Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Writing icons

In December 2014, U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro made the simultaneous surprise announcement that after more than 50 years of U.S. embargo and no formal diplomatic communication, the two countries would begin to normalize their relationship.  The “Cuban Thaw” – as it was referred to in the U.S. press -- was an early Christmas gift to the world.

But long before the “Cuban Thaw” Teresa Harrison of the U.S. was building unusual bridges to Cuba.  Teresa is an icon writer.

Icons are flat-panel paintings with an image of Jesus, Mary, or a saint. The tradition began in the very early Christian church and is a major component of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. But it has also caught on in Roman Catholic and Anglican (Episcopal) churches.

Teresa told me that the writing of icons is “a sacred process of illumination. Christ, His mother and saints of the church are written in stylized, formal positions.  The hands and faces of the images are of great significance.  Wars have been fought over the meaning of the position of Christ’s fingers in different icon representations -- not the best moments for iconography! For the iconographer the days of writing an icon are days of quiet contemplation and prayer with the saint -- ideally a transformative, wonderful experience.”

Teresa said that icons are written, not painted, as they are considered an extension of the Word of God.

In 2006, at the invitation of the Episcopal Church of Cuba, Teresa and six of her advanced students traveled from St. John’s Cathedral in Jacksonville, Florida to Havana to teach iconography to a group of priests, seminarians, and trained artists.  Included in that class was the first ordained Anglican female bishop in Latin America, Cuban Suffragan Bishop Nerva Cot Aguilera.

These 21 men and women painted the Stations of the Cross as well as a number of traditional saint and Holy Family icons.  Once consecrated, the icons were presented in the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in Havana where they remain.  The apprentice iconographers were encouraged to continue writing icons and it is Ms. Harrison’s understanding that iconography in Cuba continues to grow.

Teresa Harrison has brought her expertise to Mexico.  Last week I picked her up at the Mexico City airport.  In Cuernavaca eight U.S. and four Latin American icon apprentices joined her.  She is leading a second annual weeklong retreat at the La Mancha Inn – the first of this year’s eleven workshops she has scheduled.

Participants in the retreat withdraw into sequestration to pursue solitude and contemplation while replicating the image of a saint or holy figure.  Teresa says that iconography is not a creative process; it is one of faithful replication.

The process is intense and formal.  The first step is tracing the image onto a board that has received multiple coats of white marbleized paint and is as smooth as a piece of glass. Color is placed in blocks on the board, filling in robes and background. The most difficult part – flesh -- is also the most important.  Hands and faces are first covered in sankir-green. “It is the color of death and decay,” says icon apprentice Carol Hopkins.  “From that point one must begin to breathe life into one’s image.  Scores of coats of increasingly lighter-colored flesh will cover sankir. When the image begins to breathe you know the saint has come alive before you.”

In Mexico we have what is perhaps the world’s most famous icon – The Guadalupe.  Many in the Cuernavaca’s 2014 icon workshop wrote Guadalupe. This year icon writers have chosen other manifestations of Mary, the Angel Gabriel, Saint Martin of Porres, Saint Monica (mother of Saint Augustine), and Christ.

The setting at La Mancha recalls contemplative life. The daily writing of icons begins with the Eucharist celebrated by the workshop’s chaplain Tamara Newell, herself the first female ordained priest in the Anglican Church of Mexico. She introduces four hours of writing icons in silence.  Noonday prayer -- a responsive liturgy the whole group knows – is followed by meso-soprano Rosemary Alvino singing.  A 40-minute break for lunch leads into a second four-hour session of writing.

Traditionally men have played the larger role in the liturgical church.  All but one of the dedicated iconographers in this retreat is female.  This goes along with the increasing roles of women in the Anglican community, in which Katherine Jefferts Schori was elected Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the U.S.— the same year Cuba elected it’s first woman bishop, Suffragan Cot Aguilera.

While adhering to strict traditions developed through seventeen centuries of documented iconography, Teresa Harrison is quietly linking nations, taking down gender barriers, and conserving and ancient art form.  It is wonderful to witness this happening in Cuernavaca.

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