Artist Depicts Heavenly Realm Through Iconography
Published: December 22, 2005
ATLANTA—Artist Dorothy Thayne embraces Eastern Church heritage and works to create windows to heaven as she “writes” classic Byzantine icons, a centuries-old sacred art form to aid in prayer and veneration.
Thayne’s icons are on display at the Naomi Silva Gallery at the Tula Art Center in Atlanta through Jan. 15.
Icons are often called a “window to heaven” because they are intended to serve as mystical intermediaries between the earthly and heavenly realms. Thayne studied with master iconographer Vladislav Andreyev, founder of the Prosopon School of Iconology. Her icons are painted in a 15th-century Byzantine technique using gold leaf and natural pigments bound with the yolk of an egg. The base of poplar wood is covered with a gesso of chalk, marble dust and rabbit skin glue. She follows a canon of rules for iconography to ensure certain guidelines are followed and that the meaning of the original icons is not altered by the iconographer.
Thayne, who recently moved from Atlanta to Lancaster, Pa., researches the theology and historical depictions of each icon and then creates a drawing that is transferred to the board and etched in. Several layers of bole (red clay mixed with hide glue) are applied to the areas to be gilded. The gold is then laid down piece by piece as she breathes on the board, enabling the gold to adhere. Alternating layers of tempera, highlights and pure color floats create a translucency that gives the icon the quality of inner light.
The Catholic artist also prays throughout the creative process as she works in her home studio. She says an ancient icon writer’s prayer each time she sits down to create, in which she asks for God to enlighten and direct her soul, heart and spirit, to guide her hands to worthily portray the figure. She asks for the forgiveness of her sins and of those who will venerate the icons—the most important element—and to protect them from evil and instruct them with good counsel. She focuses on denying herself and on concentrating on the figure she will create, which can be Jesus, Mary, an angel or a saint.
“You’re supposed to put your ego out of the way so the personage you’re representing can come through without too much of your own personality and ego. In other work the personality can really come through. I see working on icons as a prayer and working on oil paintings as fun,” said Thayne, a former parishioner of St. Thomas More Church in Decatur, where two of her icons are displayed in the narthex and adoration chapel.
“When I’m working on an icon, I feel a connection between myself and the figure I’m portraying. The curtain is just my willingness to be of service. Anytime you spend a lot of time in prayer that also strengthens the connection you feel. We all have our particular gifts to share and this is mine, and I’m very, very grateful and thankful for that because it’s something I love to do.”
Byzantine icons use symbolic visual language and images that originated in early Eastern Church tradition in Constantinople (now modern Istanbul) in the Byzantine Empire reign from the fifth century to 1453. This classic style became a source of art for both Eastern and Western churches. During the great schism of 1054, the Eastern (Orthodox) and Western (Catholic) Church split, and this iconography remained predominant in the Orthodox Church but also prevalent in the Eastern rites of the Catholic Church. St. John Chrysostom Church in Atlanta, an Eastern, Melkite-rite Catholic church with Byzantine icons, is one example.
At the reception for the exhibit’s opening night, Thayne quietly greeted those in attendance as they sipped red wine and browsed through the gallery and other open galleries in the spacious complex with glass walls and a spiral staircase between levels. Santa and carolers enlivened the art center, as did a man dressed as an elf collecting money for the Toys for Tots campaign.
The exhibit includes one icon of the Mother of God entitled “Our Lady of the Holy Spirit” borrowed from the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers and another entitled “Our Lady of Tenderness” from St. Thomas More in Decatur. Traditional accounts attribute the authorship of the first images of the Mother of God to the apostle Luke, and copies of the original icons have been passed down through the centuries with slight variations of form. The icon “Our Lady of Tenderness” and most others on exhibit are of a type called “Icons of Loving Kindness.” “Our Lady of Tenderness” depicts the Holy Mother and the Christ Child in a loving embrace that emphasizes natural human feeling and motherly love, and her merciful heart for humanity in its suffering.
Another icon exhibited, entitled “Extreme Humility,” features Jesus with a crown of thorns, red cloak, sinewy chest, his arms folded and head tilted and an expression suggesting love, longing and pain. One entitled “John the Baptist” features the prophet, with wavy hair and a thick beard, holding a scroll stating: “I baptize with water but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
Attendee Dr. Andrew Ekonomou, an Emory University Byzantine literature professor, studied Thayne’s “Our Lady of the Holy Spirit,” where Mary holds Jesus closely, her halo glowing. He noted how the icon has geometrical angles for the garment folds of Mary’s maroon cloak. Furthermore, the figures seem to gaze into the heavenly realm, and their flatness—as opposed to chubby, fleshy qualities seen in much Western religious art—is to emphasize their spiritual nature and the need for denial of the flesh. Mary’s straight fingers holding baby Jesus with a small face and brown eyes indicate she is pointing to the Christ, he said.
This “other worldly” quality of figures is characteristic, he continued, as Byzantine icons are intended for viewers to venerate the figure being depicted and to focus generally on God and the heavenly realm.
“The idea was when you went into an Orthodox church you left the world and your eyes should never rest on anything but the saints” or other scenes from heaven, he continued.
He said that in Eastern iconography being more dispassionate appeals more to the intellect than to the emotions.
“It appeals to the intellect in that it does not emphasize emotions and physicality but rather otherworldliness and the spiritual.”
He commended Thayne for embracing a tradition less familiar in the Western church.
“She really has the technique down,” he said. “She’s very faithful to the classic iconographic tradition … She captures and embodies it in her work. She’s a very, very talented, spiritual iconographer.”
The professor and lawyer believes there is increasing use of Byzantine iconography in Latin rite Catholic churches.
“Dorothy is Catholic and yet is going back to this tradition and telling them this is your heritage. I see a lot of these in Catholic churches I go to” in Europe. He added that in addition, “relics are very important to the Eastern and Western Church” and that he was in Istanbul in 2004 around the time when Pope John Paul II in Rome returned relics of St. John Chrysostom and St. Gregory Nazianzen to Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, an act of reconciliation.
Attendee Muriel Littman, who is Jewish, also found Thayne’s Mother of God pieces to have a spiritual aura.
“I love the medium about it, egg tempera and gold leaf, very beautiful and very spiritual, of course, and the depiction of icons is beautifully done like it would have been done hundreds of years ago,” she said. “The closeness of Mother and child is beautiful, the way he’s clutching her and her scarf, it seems very intimate.”
Thayne, who is married to Lewis Thayne and has three children, earned a bachelor’s in painting and art education from the Rhode Island School of Design and then a master’s in studio art from Rutgers University. It was not until 1994 when she was living in Amherst, Mass., that she signed up for a workshop with the master Russian iconographer and began to study iconography under him for five years and learn both the theology and technique. Her other works include oil paintings of doors, churches and monasteries.
Thayne emphasized that the veneration is not intended to be of the icon itself, but of the personage displayed, as if the icon were a screen to the heavenly figure. She cited from the catechism that veneration of sacred art is based on the mystery of the incarnation of the Word of God and that the icon is “true and beautiful when its form corresponds to its particular vocation: evoking and glorifying, in faith and adoration, the transcendent mystery of God—the surpassing invisible beauty of truth and love visible in Christ … Genuine sacred art draws man to adoration, to prayer and to the love of God.”
Thayne added that meditation on icons, which are blessed by a priest, is particularly helpful for practicing contemplative prayer.
“It’s very traditional to have an icon in a home … It’s an aid to prayer, helps you to stay focused.”
She has found that there has been renewed interest in icons over the past 10-15 years, as with the fall of communism many have been discovered in Russia, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has had Byzantine art exhibits.
Gallery owner Silva said that an associate had recommended Thayne’s work after seeing her exhibit at the Swan Coach House Gallery. She met with Thayne and, as she saw images of her icons, “I immediately knew I was looking at the work of an artist who had been able to tap into what I believe is the creative source—the God source,” Silva said.
“All good art has the ability to communicate and radiate a thought, feeling or an idea … It is not only about work that is beautiful and technically well-executed, but it is about having the ability to do this.”
Dorothy Thayne welcomes commission work for churches and individuals and can be contacted through the gallery, located at the Tula Art Center, 75 Bennett St., Suite M2, Atlanta. Call the gallery at (404)350-8890, visit www.naomisilvagallery.com, or e-mail Thayne at firstname.lastname@example.org.