The art of iconography within the Church dates back to her earliest days and is considered by some to be an outdated medium in the modern world. But Claire Woodbury feels that the Lord has used this ancient yet timeless art form to make her more of who she was created to be.
Woodbury, a parishioner at Holy Trinity Parish in Westminster, is an author and artist who has been creating icons for over four years. She estimates she’s done over 30 icons, but her latest one is both the most ambitious and most difficult one she’s ever done: A full-size, five-foot-tall icon of St. Raphael the Archangel done in the Russian Byzantine style.
She was commissioned by Holy Trinity pastor Father Piotr Mozdyniewicz to create the icon for the parish adoration chapel, which is adorned with matching icons of St. Gabriel and St. Michael the Archangels. She began the process of creating the icon in September of last year, and it was officially installed in the chapel on Feb. 28.
“God sends us his holy angels so that we may be aided in our spiritual warfare,” Father Mozdyniewicz said during a Mass prior to the icon’s installation. “So let us entrust ourselves, our parish, to the intercession of St. Raphael the Archangel, as we welcome him in a very special way to our parish community.”
Woodbury didn’t find iconography; iconography found her.
“Cecilia Aguallo actually taught me, she taught at the Dominican Parish Novitiate,” Woodbury told the Denver Catholic. “She taught me for two years.
“She actually came here [to Holy Trinity] and that’s how I got involved at all,” she continued. “She came here to speak about it and I was like, ‘oh that’s for me’ and it’s there and I didn’t know it. So I started going and I loved it. It was hard, but I guess that’s also why I liked it so much, because it was hard.
“This is the epitome of what I love to do. That was a God thing. Cecilia came here for me.”
About six months into the coronavirus pandemic last year, Father Mozdyniewicz asked Woodbury to paint an icon of St. Raphael, whom he calls on at the end of every Mass after invoking St. Michael’s intercession. St. Raphael is the patron of healing and Father Mozdyniewicz thought him a fitting intercessor for a world ravaged by the coronavirus.
“He will be present in a very special way in our parish,” Father Mozdyniewicz said. “When we look at icons, we can see invisible realities of heaven, of our faith. That’s the point about veneration of sacred icons. They open to us the invisible reality of God in his world.”
In Woodbury’s own personal life as well, it seemed more than a mere coincidence that she would be commissioned to create an icon of St. Raphael. Indeed, it appeared to be divine providence, and the creation of the icon proved to be more meaningful to Woodbury than she could have imagined.
“I was extremely pleased because St. Raphael is [also] the patron of those seeking a marriage partner, and at the time I was praying to him even before I was commissioned,” she explained. “I was literally praying a prayer to him every day, and then it was like, ‘oh yes, now I get to work on him.’
“During that time I was working on him, I took all my prayers in that way to him. This icon has brought me through quite a bit. And [now] I have found a marriage partner, and it was partially because of his intercession. So it [was] also a thank you for me to work with him.”
Breathing life into an icon
The process of creating an icon is an intensive one. While it may appear to be similar to that of creating any other painting, it differs in that each step of the process is symbolic and very much imbued with the Holy Spirit.
From the onset, Woodbury made every single element used to create the icon from scratch, beginning with the wooden board it was painted on.
“[To do] an icon my way, I have to make the board because otherwise it’s very expensive and I figured I could do it,” Woodbury said. “My dad’s been very helpful. He actually was a woodworker at one time, so he can help me create jigs and things.”
Traditional icons are sunken down a bit into the board, so with the help of her dad, Woodbury routed out the center and left an outer frame. She then attached a piece of muslin to the board with rabbit hide glue, flattened out the air bubbles to ensure seamless contact between the wood and fabric, and thus her canvas was ready.
Next comes the gesso, or the paint she’ll use to create the icon.
“That is marble powder, rabbit hide glue and linseed oil,” she said. “The linseed oil is a secret for elasticity. I get about thirteen layers of gesso. It’s like the consistency of heavy cream.”
Before commencing the actual painting, the first step is to transfer an image of St. Raphael onto the canvas using transfer paper. Woodbury drew inspiration from three past icons of St. Raphael and added some of her own ideas to design this particular icon.
The major creation of the icon is done through a series of paint layers, called highlights and floats. Highlights embody the overall composition and structure of the icon, while floats are very light washes of intense colors through which the highlights glow.
It is customary to begin with the halo, which when finished is a brilliant gold luster. She creates this particular substance using red bole clay, rabbit hide glue and honey. One this substance is applied, it is sanded down and smoothed out; then, she uses a smooth piece of agate to burnish it, and at last adds the gold. The substance itself is very thick, and in order to make it easier to work with, Woodbury quite literally breathes life into it.
“This is really reflective of the Russian style,” Woodbury explained. “We use breath adhesion. Other people use glue or stuff like that, but we use breath. We breathe onto the board. It’s kind of symbolic, bringing life into it somehow. [I] breathe onto the board and it brings the glue in the bole back to life and makes it sticky so that you can put the gold down on top of it.
“This particular icon has about three layers of gold because it just needed good coverage.” She added with a smile, “Father Piotr specifically said, ‘don’t skimp on the gold.’”
The three main styles of iconography are the Greek, Coptic and Russian (also known as Russian Byzantine) styles. Woodbury’s St. Raphael icon is done in the Russian style, which has specific qualities that distinguish it from the other two and, as expected, are symbolic of what the icon seeks to convey.
“The Russian Byzantine is different than the other two because of its proportions, and because of its layers of floats and highlights,” Woodbury explained. “Russian icons often look very startling. The proportions are very long and skinny. The faces especially have very long, thin noses and that just symbolizes they don’t need to breathe anymore. The mouths are usually very small, not overdone, and that means they don’t need to speak anymore. They’ve already said all they need to say, their life is their gospel now.”
Once the icon is fully written and finishing touches have been made, Woodbury “anoints” the finished piece with a layer of oil, which also helps to seal the paint in a protective layer.
Bursting with meaning
After an arduous yet rewarding six months from inception to completion, St. Raphael now proudly hangs alongside his brother archangels St. Michael and St. Gabriel in Holy Trinity’s adoration chapel, where they serve as powerful intercessors for all who pray there.
For her part, Woodbury feels grateful to have been given the chance to create this icon, and it has also served as a vessel to boost her own self-esteem, which she admits she struggles with at times.
“Having Father Piotr entrust me with this has really brought up my opinion of myself,” Woodbury shared. “I hope to be commissioned like this again.”
More meaningful to Woodbury than the opportunity, though, is that she has found a sort of charism in iconography. Art has always been a way for her to express herself, she said, but in being led by the spirit to this incredibly rich style of art, Woodbury feels more like herself.
“Iconography has made me more me,” Woodbury concluded. “It’s helped me to express myself in a way I never could have before without it. I’ve often struggled with words, especially when I was younger. But with art, I could say a lot and with iconography in particular, it’s been around for so many years, it seems like it’s probably proven worthy. It’s bursting with meaning and symbolism, and it makes me feel rather involved. This is a part of the Church I think that should not be allowed to die.”
To see more of Claire’s iconography, visit ClairesRussianIcons.com.