Why icons still matter to a modern world

Therese Bussen

Icons have existed from the time of the early Church and grew in popularity over the years as an aid in prayer and worship — but today, icons are often seen as irrelevant to our modern world because of their perceived rigidity and austerity.

But it hasn’t died out, and there’s a reason.

In Denver, instructor Laurence Pierson, a former nun in the Community of Beatitudes, teaches a course at the Botanic Gardens called “Sacred Doorways — Byzantine Iconography,” which is the only icon painting class in the greater Denver metro.

Pierson attributes the long-surviving tradition of icons to the same reason the Church still exists.

“Tradition has great value, and if it’s an art that’s survived so many centuries, that’s because there is a great value to it, and it’s not only the tradition, it’s that mainly, it’s rooted in the Gospel,” Pierson said.

In an article called “Sacred Icons,” painter Aidan Hart quotes John of Damascus, who said of icons, “What the written Word proclaims through letters, iconography proclaims and presents through colors.”

Laurence Pierson, left, is a former nun of the Community of the Beatitudes who has been teaching an iconography class at Denver Botanic Gardens called “Sacred Doorways.” It is the only icon painting class in the greater Denver metro area. (Photo provided)

It is the same story of the Gospel, presented in art rather than word, and as the Gospel is timeless, so is the art of icons. And while they may look austere, that’s not something to be afraid of, nor is it irrelevant in our modern time.

“Even though an icon might look austere, it actually drives us beyond superficial emotions — they want us to go deeper. It’s a deep joy,” Pierson said. “I think you have to be quiet and go deeper. In the spiritual life, our ascetic aspect doesn’t have to be forgotten, and sometimes there is an ascetic aspect, and our human condition needs to be redeemed.”

“It’s a medium that has to be rediscovered, and there is so much potential,” Pierson added.

Sacred doorways and symbols

The deep spirituality of icons is part of what has preserved them throughout the roughly 2000 years that they’ve been around. Hart explains that icons are “not just pictures to look at, but are a door to heaven, a way of meeting those who dwell there.”

Hence the name of Denver’s class, “Sacred Doorways.” The material use of the paintings are a way for us to pass through the material world and into a knowing of the holy people depicted. This is just the tip of the spiritual meaning of icons.

The specific look of the icons: the elongated nose, the wide eyes, the dimensions and perspectives, are all intensely symbolic.

“Icons do not depict outward appearances, but reflect something of invisible, spiritual realities. In fact, all good art does this,” Hart said.

“An artist isn’t just someone who puts colors [on a canvas],” Pierson said. “An artist reveals the reality of this world, which sometimes isn’t possible to see. And icon painting is revealing this invisible reality and making it visible with lines and colors.”

Icons do not depict outward appearances, but reflect something of invisible, spiritual realities. In fact, all good art does this.”

So what are icons revealing through their symbols?

Here are just a few insights from Hart:

– Inverse perspective: “There is a number of perspective systems used in icons. With inverse perspective, the lines converge on us, the viewers. This serves to include us in the action depicted,” Hart said. “A sacred event in the past is still acting on us today, ‘Today Christ is risen.’”

– Flatness: “It helps us pass through the icon to the person and events depicted. The aim…is not to replace the subject depicted, but to bring us into living relationship with them,” Hart said.

– Anatomy: “The eyes and ears of people are often enlarged, and the nose elongated. This is to show that the saint is someone who contemplates God, who listens to him, who smells the fragrance of Paradise,” Hart said.

The spiritual process

Pierson has been painting icons for 25 years and teaching for 18. Following the rich tradition of the painting style is the first step of entering into the “spiritual journey” of painting an icon, Pierson said.

“It’s very important for me to get rooted in Byzantine tradition, especially because it’s an art that comes from the Eastern world,” Pierson said. “You have to be very careful not to distort ancient tradition but also find a way to speak to our modern world, so it’s a very delicate balance. For me, that’s crucial, to find this balance.”

“[Painting] has to be a solitary experience because you have to pray, but for me, it’s important to be anchored in a community and liturgical life,” Pierson said.

Pierson, who is commissioned to paint icons for the community often, begins with research and prayer, both to whom the icon is depicting and for the person who will receive the painting. Then the painting begins, which is an intense, multi-layered process.

The art of painting icons is far more than just a creative process; it’s a deeper spiritual journey that requires a lot of prayer, Pierson says. (Photo provided)

First, a binder, which is what the pigment adheres to in order to stay on a board, is created. The binder consists of egg yolk mixed with an equal part of water. This is mixed with the paint pigment and a few drops of water, creating the egg tempera medium with which icons are traditionally painted.

Next, guiding lines are traced into a gesso-covered wooden board and then engraved with a tool. Then, paint is added, layer by layer, beginning with dark colors and finishing with lighter colors. “It is as though the iconographer begins with darkness and death, and ends with light and resurrection,” Hart said.

The final stage is writing the saint’s name; then the icon is blessed by a priest and venerated. The working time varies, but it is a very long process, taking up to a year.

Revealing a Presence

The act of painting is something Pierson discovered she needs for her life to flourish — “essential,” even.

With icon painting, it “combines art and the vertical connection to God,” Pierson said.

And the connection to God is experienced deeply throughout the painting journey.“There is a journey — there’s a time you feel discouraged or bored. Even though you don’t feel it, you live by faith, trusting what you do has meaning and will bear fruit,” Pierson said. “With iconography, there is a Presence.”

“This whole painting journey teaches you about yourself, it takes patience — it takes time. You cannot finish an icon painting in a few hours. You have to trust the process. You have to trust someone else is inspiring you, even though it might not perfect. It’s all very like our spiritual life. It teaches us all that in a very practical way,” she added.

COMING UP: Decoding the Julia Greeley icon

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Julia Greeley is the Archdiocese of Denver’s official model of mercy for this jubilee year. Unfortunately, the only existing picture of her is blurry, and most of her face is hidden by a large hat.

JuliaGreeley

This is the only known photo of Julia Greeley.

“We had a lack of imagery for Julia, but there’s a great devotion to her locally. There was a need to help bring her alive for the people of the diocese,” Chancellor Dave Uebbing said.

Luckily, there’s a long tradition of Christian art allowing an artist to show their subject without full knowledge of what they may have looked like. It’s called iconography.

Icons are more than pictures; they’re meant to be a two-way door of communication that not only shows a person or event, but actually makes it present. Unlike much religious art, they are not merely decorative or immediately understandable. Icons contain their own language of symbolism.

Uebbing commissioned iconographer Vivian Imbruglia to write an icon of Julia. Imbruglia was at first hesitant to call the image an icon, because she didn’t want to give the impression that she was canonizing Julia herself. However, she used the unique language of iconography to communicate Julia’s life to the viewer (see image below for some of those symbols).

“I wrote it like I would a normal icon, with prayer and research, with the same media, but I did not put any gold in the background or a halo, because that would mean I was declaring her a saint,” Imbruglia said.

Uebbing sees the picture as a success.

“What’s important in this image, as opposed to the photo, is that it’s full of symbolism. When I look at this picture of Julia, I just see a person who is warm and loving and pure. She’s not scarred by her experiences in any way. God’s love shines through her,” Uebbing said.

Stories in the icon

The child

Many of the stories surrounding Julia include children. She would take them for rides on the trolley, dance with them in the streets and even laugh with them when they pointed out she accidentally put her skirt on inside JuliaGreeleyIconout. Uebbing said these stories are part of what makes Julia so saint-like.

“If you look at the lives of the saints, and even Julia herself, loving children is a common trait,” Uebbing said.

Imbruglia painted the child pulling one of Julia’s fingers backward, as children will do. She said she imagined Julia allowing the discomfort.

The mountains

These help place Julia in Colorado, without having the business of a scene of downtown Denver.”When people outside of Colorado think of Colorado, we think mountains. We think outdoors,” Imbruglia said.

Imbruglia also hid the words “AMDG” in the mountains, as she does in all of her icons. “AMDG” stands for the Latin “Ad maiorem Dei gloriam” and is the motto of the Jesuits.

The crest

Julia laid in state at Sacred Heart parish for hours before her funeral.

“She laid in state, which had never happened to a regular lay person, so she was somewhat royalty in her own way. Hence the crest,” Imbruglia said.

The crest contains the Franciscan coat of arms (top), because Julia was a secular Franciscan, and was even buried in the Franciscan habit. There is a firefighter hat and axe (bottom left) because Julia was particularly devoted to evangelizing fireman. She would also drag a little red wagon (bottom right) around town to deliver goods to the poor.

The icon is topped with a red ribbon and a chalice holding the Eucharist.

“The red ribbon is the color of mercy. This being the Year of Mercy, and her being the model of it, it just seemed fitting,” Imbruglia said.

The Eucharist indicates Julia’s devotion to it.

“She was so devoted to the Eucharist. In her simple way, it was her breakfast,” Imbruglia said, quoting one of the few phrases Julia is known to have said.

The Sacred Heart

Julia had a well-documented devotion to the Sacred Heart. She would hand out tracts about it at fire stations, and even attended Sacred Heart Parish in Denver.

There is also a small Sacred Heart in the joining bead on the rosary.

The illumination

Although Imbruglia did not give Julia a halo because she is not a saint, she did allow the Sacred Heart to illuminate her face.

“I did take the liberty, if you look around her head, there is a lighter glow,” Imbruglia said. “If you look at where Julia’s heart would be, you’ll see the same yellow as in the Sacred Heart. I want her burning desire for the Sacred Heart to show.”

The clothes

Julia typically wore simple clothes.

“She usually wore a black dress and big, floppy hat,” Uebbing said.

However, Imbruglia intentionally painted Julia in a white dress with simple lines.

“They’re not to distract from her face. She’d want us to see the Sacred Heart first, and we see her face second,” Imbruglia said.

Julia’s face

Julia was not attractive. One of the accounts of her actually references her having a “Phantom of the Opera face”.

Most noticeably, one of her eyes drooped and leaked, due an injury she received while still a slave. She was disfigured for life.

“She couldn’t see out of the eye. It was always weeping,” Uebbing said.

The gold leaf

The chalice and the Sacred Heart both include a gold leaf, and the rosary is made out of platinum. Imbruglia said that this is because she wants to especially honor the representations of Christ in the icon.

“Anytime I can give honor and glory to make Him stand out, I do,” she said.