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Made in his image: the popularity of icon retreats

11 May 2018

Retreats centred on icons are growing in popularity. Jemima Thackray asks iconographers and retreatants what participants can expect

Retreat Association

The Retreat Association’s new icon, based on the story of Christ and the Samaritan woman, painted by John Coleman

The Retreat Association’s new icon, based on the story of Christ and the Samaritan woman, painted by John Coleman

WHEN Danny Evans, Vicar of Broughton and Sealand, in St Asaph diocese, signed up for a week-long icon-painting retreat at Rydal Hall, Cumbria, he did so because, as a former graphic designer, he was “attracted by the wonderful graphic shapes, the circles and block colours, that are part of icon design”.

What he did not expect was to be so “spiritually moved” by the experience. “It was very emotional.

“There were people there from all walks of life: people who had flown in from abroad, and different types of Christians — Anglicans, Catholics, Methodists; I even chatted to a Baptist lady who had come along, interested in learning about another tradition. We [were] all very touched by the experience.”

He has now returned for two more iconography retreats, and now has three of his icons in his chapel, as an aid to prayer. “I know others who have used their icons to create prayer corners in their houses, as they do in the Orthodox Church.”

The English word “iconography” is derived from the Greek words “ikon”, meaning “image”, and “graphia”, meaning “writing” or “description” — which is why some iconographers prefer to use the term “icon-writing” rather than “icon-painting” when referring to the retreats and workshops they offer.

These creative retreats are held in retreat houses, monasteries, and churches all over the UK, usually taking place over the course of about five days. Participants can expect to take away not only an education in the basic skills of iconography, but, also, at least one of their own artistic creations. The specialist materials for the work are provided by the retreat leader: the elaborate kit list includes the wooden panel to paint on; egg tempera paint; natural pigments such as lapis lazuli; and gold leaf used for gilding.

John Coleman discusses an icon with the Archbishop of Canterbury

John Coleman (known to everyone in the iconography world as simply “Ikon John”) prefers using the term “icon writing” because, on his retreats, he places significant emphasis on the art form’s original sensibility as a method of storytelling.

“As early as the second century, the Coptic Christians in Egypt were influenced by paintings created centuries earlier on the walls of derelict pharaohs’ tombs and temples, and the early Christians copied the idea of using pictures that told stories, particularly for the benefit of people who could not read or write,” he says.

“They began painting icons on small pieces of wood that could be carried around, spreading stories from the Bible and the lives of the saints. This practice then grew across the wider Eastern Church, and then over time throughout the Christian world.

“The people depicted in the icons were shown with particular characteristics, or wearing certain colours; so they could be easily recognised, even if the viewer could not read the inscriptions. Other symbolic images, such as the starburst symbol, or stylised rock formations, were also used to tell the story.”

Aiden Hart, by contrast, prefers to talk about icon-painting, because there is so much within the artistic technique, the craft itself, which expresses the underlying spiritual intention.

“Iconography is essentially painting theology: the icon depicts the world transfigured. So, for example, you don’t use chiaroscuro [the use of contrasts between light and dark to create shadow], because the icon is meant to depict the saint full of the Holy Spirit.

“Similarly, people think that there isn’t any perspective in icons, when, in fact, there are seven different types of perspective in an icon — not just the viewer’s perspective, which we’re used to in Western art — which gives a more godly way of seeing the world.”

Peter Murphy, who runs retreats at Launde Abbey, Hereford Cathedral, and, recently, at Mirfield Monastery, has a particular interest in the “very vibrant language of iconography in this country up to the year 1200. Evidence of the British way of painting icons has survived in manuscripts even through the Reformation, and I like to introduce this to my students.”

Icons produced by participants on an icon-painting retreat at Rydal Hall in 2015, taught by Christopher Perrins

The Revd Christopher Perrins, who leads retreats at Rydal Hall, in Cumbria, and Foxhill House, in Cheshire, is keen to ensure that his retreats are accessible to people who have never painted before, as well the more experienced. “We tend to start with the easiest method, the proplasmos technique, which is more associated with the Greek tradition, where you begin with the darker colours, layering the paint until you get to the lightest colours.

“There is also the Prosopon school, from the Russian tradition, involving more complex techniques such as washes and puddling, which more experienced painters might like to try.

”It’s certainly not just for artists, and, in fact, non-artists almost find it easier, because they don’t have to unlearn anything. If you have always painted in oils or watercolour, it can be quite a shift to use tempera.”

This was the experience of Glenys Latham, an artist and lecturer in art history: “On the first retreat, I had to keep telling myself to obey the rules, to do what I was told. The whole approach went against the grain of over 60 years’ experience and a guiding principle, for a practising artist and teacher of art, which is to look and observe: do not copy; do not work from photographs. And here I was, doing just that.

“The telling moment came at the end, when it was time to paint the eyes of my icon, which was Christ Pantocrator. I did, then, use my prior experience, and turned my work upside down to disengage the critical side of my brain. On completion, I turned it round and made eye contact with the image, which looked deep into my soul and challenged me.”

This moment of spiritual encounter was during one of Mr Perrins’s retreats. “The spiritual element is as important as the practical painting,” Mr Perrins says. “Prayer is at the centre. There is even a special ‘iconographer’s prayer’ which is said at the beginning of the session, when we ask the Holy Spirit to guide our hand.”

Diana Jones, a former biology teacher, went on her first iconography retreat last November, and was particularly struck by how prayerful the experience was. “Every session started with prayers, and the day ended with prayers and Bible readings. This really helped us to attain the correct state of mind for the religious painting. When we had finished, all the paintings were taken to the chapel and blessed, which was very moving.”

 The Revd Danny Evans’s icon, midway through the painting process, during a retreat at Rydal Hall in 2015

IKON JOHN, whose icon recipients have include the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, the Pope, and the current and former Archbishops of Canterbury, takes time on his retreats to explain the history of how icons have been used in worship as visual aids to prayer.

“There was a huge controversy in the eighth century involving the destruction of many images, which came to be known as ‘the Iconoclasm’. Icons were accused of being idolatrous, as some parts of the Church had claimed that icons had miraculous powers,” he said.

“But, in 767, at the Great Church Council of Nicaea, St John of Damascus put forward a proposal to reintroduce icons with a new set of rules for how they were to be created and used in worship — and these rules technically still apply today.

“It was ruled that icons are to be written in prayer with the help of the Holy Spirit, and that icons are prayed through not to. The tradition is that they are said to be ‘windows into heaven’.

“So there is now a canon of images, the Authorised Catalogue of Icons, in the Orthodox Church, which iconographers are meant to copy accurately, to ensure they conform to scripture and the Church’s teaching. So, when I am commissioned by my Orthodox friends, the bishop will usually check my work very carefully.”

A participant on an icon-painting retreat run by Peter Murphy last month at the Mirfield Centre, West Yorkshire, under the auspices of the Community of the Resurrection

But, in a recent commission for the Retreat Association, Ikon John has been able to take more interpretative licence in creating an image of Christ meeting the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4.4-30).

“It’s going to be on display in a variety of retreat centres across the UK as a focus for prayer and quiet days based around the icon,” the director of the Retreat Association, Alison MacTier, says. “Our hope is that it will encourage more people to take time out in prayer and reflective activities.”

On most icon-painting retreats, participants are guided to copy one of the images in the canon which depicts a biblical story or a saint. “You need quite a lot of experience to design your own,” Mr Perrins says. “There is room for creativity, though; it’s a living tradition. There needs to be development if we are to incorporate recent saints, just as long as we work within certain principles.”

Frances Norton, an artist and art teacher, has been on a number of retreats, and is now incorporating the tradition even more in her own work, creating abstract contemporary designs using the materials and techniques of iconography.

But she is always drawn back to the experience of painting in a community of Christians when on retreat. “I find you get more depth in prayer when you are working and praying with other people; it feels more intense that we are all praying and waiting on God in silence. There’s a purposeful intent of being with others, and with the saint you are painting.”

Mrs Latham agrees: “The whole week on retreat was so contemplative, prayerful, and spiritual — it’s all about suspending the self. Suffice to say, the experience was so significant that I booked a place for the following year, and have a place booked for this November, too.”

Icon-painting retreats

Belmont Abbey

Dom Alex Echeandía, a Peruvian monk and iconographer, is hosting several icon painting workshops at Belmont Abbey, Hereford, in the summer. The first two workshop, on 6-11 August, is open to beginners. Each day begins with a demonstration of the techniques to be used, and the rest of the day is spent painting, with support and accompaniment from Fr Alex. The other three workshops (on 16-19 and 20-25 August; 27 August-1 September) are at intermediate level. Priced from £160.

More details: 01432 374750; www.belmontabbey.org.uk.

Rydal Hall

From 5 to 9 November, the Revd Chris Perrins is leading an icon-painting course at Rydal Hall, Cumbria, using traditional techniques on a gessoed board, the proplasmos technique, and gold leaf for the background. The course is aimed at beginners, but others are very welcome. Priced at £550.

More details: 01539 432050; www.rydalhall.org.


The Society of Mary and Martha, near Exeter, Devon, hosts an icon-painting workshop led by the artist and educator Andrea Chance, from 14 to 15 November. The workshop will explore the religious and historical context of icons, and provide the opportunity to make a simple icon painting, with associated traditional prayer practices culminating in a eucharist.

More details: 01647 252752; www.sheldon.uk.com.

The British Association of Iconographers also publicises courses/retreats: http://www.bai.org.uk/courses-uk.php.

The Retreat Association’s series of organised quiet days, based on its new icon, take place at Ascot Priory, Berkshire, on 30 June, 14 and 15 July (www.ascotpriory.org); Llangasty Retreat House, Powys, on 4 and 6 August (www.llangasty.com); St Columba’s House Retreat and Conference Centre, Surrey, on 20 August (www.stcolumbashouse.org.uk); Rydal Hall, Cumbria, on 1 September (www.rydalhall.org); Foxhill House, Cheshire, on 27 September (www.foxhillchester.co.uk); Kairos Centre, London, on 13 October (www.thekairoscentre.co.uk); Chelmsford Diocesan House of Retreat, Essex, on 30 October (www.retreathousepleshey.com); and House of Prayer, Surrey, on 15 December (www.christian-retreat.org). Or, for more details, visit www.retreats.org.uk.

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