St. Raphael icon a symbol of confidence for Denver artist who created it

Newly commissioned icon adorns Holy Trinity Parish adoration chapel

The art of iconography within the Church dates back to her earliest days and is considered by some to be an outdated medium in the modern world.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.” 

Divine providence 

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.” 

Claire Woodbury is a local artist and iconographer at Holy Trinity Parish in Westminster. She’s discovered more about herself than she expected to in the four years since she’s taken up iconography. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

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.” 

Father Piotr Mozdyniewicz blesses the new St. Raphael icon at Holy Trinity Parish on Feb. 28. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

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.” 

Woodbury’s St. Raphael icon installation (R) was created in the same Russian Byzantine style as the St. Gabriel (L) and St Michael (not pictured) icons which adorn the walls of Holy Trinity’s adoration chapel. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

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.

COMING UP: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people

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The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.

Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.

Interwoven journeys

Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.

Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.

“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”

He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation. 

While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path. 

And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.

Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.

Father Matthew Magee (left) and his dad, Deacon Michael Magee (right), were both encouraging to one another as they each pursued their respective vocations. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”

On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling. 

“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”

God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for. 

This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”

“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.

In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.

“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”

A bribe for Heaven

For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.

While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.

“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”

So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.

“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”

To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference. 

As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.

“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”

Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.

“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”

Father John Nepil (left) and Deacon Darrell Nepil (right) both had rather roundabout ways to their respective vocations, but they both say serving God’s people together as brothers in Holy Orders is a great joy. (Photo provided)

Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.

“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.

The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God. 

One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.

“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”

“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.

“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”