Faith traditions converge to share a centuries-old experience

April 5, 2020

A group of 15 people of different spiritual backgrounds traveled to Lewes March 2 to 5 for an encounter with an experienced Byzantine-style iconographer of 25 years from San Miguel, Mexico.

Mary Jane Miller returned to St. Peter’s Episcopal Church to offer instruction in how to create an expression of sacred art that dates back to ancient times, using paintbrush, egg tempera pigments and gold leaf on a wooden board panel. She said students would paint a famous image of Christ that dates to the sixth century.

“The divine image is a spiritual transmission of Christ’s incarnation transferred to something as common and ordinary as a piece of cloth,” said Miller. “During our time together, it is my hope that we can unpack the importance of this image. What is the value of our belief in [such images] in this day and age?”

Each work day was structured to include morning and evening prayers. On the fifth day, St. Peter’s rector, the Rev. Jeffrey Ross, blessed and anointed each artist’s work.

Miller said icons are not seen as idols and not worshiped. “Rather, they are recognized as sacred objects, blessed with devotional energy generated by those reverent prayerful followers who have used them from generation to generation,” she said.

“The first time I ever saw an icon I felt a strong spiritual connection,” said Deborah Gensch, a St. Peter’s parishioner who created her first example that week. “Icons are so calming and beautiful, and each speaks to me about a different story. During Lent, God reminds us to focus on our savior who suffered on the cross.”

Douglas Patterson of Baden, Pa., said his interest in icons was sparked 20 years ago during retreats at an Orthodox monastery and rekindled by travel to Russia where he discussed icons with Orthodox priests. Two years ago, he contacted a Pittsburgh iconographer who agreed to serve as his private instructor and with her help created an icon of St. Thomas.

“The spirituality and heritage of icons is so totally foreign to Protestants. For me, personally, it literally opens a door to a more fulfilling growth. I call it embracing the mystery,” said Patterson, who describes his main passion as designing and building guitars.

Sara L. Wasserman of South Euclid, Ohio, returning to Miller’s class for the third year, said she still considers herself an amateur and a student of iconography. “I’m attracted to the spiritual and meditative components that are central to icon writing – the concepts of the lights and veils and how this translates into, or reflects, the idea that we as humans are always moving toward the light from our personal and universal darkness or shadow. This week spent in Lewes writing an icon is always something I look forward to. The prayer, camaraderie and contemplation nurture some part of my soul,” said Wasserman. 

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