By Sister Sharon Havelak, OSF
It was one of the most powerful experiences ever: intense, challenging, frustrating, deeply spiritual, profound. Did I say intense?
Ever since I heard about them, I’ve wanted to take an icon painting/writing retreat. A couple of weeks back I was blessed to fulfill that dream. I went with a bit of trepidation, wondering if my very Western art background would be a stumbling block. And I wanted it so badly.
We were a large group, 17 of us, with varying art and religious backgrounds. Some had painted several icons; others had never held a brush. We were Catholic and Protestant, many Sisters of different religious communities, two Protestant pastors, two deacons (one Catholic and one Episcopalian) and lay women. One of the pastors was also an astronomer, intrigued by the title of the image.
The image that we all painted was Our Lady of the Sign, an ancient depiction of Mary in Orans position with her hands held out in prayer; the image is often regarded as a model of the Church. Over her breast is a large aureole with the child Jesus (an elderly-looking child to indicate that he was both divine and human), one hand holding a scroll, the other blessing. The image depicts the moment of conception, as prophesied by Isaiah, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son and will call him Emmanuel.” (IS 7:14). In this image, Mary is also known as the Platytera, “She who is more spacious than the heavens” since she held within her womb the Incarnate God.
Each day began and ended with communal prayer, led by an Associate of the Wheaton Franciscans. Each day the image developed in front of us as we, step-by-step, drew and painted the image, under the direction of a master iconographer. He explained the traditional techniques and showed us how to make tracing paper, apply the imitation gold leaf and mix the acrylic colors we would be using. The significance of each step was carefully explained. Step-by-step, the image emerged: the background, the Virgin’s drapery, the aureole, Christ’s garments, the faces, until the image was complete. Step-by-step, the image grew in us, as we prayed and sweated over the process.
At the end of the retreat, we had a ceremony of blessing of the icons. Everyone expressed, not only their happiness with the icon they produced, but the deep sense of community that was formed in the group. Drazen, our instructor, reminded us that no matter the level of polish of the painting technique, each icon was holy. I suspect that each of us was also a bit holier for holding the image so close all week. Each time I look at it, I will remember the amazing people I worked with that week. The full significance of the icon for me will continue to be revealed as I continue to struggle to bring Christ to our world.
(The icon above this post is Sister Sharon’s creation).