Icons: Painting in Prayer

Iconographer Veronica Royal Hones Her Craft and Helps Other Artists Do Likewise


Veronica Royal’s most challenging commission was a five-foot-high icon of the Baptism of Christ, which hangs in St. Michael’s Church in Annandale, Va.

An octagonal building dedicated in 1960, St. Michael’s sports an abstract colonnade and a small stained-glass dome of modern design. But the icon of the Baptism of Christ, hanging to the right of the altar behind the baptismal font, embodies the richness of the ancient iconographic tradition Royal has mastered.

Royal — whose husband, Robert, is a writer who edits The Catholic Thing website — was drawn to iconography as a child in the Ukrainian Byzantine-rite Church. As an adult, she found her vocation to iconography after joining the Carmelite Secular Community in the 1990s. The community supported her with prayers during the six-month labor of painting the Baptism of Christ.

Now, Royal views the icon with detachment. “As time passes and I occasionally attend Mass at St. Michael’s, I marvel at the fact that I painted the icon ... that my hand, guided by the Lord, painted an image that beautifies the church and is used for prayer by the faithful.”

“Prayer” is a word Royal uses often for her work. Icons are “painted in prayer, with prayer and for prayer.” The theology of the icon “is based on the Incarnation, the revelation of the image of God in the human form of Jesus Christ.” The iconographer’s work is to “participat[e] in this creation,” by “theologically asserting the reality of Jesus’ humanity.”

As she explains on her website, RoyalIconStudio.com, “Icons (from the Greek: eikona) are sacred images representing the saints, Christ and the Virgin, as well as narrative scenes such as the Nativity or Christ’s Crucifixion. ... Icons are used to enhance the beauty of the church, to teach us about our faith and to remind us of this teaching. By bringing us in contact with these holy persons, we are invited to imitate them as we strive for transformation and sanctification. The icon is a means of worshipping God and venerating his saints.”

Prayer is key because, as Royal’s site explains, “The artist has to be a person transformed by prayer in order to perceive a universe that has been transfigured through Christ. He asks God to inspire and guide his hand. Understanding that God is the true artist, icons are not signed by the iconographer.”

The entire process is, says Royal, a humbling and an awesome responsibility.

It is also a skill she is dedicated to transmitting. A former Catholic elementary-school teacher, she conducts a variety of educational events, including an annual workshop for Fiat, the diocesan organization for young women’s discernment.

Rosario Reilly, founder of Manassas, Va.-based Aquinas Learning, has held two workshops with Royal and is planning a third. The first workshop taught local Boy Scouts to paint an icon of their patron, St. George, accompanied by his enemy, the Dragon.

Under Royal’s instruction, “even 12-year-old boys were able to follow and successfully paint (write/pray) an icon,” said Reilly. The second workshop, for the broader Catholic community, enabled other novice artists to make strides under Royal’s tutelage.

“It was a wonderful way to spend a weekend,” said Reilly, “a retreat from our regularly hurried lives to focus on the transcendentals of truth, goodness and beauty.”

Besides conducting independent workshops, Royal teaches at Catholic Distance University, where she recently presented “History and Theology of the Icon.”

Sister Mary Margaret Ann Schlather, who helped run the seminar, describes their students as “very engaged in the weekly discussions — even almost passionate. They commented on the fact that this seminar was an awakening experience to the history and types of icons, as well as to the canons that guide icon writing.”

For her part, Sister Mary Margaret Ann found working with Royal to be “a privilege … as I have always admired the person who writes an icon because of the spiritual preparation and vocation that this involves.” She also found that the knowledge of iconographic styles and rules concerning features, color and placement “has expanded my ability to see more fully into the meaning of an icon when I encounter one.”

These ancient rules or “canons” that define an icon do indeed make it accessible to the faithful. Knowing, for example, that the blue of Mary’s dress represents purity, while red stands for the Incarnation, enables a viewer to “read” and meditate on the icon’s message.

Because such theological messages are key, iconographers follow prototypes that communicate them successfully. As Royal says, “The aim of the iconographer should be not how to be different or unique in his depiction of his subject, but how to be better.”

“Being better” is the focus of Royal’s most interesting educational project: the Icon Painting Guild. The guild’s atmosphere is relaxed, with seven to 10 people coming to Royal’s house every Saturday. Music plays; they talk a little — and they paint.

One guild member, attorney Tom Bovard, painted “off and on” for 20 years before meeting Royal. During the week, he rises early to paint before heading to work at the Department of the Interior. But it’s the guild that has enabled his recent progress.

“That is keeping me going,” said Bovard, “and I think it’s probably doing that for a lot of people.”

Like Royal herself, Bovard studied with American iconographer Philip Zimmerman. But Zimmerman’s style, developed in a Pennsylvanian community with roots in Eastern Europe, evokes Russian iconography, while Bovard was interested in the Greek style. This interest led him to a class with iconographer Theodore Papadopoulos — a class which nearly fell through for want of an organizer, until Royal stepped in.

She has a talent for organization, says Bovard, and for facilitating encounters between eager students and skilled artists like Papadopoulos or the Romanian Daniel Neculae. Lists of names and experiences on her website demonstrate Royal’s extensive connections and studies.

Royal herself, who incorporates various styles into her work, says it took her years with numerous international iconographers “to really understand the theology and techniques of iconography.”

Today, interest in iconography is growing, even outside of the Catholic community. Royal often receives lecture requests from churches and related organizations. But she has also been interviewed by “surprisingly secular publications like élan magazine. … It seems to me that there is a broad hunger for understanding and search for deeper meaning in art.”

And, for all its spiritual depth, iconography remains an art, a practice whose mastery satisfies the artist. In fact, as an art defined by its communication of meaning, iconography fulfills the arts’ paradigmatic ambition: to please both the senses and the soul.

“It’s the intersection of the material and the spiritual,” says Bovard. “That’s what’s so interesting about it.”

Or, in Veronica Royal’s words, an icon is “a bridge of prayer between God and the human person. An icon allows the viewer to contemplate the holiness of the person represented in the icon and experience the presence of God.”

Sophia Mason Feingold writes from Washington.