Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Writing an icon

This week a wonderful cultural blend is happening in Cuernavaca. A group from Southern California is joining with Episcopalians in Cuernavaca to learn the Russian tradition of icon painting while visiting places with Mexican iconic art.

They are not actually coming here to learn to paint icons, they are coming to learn to write icons. Workshop participant Mike Roeder, an icon collector and scholar himself, explained “the verb ‘to write’ an icon has been adopted by English speakers partly because icons in the Orthodox or Russian tradition depict various aspects of the life of Christ who is also known as The Word. Iconographers are expressing ‘the word’ in their work and thus iconography is a cross between painting and writing.

The Russian language has many words for paint but Russians use the verb to write to mean ‘to paint meaningfully.’   Russians would say that icons are theology expressed in line and color.  Icon, in the original Christian sense, meant a visible image of the invisible – God.”  Creating an icon is a spiritual discipline as well as an artistic effort.

Early Christian icons dating to within 100 years of the life of Jesus have been found in Egypt and Crete.  As Christianity spread iconography also spread east and west, growing particularly strong in the Byzantine Empire. Icons are written to tell a story in an unfolding of dark to light… ignorance to truth.

The workshop is taught by U.S. iconographer Teresa Harrison. Teresa has been painting icons for over 20 years and has a large commission installed in St. Dunstan's Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas. She learned from Philip Zimmerman, a Pennsylvania icon writer in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, and from master iconographer Ksenia Pokrovsky, a self-taught Russian iconographer who was instrumental in reviving icon painting after repression during the Soviet era.

I’m delighted to take the group to places to see both ancient Mesoamerican and modern Mexican iconic depictions. I’m especially delighted to hear from workshop organizer Carol Hopkins, my collaborator on Charlie’s Digs, that people were turned away because the workshop was filled—a welcomed change from a couple of years ago when it was harder to attract people to travel to Mexico. I think this bodes well for the resurgence of tourism in Mexico.

Mexico is appropriately rich with icons. In Cuernavaca’s Cortez Palace participants will see and follow Diego Rivera’s iconic story of Mexico from the conquest to the Revolution.  At Xochicalco’s Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent the story will unfold depicting Quetzalcoatl as patron god of a meeting of astronomer-priests gathered to adjust the Mesoamerican calendar.

Mexico’s famed Anthropology Museum also tells a story. I particularly like the way one can wend from room to room following Quetzalcoatl. He’s first portrayed as The Feathered Serpent, then transforms from god to person and then to god-person.  Cuernavaca’s Cathedral, which is housed in a 16th century Franciscan church and monastery, reveals the story leading to the martyrdom of Mexico’s first native-born saint -- San Felipe de Jesus.

The workshop, held at the La Mancha B&B in Cuernavaca, begins each morning with prayer and celebration of the Eucharist. Then following breakfast the group will discuss various facets of icon writing, the history of icons, and the spiritual implications of icon writing.  Participants will “write” their icons mostly in silence or accompanied by Gregorian chanting.

Participants from the U.S. are residents of Southern California.   Those from Mexico are members of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Cuernavaca.  The workshop is also coordinated by The Reverend Tamara Newell, formerly of Christ Church, Mexico City and retired from St. Michaels. Reverend Newell was the first female Episcopalian priest ordained in Latin America.

At the workshop several different icons are being written.  In honor of Mexico’s beloved Guadalupe some have elected to create icons of Our Lady.  Mike Roeder is working on John the Baptist.  Others are focusing on St. Francis, and several who have walked the Camino de Santiago Compostela are writing St. James. Others are reproducing the beautiful, mysterious 6th century icon of The Sinai Christ, housed at St. Catherine’s in Egypt at the base of Mt. Sinai.

Ms. Harrison says “Iconography has spread the Christian faith for centuries; it’s fascinating to be in a culture where a different form of iconography has been used to maintain a cultural history of its people.  I’m grateful for the opportunity to come to Mexico with dear friends and share the experience with residents of Mexico.”

In further conversation with Ms. Harrison I discovered that our paths had previously crossed in of all places Barranquilla, Colombia where we attended the Karl C. Parrish Elementary School at the same time.  My only incursion into oil painting was in Mrs. Rozzano’s fourth grade class.  My painting from that class hangs to this day in my study.  Can Teresa’s love for art be traced back to Mrs. Rozzano?

You are invited to meet the workshop’s iconographers at St. Michael’s and All Angels Church in Cuernavaca, at 10 a.m. Sunday, January 12 when their icons will be presented and blessed.

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