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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

liturgical

music, or incense, and these may help to focus, hold the mood,

motivate.

Each student, concentrating on a piece of carved poplar or ash wood

to which linen has been glued and gesso has been applied, is

"writing"

an icon.

Yes, there were "icons" long before People magazine, before

movie stars and mega-million-dollar athletes, before computer

commands.

And because there were, and still are icons made and used for

religious

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

Church,

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

program

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

materials,

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

venerated

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

Metropolitan

Museum in New York), an icon is typically a highly stylized frontal

image involving little or no modeling, with gold background and

highlights.

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

practice

skills they learned with Michael. The subject sequence is prescribed,

as are the icon’s elements. Variations, such as the color of the

virgin’s

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

followed

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

member

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

University.

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

the dragon.

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

non-ancient

tool might be used: the photocopier, whose capacity to enlarge and

reduce cannot be denied.) Next comes "bole," a red clay

solution

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

The Prosopon School Icon Workshop begins Monday, July

9, at Trinity Episcopal Church, 33 Mercer Street. For information

contact Maureen McCormick, 609-258-3766 or e-mail

mmccorm@princeton.edu.


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