Post Author: Dana Blouch-Hanson
When I was diagnosed with cancer while in seminary, I started to question my faith and to question whether I was really following God’s call for my life. I knew I needed to find different spiritual practices to keep me grounded. So I started with the practices I knew: I would read the Bible and pray. Still, I felt like something was missing.
During one of my treatments, I noticed that a woman next to me would look at a card and then close her eyes. She and I began to have a conversation, so I asked about the card in her hand. She was holding a picture of an icon of the Virgin Mary and praying for Mary to intercede on her behalf. The icon itself was beautiful! She brought me a picture of The Visitation icon the next time we met, and I kept it inside my Bible. I enjoyed looking at it and being reminded of Mary and Elizabeth, but I used the icon in a different way.
Later, my husband heard of a local woman who taught iconography. He contacted her, found out there was an opening in one of her weeklong classes during the summer, and asked if I would be interested.
My first class at the local Catholic school in Gettysburg was a “cancer free anniversary” gift from my husband. During that class, I fell in love with iconography. The practice of writing icons blended my love of art with the act of prayer.
I have mixed feelings about the ways in which iconography has been adopted by the Western church and also by other artists who use principles of iconography to depict modern day actors and other contemporary figures. In the Eastern church, icons originated as symbolic representations of saints, parables, and events which take place in the Biblical narrative. Icons did not and do not, for instance, represent what people actually looked like (since most of the time, we do not know what people looked like).
The difficulty, then, with appropriating this prayerful practice for use with modern day saints is that we do know what they look like. Therefore, viewers expect the icons to match the physical appearance of the person being portrayed.
But traditionally, that is not the focus of iconography.
Iconography, in its truest sense, is beautifully symbolic. Those who write icons begin with a blank panel of wood and then create an outline of the icon’s subject matter.
From there writers lay in the rich, dark colors and continue praying and layering lighter colors of paint until each layer shines, signifying the light of Christ.
Prayer is integral to the process of writing icons. I continue to take classes because each class provides at least three hours of scheduled prayer time in which I focus on the goodness of God. It is my hope that others who view the icons will engage in prayer and reflection as well.
Dana Blouch-Hanson is an ELCA pastor who serves Memorial Lutheran Church in Shippensburg, PA. In her free time, she loves spending time with her husband Andy and their pug Jack, as well as painting icons. Her icons may be viewed on Facebook and Instagram.
Image by: Dana Blouch-Hanson
Used with permission