The six participants of this year’s icon painting retreat have just had their icons blessed in the chapel at Minsteracres and their excitement is evident.
Maureen Rimmer introduced icon writing to our programme seven years ago, and it has proved enduringly popular.
“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 around 25 years ago when she moved on from calligraphy to iconography. “The origins go back to Roman times and the church of Santa Sofia in what was then Constantinople, and became popular again in the West as recently as the 1960s.
“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 (as it is known) demands patience and concentration.
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.
As a previous participant explains, it’s not as easy as it might sound, “It starts with a blank board and progresses through utter chaos to an amazing peacefulness as the icon develops.”
Of this year’s group only Carolyn McAllister has been before. “I like it because it’s prayerful,” she says. “For me it’s an emotional thing to see it come alive.” Her friend Jos Thompson had painted before, but never icons. She chose Our Lady of Tenderness as her subject, “I have a very deep affection for Our Lady and I did this in memory of someone close to me. It has been fantastic – very peaceful,” she says.
Pat Cresswell says she’s amazed at the result. “I think Maureen’s worked a miracle because I didn’t think I could produce anything like this. I’m thrilled to have it.”
Despite being a novice Beverly Hodgson was not put off, “I had complete faith it would be alright and it’s given me the confidence to go home and do it myself.” Though Maureen admits, “I was a bit worried when you said you’d never even picked up a paintbrush!”
“It has been challenging,” admits Lena Tennant. “There are long periods of concentration, but you gradually learn to relax and everyone’s involved in the same activity. I loved starting and ending the day with prayer and the whole day is filled with purpose.”
For Jonathan Adams “It’s been a roller coaster of satisfaction and frustration. But very gratifying. I’d never used egg tempera before. It’s surprising how thin it is and it doesn’t hold the pigment for long. There’s something very basic about egg yolk, powdered minerals and water,” he observes. “You learn how amazing the human eye is – that tiny adjustments to the painting make a huge difference. It make you realise how much the human brain reads into the shape of a pupil and the lines around the eye.”
Everyone is full of praise for Maureen’s patience and calm. “I really enjoyed watching her with a brush in her hand, that’s when she’s communicating best,” adds Jonathan.