Nuclear engineer and Wesley Theological Seminary student Fred Lyons recently decided to take a week off work to participate in the Henry Luce III Center for the Arts and Religion’s Icon Writing workshop, held June 13-17. Lyons was excited about learning to paint an icon, even though he was not a painter.
Lyons’ instructors were Russian iconographers, Philip Davydov and his wife, Olga Shalamova, Davydov and Shalmamova are “new generation” icon painters because they use a more creative approach as opposed to more traditionally styled icon painting. They perceive tradition as “a living tree that is constantly producing new shoots, leaves and blossoms.”
As eager students looked on, Davydov gave step-by-step instructions with a calm, suggestive demeanor. Lyons and his 12 classmates carefully painted while following each of Davydov’s brush strokes as he stood in front of the class and painted an image of Jesus on his own canvas. “He never made you feel as if you are incompetent,” said Lyons about Davydov. “Instead, he gave helpful suggestions.”
Davydov has been an iconographer since mid-1980s. His father, Andrei Davydov, a well-known icon painter and priest, taught Philip to paint and Philip taught Olga.
According to Davydov, icon painting was developed as a specific type of Christian devotional art mostly in the Eastern Church. Eastern Christians wanted to create special environments, as a mode of prayer, where nothing would remind them of the secular world. He said that icons are part of the ritual structure, intimately involved with Orthodox liturgy, and they express religious life in real communities.
“Many people consider the most important role of the icons as ‘windows of heaven,’ helping us to establish the reference to God, mediating transcendent mysteries. In this context we also value the anagogic or elevating role of the icon,” he said.
Workshop participants coated their brushes with a mixture of egg yolks, water and vinegar, and then dipped them in various colors of dry paint to create their icon. Davydov walked around the room and made suggestions and encouraged their creativity.
He and Shalamova also sat down and helped the students with their painting in creating more shadow, highlights and balancing out tones. “Simple things like size, color, proportions and tonal values speak much about the artist,” said Davydov. He said that the painter’s moods and state of mind can be found in their paintings.
“Artists can’t lie when they paint,” he said. “Their images expose them.”
Never underestimate the power of image, said Davydov, because for some people seeing the image and painting the icon can reveal knowledge about God and help bring them closer to God.
“This is like theology in paint,” said Lyons. His classmate, Susan Zimmerman, a lifelong Catholic, said that it was her first time to take the class.
“I love it,” she said. “The instructors were very helpful and they built up each stroke stage-by-stage.”
The students were from various religious background ranging from United Methodist, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopal, and Orthodox.
Davydov and Shalamova have their own studio in St. Petersburg, Russia, that students attend on a regular basis. They also tour the world and teach classes. Images of their icons may be viewed on their website at www.scaredmurals.com.
At the end of the 40 hour workshop, students and instuctors proudly posed with their icons for a photograph, each holding their “window on Heaven.”