July 27, 2010

Image as Insight: Icon (Assumption of Mary)

From Baya Clare: This week's image is a large icon by Kathleen Holmberg, CSJ, who is also a member of my community, and incidentally, the sister of Ansgar Holmberg, whose work was featured here July 13. The text was written for our website by Mary Lou Murray, CSJ and reprinted here with her permission.

Imagine working on an art project for 300 to 400 hours. And one that is four feet by five and a half feet. That's how much time Sister Kathleen Holmberg spent doing the icon pictured here. Several years ago, Father John Malone of Assumption Parish in downtown St. Paul spoke with Kathleen about doing an icon of the Assumption of Mary for his parish.

Before writing an icon (the term for the painting of one), there is a lot of preparation. Research into the history of an icon that would depict the feast was but one part of it. Lech Palowski of West St. Paul laminated the pieces of basswood and beveled the shape for it to fit into its space in the church.

His wife, Elzbieta, continued the preparation, putting a layer of fabric on the wood surface and then priming it with ten layers of gesso (a mixture of powdered chalk and marble dust mixed with rabbit skin glue). Elzbieta also applied the 23 carat gold leaf any place it would be in the painting.

In the meantime, Sister Kathleen researched which traditional Russian or Byzantine portrayal of Mary's Dormition she would do. She settled on one, and after drawing the sketch, she enlarged it at Kinko's (a technique not available to ancient iconographers!). She then etched the design into the gesso and proceeded with the painting.

The inverse perspective traditional in icons is there to draw the viewer into the picture rather than just looking at it. Praying with icons is done sitting in silence, letting the icon speak to the viewer.

Paint is put on the figures in layers, an average of eight to ten being common. Most pigments are of natural materials, powdered (as MN pipestone) and then mixed with egg yolk and water.

Kathleen's interest in icons goes back to her introduction to them by Sister Cyril Clare Casey. Then in 1989 she was asked to do a small icon. So she read a book and proceeded. After that she studied and did workshops with a number of iconographers, culminating in a icon pilgrimage to Russia. She also continues now to study and deepen her love and knowledge of icons.

See more of Kate's icons on her website.

The Dormition icon was dedicated at Assumption Church on August 15, 2005 and can be viewed in the lower level of the church.

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