Pictured here is an icon of Christ the Savior that somehow through the grace of God came from my very hands (and the help of Sister Rosaire!). This is the story of my brush with God, how I came to paint an image of Jesus and how the process deepened my relationship with our Lord.
After Mass one weekend Gerogette Belobrajdic, a parishioner of Holy Sepulcher Parish, asked me to bless some icons that she had brought with her. I love icons and after blessing them I complimented her on their beauty and asked where she had purchased them so that I might get one for myself. She informed me that she had painted them herself at an icon class she had taken with Sister Rosaire Kopczenski at the Sisters of St. Francis in Millvale, just outside of Pittsburgh.
I had considered for quite some time to go to one of those classes that seem to be popping up everywhere that allow you to paint your own painting masterpiece in a couple of hours. The paintings looked simple and fun. To do a religious version would be harder, but I would certainly enjoy it more. So I called Sister Rosaire to join her $15 a week class (all materials included!). I explained to her that I did not have any experience painting icons (more accurately called “writing” icons), but she said, “That’s OK. We don’t paint them. We pray them.”
Sister Rosaire is a wonderful artist of painting and sculpture. She studied at Carlow University, Notre Dame University, and The Catholic University of America for undergraduate and Masters of Fine Arts Degrees and taught Art and Art History. She now teaches the “writing” of icons in her studio at Mount Alvernia in Millvale. Her iconography has appeared in numerous publications, including the City Paper , the Trib, and many other places. Her bronze sculpture of St. Marianne Cope is near the very location in Honolulu, Hawaii where the great saint first landed to begin her work serving the sick. As I completed work on my icon, Sister completed work on another sculpture of St. Francis of Assisi that after being cast in bronze will also be set up in Hawaii.
Icon is a word that means “image,” but some say that they are actually windows into heaven. They are not meant to be perfect representations of the individual being depicted. In most cases the individual being depicted was never recorded or photographed. They actually tell a story (which is why icons are properly called “written”) through their images and symbols. They allow us to enter into the story and get a glimpse of what is happening.
One who paints an icon must know and love God, praise God, and must pray and reflect on their own personal relationship with God. Sister Rosaire makes the process of painting an icon a very prayerful experience. I know for myself that as I painted my icon I was able to enter into a more deeper and spiritual relationship with Christ because as I wrote the icon, I was able to pray and reflect about the story of Jesus and how that story applied to me very personally. In a sense the image that was revealed throughout the process came not so much from the template I was working from, but from the prayer and reflection I was doing during the process. It gave me a love and a connection with the divine in a way that I had never experienced before. The image of Christ that I have is personal not only because it is different from other student icons that painted the same image, but because it came from a personal conversation of prayer and reflection that I had with our Lord. It certainly was a time to praise God for the gift of the icon that was revealed to me during my “writing.”
The writing of an icon begins by tracing a copy of an existing icon image (no creativity here!) and then using carbon paper to imprint the traced image onto a board. The carbon image is then painted onto the board. Then a ruler is used to outline a border onto the board and a compass is used to outline the halo. Then a wash is applied to the board to allow paint to stick. Then you begin by applying very transparent layers of paint over and over again to get the shades of color that you are looking for starting with the background, clothes, hair, and face. You then add a thick and a thin border before adding the gold leaf to the halo. Then lettering is applied to the icon. The lettering on the halo of my icon represents “I AM who AM” and the IX and XC are Greek for Jesus Christ. A message is sometimes placed on the back. My icon reads “Christ the Savior – For the honor and glory of God from the hand of Deacon David Miller 07/10/2014. “ The final step is to apply a varnish.
Icons are blessed by a bishop, priest, or deacon by applying holy oil to the back of the board. Because I am a deacon I got to bless my own icon. What a joy!
“Creating God, you fashioned the universe in love and brought us forth from the earth. Throughout the ages, our ancestors longed to see your face and when the time had grown full, you sent your Christ among us so that we might find our way back to you, our source and our destiny. Look upon your servants here and upon this icon, created in love and prayer. Fill it with the radiance of your good, holy, and life-giving Spirit to complete the work of our hands for your glory and the good of those who will come to pray before them. May this icon be a source of blessing and hope for your people, may it give comfort and challenge complacency, and may it proclaim your infinite love for us in every situation. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.”
Icons are a wonderful way to practice prayer and meditation, to increase your devotion to the individual saint or biblical story being “written,” and to deepen your relationship and love for God. My icon is now prominently displayed near my “beautiful corner,” a prayerful space that is set up specifically to pray and meditate. My area includes the Our Lady of Lourdes Rosary that led to my becoming Catholic, a kneeler, crucifix, candles, statues, relics of saints, and now my Christ the Savior icon that has been placed on an east facing wall (as icons are meant to do).
I know that my first icon was such an amazing experience I can’t wait to being my second icon, which will most certainly be one of the Blessed Mother.
If you would like to take an icon class with Sister Rosaire, call the Sisters of St. Francis at 412-821-2200 or email Sister at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you would like an icon, but don’t have the time to “write” one yourself, you can order an icon that Sister Rosaire herself “wrote” by ordering below.