Painting a picture may not be everyone’s idea of a retreat, but if that picture is an icon, with special relevance to a piece of scripture, built up carefully layer by layer using age old techniques, it becomes a kind of meditation.

Maureen Rimmer knows this better than most. Maureen has been teaching traditional icon writing (as it is known) for many years. She introduced it to the programme at Minsteracres Retreat Centre in Northumberland five years ago, and it has proved very popular.

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Starting with a blank board, an outline is first scored, and the colours layered up from dark to light to give the depth of the final image. The egg tempera materials used are borrowed from the ancient Egyptians, and the halos are made from gold leaf.

“Icons are an aid to prayer,” explains Maureen, “There’s a stillness about them and wherever you find them they lend a sense of peace to the space they’re in.”
Maureen’s interest began more than 20 years ago when she moved on from calligraphy to iconography.

“The origins go back to Roman times. I was particularly interested in learning about the spiritual aspect. All icons are about Christ, and the gilded halos represent God’s glory. The Christ figure is always represented with a red cross and the letters ic and xc.”

As you might imagine with such a stylised form of art, writing an icon demands patience and concentration.

Barbara Trafford, a part time student of Abrahamic religions at Jesuit-run Heythrop College within the University of London, who has been on two of Maureen’s courses, explains, “It produces a window for prayer. The whole process of doing it becomes a meditation and it is all the more special because of the relationship you have to the finished icon.

“There is a timelessness about it – we lose ourselves in it.”

David Cleugh, priest in charge of a group of parishes in villages neighbouring Minsteracres, came to icon writing from a very different direction. “My spiritual director had been asking me to challenge myself on a retreat to develop my nurturing side.

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“I hadn’t painted before – not since school and I hated it then. I have found parts of it conceptually difficult, and I haven’t always been sure of the pathway, but eventually Maureen got me there and I feel I have achieved my goal” says David. “It’s hit the spot. I’ve overcome the challenges and I have something to take home with me.”

“He has had to take all our criticisms and it was great to hear his whoops of joy as he overcame the challenge.” adds Maureen.

For those who have been on this retreat, Minsteracres itself adds another dimension. “I’ve really appreciated joining the resident community here, and beginning and ending the day with them in prayer” says David.

“It’s a special place,” agrees Maureen. “People here are always helpful. There’s a spiritual dimension too and the time spent in the chapel is special – ideal for icon writing.”

Maureen’s next icon writing retreat at Minsteracres runs from Monday 23 – Friday 27 May. For more information and to book go to http://www.minsteracres.org/retreats/icon-painting/