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Icon of St. David of Wales, painted by Suzanne Schleck

Icon means image in Greek, and this is the word used in the Greek translation of Genesis 1:27: “So God created humankind in His image, in the image of God He created them.” As an image, the icon is not simply a mirror image of someone but conveys to you something of that very person. Like the sacraments, icons have both a physical and mystical nature. They serve as intermediaries.

As the sacraments in their tangible reality of water, wine and bread, reveal the potential for holiness in all of creation, so also do icons. An icon is made of a wood panel covered with linen dipped in animal glue; then covered with many layers of gesso — a white absorbent covering made of talc, marble dust, and animal glue. This white ground is sanded perfectly smooth, and presents the blank slate of endless possibility, of silent waiting, yet the possible chaos of possibility without choice.

To become real the possibilities must narrow, so a drawing is done on the white board, and is made permanent by either etching the image into the surface of the board with a sharp tool, or by using permanent black ink. This reminds us that the image of God is made permanent in us and that we are “marked as Christ’s own, forever.” Gold leaf is applied over a clay-colored ground, reminding us that we humans (the clay) were created capable of showing forth God’s glory (the gold).

After this, the painting begins. It is done in layers, working from the darkest foundational colors to the very lightest and final life-giving lines. As layer upon layer of light is added to the dark base (called sweetening in Greek), a face emerges from the darkness. In both form and content, an icon is a parable of hope, and faith in the redeeming love of our God.

An icon is a visual manifestation of the Kingdom breaking through to this world. Just as Holy Scripture does, an icon also proclaims the reality of God become man, in a silent yet tangible way. God is as real as this painted wooden panel. It is a call to turn to the light, and perhaps follow it into strange territory in search of the One whose reality it proclaims. In the end, there is the hope and promise of a face to face meeting.

About the author: Suzanne Schleck is an Episcopalian who was born and raised in Missouri, and who has resided in NJ for almost 50 years. She retired as a public school art teacher in 2011. In 1989 Suzanne began studying icon painting with the Rev. John Walsted, continuing until his death in 2014. She has taken additional workshops with Robert Lentz, the Prosopon School, Fred Wessel, Peter Pearson, and the Hexaemeron school. Suzanne’s work has been published in Episcopal Life and in several online exhibits with the Episcopal Church and the Visual Arts, and at the 2006 General Convention. Suzanne has taught workshops in icon painting at Kanuga Conferences since 2005, and at several Episcopal parishes along the East Coast, including St. Stephens, Richmond, VA and Trinity Wall Street, and most recently at the Gray Center in Canton, MS.

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