DUBUQUE, Iowa (AP) — There are few things that are done the same way they were done 2,000 years ago.
One of those is iconography — an ancient Christian artform whose first known practitioner is believed to be St. Luke the Evangelist. He painted icons of the Virgin Mary, St. Peter and St. Paul. The beginnings of iconography can be found in the Roman catacombs of the second and third centuries AD
Icons are paintings of Jesus Christ or other holy figures worthy of veneration, often painted on panels of wood, using a strict canon of guidelines for creation.
The art continues to be taught and practiced today. Magdalene Grace Deane, a professor of Byzantine iconography and a master iconographer, does just that from her studio in Cable Car Square on Bluff Street.
Deane relocated to Dubuque from Portland, Ore., last year. She opened a shop, Byzanteaum, where she sells teas and tea sets, many of which come from Ukraine.
“There is a long history of folk art, as well as liturgical art, in Ukraine,” she told the Dubuque Telegraph Herald. “You can’t even walk by these without gasping, they’re so beautiful.”
Upstairs in Deane’s Katholikon Liturgical Art Studio, where she teaches students Byzantine iconography, the tools of the trade are neatly stored: Natural pigments for creating paints, precious stones and linden wood among them.
Layers of crushed precious stones are used along with the paints, just as they were thousands of years ago, to create dazzling depths of color — deep blue azurite, peacock blue lapis, the lilacs and red-purples of amethysts, ruby red garnet and sea – green malachite.
“Every color has symbolism,” Deane said. “As do the geometric shapes. We ‘write’ icons, we don’t paint them, and they need to stay within the canon of the Holy Bible.”
Iconography is ruled by canonical tradition. It is a sequential art form from choosing what icon to create to using the Greek alphabet to write words on it. The creation is a prayerful undertaking, and it is imperative that the iconographer be a person of faith, not just an artist.
An iconographer chooses the subject from a traditional icon description found in a book of icons. Then a pencil sketch is made. While most artists paint on a canvas, iconographers “write” on a wooden board, usually made of linden.
“Most of the linden wood comes from a place north of Venice (Italy) that has been providing wood to the Vatican for over a thousand years,” Deane said.
The board is prepared with a white pigment adhesive base, which helps the paints by reflecting and illuminating the colors. Most icons have a gold-colored background, which is achieved by applying sheets of gold leaf.
The iconographer begins with dark and underlying colors. Lighter colors come next. The icon is “built” layer by layer. Anywhere from 200 to 500 layers can be found in an icon, as the writer works to eliminate brush strokes and build elements like robes and sandals. It can take two to six months to complete.
But more than simply a work of art, iconography is a sacred activity.
“I live a semi-monastic life,” Deane said. “It’s simple and I work on the art. I dedicate my full resources to create this art and to teach it. As an artist and a woman walking in faith, I wanted to go back to this original art form.”
Her students might be bishops, priests, other members of the clergy or anyone who is interested in the art form.
“Bishops and priests do come and visit,” Deane said. “It might be to learn more about liturgical art or to work on a project. Or they’re just curious.”
Deane also takes commissions, creating icons, church signage and other art pieces for both church and private clients. Icons can run anywhere from $50 to $400 for a simple piece, and can run up to $20,000 for a commissioned original.
“I’ve had customers from many faiths,” she said. “Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox and everything in between. I’ve had Jewish customers. Because icons aren’t strictly for one faith. They’re religious, based in ancient Christianity. They’re for everybody.”
Deane is getting ready to unveil her first public installation of Byzantine iconography in Cathedral Square in the next few weeks.
“I don’t want to say too much,” she said. “But it’s exciting to be getting ready to install it.”
Deane said the art of writing an icon is different from most forms of secular painting.
“In fact, if you’re really following your pathway, an iconographer will stop signing their art,” she said. “What should be in a successful icon is a peaceful countenance.”
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