Iconography by Sister Paula Howard

The Language of Icons

Through line and color, the iconographer tries to convey the awesomeness of the invisible and divine reality and to lead the viewer to a consciousness of the divine presence. The icon is not intended to create an emotional response. There is a conscious avoidance of movement or theatrical gesture. The faces are rarely expressive of feelings.

Icons avoid artistic techniques intended to create an illusion of three-dimensional space; they suggest space without attempting to escape the place on the panel. The lighting within is never explained by a single light source, but seems to come from within the image to illumine whosever stands before the icon. The image is reduced to a minimum of detail. Inverse perspective is used in which there is no single vanishing point. Objects often expand where, according to the rules of perspective, they should contract. Lines move toward rather than away from the person at prayer before the icon. Natural objects are rendered in symbolic, abstract manner. The icon uses earth tones for the most part, reserving more vivid colors of royalty for garments of Christ and Mary.

Figures are shown facing directly or at three-fourths front indicating the engagement of the person depicted in the icon with the viewer of the icon. Facial features are somewhat stylized. Large almond-shaped eyes become prominent windows to the soul. The nose is long and thin. The mouth is small and always closed to indicate the silence of wisdom. The neck is usually enlarged with light shining through, indicating the fullness of the Spirit. Icons of Christ have a glow of light in the forehead to indicate Divine Wisdom. In most cases some portion of the picture, part of the halo, a sandal on the Child"s foot, extends outside the frame because the divine cannot be contained in the finite.

The icon is unsigned. Having been blessed to carry on this form of non-verbal theological activity, the writer of icons avoids stylistic innovations and willingly works under the guidance of church canons and traditions. Yet real iconography is not merely the slavish copying of work done by others. The relationship is somewhat like that of a composer of music and the musician who plays the composition. Each interpretation is different depending on the degree of understanding and spiritual insight.

The icon is silent. No mouths are open nor do any other physical details suggest sound. But, far from being empty, the silence draws our gaze in thoughtful contemplation until we have the courage to receive the gaze of the One who looks back at us, knowing us and loving us to a newfound transformation.

Some of this information is from the book Praying with Icons by Jim Forest (Orbis Books, 2008). 

Sister Paula Howard

Sister Paula began her ministry in iconography when she retired in 1999, after several decades of teaching and administration. Sister Paula has written well over 220 icons, mostly in the Byzantine tradition. In the past several years Sister Paula has begun to accept commissions to write icons of special requests.

Blessing Prayer for Icons

O, Divine Mystery, All creation is filled with holy images of you ... trees, flowers, rivers and hills. Each bears the imprint of your beauty and speaks to me of your love. May this sacred image be for me such an avenue to you and an aid in time of prayer. May it inspire me to become an image of your love as it assists me in devotion. O gracious God, in whose holy image we are all made, let your graceful blessing flow through me and consecrate this image to your glory. Amen.