the divine kingdom’; you don’t look at icons, you look through them,” says Maureen McCormick. Twelve years ago McCormick, the registrar for the Princeton University Art Museum for 22 years, happened to notice an ad in the paper for an iconography workshop and decided to take it. “I had never been interested in icons before, even though I had shown a Russian Iconographic Art show at the museum. It wasn’t that I was disinterested in them or didn’t like them, I just didn’t understand them at the time.” After McCormick took the course, she was hooked, and decided to help develop this one-time-only workshop into an annual summer event.
This year’s exhibit, “In the Image and Likeness: Icons by Students and Masters of the Prosopon School of Iconology,” opens at Princeton Theological Seminary’s Erdman Gallery on Monday, February 26, and is on view through Friday, April 6. On Friday, March 2, Gordon Graham, professor of philosophy and arts at the seminary, will give a lecture titled “Icons: Painting as Performance Art” from 4 to 5 p.m., immediately followed by the artists’ reception from 5 to 7 p.m.
McCormick’s artistic bent dates from middle school. “Even in 6th, 7th and 8th grades I had an interest in art to a greater degree than the other students. I was always doodling, and I always liked to draw.” Her parents were public school teachers; her father taught mathematics and her mother was an elementary school librarian. After graduating from Suffern High School in New York, McCormick says she “chose a college with an art program and a reputation — I wanted to be a fine artist.” She graduated from SUNY Pottsdam with a BA in 1978 and then from Tyler School of Art at Temple University in 1980 earning an MFA in printmaking.
In college, McCormick says she locked onto printmaking, drawn to it precisely because she found it “particularly fussy and technically demanding. The prints I did make often involved very repetitive processes and required meticulous attention.”
Led by iconography master Vladislav Andrejev — a 1980 emigre from the former Soviet Union, and founder of the Prosopon School of Iconology according to ancient practices of the Eastern Orthodox Church — McCormick and the other iconographers featured in the exhibit have studied and painted icons at Trinity Episcopal Church in Princeton for the past 10 years.
Andrejev was born in 1938 in St. Petersburg, Russia. “My parents were believers, but had no connection to the icon. This is a personal calling, rather than an inheritance,” he says in via E-mail translated by his daughter, Melanie. After graduating from the St. Petersburg Academy of Art and Design, he worked as a painter and a book illustrator.
“I was a believer from childhood and that prompted me to search for truth and faith. I became interested in religious art, which was impossible to express openly during the those times of the Soviet regime. The search for deeper meaning in art and life led me to solitary travels in parts of the Russian wilderness, and to independent study of icon and fresco painting with a monk icon-writer. I finally found the connection between art and faith in the icon.” With his wife and son, Andrejev was able to emigrate to the United States in 1980.
‘The first inklings of a school began with my first official teaching job in New York City, at the School of Sacred Arts,” he says. However, when that school closed about 10 years later, Andrejev went on to teach on his own, traveling across the country and giving seminars. He says the Prosopon School of Iconology gradually formed over the years as more and more people became seriously interested in this style of icon painting. The term “school” in this case does not necessarily mean an organization or building, but rather “method” or “style.”
The ancient Russian-Byzantine tradition of icon-writing reached its height during the 15th century. Today, the iconographer within the Prosopon School attempts to produce icons reflecting the same state of inner, contemplative depth evident in the greatest examples of ancient iconography. The task is accomplished through attention to the iconographic canon and principles, rather than simply “copying.” As in antiquity, only natural materials are used: wood panels gessoed with natural ground, genuine gold leaf applied by the bole method, egg tempera using ground pigments, and linseed oil finish. (A beautiful step-by-step example can be seen on the Prosopon School’s website, prosoponschool.org. Click on “gallery” from the menu and then click on the top image to begin.)
Says Andrejev: “The iconographic method of the Prosopon School is characterized by a multi-step process in which the succession of steps is concrete and definite, as it is in the liturgical services of the Church. Despite the striving for a high artistic level, the focus of the icon-writer is nevertheless on personal, spiritual discipline and growth within the guidelines of Orthodox Church teachings.
“When I work on an icon, the process reflects the ascent to Mount Tabor, ‘the ascent from darkness into light’ through the layering of highlights, rather than shadows.” Andrejev explains that the icon unites three levels of faith: the physical level — work on the board; the representation of the soul through the image — the image of inner man as an icon; and the ascent of the soul to the Kingdom of Heaven. “During work, all three levels must be realized through a certain degree of concentration by the painter. The task of the iconographer is to first master the technique, then develop the inner (personal) image through prayer and spiritual growth.”
Lawrenceville residents, McCormick and her husband, Philip Unetic, a self-employed graphic designer, have a 12-year-old daughter, Phoebe, and have been members of the Trinity Episcopal Church since 1992. (A companion exhibit of iconography is on view at Trinity during the same timeframe as the seminary exhibit.) McCormick says she has found a synthesis for her love of the arts and her religion. She explains that iconographers are called “writers” and and are given credit as, for example, “St. Paul by the hand of Maureen McCormick.” She adds that while in writing icons, “the goal is to ‘erase’ the hand (of the ‘writer’), but that probably isn’t possible. Icons are not all exact. If you spend enough time with them, you can tell the difference between the different writers.”
McCormick quickly dispels the misconception that iconographers copy works already in existence, by posing the question, “Does Glenn Gould copy Chopin when he plays a sonata?” Even though the notes may be written and concrete in music, there is always room for interpretation or personalization. In the writing of icons there exists the same openness. In iconography, as in music, though the final goal may be a divine and timeless piece of inspiration, the artist will always have an affect on how it is experienced.
Says McCormick: “There are some icons that if you look at them long enough, they will look back at you.”
Art Reception, Friday, March 2, 4 p.m. Princeton Theological Seminary, Erdman Gallery. Gordon Graham, professor of philosophy and arts at the seminary will give a lecture titled “Icons: Painting as Performance Art” from 4 to 5 p.m., followed by an opening reception for “In the Image and Likeness: Icons by Students and Masters of the Prosopon School of Iconology.” On view to April 6. 609-497-7990.
The Prosopon School offers its 2007 summer course from June 25 to June 30. Previous artistic experience is not necessary. E-mail Maureen McCormick at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 609-258-3766. $550 includes tuition, materials, and a share in the workshop expenses.