Our Lady of Fatima is iconographer’s 100th

Vivian Imbruglia, the iconographer who was commissioned to write the icon of Servant of God Julia Greeley for the Archdiocese of Denver, recently wrote her 100th icon: Our Lady of Fatima.

It’s a milestone for the California-based iconographer that is made all the more significant by the 100th anniversary of the apparitions of Fatima. The beautifully crafted and exquisitely detailed icon resides at the World Apostolate of Fatima Shrine in Washington, N.J.

“I had known the anniversary of Fatima was coming up, and I had [a] strong Holy Spirit urge to write an icon for it,” Imbruglia recalled. “As I noted the three [other] icons I was already working on would be numbers 97, 98 and 99, it occurred to me Fatima would be 100.”

The preparation that goes into writing an icon is more of a spiritual process than it is about the actual painting of the icon, Imbruglia said.

Vivian Imbruglia is an iconographer based out of California. She was commissioned to write the icon of Julia Greeley for the Archdiocese of Denver, and recently wrote her 100th icon, which depicts Our Lady of Fatima. (Photo provided)

“With every icon, I need to spend time getting to know the subject, and this was especially so with Fatima. It is true that I had an urge that told me I needed to write an icon that celebrated the 100th anniversary, but in reality, I didn’t actually know that much about Fatima,” she said.

Her research ensured, which usually consists of some Google searches, but more important, conversations with people. A friend of Imbruglia’s, who is a member of the World Apostolate of Fatima, provided her with a good base knowledge and referred her to a few more experts, including Father Andrew Apostoli, whose book Fatima For Today is one of the most widely respected volumes on the historic event.

Father Apostoli affirmed the very important elements of the Fatima story that were critical for Imbruglia to include in the icon, which was exciting for her, but also overwhelming.

“I was going to have to depict the visions experienced by the children, some of which were really elaborate,” she said. “I had no idea how I would do it.”

Imbruglia began praying a novena to Our Lady, and within three days, the icon came more and more into focus. She began to paint, and gradually within the larger icon, six smaller icons appeared. Once she finished, she sent the finished product to Father Apostoli, whose words of encouragement were exactly what Imbruglia needed to hear.

“He said the message of Fatima needed to be spread, he said it several times, and he said that message had been captured in the image,” Imbruglia recounted. “His affirmation meant the world to me. This is the goal of every iconographer: To put word into image.”

The Icon explained

Image of Our Lady: Sister Lucia, one of the visionaries to whom Our Lady appeared in 1913, wrote of seeing her: “It was a lady dressed in all white, more brilliant than the sun shedding rays of light, clear and stronger than a crystal glass filled with the most sparkling water pierced by rays of the sun.”

The young shepherds: Francisco, Jacinta and Lucia showed great faith and held steadfast to her command to return each month on the 13th day. They have halos painted around their heads as indicators of their holiness. Francisco and Jacinta were recently canonized as saints on May 13.

The Immaculate Heart: Our Lady revealed her Immaculate Heart to the three shepherd children during her apparitions, which Sister Lucia described as “a heart encircled by thorns which pierced it. … Outraged by the sins of humanity and seeking reparation.”

Vision of Hell: Our Lady revealed to the children a terrifying vision of hell, which Sister Lucia describes in her memoirs. Here, as per Sister Lucia’s words, hell is depicted as a “vast sea of fire” and “plunged in this fire” are “souls [of the damned] … transparent like burning embers, all blackened or burnished bronze, having human forms.”

The Angel of Peace: In 1916, an angel of peace appeared to the children as a means of preparing them for their meeting the Queen of Heaven. He appeared to them a total of three times bearing a message of prayer, reparation and sacrifice.

The Miracle of the Sun: On Oct. 13, 1917, 70,000 people gathered to see the final apparition of Our Lady. When she appeared, she opened her hands and made them reflect on the sun, making the sun look like it was dancing. After she had disappeared into the sun, St. Joseph, the child Jesus and Our Lady in a blue mantle appeared beside the sun. St. Joseph and Jesus traced the sign of the Cross with their hands, blessing the world.

First Saturday Devotion: On Dec. 10, 1925, the Virgin Mary and child Jesus appeared to Sister Lucia in her convent cell. They instructed her to “say to all those who, for the next five months, on the first Saturday, confess, receive Holy Communion, recite the rosary and keep me company for 15 minutes while meditating on the 15 mysteries of the rosary, in a spirit of reparation, I promise to assist them at the hour of death with all the graces necessary for the salvation of their souls.”

Vision of the Trinity: In June 1929, Sister Lucia received a vivid vision of the Holy Trinity, which she describes in her memoirs. She saw a cross appear over the altar, with a man appearing above it and another nailed to the cross. A dove of light was over the chest of the man above, and a chalice with a host dripping blood floated in front of the cross. Underneath the right arm of the cross was Our Lady of Fatima, and under the left arm were the words “grace” and “mercy.”

The Third Secret of Fatima: Our Lady bestowed upon the three shepherds three apocalyptic visions and prophecies that are known as the three secrets of Fatima. The first was a vision of hell; the second was a foretelling of World War II, and the third was revealed as a series of symbols. In her vision, Sister Lucia saw an angel with a flaming sword; a bishop dressed in white; a cross atop a mountain; and angels shouting, “Penance! Penance! Penance!”

Consecration of the world: On May 13, 1982, Pope John Paul II invited the bishops of the world to join him in consecrating the world, and with it Russia, to the Immaculate Heart.

COMING UP: Why icons still matter to a modern world

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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.