BETHLEHEM – It was during the Holy Week for the Orthodox and Easter week for the Latin that 14 students of various nationalities came together to write the icon of St. Mary Magdalene at the Bethlehem Icon Centre (BIC). An icon of the Apostle to the Apostles was anything but the right choice during the most critical time in Christianity, for Mary Magdalene was the first person to witness the empty tomb and the resurrection of Jesus.
The earliest icon of Mary Magdalene can be found in St. Catherine’s monastery in Sinai. The Saint is seen with Mary of Bethany in the garden wearing a brownish reddish garment.
For the intensive course, the students got to write an icon made by Fr. Zenon, a contemporary Russian iconographer and fresco painter. In it, Mary Magdalene is vested in a red garment, her hair is shown, and she holds a jar of myrrh in her hands, distinguishing her as Mary of Magdala. According to Ian Knowles, BIC principal and teacher of the course, the red color of the garment “speaks of the intensity of devotion and love of Mary Magdalene to Jesus, which comes across when she meets Him in the garden and tries to clasp His feet.”
The course saw the coming together of 14 students of various nationalities for seven days of intensive working with brushes, gesso, natural pigments and egg tempera. Some had some experience while others hadn’t picked a brush since being little children.
The first couple of days were dedicated to the preparation of the boards. With their bare wooden boards, the students gathered around Ian in the school’s “messy room” to learn about the process of preparing the gesso. Some of those who had written icons in the past chose to take part of the course mainly for this stage. “One of the biggest things we wanted to learn is the preparation of the boards and the gesso-making,” said Wren Skinner, an American visiting the Holy Land for the first time. “It’s challenging to learn to get the right consistency of the gesso or even paint from reading an article on the Internet.”
The writing of the icon was the next stage. It is critical for the production of a tranquil icon that the mix and consistency of egg tempera and grounded pigments are correct. After tracing their sketches to the whiteboards, the students started building layer by layer beginning first with the garment, then the hand and face. During this time, prayer and meditation were as pivotal as learning how to write icons. For Robin Skinner, writing icons is a calling from God and a vocation she wants to improve. “I like to paint in a meditative way, so I take breaks to pray,” explained Robin. “This is for God, and this is my gift back to Him. I’m not important; it’s what God wants to do and not what I want to do.”
In painting generally, light is essential and it works in a particular way with icons. Ian points out that, when writing icons of Saints, “we are not trying to portray a natural light, but the spirit of God alive in that person, just like the transfigured body of Jesus on Mount Tabor.” That is why one can’t find the reflected light within the eye in an icon. Ian explains: “we are not interested in that external light, but in that light from within the Saint, and that the final step shows with a series of almost pure white strokes.”
Throughout the Holy Week, the students accompanied Mary Magdalene, listened to her story, related to her in times of frustration and tried to follow in her footsteps. “At first, I wondered why we were writing Mary Magdalene and not the face of Jesus or the Virgin Mary,” Maram Abu Sa’da said. “But I quickly realized that it was a good choice, especially during the Holy Week. I also realized that Mary Magdalene could be any one of us. Whenever I was at work, I felt as though I could be there for anyone just like she was always there for Jesus, ready to serve.”
Writing an icon in a constrained time-period may seem daunting, at least for those who studied iconography and attempted to write icons in the past. But what can one expect from these short intensive courses? “It is a great way of learning, said Ian, and if iconography captivates you, that’s probably the voice of God prompting you and deserves a serious response. A short course, like this one, can be a great way to explore it.”
According to accounts of the Mark, Matthew and John.
Gesso is made of rabbit skin glue, chalk powder and water.
Egg tempera is made by mixing egg yolk, water and vodka.