• shelisloterbeek

Lessons in Writing an Icon and Contemplating Mary

There are a few things on my bucket list - and learning how to paint an icon was one of them. I’ve been particularly drawn to them over the last five years or so as I finally discovered that nearly everything that I think is actually an image - not just a thought or a word. A 4-day retreat popped up at the Franciscan Renewal Center not far from my home and so I signed up - not really sure what I was getting myself into. What I did know is that I was in it for the process - not really the finished product. I know my artistic limitations. Painting, or even drawing, isn’t a strong talent of mine.


As I approached the door of the classroom an older (than me) woman asked if I was here for the class, I said yes and she replied “oh are you a painter?” “Nope, but I’m an artist” (it’s taken a long time to even call myself that, so I felt proud of myself for being able to answer that honestly.) And she said “Oh, it’s not really painting anyway, we write icons.” I could get on board with that, I’m a writer.


Lessons in Writing an Icon





I generally hold expectations VERY lightly. But I did go into the class thinking I’d learn the symbolism behind hand gestures and head tilts. Nope. That wasn’t on the agenda. However, here’s a little of what I did learn.


  • Coptic Icons were the first icons of Jesus. Historically the Egyptians had icons of their gods and when they were introduced to Jesus they wondered why there was no image of him. Hence, icon of Jesus.

  • This particular style the light radiates from within the person. You can see that the shadows are on the outside of the faces. The LIGHT radiates from within. Which is contrasted by

  • The layers of paint go from dark to light. As we all move in our journeys from darkness to light - so also does the icon.

  • There are many MANY layers of translucent paint. So many. So. So. Many. But then again, so am I many layered, so are you.

  • Iconographers can sit in prayer for months before beginning to write.

  • Some of the most venerated icons aren’t the most professionally created, but created by someone that no one even remembers with mediocre talent (this gave me a particular boost of confidence.)

  • The eyes are large as if the person(s) are contemplating God. Their mouths are small, because really, what is there to say?

Besides flannelgraph and beautiful stained glass windows in the little country church that was traded out for a stark white new modern building when I was 13’ish, I don’t have a lot of history with icons. My guess is we probably steered clear in my particular kind of conservative evangelical circle so we weren’t confused with "the catholics". God forbid we even remotely be accused of honoring Mary. (I don't usually write with sarcasm, but there it is for you.)

Contemplating Mary

Which brings me more to my reflection. Mary.

I participated in a lovely half day retreat with my friend Tamara (@a_sacramental_life) where we focused on Mary’s magnificat (Luke 2). I’ve read it before, even tried to make a song of it once, but definitely made sure I didn’t think of her as anything special. But this year, I was captivated by her presence, her faith, her openness to God.


Rewind a little in the story in Luke 1 and the angel comes to her and she’s clearly taken aback by the message, but not really the fact that an angel came to her. She’s not even showing (so let's dispel that whole "she needed to get away" idea) and goes to her friend and cousin Elizabeth for a non-judgmental conversation and support. It seems to me Elizabeth is very much her soul friend, her anam cara. Elizabeth also isn’t concerned about angels giving messages or even about how Mary is pregnant. These women seem to have contemplated beautiful mystical ideas and are okay with the Mystery.


(Also, sidenote, Joseph was a great guy - but how many sermons did I hear growing up how great he was for not publicly stoning her or sending her away. I believe that’s what happens SOMETIMES when a guy tells the story and he’s not really sure what to do with the faith of Mary - he tells it from the point of view he most relates to. End sidenote.)


Even after the shepherds come to worship the tiny baby Jesus, “Mary ponders these things in her heart.” Oh contemplative Mary. I feel a kinship to her in a new way. Yes, Mary, you were highly favored. Yes, Mary, you were so, so blessed to hold the blossoming of the Divine Trinity inside you. (That’s also what those three stars on her head covering stand for.) Emmanuel, God with you, God withIN you...and God within me.

Since I was there for the process much of the letting go of perfectionism didn’t enter in. Once in awhile I used my handy dandy q-tip eraser, but overall let the process be my guide. As I painted my icon of Mary and “baby” (aka tween) Jesus, I prayed as the layers upon layers of paint dried. I contemplated Mary. I contemplated Jesus. I realized that this praying and contemplating was just as much of the process of writing the icon as the actual brush to board.


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What are you contemplating this Advent?


How do you see/experience Emmanuel, God with you, God withIN you?



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