Originally created 03/09/02

Holy art thou



The Rev. Damien Higgins' iconography students learn the ancient art form the same way he did, sitting by their teacher's side.

He never knew his teacher Dominic's last name, but it didn't matter. As his teacher demonstrated each step, the Rev. Higgins copied him until Dominic was satisfied. What the priest learned in the end was a process and a form of prayer.

The Rev. Higgins, an iconographer from Mount Tabor (Eastern Catholic) Monastery in Mendocino County, Calif., will teach a class from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. today and 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday at St. Ignatius of Antioch Melkite Catholic Church, 1003 Merry St. The fee is $300 and includes supplies.

Traditional icons are stylized pictures meant to represent a window into heaven.

With minimal shading, figures appear flat compared with Western-style painting. Shadows mean the depicted saints were standing in light. Instead, the saints manifest an inner light, so iconographers use little shading.

Perspective also differs from Western-style painting, where objects seem to recede into the distance. In iconography, figures in the forefront are small relative to objects in the background. Perspective's vanishing point is in front of the painting, where the viewer is standing.

The technique reminds viewers that "Scripture says, to enter the Kingdom of God, we must be like little children," said the Rev. Higgins, 42, who learned his art about 15 years ago.

He uses only natural materials to render an icon. Natural materials glow with a vibrancy that only they can give, he said.

He chooses boards of non-resinous woods, such as poplar, birch or redwood. Woods are also best when they are at least 10 to 15 years old. He works with some redwood that is 2,000 to 3,000 years old, boards which date to the time of Christ or even earlier, he said.

He prays before each step of the process, he said.

Boards are soaked in rabbit glue, covered with linen, then coated with gesso, a mixture of ground marble and rabbit glue.

A copy of the design is traced on the front of the drawing and on the back before it is transferred onto the prepared board. Repetition helps implant the theological meaning in the iconographer's heart. The next step is to scratch the design into the gesso.

The idea behind icon-writing is to communicate tradition, rather than individual creativity. Works are never signed. "Dominic only wanted a student who had had no professional art training," the Rev. Higgins said, otherwise his teacher would have had to unteach him.

Each area of the design is coated separately with layers of color, starting with gold leaf.

Gold leaf is applied over a base of red bole. The artist must breathe on the bole before applying the gold because a trace of moisture is needed to make the gold bond with the bole. God also breathes spirit into man, he said.

The design is given a wash of blended or mixed paints, called "chaos," which acts as a sort of primer.

Later, powders of ground stone or minerals are added to a mixture of one part water to one part egg yolk and a few drops white vinegar. Reliance on natural ingredients has attracted contemporary but not necessarily religious artists, the Rev. Higgins said. "Many artists have been poisoned by their paints."

Like the designs themselves, color schemes have theological meaning. Particular colors are associated with particular saints.

Instead of mixing paints, the desired effect is achieved by layering thin coats of paint.

"Egg yolk makes the paint nearly transparent," said the Rev. Higgins, who keeps his own "holy chickens" to obtain brown eggs. Yolks from brown eggs are less likely to break - an important quality, because egg white will make the paint crack.

A finish of hot linseed and stand oil works like a varnish and gives the icon a sheen.

For more information, call 738-9388.

ICONOGRAPHY CLASS

The Rev. Damien Higgins of Mount Tabor Monastery in Mendocino County, Calif., will present an iconography school at St. Ignatius of Antioch Melkite Catholic Church, 1003 Merry St., 9 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. today and 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday. The fee is $300 and includes supplies. For more information, call 738-9388.

Reach Virginia Norton at (706) 823-3336 or vanorton@augustachronicle.com.