"The Annunciation" - a new icon by Tatiana Vartanova
Nine icons by Tatiana Vartanova hang in St. Xenia of Petersburg Russian Orthodox Church.
These delicate, multi-layered paintings of egg tempera and gold leaf include representations of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, and are among the several dozen Ms. Vartanova completed since emigrating to Ottawa in 1990. For this church alone, she is to produce 40 more icons in the coming years.
In the 30 years since Ms. Vartanova painted murals in that first small Russian church, her artistic skill and religious faith have grown considerably. She is an accomplished icon painter, an endeavour that inextricably intertwines the religious and the artistic, a tradition of the East European Christian church that dates to the fifth and sixth centuries. In Canada, Ms. Vartanova is one of about 200 people who paint religious icons.
An icon is considered much more than a piece of art, not something you hang on your wall to match your couch. "That", says Father Andriy Chirovsky, would be "like using a church for a square dance." According to Father Chirovsky, a professor with the Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies at St. Paul's University in Ottawa, "Iconography is an ecclesiastical art, it belongs to the church."
The rules of icon painting are specifically laid out by the Orthodox Church and govern the form and content of the work. Ms. Vartanova uses traditional techniques and materials to create original icons, painting them in the syle of the Novgorod and Moscow schools of iconography of the 15rh century.
Essentially, an icon is an expression of the painter's religious faith, within the tightly defined Church teachings. They don't paint God as an old man or in any other earthly form; the Church has taught that no person has seen the face of God. For this reason, icons of the Virgin Mary always show her face turned away from Jesus, as the infant is God.
Features such as eyes are often larger than expected, to draw in the observer. As objects, icons are considered as blessed and holy as the chalice used in the consecration of the body and blood of Christ.
"We are obviously 100-per-cent cognizant of the fact this is a piece of wood with paint on it," says Father Chirovsky. "However, just as some people will kiss a photograph or hold it to their breast when they miss somebody - and I bet there are thousands of grandmothers doing that right now - that is what we are doing. We are not kissing a piece of wood with paint on it."
It is no surprise, says Father Chirovsky, that the icon has weathered the onslaught of Soviet communism that enshrouded the Russian republics and Eastern Europe for much of this century.
"The icon helped people to get through the difficult times by putting a little beauty into otherwise drab, dreary lives, lives with lots of difficulty," he says.
An icon starts with a wooden board, usually pine or linden. A cotton fabric, seven or eight layers of boiled glue, linseed oil and honey are applied and polished to a smoth crack-free gloss.
Meanwhile, the icon is drawn on thin paper, applied to the board, and carefully redrawn onto its surface. Then comes the application of a special lacquer and goldleaf background.
Then the painting begins. Following tradition, Tatiana uses egg tempera paint, which she makes from boiled yolk. Layers of egg tempera are painstakingly applied.
To show definition in a face, as many as 25 layers of paint are carefully added, each delicately applied so as not to damage the effect of the previous layers. Finally, liquid gold highlights are applied; Ms. Vartanova uses 23-carat gold leaf paper. The process takes weeks to complete.
The subjects may be clearly defined by church doctrine but, says Father Chirovsky, the discipline involved in making an icon makes its creation a deeply spiritual and artistic pursuit. "If you're constrained to some narrow limits, it forces you to express yourself in a rather nuanced way," he says. "From the religious point of view, it forces you to delve deeper into the subject. From the artistic point of view, it really forces you to push to express yourself."
As Ms. Vartanova says, "it comes from my soul. I believe in God, and I love God. I am also a professional artist. Although I can paint landscapes, but just a little, the icon is my life."