Artists learn the language of iconography

Barbara Pinaire, a member of St. Mary Parish, Derby, works on her icon. (Advance photo)

Veronica Royal epitomizes the icon her students were painting last week.

They were reproducing an icon of Our Lady of Tenderness during a week-long workshop at the Spiritual Life Center in Wichita. While her students were working on their copies, Royal would walk around the room gently making suggestions and giving advice.

It was the second visit for Royal, a Virginia-based iconographer who has been creating (or writing) icons for about 25 years. She studied under the well-known Greek iconographer, Theodore Papadopolous (who has hosted workshops at the center), and many others.

Planning for next year

Royal is already planning to return to Wichita next summer and has chosen Jesus the Shepherd as the icon for the workshop.

This year’s icon shows Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary cheek-to-cheek with Jesus’ hand under Mary’s chin.

“Mary is looking out asking for relationship with the viewer,” she said. “It isn’t portrayed in the icon but she shows us the way to her son, and asks us to love our Lord. She has a very poignant gaze; one that is of love, but also of pain and understanding.”

An affinity for iconography

Royal said she has an affinity with iconography because her ancestral background is Russian and Ukrainian.“Even though I had no art background this was something that I was being led to and felt the Lord wanted me to go in this direction,” she said.

Her husband, Bob, agreed. And, perhaps, the Lord did, too.

The next week Bob was at the Mother of God Institute in Maryland to give a lecture with a priest friend. After Bob stepped into an elevator on his way to the presentation, a person walked in holding a board to be used at an iconography class.

“And it went from there,” Veronica said, adding that her quest to study and master iconography led her to teachers in Europe and the United States.

Before she began teaching workshops, she organized them for herself and other students, Veronica said.

“People came from all over because it was brand new – that was maybe 20 years ago. People came from Canada, South America, California, everywhere. We had priests and nuns. It was just fabulous. We were all learning from the best.”

Art evangelization

She said she learned after founding a guild that meets weekly at her Clifton, Virginia, studio that the artists embrace iconography because it is their way to evangelize. “I do stress the fact that the work is to evangelize to teach people our faith through sacred art.”

One of the ways her art is evangelizing is through an effort of the Diocese of Arlington that launched a three-year jubilee program. The second year focuses on the art of Mary. Veronica and other artists have been asked to paint pieces to grace agencies and organization assisted by Catholic Charities. The artists will also explain their art to parishes and the other recipients – another chance to evangelize, she said.
Iconography is moving from the Russian and Greek styles, Veronica said. “There is a movement towards more contemporary iconography that is more relatable to the 21st century sensibility.”

She added that as a Third Order Carmelite she is able to share her faith with others in a special way.

“Another thing is that people come to me sometimes in deep pain. And the guild has become a safe haven and a healing place. Sometimes people come and they’re healed and then they go back out in the world. There’s a lot of love and there’s a lot of freedom for them to express their pain and the calm and the joy of painting. Also the prayer that’s involved in every stroke of therapy – spiritual therapy.”