Making an icon is a faith journey, says Augustinian


Catholic News Service

ROME — The Philadelphia-born artist priest slowly inhaled, opened his mouth wide over an unfinished icon and released a long, belly-deep breath.

Augustinian Father Richard Cannuli was warming the thick layers of a mixture of red clay, glue made from animal hide and a drizzle of honey that had been painted in the shape of a halo on a wooden panel. He then gently affixed a strip of 23-carat gold leaf to the dried clay.

“I breathe three times so that I want to get my breath moist” and warm so the clay gets tacky enough for the thin gold leaf to stick to it, he said.

It’s like re-enacting creation, he said, when God breathed life into Adam — a name that comes from the Arabic “Adeem” for “skin of the earth” or clay.

Augustinian Father Richard G. Cannuli brushes off carbon after tracing a design while creating an icon in Rome April 12. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

“God formed humanity out of clay and breathed life into the clay,” he said. “The gold then represents the spirit of God that’s entering the icon through the gold.”

Surrounded by powdered pigments, paintbrushes and gesso-covered birch plywood boards, Father Cannuli demonstrated the long, slow process of painting an icon in the ancient Russian-Byzantine tradition. He had just wrapped up a two-week icon-making workshop held in an empty side chapel at the headquarters of the Augustinians in Rome, just steps from St. Peter’s Square.

The precise 22-step process of making an icon is like a spiritual journey and a reflection of the Christian faith, he told Catholic News Service April 12.

The icon is painted on wood, which represents the tree of the garden of paradise, Noah’s ark of salvation and the wood of the tree Christ was crucified on, he said. The yolk and water used in the egg tempera represent life and baptism.

When the icon is finished, it’s blessed by a priest and rubbed with oils so “you confirm it, you chrism it,” reflecting the stages of Christian spirituality, he said.

Father Cannuli, who has taught studio art at Villanova University for 33 years, has been teaching icon-making at the Catholic university for the past 13 years.

The priest is currently on a one year-sabbatical in four European cities to conduct workshops and display his latest mixed media art installation on Sicilian roadside shrines.

An icon, which is a form of religious art of flat painted images, is a term that comes from the Greek “eikon” for image.

Just as clicking a colorful desktop icon will “take you somewhere else,” a religious icon, too, opens up onto a new world beyond the image, he said. “It’s a window that opens up to eternity.”

Father Cannuli said he sees a resurgence of traditional iconic figures in the United States.

“One thing people are going to learn is patience” when they tackle painting an icon, he said as he brushed red clay onto the tip of a metal compass to make a clean arc along the halo’s outer edge.

There is a lot of waiting time between painting with hand-mixed egg-based tempera and letting the medium thoroughly dry, he said. One nine-by-12 inch small icon may take up to 40 hours, spread over seven to 15 days, to complete.

While waiting for a layer to dry, “students ask, ‘What can I do next?’ I usually say pray, read, keep yourself occupied because there is nothing they can do” to work ahead or speed up the process, he said.

In fact, it is the quiet, reflective nature of making icons that leads many students, even non-Christians, to experience some kind of spiritual growth.

Working with icons was what led Father Cannuli to decide to be ordained into the priesthood in 1999.

“When you’re working with an icon there’s this very tight communication between you and the prototype of the image that you’re painting,” he said.

He said one Russian master iconographer told him he should pray to the person being portrayed for guidance in everything from what color to use next to whether one’s life is on the right track.

Then-Brother Cannuli thought his life was going along fine “and then all of a sudden everything was turned upside down.” Over the next six years, he worked with a spiritual director and decided to become a priest.

He said making an icon “has nothing to do with the individual painter,” but is more about a person’s ability to let God be in control.

“It’s like all along I was creating and now all of a sudden I let go and let God create,” he said.

Individual expression in iconography is muted by the fact that the paint must be pooled on the board, avoiding all brushstrokes that would leave a kind of “signature” of the painter, he said. Only the name of the saint is inked on the final piece.

The process for traditional icons is always done with the same elements and techniques, in the same order, and using images that are not products of the artist’s imagination, but are exact tracings of copies of ancient iconographic figures, he said.

Icons, which are venerated, not worshipped, are believed to act as channels of divine grace. In fact, every icon of Christ, the Mother of God, a saint or archangel almost always has at least one ear prominently exposed toward the viewer, he said, “so the prototype you are painting can hear your prayers and bring them to the father” in heaven.

Father Cannuli collects old icons and said he gets a sense of comfort looking at the ones that have been held and handled for so many years in prayer.

“You don’t worry about them once they’re finished. They get damaged or chipped, it’s meant to be, you just have to let it go.

“You don’t have control over it. It has a life of its own,” he said.