Corrections or additions?
This article by Pat Summers was prepared for the July 4, 2001
edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Meditation through Art
They will spend each day quietly, communing with their
thoughts, their faith, their work. Occasionally there may be
music, or incense, and these may help to focus, hold the mood,
Each student, concentrating on a piece of carved poplar or ash wood
to which linen has been glued and gesso has been applied, is
Yes, there were "icons" long before People magazine, before
movie stars and mega-million-dollar athletes, before computer
And because there were, and still are icons made and used for
purposes, 15 to 20 students will elect to be "far from the madding
crowd" next month. No phones, faxes, or office visits to attend
to. No car horns, DJs, TVs or PCs — or, between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m.
each day for the week beginning July 9 to 14, no families either:
household concerns will seem long ago and far away.
For six days, echoing the six days of creation, those attending the
fifth annual iconology workshop at Princeton’s Trinity Episcopal
will use ancient techniques and natural materials rich with symbolic
meaning to produce an icon: a painted image of a sacred figure —
that others then may "read." Conducted by the Prosopon School
of Iconology, founded by Russian emigre Vladislav Andrejev, the
does not require previous artistic experience because icon writing
is as much a contemplative form of prayer as an artistic discipline.
New students receive step-by-step instructions and all necessary
while returning students work more independently.
Tracing its lineage back to Byzantium, Justinian, and the ascendancy
of the Eastern Roman Empire, "icon" comes from the Greek for
"image" and in this context, denotes "sacred image"
— a panel painting of one or more personages particularly
in Eastern Orthodox religions. And "venerate" is the operative
word: icons are not worshiped. The Iconoclastic Controversy that raged
for more than a century 1200 years ago, and that spawned the term
"iconoclast," for "image-breaker," was eventually
won by the iconophiles near the middle of the ninth century. Icons
once again became permissible, and icon painting, or writing, spread
throughout the Balkans and Russia, continuing to flourish even after
the Byzantine Empire.
Thought to be esthetically influenced by mosaics and/or
the Fayum portraits of Egypt (exhibited not long ago at the
Museum in New York), an icon is typically a highly stylized frontal
image involving little or no modeling, with gold background and
Its fine craftsmanship, rather than its expressiveness, is valued;
artistic inventiveness is not a desirable element in icon-writing.
Students are expected to submit themselves to the discipline of the
process and its symbols, with their painting judged by how well they
conform to the conventions, not by how much of themselves they may
incorporate. Finished works are not signed.
Beginning icon-writers traditionally start with Michael the archangel,
usually followed by Gabriel, a similar image that allows them to
skills they learned with Michael. The subject sequence is prescribed,
as are the icon’s elements. Variations, such as the color of the
robe, are not encouraged because they could cause illegibility for
someone "reading" the icon.
Early in her experience, Maureen McCormick produced an icon showing
the Madonna and child. She knows better by now: she should have
the sequence. A veteran of five years of icon study, or iconology,
and four years of coordinating the workshop in Princeton, McCormick
says icons are not portraits as such — they’re meant to evoke
the subject, not resemble an actual person. Without even being a
of an Eastern church, McCormick knows about the iconostasis —
a wall in an Eastern Orthodox church where icons are hung — in
tiers and according to a strict hierarchical plan.
When not savoring the sanctuary of Trinity Church during the icon
workshop, McCormick is the registrar of the Art Museum, Princeton
University. She earned her MFA from Tyler School of Art, Temple
A resident of Lawrenceville, McCormick already hopes to spend a few
days at a Philadelphia icon workshop offered by Prosopon this fall
— well after finishing her next Princeton icon: St George and
Once the board (round, rectangular, or arched) is covered with a base
of linen and gesso (chalk and glue), the icon writer transfers the
desired image to its surface. (Here, McCormick says, a decidedly
tool might be used: the photocopier, whose capacity to enlarge and
reduce cannot be denied.) Next comes "bole," a red clay
applied wherever gold leaf will go. The "tempera" colors come
from dry pigments in an egg emulsion.
A finished icon may be used domestically or consecrated for church
use. Right now, McCormick’s icons hang in her home. She hopes that
someday her work will warrant being in a church.
— Pat Summers
9, at Trinity Episcopal Church, 33 Mercer Street. For information
contact Maureen McCormick, 609-258-3766 or e-mail
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