ICON MAKING Involves Spirit as Much as Art Exhibit on Way to NW Church; Exhibit on Way to NW Church

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 4, 2004 | Go to article overview

ICON MAKING Involves Spirit as Much as Art Exhibit on Way to NW Church; Exhibit on Way to NW Church


Byline: Lisa Rauschart, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Just before Maria Leontovitsch Manley gets ready to apply the gold leaf to an icon, she prepares a piece of fatty clay called an Armenian bole. She will press that onto the surface of her icon to ensure that the gold will adhere without imperfections. Like the paint, the gold leaf and the technique for making the icon itself, the clay bole has been used this way for centuries. And just as iconographers have done for centuries, Mrs. Manley takes the small piece of clay into her hands and, ever so gently, breathes on it.

"You have to do it slowly," Mrs. Manley says. An internationally recognized iconographer, she became interested in her religion, Russian Orthodoxy, and its icons after the death of her father when she was just 16.

A gentle breath on the clay is all it takes: Breathe too quickly and the gold leaf will blow away. Certainly, it's an old technique. Today, there would be more-efficient ways of easing the gold leaf onto the prepared bole. But warm breath on cold clay also echoes the act of God giving Adam life so long ago. That's an important consideration for iconographers, who blend technique and symbol in a form that owes a bit to art and much to spirit.

The slow and symbolic work of the icon maker will be showcased at the Third Pan-Orthodox Icon Exhibit, at Saints Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church in Northwest on March 13 and 14. Now prized by art collectors, icons are designed not as pieces of art but as objects for religious veneration.

"Icons were the books of the unlearned," says Father Nicholas Manousakis, the Proistemenos, or pastor, at Saints Constantine and Helen. "When you saw icons embellishing the walls of a church, you learned Christianity by knowing what the icons represented. They are windows to heaven."

Icon makers, called iconographers, rarely refer to themselves as artists and rarely sign their work. They speak of "writing" icons rather than painting or making them. Using techniques that have remained the same for centuries, the iconographer is more conduit than creator, participating in a spiritual journey that begins and ends in prayer.

"This is not art first, not art as is," or art for its own sake, says Irena Beliakova, a Russian iconographer who came to the United States in 1982. "There's something behind it called the spirit."

When Mrs. Beliakova began learning to make icons, religious practice was still illegal in the Soviet Union. Now the fall of the communist East and a reawakening of the need for religious ritual has brought a resurgence of interest in icons and icon making. Slowly, and without much fanfare, iconographers from various traditions are breathing new life into an old form.

"We follow the old rules and the mystical colors," says Valentin Ciucur, who, along with wife Maria, "writes" icons following the style they learned in art school back in Romania in 1977. "Blue shows divinity, red shows purity. Every rule has a purpose."

Yet the spiritual qualities that invest an icon and give it meaning can be difficult to teach.

"If the student does not have that inside, they never come any more," says Mrs. Beliakova, who has been teaching an icon class at Georgetown's Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church for the last nine years.

What is constant is the technique. Every iconographer begins with prayer, often to the figure that will be represented. Some iconographers will even fast during the writing of an icon, which can take up to a week or more for an iconographer working eight hours a day.

After prayer, the icono-grapher takes up a block of wood and prepares the board by laying down cheesecloth and layers of gesso, a mixture of animal glue and chalk or powdered marble, until the surface is thick and smooth.

While the gesso is drying, iconographers prepare a "cartoon," a line-by-line drawing of the icon that they want to write. …

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