About fifteen years ago, parishioner Betsy Porter began teaching an iconography class at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church, located on De Haro Street. Iconographers create Christian art based on an ancient Byzantine style, sometimes referred to as the “Gospel in color.” Porter had been a congregant for a couple of years and wanted to share her artistic passion with others.
The word “icon” comes from the Greek, eikoˉn, which means image. Icons are most commonly associated with religious paintings in the Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition, and usually feature portraits of Biblical figures imbued with spiritual symbolism. The works are created following specific steps, according to theological principles, with the goal of spiritual development. They’re ritually blessed; considered to be sacred representations of the divine and creation.
Many religious traditions offer artistic or symbolic physical representations, such as Buddhist mandalas, paintings of Hindu deities, Catholic frescoes, the menorah in Judaism and Islamic calligraphy. Prohibitions of sacred images can be found throughout history in many traditions, often due to interpretations of idolatry. In the Eastern Orthodox custom, it’s believed that the creation of icons can be traced to the earliest days of Christianity; however much of the works were lost between 726 and 842 CE during the Byzantine Iconoclasm, in which there was widespread destruction of icons and persecution of those who venerated them due to differing religious ideologies.
With a strong interest in art since childhood, Porter was exposed to Byzantine-style iconography during her travels to Greece and Russia. Inspired by works painted by her friend, Grace Evans, Porter first received training in icon painting in 1997.
“It started for me in Princeton, New Jersey, when I went to visit a friend and saw on her mantle two beautiful icons,” said Porter. “I complimented her on them, saying that they were much prettier than the ones I saw in Russia and Greece.”
Porter participated in a series of week-long workshops at the Prosopon School of Iconology. The school was founded by Vladislav Andrejev, who began teaching in 1985 and now has a dozen instructors based in the United States and Europe, with studios in Louisiana, Vermont, Virginia, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, California, Florida and Estonia.
Iconography classes at St. Gregory are generally held two Sundays a month from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. in the church’s Rotunda. The three-hour period allows flexibility for participants, who sometimes live as far as two hours away. Though some are parishioners, the classes are open to everyone. Participants pay between $120 to $200 for painting materials, $15 for educational items; there’s a suggested $10 donation for use of the space.
While icon painting is considered part of the Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition, other Christian denominations have adopted the art form. It has similarities with Italian Renaissance paintings. St. Gregory’s rector, Paul Fromberg, is reportedly an iconographer.
According to Porter, iconography has Pagan roots that pre-date the Byzantine era. For example, it’s thought that depictions of the ancient Egyptian goddess, Isis, and her baby, Horus, inspired Christian “Madonna and Child” imagery, and that renderings of Jesus are based on the ancient Roman god, Jupiter.
“Sharing the joy of icons with all people is the first agreement of the iconographer,” states church literature. “Icons are not simply works of art, but rather sacred objects directly connected to the actual presence of God. They are the windows from this world into a place of spiritual reality invisible to the eye.”
Porter is the main instructor and facilitator of the bimonthly classes. Some attendees have a background in the arts; many are completely new to icon painting. Before a student commences work, Porter gives specific instructions keeping with traditional guidelines. Novices begin by creating an image of Michael the Archangel, because it requires acquiring a broad skill set in the art form. One participant commented that working on her first icon sparked a feeling of inquisitiveness as she learned that Michael is considered an archangel in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Other subjects include “Moses and the Burning Bush,” Saint Francis of Assisi, the Archangel Gabriel, “Jonah and the Whale,” and “Christ as Good Shepherd”.
The icons are painted on solid, hardwood boards that are about an inch thick and cost $150 or more. The preferred medium is egg tempera, a durable paint made from powdered pigments mixed with egg yolks and white wine, freshly mixed for each session. Gold leaf is used to represent religious figure’s halos or as backgrounds.
“Working with egg tempera is unfamiliar to most people, but it’s a lovely medium and the layering technique gives you a beautiful glow and subtle colors,” Porter explained.
Porter and other iconographers strongly prefer the use of egg tempera because it gives paintings more depth, and richer, more natural looking, colors can be achieved. People create icons using acrylic paints; however, Porter cautioned that acrylic can result in a “plastic” appearance. According to Porter, some of the materials used in iconography contain a mixture of red clay, mortar, glue and a little glycerin. The clay is symbolic of Adam, as the Hebrew derivative of the name means “earth” or “red clay”. Whenever clay is used in an icon it represents God’s creation of Adam, she said.
In addition to the bimonthly classes, an Icon Intensive Workshop will be held from July 30 to August 4 at the church. There’s no firm deadline, but applications for the course should be submitted by early June. Judith Tucker, who coordinates the clinic, had participated in a similar event many years ago in Santa Barbara; since then about five summer workshops have been held annually. Porter will be involved in the session; however, Dmitri Andreyev, from the Prosopon School, the son of Vladislav Andrejev, will be the instructor.
“He’s an excellent teacher,” said Tucker. “We always learn something new from him. Dmitri does more than just teach his technique. He delves into the meaning of the icons and the spiritual connection beyond what we’re doing.”
Anyone can apply to attend the summer workshop. However, Tucker emphasized that the experience is intense, running from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. for six days, and will cover intermediate and advanced material. Last year, the workshop fee was $900; Tucker anticipates it’ll be a similar amount this summer. Payment covers breakfast and lunch, as well as materials and Andreyev’s airfare, as he lives in Vermont.
For more information about the bimonthly classes, call 510.663.4830; for the summer workshop email jktucker [at] sonic [dot] net.