The King of Glory

(30 x 40 cm; egg tempera; 24ct gold leaf)

In Passiontide of this year, I found myself on a flight to Tel Aviv, heading to Bethlehem to take part in an icon painting workshop.  This was no ‘holy holiday’, but rather the next step in a long process of discernment and learning. 

I painted my first icon in December 2017.  It was part of a five-day course run by the Princes School of Traditional Arts and was an introduction to iconography.  I didn’t have a clue what I was doing and what it was really about, but I did know I was captivated by it as a way of expressing something about Truth.

Since then I have had the privilege of continuing to train as an iconographer, initially with Hanna Ward and for the last three years with Ian Knowles, as part of the Arbor Vitae Icon Academy. This has taken me through learning about not only the technical aspects of drawing, painting with egg tempera and gilding but also through learning about the history and context of icons, and the spirituality associated with them.  

It has been hugely challenging, not least because I have no background in art, but it has also required self-discipline and dedication – much the same as I recognise necessary within the living of religious life.

It also continues to form me as an individual.  Learning to be the ‘servant’ of the brush, rather than its ‘master’ (as I would prefer!) in order that the brush can do its work as well as possible…. learning that it is not about what I want to paint, or what I think but rather what is necessary to portray something of the Truth of the person or event.  St Benedict would certainly recognise the humility required for this process to happen!

So it was that I found myself travelling to Bethlehem with others from my tutorial group within the Academy.  We had worked together for over two years in online classes, so it was initially strange to meet face-to-face at Ben Gurion airport.

Emmanuel Monastery, Bethlehem

We were staying at the Emmanuel monastery in Bethlehem, part of the Greek Patriarchate in Jerusalem and where Mere Marthe – part of our group – runs an icon workshop.

The task we had been working towards for the previous 4 months was to prepare to paint an icon of the Passion.  We were all working on different icons and arrived with our drawing completed. I was painting an icon of the King of Glory, an image which has been important to me for a long time.

We painted throughout Passion Week with Ian Knowles our tutor alongside to offer help, encouragement and wisdom.  Woven through the painting was the on-going liturgy and offices that became a part of what we were doing.  We worked hard. Sometimes beginning at 6.30am and not finishing until after 10pm.  At the end of the week, the group dispersed but I was very fortunate that I was able to stay on at the monastery and continue working in the icon workshop throughout Holy Week, only finally leaving on Easter Monday.

Experiencing iconography alongside the liturgy where it truly belongs was a real gift.  The liturgy is a feast for the senses involving sight, sound, smell, movement, so engaging the whole person in mind and body.  Surrounded by frescoes and icons, at times there was no doubt that we were surrounded by saints and standing in the court of heaven!

Ceiling of Chapel at Emmauel monastery

At the time we were in Bethlehem, the political situation was tense and there was no way it could be ignored as the monastery is situated beside the wall dividing the occupied territories from Israel and crowds frustrated by the restrictions placed on them gathered there frequently.  

Immediately opposite the gateway of the monastery, painted on the wall itself is an icon of Our Lady – Our Lady who brings down walls.  The dis-ease and pain of the situation brought a certain reality into painting the passion in this place at this time.   Hearing the texts of the liturgy of Holy Week also helped to focus my reflections around the image I was painting.

Our Lady who brings down walls

Most Holy Mother of God, We pray to you as mother of the Church, mother of all Christians who suffer. We beg you, through your ardent intercession, to bring down this wall, the walls of our hearts, and all the walls that generate hatred, violence, fear, and indifference between people and between nations.

(from the prayer to our Lady who brings down walls)

We hear often the quotation from Irenaeus  ‘The glory of God is a wo/man fully alive…’. Less often do we hear the second part of that quotation ‘…and the life of wo/man consists in the beholding of God.’  

Encouraging others to behold God seems to be what my ministry is about; in prayer, retreat and spiritual direction offering spaces where they can deepen their experience of beholding God; and iconography providing – for some – another way of beholding and encountering God.

One of the tasks of the icon is to reveal the hidden; to show something of the transfigured nature of the creation; to draw out the spiritual essence of each person or event or thing depicted.  It is no small task and I hesitate to even think I can begin. The only reason we can begin is because of the incarnation: the reality of God made human, that we can become partakers of the divine nature. 

This mystery is called different things it seems in different traditions, theosis, transfiguration …..but it describes the calling of us all.  Perhaps it is summed up best in the letter to the Ephesians:

‘May you know the hope to which he has called you  – Christ in you the hope of glory.’

Now I have been back home for a few months and my journey as an iconographer continues.  I am beginning to take commissions – albeit presently still under supervision.   If you are interested in my work and would like to explore my painting an icon for you then please make contact with me so that we can discuss what might be possible.  

You can visit my website here and make contact with me here.

Sr Rachel

Emmanuel Monastery, Bethlehem