Stephen Beale has been a freelance writer and journalist for over 10 years, reporting on presidential politics, government corruption, and other public affairs. He also writes frequently about Church history, spirituality, and theology. He holds an undergraduate from Brown University in classics and history. He currently resides in Providence, Rhode Island.
If you’ve ever wanted to create your own icon but were unable to attend or even find a local workshop, a new book spells out all the steps necessary to do one on your own.
But iconographer Joe Malham’s new book, Drawing to Closer to Christ (Ave Maria Press, 2017), is—to paraphrase the introduction by Bishop Robert Barron—much more than simply a how-to-guide, despite what the relative thinness of the book and large size of its font might suggest. It is also a series of theological reflections and prompts for devotional exercises, combined with some brief autobiographical sketches.
The book is certainly designed to enable the greenest of novices to create their own icon. Its accessibility reflects not only Malham’s mastery of the craft, but likely also his experience as an artist-in-residence at St. Gregory the Great Parish in Chicago, where Malham runs icon workshops and generally engages with the greater community of his parish and neighborhood. (I’ve previously profiled Malham for the Register here.)
In the case of this book, the instructions are for Christ Pantocrator (the All-Knowing Teacher). The self-guided workshop is broken down into seven days to mirror the seven days of creation. Here lies the first theological lesson: ‘writing’ an icon is a new creation that, when performed correctly, is done through God and aims to reflect His glory.
Each chapter is associated with one day of creation in Genesis. Each represents a major step forward in the creation of the icon. Within each chapter, Malham offers readers a brief introduction, often drawing upon his own personal story, a theological reflection, and then a step-by-step list of instructions for what to do with the icon for that day.
Each of these days is centered on particular themes such as “Word and Image” (Day 1), “The Eternal” (Day 3), and “Beauty” (Day 5). Again, the chosen themes invite further reflection on the significance of each day of the creation account. Day 3, in which God created plant life, becomes an opportunity to reflect on the transience of all life in contrast with God’s unchanging eternity.
The theological reflections alone make this book worth reading. For example, Malham deftly explains St. John of the Cross’ idea of a dark night, clears away some cobwebs of misunderstanding, and nudges us to go deeper into that dark night, with the icon as a sort of window or guide. Another reflection illuminates how the Industrial Revolution has diminished the spiritual intuition that was nurtured in pre-modern agrarian cultures.
The instructions on icon writing are clear and concise. (Full disclosure: it wasn’t practical for me to actually do my own icon for this article.) Malham lists all the materials needed, spells out the steps, and provides numerous photographs showing how things should look.
The instructions are also peppered with various tricks-of-the-trade and metaphors to aid the beginner. For example, here is Malham describing how to apply gold leaf to Christ’s halo: “With a uniform pressure (do not tap as though you’re sending Morse code through the leaf), glide the pad of your forefinger over the entire surface of the square until you are certain that all the gold has adhered to the red halo area.”
Reading through the instructions but not actually carrying them out myself pointed to yet another benefit of this book: insight into what goes on in actually creating the icon. One is granted a privileged peek behind the curtain, so to speak, at the physical and artistic process at work. And this process itself will lead the reader and practitioner to other theological insights, beyond the ones that are formally offered by the author in his reflections.
At one point Malham makes a remark on speed whose applicability is far broader than just the work of the icon: “One of the continuing leitmotifs on our journey is a realization of the difference between moving fast and moving with deliberate intentionality.”
Some insights are unstated but insinuated: “When dry, the gold-sized portion of the panel should resemble a placid, waveless surface of a pond.” Malham has previously told us that the gold “represents the true splendor and eternal radiance of God’s uncreated light.” Doesn’t the placid-like appearance of the gold on the icon then suggest the peace that comes with encountering God’s splendor?
Needless to say, Drawing Closer to Christ, is worth checking out even if you are not quite ready to commit to an intensive seven-day “self-guided icon retreat.” Moreover, the book is readily adaptable to other retreats. One can imagine a local parish group embarking on this journey together. One can also see how the book could be extended to 40 days rather than the official seven, making it suitable, perhaps as a Lenten devotion. As Malham says, moving along this journey with deliberate intentionality is more important than how fast you are.