Just before Maria Leontovitsch Manley gets ready to apply the gold leaf to an icon, she prepares a piece of fatty clay called an Armenian bole. She will press that onto the surface of her icon to ensure that the gold will adhere without imperfections. Like the paint, the gold leaf and the technique for making the icon itself, the clay bole has been used this way for centuries. And just as iconographers have done for centuries, Mrs. Manley takes the small piece of clay into her hands and, ever so gently, breathes on it.
“You have to do it slowly,” Mrs. Manley says. An internationally recognized iconographer, she became interested in her religion, Russian Orthodoxy, and its icons after the death of her father when she was just 16.
A gentle breath on the clay is all it takes: Breathe too quickly and the gold leaf will blow away. Certainly, it’s an old technique. Today, there would be more-efficient ways of easing the gold leaf onto the prepared bole. But warm breath on cold clay also echoes the act of God giving Adam life so long ago. That’s an important consideration for iconographers, who blend technique and symbol in a form that owes a bit to art and much to spirit.
The slow and symbolic work of the icon maker will be showcased at the Third Pan-Orthodox Icon Exhibit, at Saints Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church in Northwest on March 13 and 14. Now prized by art collectors, icons are designed not as pieces of art but as objects for religious veneration.
“Icons were the books of the unlearned,” says Father Nicholas Manousakis, the Proistemenos, or pastor, at Saints Constantine and Helen. “When you saw icons embellishing the walls of a church, you learned Christianity by knowing what the icons represented. They are windows to heaven.”
Icon makers, called iconographers, rarely refer to themselves as artists and rarely sign their work. They speak of “writing” icons rather than painting or making them. Using techniques that have remained the same for centuries, the iconographer is more conduit than creator, participating in a spiritual journey that begins and ends in prayer.
“This is not art first, not art as is,” or art for its own sake, says Irena Beliakova, a Russian iconographer who came to the United States in 1982. “There’s something behind it called the spirit.”
When Mrs. Beliakova began learning to make icons, religious practice was still illegal in the Soviet Union. Now the fall of the communist East and a reawakening of the need for religious ritual has brought a resurgence of interest in icons and icon making. Slowly, and without much fanfare, iconographers from various traditions are breathing new life into an old form.
“We follow the old rules and the mystical colors,” says Valentin Ciucur, who, along with wife Maria, “writes” icons following the style they learned in art school back in Romania in 1977. “Blue shows divinity, red shows purity. Every rule has a purpose.”
Yet the spiritual qualities that invest an icon and give it meaning can be difficult to teach.
“If the student does not have that inside, they never come any more,” says Mrs. Beliakova, who has been teaching an icon class at Georgetown’s Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church for the last nine years.
What is constant is the technique. Every iconographer begins with prayer, often to the figure that will be represented. Some iconographers will even fast during the writing of an icon, which can take up to a week or more for an iconographer working eight hours a day.
After prayer, the iconographer takes up a block of wood and prepares the board by laying down cheesecloth and layers of gesso, a mixture of animal glue and chalk or powdered marble, until the surface is thick and smooth.
While the gesso is drying, iconographers prepare a “cartoon,” a line-by-line drawing of the icon that they want to write. Most work from icon pattern books. A particular saint, for example, has a special set of characteristics associated with him or her that help to express a sacred as well as human identity.
After the cartoon is transferred from the paper to the prepared board, the iconographer incises the lines. The gold leaf is laid down. Paint is applied, usually starting with the dark colors and finishing up with the light in a layered process that echoes the journey of the Christian through the icon itself, out of the darkness of the world and into the light of the holy.
“All the layers add dimension,” Mrs. Manley says. “At the same time, they are transparent. You can see through them into a previous layer.”
While some iconographers work in acrylic paints, many still work in the old style, using earth-toned pigments made from crushed minerals. These they mix up with water, vinegar and an egg emulsion.
“People understand why we work with pigments that come from stone,” says Mrs. Beliakova, who uses holy water to mix her paints and clean her brushes. “It’s very warm and lifelike.”
Finally, the icon is covered with several layers of varnish or shellac.
But even with the principles carefully set, there is a range and variety in iconography that hints of the individual within the work.
“When I work with a student, we go through the steps together,” says Mrs. Manley. “I do them on my icon and then the student will do his. We both paint the same thing, but the icons end up looking totally different.”
At Mrs. Beliakova’s icon class recently, just one of the attendees was a member of the Greek Orthodox Church. The rest were Roman Catholics, parishioners at Holy Trinity.
Picture four men and two women, hunched over tables that during the day seat restless classes of preteens from Holy Trinity’s middle school. The minutes tick by slowly. Conversation is hushed, with a few soft voices talking about the symbolism of cloth or the significance of color.
And that is how it should be, according to iconographic tradition. Icon making, after all, is a slow process. But some of the icons here may not be all that familiar to the Russian Orthodox iconographers of centuries ago.
Dan MacDougall, from Arlington, is working on an icon of St. Columba, an Irish saint . Meanwhile, Neil Pelletier is toiling over a copy of a Coptic icon, a rounded style he favors. And Grace Liddy, from Fort Washington, is creating an icon of the Virgin of Tenderness, in honor of her grandmother, Maria, the family matriarch.
Through it all, Mrs. Beliakova moves effortlessly among her students, correcting a line here, a shading there.
“She’s made this thing come alive,” marvels Mr. Pelletier.
Working with a real iconographer can make all the difference, says Nadine Thola, an iconographer who got her start after her pastor encouraged her to read a book about icons. While a student at Laurel High School in the late 1970s, the 16-year-old ended up at the studio of Maria Manley, her first teacher.
There was just one problem. The teenager was allergic to eggs.
“I wanted to do it so badly,” says Mrs. Thola. “But I broke out with an egg allergy every time I wrote an icon.”
She was introduced to acrylic paint by another teacher who also taught her crosshatching, the technique she uses to shade faces in her icons. Today, her technique reflects the contributions of several mentors.
“I still use the same prayer that Mrs. Manley does,” she says.
Now Mrs. Thola is passing iconography on to her son, 13-year-old Michael, a student at Carl Sandburg Middle School in Alexandria. Like many children of iconographers, Michael got his start with the simple things, like sanding the boards, when he was just 7 or 8 years old.
But even then, he wanted to do more.
“It connects me in a way that I never really have before,” he says.
It’s the kind of connection that makes some iconographers willing to risk everything for their calling.
Back in Romania, Valentin and Maria Ciucur persisted in writing icons despite the restrictions imposed by the communist government. For Mrs. Ciucur, writing icons was simply an expression of a long-standing faith. She had always been religious and continued to practice despite official pronouncements to the contrary. Only beginning in 1982, when then-leader Nicholae Ceausescu allowed the production of icons for export, could Mrs. Ciucur write icons in the open.
As a member of the Romanian merchant marine, Mr. Ciucur continued to make icons while at sea.
“All the time when I was on the sea I painted icons ‘underground,’” Mr. Ciucur says.
Today, the Ciucurs live in Woodbridge, Va., but they still make icons the way they learned in their home country.
“Romanian icons have less green and less shading than Greek icons,” Mr. Ciucur says.
After the fall of the communist regime in 1989, the Ciucurs opened a small studio. The entire family emigrated to the United States in the summer of 2000 and have since had their work exhibited at the National Cathedral and the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, as well as at Orthodox churches throughout the country.
Mrs. Ciucur still begins every icon the same way she did back in Romania.
“Before she starts working, she prays to the subject,” says her son, Emil, 22. “She prays for the people who are going to own the icon, that they have luck and health and that all their wishes come true. If she doesn’t pray that day, the icon doesn’t come up.”
For the iconographer, completing the icon means a new connection with the world of the spirit and a new reason to rejoice.
“When I stop working, I feel a happiness, a fullness,” says Mrs. Beliakova. “But I am not happy for me. I am happy for the icon.”
What you’ll see at icon exhibit
The images created for Orthodoxy and the Christian East over the centuries fascinate art lovers even today. Two promising exhibits — one local, one not — showcase the glories of the genre.
The full panoply of icons from the Eastern Orthodox tradition, as well as contributions from the iconographers from the main story, can be seen March 13 and 14 at the Third Pan-Orthodox Icon Exhibit at Sts. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church, 4115 16th St. NW.
The exhibit includes images from the Greek, Russian, Antiochian, Armenian, Bulgarian, Carpatho-Russian, Coptic, Ethiopian, Romanian, Serbian and Ukrainian cultures.
Exhibit hours are noon to 5 p.m. March 13, 1 to 5 p.m. March 14. Some icons will be offered for sale. Two concerts are scheduled for March 14: a performance by the Sts. Constantine and Helen Choir at 1 p.m., and one by the Slavic Male Chorus at 3 p.m. The exhibit, the concerts and the parking are free. For more information see the Web site at www.stsconstantine-helen.com or call Margot Kopsidas Siegel at 202/667-4564.
Other events are scheduled in conjunction with the exhibit:
John Alexiou, scholar and frequent visitor to Mount Athos in Greece, will discuss the holy mountain, the center of Eastern Orthodox monasticism. 8 p.m. March 5. Free.
Noted iconographer Dennis Bell of Painesville, Ohio, will teach a one-hour class on creating an icon. 1 p.m. March 13. $5 materials fee.
Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557), opening March 23 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, exhibits works from more than 30 nations, and 40 icons from the Holy Monastery of St. Catherine at Sinai. An audio tour, part of the Metropolitan’s Audio Guide program, will be available for rental ($6, $5 for members, and $4 for children under 12). See www.metmuseum.org.
Contacting iconographers in D.C. area
The iconographers featured in the main story have their own studios and classes. See these sources:
Irena Beliakova, icon painter and restorer, displays a full gallery of her icons and discusses her painting techniques on her Web site at www.iconstudio.us. 11707 Highview Ave., Wheaton, Md. 20902. Call 301/728-3942 or e-mail her at IBeliakova@yahoo.com.
Valentin and Maria Ciucur have a number of upcoming shows in addition to the exhibit at Sts. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church. They also provide home tours of their icon collection at 14251 Farmer Court, Woodbridge, Va. 22193. See their Web site at www.ciucur.com, e-mail them at email@example.com or call 703/580-6642, 703/597-8783 or 703/786-7311.
Maria Leontovitsch Manley has a Web site, complete with an extensive array of icons, at www.icon-studio.net. She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nadine Thola is available for lectures, classes, glass icon workshops and Greek festivals. For more information, e-mail email@example.com.