Over the last winter and spring, Saint Luke's Icon Group have been working in the hall at Saint Charles Borromeo each Thursday. We are an ecumenical group of 7 iconographers and have been meeting together for 10 years. Coming from different denominations and with a variety of training traditions, we come together to write icons for churches and individuals. We were drawn to write the icons of two of our local martyrs; Blessed Robert Grissold and Blessed John Sugar. An Anglican and a Catholic working and praying alongside each other, collaborating on the design features which has produced a pair of unique processional icons which are due to be blessed for use in both the Anglican and Catholic churches.
Iconography is a long standing tradition of the Catholic Church, and it's place within the church was defended by St John Damascene during the period of the iconoclasm. Examples are to be found throughout the world and especially in Rome and Italy. The saints are always with us to help and guide us. The icon gives us a doorway into the saint's heavenly reality.
It is a discipline which crosses the boundaries of the major Christian denominations (Orthodox, Anglican and Catholic). This is a living reality for our local icon group, who are from differing denominations and were variously trained under Coptic, Catholic and Orthodox tutors.
Icons used in the Catholic Church are part the the sacramentals of the church (along with holy water and the holy oils used for the Sacrament of the Sick). When an icon is completed it is blessed by the church with holy oil and holy water and can then be used for the liturgy of the church (for local veneration or processions).
It is said that an icon is “written” and this is because of the way that it moves from inanimate materials to a living image which is created in a very special way. The icon becoming a doorway into a heavenly reality. The icon is written following the Iconography Canons of the church (laws given and passed on down the centuries). For example, a saint must have a halo and the icon must be named.
Writing an Icon.
The iconographer is drawn into this particular ministry by way of a vocation. Being guided by the Holy Spirit and being granted the gifts and talents required, the iconographer offers the work in a spirit of prayer. Special prayer is offered before starting and on completion of the icon and the iconographer is engaged in prayer throughout the writing process.
Extensive research and prayerful understanding is taken on-board by the iconographer. This encompasses getting to know the Saint/s and what use the icon is for, plus a knowledge of where and how it is to be accommodated within the given church.
The traditions that St Lukes iconographers follow are the oldest and known to be the most complex forms of writing icons. A wood panel covered in gesso is chosen for the positioning of the icon and the completion of the figures. This gessoed board is very finely sanded to give the smoothest surface possible. An accurate drawing of the image to be used is transferred onto the board using pigment.
We use Egg Tempera to paint with and many layers are used to give the depth, complexity and a finish which reveals the inner Divine Light. Egg Tempera is made up of pigment, egg yolk, vodka and water , in specific ratios. The pigments are from rocks which are ground into a very fine powder to produce particles which are small enough to create the paint. These are from all around the world and can vary greatly in price.
Gold leaf is used to indicate something of the Divine Light of the icon. This is applied using the “Water Gilding method; Oil Gilding method; or Assist. These produce different end results and Water Gilding ; whilst being the most versatile is also the most difficult. Embossed water gilding may produce elaborate work and can be used to great effect for highlighting halos for instance.
If it is true to say that an Icon is written; then it must follow that an Icon can be read. What I mean by Reading an Icon , is that as you look at the icon and pray with it then you will be drawn into a deeper understanding and relationship with the subject of the icon. For instance, the martyrs of the church are wearing their Sunday best clothes or their vestments( indicating that they are in heaven and in the presence of God, and carry a crucifix often clutched to their heart or held in a triumphal manner. Our local saints have haloes which indicate that they are English Saints (English Oak leaves and acorns are embossed into the gold leaf). Saint Peter is usually carrying keys and Saint Paul a scroll. These indicate something of their given ministry/ vocation, within the church. Icons have been known to bring about healing and deepen the knowledge, devotion and faith of the Christian.
Unusually, these two icons have quotes from what they said in their final earthly hours which surround the images.