Weeklong class lets iconographers connect to the divine
NORWALK — On the lower level of St. Paul’s on the Green, a group of amateur iconographers gathered and said a prayer before commencing their foray into the 2,000-year-old art. They each had a copy of a hymnal depicting Jesus Christ emerging from his tomb with Mary, and they were readying to copy it as faithfully as possible in acrylic and gold leaf.
In an age when copies can be captured and endlessly reproduced with the tap of a finger, two schools of thought have emerged regarding quality: objects that can be obtained frictionlessly and efficiently and those that are one-of-a-kind, artisanal, showing the hand of their maker.
The art of iconography strives for neither. The laborious process cannot be called effortless or individualistic; it focuses on creating flat surfaces of paint without distinct brush strokes or texture, and often copies older icons rather than striving for something new. Mary Street, who led the weeklong class, believed the icon they were recreating dated from the late 19th or earlier 20th century and was likely derived from an earlier image.
“It’s a very different purpose than a typical painting,” Street said. “Icons are often called windows into the divine. So you’re really creating a way to reach to God through the image.”
So, the class, which included artists, a priest and a parishioner of St. Paul’s, went about carefully tracing the icon and transferring it to their panels with graphite paper. The delineated shapes would be filled with paint prepared in neatly labeled tubs of colors with practical names, such as “background” and “tomb.”
Street was introduced to iconography eight years ago, and found herself drawn to the atmosphere of quiet and prayer. In the monastery where she studied, monks lived in silence, dressed in habits except for their stints in the garden. To her, icons were devoid of ego.
“Success isn’t about, ‘I’m going to make the most beautiful icon in the world,’ ” she said. “Success is having a prayer life ... and I think the making of icons can be a very powerful, meditative connection.”
Many are finding that an increasingly attractive prospect. According to iconography teachers, more people have been dipping into the art form in recent years.
“Iconography has become much more popular in the past 20 years,” Street said.
“I don’t remember hearing any talk in regards to the icon 30 years ago or 25 years ago,” said Grace Zazzaro, an iconographer who runs Athella Icon Studio and was commissioned to do work for Yale’s St. Thomas More Chapel.
“As opposed to now, iconographers are popping up all over the country.”
Many of those practicing in St. Paul’s said they were attracted to the meditative aspect.
Gael Ficken, of Westport, said she was drawn to the art as a spiritual practice, in which a relationship was formed with the religious figures she was depicting. “There’s my space and there’s the image, and we make the connection to the other side of the image. It’s a circle,” she said.
Botanical illustrator Christine Leddy was interested in learning a different way art could connect to the divine.
“The rule in botanical illustration is to be as detailed as possible, to reflect what God made,” she said, reflecting on the difference between the two forms. “This, the rules exist from the ancient Greeks, and then the Russians. And they’re man-made rules.”
Audrey Cozzarin, of Norwalk, an artist who worships at St. Paul’s, carefully applied the paint as evenly as possible and examined the results.
“I’m not sure if I’m expressing myself,” she said, “but I’m interested in creating something with meaning. That’s not just a pretty picture.”