Icon Painting As Spiritual Practice
The setting up of images in Churches is a defiling of them afore hand, and can serve to no purpose but to draw folk from the pure and true knowledge of GOD. – John Calvin, Sermons on Deuteronomy 23, May 1555.
Given that I am a Presbyterian pastor steeped in the Reformed tradition, one might be surprised that I paint icons. The sacred art of visual theology has been practiced by the Orthodox churches for at least fourteen hundred years. Iconographers have depicted scenes of Jesus’ life, images of Mary imbued with layers upon layers of meaning, and hundreds of stories of saints and angels. The icons are used as aids in spiritual reflection, prayer and meditation. I am fascinated by the images, but what touches me most is the beauty.
The beauty awakens me to the holy. I am in awe of God’s glory. When I see a face come to life with the stroke of a brush to light the eye – I am lost in wonder, love and praise. Cinnabar, a mineral that produces a vibrant red, makes my heart leap every time I see it.
All my life, I have had a love for God and a love for painting. My BFA in painting was shortly followed by an MDiv. in theology. For many years as a pastor, I used my art very little. I poured all of my creativity into preaching.
And then I took a very difficult call. I desperately needed to care for my soul. Even though I knew nothing about the technique of making icons, I decided to paint the face of Christ. As I worked over the months, I knew more and more that Jesus was with me. Iconography is truly a form of prayer. Every color mixed, every stroke of the brush is a prayer. The process of making the icon fed my spirit. The icon sustained me.
Over the years I have attended workshops and learned techniques. I have studied the language of icons, the meaning of reverse perspective, the theology of the images that never pretend to imitate reality, but always operate in metaphor. All of it feeds my soul.
In recent years, I have been teaching an icon class to members of my congregation. I have become an icon evangelist. I am by no means an expert in technique or talent. Yet, I offer a way to pray, to delight in the beautiful, and to engage with the Holy Spirit. The ancient iconographers followed a set of rules. My favorite is “Never forget the joy of sharing icons.” By the grace of God, I never will.
The Rev. Molly Blythe Teichert
The Chevy Chase Presbyterian Church