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Icon Writing with Children

What are icons and how can they enrich our faith and worship? How are icons created? These are some of the questions Kate, Bella and Eric explored this summer. Photos: Sue Careless

By Siobhan Laskey

AT ST. MICHAEL’S YOUTH CONFERENCE (Maritimes) one of the highlights for the teens, and indeed everyone, is the Friday night pageant when the upper level students relate the story of our salvation through a series of narrated tableaus. As the story begins, the tableaus are framed by the carefully positioned characters representing Satan and the Archangel Michael. During the trial, crucifixion and resurrection, these characters have critical roles in the account of the battle between the good angels (led by the Archangel Michael) and the “dragon” (Revelation 12). The pageant depicts this battle in which the Archangel defeats, once and for all, the “dragon.” It is a powerful reminder of the war against evil we all face daily and which, ultimately, has been won for us through the life-giving sacrifice of the Cross. This year marked the 31st telling of this story at SMYC-Maritimes.

With several of the “house kids” (young children who come with the teaching staff) we decided we would explore the “story” some of them had seen performed. We thought they might also want to delve more deeply into why the conference is named for Saint Michael and why the teen conferees earn, after five years of attendance, a small icon of the Archangel.

Who are the “angels”? What do we know of Michael from Scripture? What are icons and how can they help to inform our faith and worship? How are icons created? We wanted to explore all of this with a group of 7-11-year-olds in a relaxed camp setting.

The “class” on the writing of an icon was spread over four days with one 55-minute session per day.


Session One: Introducing

Icons & St Michael

We began by examining a sample of icons. Magnifying glasses were used to look at details and the students were provided with the definition of “icon” – ‘image’. We talked about how images can teach. One child pointed out that his first books were picture books, which lead to a discussion about how we learn from pictures and how images can be carefully composed to convey concepts and meaning. Another noted that she liked it when a novel had illustrations, especially if they were drawn by the author, and how their own “image” of something in the story might be changed or corrected by the illustrations.

This flowed into a discussion about icons being “written” to tell a story and truth about God. Without getting into any of the debate about the term “written” in reference to iconography, the concept as used here was to have the children consider that the icons are created to inform us more deeply about our faith and the teaching and traditions of the Church.

What is the definition of “angel”? – ‘messenger’. Who created angels? God. Do we become angels when we die? No. We came to understand that angels are created beings, distinct from humans, with God-given purpose and that Scripture gives us several examples of the role they play in our lives and faith.

Examining the icons and other images of Saint Michael in stained glass, statues and paintings, we learned about some of the symbolism used in his depiction including wings, spear, sword, orb and text. For example, the use of the Greek letters X, ∆ and K represent “Christ the Righteous Judge” (John 7: 24). Hence he is seen sometimes with a set of scales used for weighing, or standing at the entry to Heaven or guarding the gates of Hell. We reviewed passages of Scripture where Michael is referred to by name and examined the role he plays.

Comparing icons and other images, we asked about the difference between a halo and a nimbus and what they represent. (The nimbus looks more like a flat disc behind someone’s head, whereas the halo is typically a ring above the head.) How is the nimbus of a member of the Holy Trinity different from that of others? (Contains the shape of a cross, with the lower arm hidden behind the head.) What colour are the nimbus in the icons? (White and, more often, gold.)

How do you tell an icon of St. George apart from one of St. Michael, since they both may appear slaying a dragon? (The absence of wings on St. George.) We looked at particular elements in some of the images in greater detail – how is the “dragon”/Satan/the devil represented (noting especially the dark colours, grotesque wings, as a “dragon”, “serpent” or “fallen angel”). In some of the images where St Michael is holding the weighing scales to represent God’s judgement, it was noted that the devil might be pulling on the scales or loading them with “stuff”, trying to throw off the accuracy.

We learned about the names of three archangels and what they mean – Michael (“Who is like God?”), Raphael (“It is God who heals”) and Gabriel (“God is my strength”). Some icons of Raphael have a fish, related to the story in Tobit of the healing of blindness with the gall of a fish (see Chapter 11). And we talked about how Gabriel carried God’s messages to people like Daniel and Zechariah and Mary at the Annunciation.

One child offered that angels’ first words to people are often that they should not be afraid. This led to a little discussion about Gabriel’s name and a reminder to us that, especially when we are afraid, that “God is (our) strength”. Through God’s direction, archangels serve to protect, guide and defend. It was pointed out that in some of the images there were symbols that remind us of different branches of the military and policing groups who have “adopted” St. Michael.

Icons are traditionally done on wood but we used purchased canvas-covered boards. It was pointed out that the creation of icons is a time of reflection and prayer, which helps the iconographer to concentrate on the purpose of their work and their reliance on God for talent, knowledge and skill.

But while God guides our work, what we create will not be perfect – God creates perfectly, but our work is marred because we are not perfect. This gave permission to accept mistakes and to realize correction may be necessary as the icons progressed. How to approach common problems like the hair of a brush getting into the paint (let the paint dry and pick the hair off and then “repair” the paint as needed) or “colouring outside the lines”? This helped focus more on the process, the study and the telling of the story than on the perfection of the product.

Before leaving class, the children covered their canvas with the first layer of gesso. Gesso, a paint-like binder, primes the surface to help the paint adhere. Traditionally, a minimum of three layers is used to prepare the surface. The gesso was applied with large brushes to the whole canvas surface and left to dry. I planned to apply two more layers, but some of the children returned at different intervals and completed that task for us. Each canvas was laid in a disposable aluminum baking pan with the child’s name written with marker on the pan’s sides. The pans could be stacked easily for storage and drying between sessions.


Session Two: Colours, Details, Transferring ‘Cartoons‘ &

‘Writing‘ Icons

As we gathered the next day, we prayed the Collect for St. Michael and All Angels (BCP, p. 294) and reviewed the roles of angels and examples of them in Scripture.

Then we learned about colours used in icons and how, traditionally, these colours convey meaning. We examined colours used in icons of Christ and noted that in some of them he wears garments with blue (representing heaven and the divine) on one side and red (representing blood and humanity) on the other – teaching that Christ is, at the same time, fully Divine and fully Human.

We looked at the use of gold – particularly in the nimbus and how it suggests glory. While iconographers usually guild the nimbus with gold foil, we used a gold metallic paint. Attention was drawn to the lack of grey and shadows in icons. One child noticed that in a painting of St Michael the demon he was slaying was black – perhaps the black/grey/shadows represent evil?

We also made note of some other common characteristics in icons: the Christ Child looking older and holding his hand in blessing even as an infant or child; the small mouths of icons – reminding us that it is more important to hear what God is saying than to speak our minds; Christ and some saints holding a jewelled book (Scripture); and brightly coloured backgrounds.

Iconographers make a study of their subject and compose several drawings and paintings using the example of traditional icons as a pattern for their work. We examined an iconographer’s study that I had been given. We looked closely at a “cartoon” done of St Michael as a detailed study – the term “cartoon” originally referred to a preparatory drawing for a piece of art. The children chose from several black line drawings (cartoons) of St Michael for their work.

We explored how artists historically would have made pinholes along the outline and “pounced” chalk through those holes on to their canvas to provide a guide for their painting. But how were we going to transfer our images to the prepared canvas? Tracing paper? Or covering the back of the cartoon by using soft graphite pencils and tracing over the front of it against the canvas so that the graphite transferred the image? In the end we used carbon paper. The carbon paper was put against the cartoons (which were printed on letter-sized paper) and these were fastened to the canvas using binder clips. (Painter’s tape could be used.) I modelled how tracing the cartoon using the carbon paper resulted in the image transfer.

The images of icons from the first session had all been put in individual plastic zip-lock bags so that they could easily be handled by paint-covered hands to aid in the selection of colours. The children were encouraged to keep the cartoon nearby so they could refer to it if needed. We watched a short video on YouTube of the painting of an icon so they could see how the colours were built up in layers and details were added at the end. They were reminded to let each layer dry, but working with acrylics did allow for quick drying times and easy cleanup with water.


Sessions Three & Four:

Praying, Painting & Blackberries 

The final two sessions were spent painting and discussing our work. Two of the adult staff had joined us to make their own icons and the interaction was priceless. Pictures, icons and magnifying glasses were always available. After the final coat had dried, three of the eight children decided to add “jewels” to their work. We used small plastic jewels from a craft store, which were first laid loose on the canvas to try different colours, shapes and placements. Since there could be a tendency to add too many shiny embellishments, the children were encouraged to refer to the sample icons. Finally, white glue was used to hold the jewels in place.

The third day began with an “Iconographer’s prayer” – that our minds, hearts and hands might be used to convey some truth about God. We also had a treat of blackberries, a reference to a legend about Lucifer falling into a blackberry bush when he was cast out of Heaven, and the resulting tradition that blackberries are best consumed before September 29 (the commemoration of St. Michael and All Angels). This also presented a moment to talk about the authority of Scripture and the difference between it and legend.

Everyone worked on their pieces, either in silence, or taking part in discussions about techniques, colours and details they were still discovering. It was wonderful that many of the other staff and conferees would visit our class and ask questions of the children.

Once the icons were completed, discussion turned to what the children planned to do with them. Most planned to find a place for them in their homes; two hoped to hang them in their bedrooms where they could be used to inspire prayer and contemplation. 

At the conference’s closing Eucharist, the icons were on display near the altar and were blessed by the presiding priest.

In reflecting on the process, seven-year-old Eric noted that applying the gesso was the easiest part, but completing the dragon’s twisting tail and all of his scales was the biggest challenge. He already knew exactly where he wanted to hang his icon – in his bedroom.  TAP

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