The Art of Iconography
A Catholic icon is a representation of the image of holy figures, such as Mary, Jesus, and the saints. Jennifer Hayes, a local artist and parishioner of St. Peter Parish, shares with us the art of iconography...
How long have you written icons?
I have been writing icons for 16 years. I studied under Master Iconographer Phillip Zimmerman, owner of St. John Damascus Icon Studio in Pennsylvania, as well as Raymond Calvert of New Orleans, LA. I began simply by a monk visiting for supper one night. I showed him a painting I was working on, an ‘icon’ of our Lady, and he bluntly told me, “You know nothing of icons, do you?” Haha He immediately hooked me up with the classes being held at the Abbey and I have not stopped! It is the best form of prayer for me especially since I am not one to sit still during prayer for very long!
What is the process of writing an icon?
Each traditional icon begins with a gessoed birch board usually with a raised border. Once a saint has been commissioned, a prototype is chosen from one of the classical images of that figure or scene. Typically, an iconographer will anoint his/her hands with sacred oil and pray a prayer that calls on the intercession of Our Lady and St. Luke (the patron saint of artists) that anyone who lays eyes on this icon will be blessed. Throughout the process of writing the icon, I pray for the saint's intercession and guidance that the depiction of their heavenly form would become manifest. I am constantly awed by their presence while I am working.
Why is it called “writing” an icon?
In the Western Church, the term ‘icon writing’ is used when talking about painting an icon. However, when researching this further, I found an article by Dr. John Yiannias, Professor Emeritus of Art History at the University of Virginia, who states that “......it originated probably because in the Greek word eikonographia and its Slavonic translation ikonopisanie the suffixes (graphí and pisánie) very often mean “writing.” However, the suffixes graphí and pisánie both mean depiction, as well as writing.”
Also, in Russian, the spoken words “write” and “paint” are both “pisat.” It is one word with a double meaning.
Is there anything else you’d like us to know about icons and writing icons?
Whether we write it or paint it, the overall experience is truly a form of prayer. As one would pray the Lord’s Prayer in each his own tongue, so does an iconographer write/paint with his own hand, but always inspired by the Holy Spirit. An icon is never to be used as a creative outlet for the iconographer/ painter for these depictions of Jesus, the saints or biblical scenes. These are windows into Heaven! One wonderful explanation I heard about icons is to think about the icons on your desktop computer. Once you click on the picture it opens you into a whole other ‘dimension’. So when gazing upon a religious icon, you can be transported through your prayer to the scene or conversation with the saint.
A couple of years ago, Jennifer Hayes was commissioned by members of the St. Peter Music Ministry to write an icon of St. Cecilia, the patron saint of musicians, in remembrance of the late Rhonda Baumgartner, a longtime member of the St. Peter Music Ministry. At a special Mass in January 2019, members of the Baumgartner family processed in with the image and Fr. Otis Young blessed it. The icon now hangs in the choir loft. Here are a few words from Jennifer regarding the icon...
It was truly an honor to be commissioned for the St Cecilia icon at St Peter in honor of the late Rhonda Baumgartner. She was an avid member of the St Peter Parish Choir and her memory is forever remembered in the gaze of St Cecilia looking upon the choir at each Mass.
You can learn more about Jenn's work on her website HERE.