Writing the Face of Christ: Iconography

Writing the Face of Christ: Iconography

This post was written by Christine Thum Schlesser, Director of the Trinity Iconography Institute program at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland, Oregon.

Trinity Iconography Institute celebrates its 25th anniversary as one of the only year-round iconography programs to instruct in the ancient tradition of egg tempera.

There is something deeply mystical about icons, allowing them to touch our souls.  One of the oldest liturgical aids, icons are meant to facilitate prayer, making us aware that the Holy presence is always here with us.  

The first icon of the Hodegetria (Madonna pointing to the Christ child) was reportedly painted in the first century by St. Luke in memory of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  Staying true to this ancient Christian tradition, Trinity Iconography Institute observes the earliest canons setting forth how icons are to be made utilizing humble materials from the earth, animals, vegetables, and minerals, depicting the heavenly reality of God, His Holy Mother and the Saints.

Icons are painted on wooden boards (vegetable) prepared with gesso made from marble dust (mineral) and rabbit hide glue (animal).  After “gessoed” boards are sanded to the proper finish, iconographers paint the sacred images with house-made egg emulsion and dry pigments from natural earth and stones.  We purchase most of our unique pigments from Zecchi’s in Florence, Italy, a pigment and art supplier to the Uffizi for conservation of the world’s masterpieces.  Zecchi’s is located at the site of a continuously operating pigment purveyor since the 14th century.  The Renaissance masters were believed to have purchased their pigments there.

Students in our 16-week program begin by “writing” the Holy Face of Christ, as Christ underlies every icon.  Each week, students experience the gradual transformation of their icon toward the clearly recognizable image of Christ.  We move from the darkest foundational color to progressively lighter pigment, which is an artistic mirror of the interior theological process of moving from darkness to light.  The artistic transformation is mirrored with an interior one as devotion becomes stronger in our hearts.  In a foundational text on “The Icon” Fr. Sendler writes that the relationship between the person represented and the person viewing the image is the place where one encounters a presence. 

Beginning students can expect to complete the Holy Face of Christ in the 16-week course of 2.5-hour classes with some work at home.  At the program end, we celebrate with a Blessing ceremony, which is the final step in preparing an icon for use in prayer.  Click here to view the video of our May 10, 2021 icon blessing that took place in the Cathedral Chapel

There are two opportunities to begin Iconography at Trinity Iconography Institute:

Both the full immersion summer program and the extended 16-week program offer beginning, intermediate and advanced instruction with next level, personalized options for students who seek a challenge.  No previous art experience is required.  Simply bring your open heart.

The Trinity Iconography Institute was commissioned by Trinity Episcopal Cathedral to write an icon in honor of Bishop Akiyama.  We wrote the Myrrh Bearing Women in which the news of Christ’s resurrection was conveyed first to women at the tomb; this large-scale Cathedral icon made its debut at Easter.  More information on this latest liturgical acquisition to come.

If you would like more information about iconography, please contact Christine Thum Schlesser, Director of the Trinity Iconography Institute at iconography@trinity-episcopal.org, and visit www.trinityiconographers.org.

Icons blessed on May 10, 2021, written by four beginning students who had no previous art experience.