It’s no wonder that religious icon paintings have stood the test of time; for thousands of years, they have provided a little diversion from reality into a beautiful world all their own.
I had never had the privilege of viewing an icon up close and personal, so to speak, until Marie Hemker shared her collection with me. She has been painting them since 2007, spending one week each year at the Mother Home of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Kalamazoo, Michigan, to complete one. This is the old complex of Nazareth College where the nuns live. Needless to say, I was intrigued by something I literally knew nothing about.
“Let’s start from the beginning,” she says. “First of all, we do not call it 'painting an icon,' but rather we call it ‘writing an icon’ because they tell stories of faith. It’s like writing with paint.”
I soon learned that icons are often referred to as “windows to the soul” or “windows to heaven” and are actually a form of prayer. Marie went on to explain that during her week in Kalamazoo, the whole class works on the same image and, because it involves so many steps in the process, it takes the entire week to finish one icon.
They can be cast in metal, carved in stone, embroidered on cloth and fashioned on other mediums, but they are usually written on special wooden boards that have been carefully shaped and smoothed. The images depict Jesus, Mary, various saints and angels.
An icon is begun by taking an outline, called a cartoon, and tracing it on tracing paper to get a feel for the lines. Then it is traced onto the boards and every line is painted with a tiny, fine-lined brush called a liner to outline it even further. “This is the most important step,” Marie says, “because if you don’t have good lines the finished product won’t be good.”
After this begins the real time-consuming process because the actual depth of the artwork is created by adding several thin layers of paint, one on top of the other. The first layer is a wash that provides the base coat. Next, the background colors are brushed on starting with the darker shades and working towards the lighter colors, and finally the highlights are applied last.
These layers create an icon of glowing colors and graceful lines. Even the various colors play important roles in what the image represents. Gold implies the radiance of heaven; red, divine life; blue, human life; and white is the Uncreated light of God and is only used for the Resurrection and the transfiguration of Christ.
The converging of lines in icons is opposite to those in traditional paintings where all lines converge away from the viewer. It’s like when you look down train tracks, the tracks seem to meet at a point in the distance. In an icon, the lines converge toward the onlooker, drawing the person into the image. The light itself comes from inside, further drawing the viewer in.
What all this adds up to is a very special effect that few other art forms possess. When in front of an icon, it is as if you are looking through a window into a heavenly mystery that turns into a two-way window as you are also being seen with the eyes of love by those in the icon. You totally get pulled into the mystery that the image seeks to express. Wow! To be able to create a piece of art that can totally engulf the viewer is pure amazing!
Another tidbit that sets icons apart from other art is that they are never signed on the front. The artist will write on the back of the piece “By the hand of ….” It all follows in the theory of not drawing attention to the artist, but rather to the work of art.
Dating back to the Fourth Century, icons have been described in many ways. They have been called hymns, sermons, images of faith and, my favorite, prayers clothed with colors. Writing them is like giving yourself a time-out of life, a time to be still.
Marie is adamant. “That is the precise reason I enjoy them so much," she says. “They bring a deep sense of peace. When our class is working, you can feel the spirituality in the room.”
Naturally, I was curious as to how solemn the whole week was for her since I have heard that in some convents, the nuns take a vow of silence. Marie laughs at this. “Oh no, silent for a week, I don’t think so. We all do each step together and after the instructor explains each step, the room is quiet because that is your personal time with God. As we work, we pray for people in our lives and those prayers become part of the icon. Like this year we worked from 9 a.m. to noon then had chapel. Then it was working from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., then dinner and chapel. During meals and evenings we visit and make new friendships.”
Marie was an art teacher for 32 years, but confides that no other art form has brought her so much peace and joy. This art is like an extension of her life and also a contrast. She and her husband, Dan, are farmers, and they both love nothing more than their family and what they do. “I look forward to this week,” Marie says, “because it gives me a chance to concentrate on creating a beautiful piece of art in a peaceful and prayerful atmosphere, totally different from day to day life.”
How does Dan survive the week going solo? “I do miss her but I compensate by eating foods that she is not particularly fond of, like beef tongue!” he laughs.
Peter Pearson, a well-known iconographer, offers us a unique explanation for the lure of icons. “They offer us a glimpse into things through God’s eyes and invite us to enter into the mystery of a world made new by the light of God’s presence.”
Marie’s icons draw you into another world and she possesses a talent that is not widespread. She truly believes art isn’t art unless it is shared, which is perhaps why she has generously done the image of St. Michael three times and given them all away! Her love of icons is only a natural extension of how she approaches life, believing that love, trust and beauty should be a part of everything you do and should be shared.