In the creation of a religious icon, the drawing technique is like that of calligraphy. The word “grapho” in Greek means “to write”. A creator of an icon is known as an iconographer: someone who writes rather than paints the icon. The art of writing an icon requires a special style that is not a naturalistic representation of life. It is visual theology – or the Holy Scripture in pictures. Icons are not art in the general sense but a process of prayer.
For the past nine years, a group of parishioners from St Paul’s RC Church in Cantley, Doncaster have been meeting regularly to write religious icons. The group was first established after David, Trish and Deacon Bill had attended an icon-writing course at Turvey Abbey in Bedfordshire, led by Benedictine Nun, Sister Esther (who happens to be the current President of the British Association of Iconographers).
David, Trish and Bill maintained their interest in writing icons after returning home from the course. They continued to work together and were joined by Angela, who had attended a later course led by Sister Esther at Turvey.
Pope Benedict had proclaimed June 2008 to June 2009 to be the Jubilee Year of St Paul. As St Paul is their Parish Patron Saint, they decided that it would be appropriate to write an icon of the Apostle Paul and present it to the Parish. They were supported in this endeavour by Fr Bernard O’Brien, Parish Priest.
The group worked hard, writing the icon from scratch. This involves meticulously preparing the board with several layers of gesso, a traditional mix of rabbit-skin glue binder, chalk and white pigment, then hand-mixing the traditional, fast-drying, permanent painting medium known as egg tempera, which consists of coloured organic pigments mixed with egg yolk, which acts as a water-soluble, glutinous binder medium. The icon of St Paul now hangs in the entrance porch of the St Paul’s Church.
The group of icon writers continued to meet to create new icons. As time went on, other parishioners began expressing an interest in joining the group. Trish offered to support regular meetings at her home, to help the newcomers and encourage the established group members to share some of their experience and expertise.
George, Lisa, Annette, Gill, Bernie and Jamie joined the group. Getting to grips with the processes and working in a completely new medium was difficult for the new members but, with the help of the Holy Spirit, the first icons were completed.
After the new members had completed the first icon of their own choice, it was agreed that all members of the group would concentrate on each writing an icon of Archangel Michael, so that they could work through all the various stages together and learn from the process.
The group members have since gone on to create other icons of their own choice. When icons were completed, they were brought to the church to be blessed by Fr Bernard. The blessing of the icons was undertaken most recently immediately after Mass on the Patronal feast of Saints Peter and Paul.
The icon-writing group continues to meet weekly on Thursday mornings at Trish’s home. They continue to learn and to support each other in their work, and the meetings serve both a social and a devotional purpose for them all. Some of the original members are not able to attend regularly because of other calls on their time but they remain supportive and in touch. Other members of the parish who are interested in joining in this work are always welcome.
Pictured above, the group of Iconographers after having their icons blessed after Mass on the feast of St Peter and St Paul by Fr Bernard O’Brien; left to right, Deacon Chris, Gill, Annette, Bernie, Angela, Trish and Fr Bernard. On the left, the icon of St Paul, which now hangs in the entrance vestibule of St Paul’s Church.