(Second in a series on writing an icon in the Orthodox Christian tradition. Click here to start at the beginning.)
It all starts with a white gesso board.
No. That’s not right. The board is not actually white with gesso, ready to receive lines and paint, until the fourth step of the process.
If I were to start with the official steps listed on the handout
- #1 is the preparing the wood of the board itself
- #2 is sealing it with glue made from animal hide and a linen cloth
- #3 is applying nine layers of gesso, followed by careful wet and dry sanding
Thankfully, in the workshop I took we started with boards already prepared for us.
(You can buy them on the internet. They are not cheap. If you’ve ever wondered at the price of a handwritten icon, note that the materials may have cost $100 if the artist started with a prepared board, and uses real gold leaf and natural pigments. And the process had about 18 steps after the board was ready, each of which probably took an hour or more.)
But I digress. Even if I had started with a bare pine plank, the process would actually begin with prayer. My teacher gave us a two page prayer litany to say each day before beginning work on our icons together. The heart of it was this:
Guide the hands of Thine unworthy creatures in this present task, to the venerable portrayal of Thine Image for the glory and adornment of Thy Church. Direct our hearts and souls, and grant unto us noetic illumination. Grant unto us, and those that venerate these holy icons in honor whom they represent, restoration from sin. Through the proper veneration of the icons instruct us with Thy good counsel, and deliver us from evil.
The whole process is about prayer, drawing close to God in intimate, transforming communion. That is true for the painter. It is also true for the one who makes use of the finished icon.
The Gesso Board
Back in that first step the board was shaved down in the center, leaving a higher frame to surround the figures. This surely has a protective function, as icons are moved about in the church and that frame gets touched or kissed by the faithful.
But as with all things in the process, whether by intention or by later meditation, this rim is laden with symbolic meaning.
As the saint is a kind of “container” of the Holy Spirit, the place where God has chosen to be revealed, so the rim of the icon is a kind of “ark,” for carrying the icon’s revelation on the lower level of the board.
And as my teacher said, it physically reminds us that we have to dig down below the surface to find the spiritual reality of things.
And then you unwrap the prepared board. The gesso is white, smooth, hard, bright.
It seems like the equivalent of a canvas for a painter in oils.
But it turns out you don’t aim to cover up the white of the gesso. The gleaming white will be like light shining up through layer upon translucent layer of egg tempera paint. It will, in a sense, be visible in the finished icon.
In competent hands this technique can convey a complex sense of depth — and light. My teachers were insistent that the whole process is not about laying down color and shadow, but about the layering up of different kinds of light.
And it all begins with the work of God, our creator, whose light shines underneath all creation and especially through human beings, created in God’s own image. No matter how smudgy and ill-crafted the image becomes in our fallen hands, God’s light lays underneath it and shines through.
Now I ponder this in relation to my other kinds of writing. Can they too be so prayerful?
As I write about aspects of human experience, Christian life, theological reflection, what will happen if I remember that, underneath it all, God’s own light is shining?
The blank page is much like the gessoed board. I tend to only think about my own scrawling creation on that page. But perhaps the page itself shines with the light of God.
(The next post in this series can be found by clicking here.)
Lent is coming! What a great time to focus on your prayer life.
Click the button to get info on my online prayer class for Lent…