A graduate from the Beaux-Arts Academy, and a practising Catholic, Marie-Eve as she neared her 40th year started training to become icon-painter, an art form steeped in the orthodox tradition which gave added impetus to her spiritual quest.
Moscow, Vladimir, Novgorod, St-Petersburg…
For two weeks now I have been touring Russian churches and monasteries, and as I wend my way along the « route of icons », I can at long last contextualise these works hitherto contemplated and studied in books ,as I seek to capture their profound meaning through the liturgies and rite. I marvel at the sight of Roublev’s « Most Blessed Trinity », I overflow with joy just living an Orthodox Easter, I am impressed by the fervour of people. During this trip my overarching aim is to visit an icon studio for, having learned the art of icon-painting in France, I wonder to myself whether this is really the place for a catholic person to be in. I need the assent of a Man of the Church before being inducted as a practitioner of this art-form.
Holding a slip of paper containing a request written in Russian, I meet with one blank refusal after another until that blessed day when, at Serguiev Possad Monastery some 70km outside Moscow, I have a chance encounter with a French-speaking female iconography student who finally obtains permission for me to visit some studios nested in small wooden huts hidden from the public gaze , but also to meet with hegumen(or Monastery Father Superior) Lucas and receive his blessing. This « validation » of my work – following our conversation over the canons and rules intrinsic to this art from a technical and spiritual standpoint – is for me of paramount importance. From that moment on, I know I can return to France with a contented heart. It’s as though, after a solo desert crossing , I was allowed to continue along my chosen path and so to fulfil my vocation which I consider to be my mission in life.
Images have always been a passion of mine.
I communicate through them. When I was a young girl, I would use a large wall in my bedroom as canvas , my mother having installed a special tapestry which I could cover with white paint at leisure. Fun times indeed ! Later on in life, I worked 15 years in artistic circles , yet I was left unfulfilled.
That is until the day when, leafing through a magazine, I came across an icon. As I contemplated it, my mind flashed-back to all those icons aand frescoes which had marked my youth, ranging from the one hanging above my bed to that by Giotto – discovered when 17 in the Scrovegni Chapel (in Padua). I remember well how, overcome by emotion, I had hidden myself to cry.
This is what decided me to start training in France with a woman master-iconographer who incidentally was the wife of an orthodox priest ! During a full three years I underwent rigorous training and followed Christian-theology courses. In the process, I discovered what was missing in my life as an artist, in other words the spiritual dimension. I was then supposed to return to my photo-lab but finally, as though touched by grace, I opened my studio and headed for Russia. And whereas I had planned for everything in my life, it suddenly was as though Someone Else controlled it in my stead.
At the Beaux Arts Academy I tended to work on impulse, and fast. Just as the icon is contained in a frame, this practice demands of me that I follow a discipline akin to monastic tradition. It focuses the mind and regulates my whole being. For example, it takes five days of precise rituals to prepare a series of plates : twelve layers of levkas (the white coating at the back of the icon) – the number 12 cross-referencing to the apostles – applied every 12 hours using a specific brushing technique, followed by a suitable drying-up period , all consistent with a specific work routine. This art-form, developed over the centuries, is a school that teaches patience and compliance with the rules. And this background, this discipline, affordme access to an inner freedom. In Christendom, I like the concept that there is a time for everything. In iconography, there is a time for each element. When I paint an icon, I become immersed in the reality of things, in the time present, while reconnecting with a timelessness that smacks of eternity.
I live my faith in a very intimate way. I like strolling inside churches , on my own. I feel magnetised. I need transcendency, a vertical dimension. My work goes hand-in-hand with a life of prayer, of silence, of rigour. If any one of these ingredients is missing, then I cannot create icons, just like there can be no fullness in their frames. I believe that the intent of the artist is essential, mine being to render glory unto God. I therefore cannot create without a spiritual approach, without regular reading of the Scriptures which is so very fundamental to enriching the content of my images.
« MY RESPONSIBILITY TOWARDS THE CREATOR IS TO BEAR WITNESS TO MY FAITH BY REPRESENTING THE FEATURES OF THE HOLY FACE, OF THE SAINTS AND OF BIBLICAL SCENES «
The downstrokes and upstrokes traced by my paintbrush in the morning are performed during inhalation-retention and exhalation-retention spells through which blows the Holy Spirit. This corporal gymnastics triggers an opening in the gesture and in the heart, so serving to unify body and soul. This approach, though not therapeutic, has helped me make peace with God. The vertical support it has afforded me has embedded me in the earth, has helped me say « yes » to life after the untimely death of my daughter four months into my pregnancy. For years afterwards I remained haunted by doubt and constant self-questioning. And even while painting my icons I never stopped questioning Him, testing HIM until the final realisation that He was not responsible for her death.
Iconography has reconciled me with art . In artistic circles egos reign supreme. In iconography, by contrast, one hides behind the image because icons are simply not signed. They are not owned by us. In harmony with the Scriptures, our hand perpetuates a centuries-old tradition .
I feel vested with a responsibility towards the Creator, that of vouching for my faith by representing the features of the Holy Face, those of saints or of biblical scenes. The idea here is to give them life by incarnating them. I am not alone in this task as there is an ongoing dialogue taking place between heaven and earth, with God , and with the parish or person that commissions an icon. The notion of « working for » then takes on its full significance.
As told to Anne-Laure FILHOL
Twelve icons for the major feasts
<< Inspired by the Novgorod tablets, Marie-Eve Thomas has produced a set representing the
12 main feasts of the liturgical calendar (right page : Jesus’s triumphal entry in Jerusalem). These
icons, which cannot be dissociated, are looking for a venue (religious or other) to host them.
Marie-Eve Thomas runs four icon-painting courses annually. Each session lasts five days and takes
place either in her Morance studio (69) with accommodation available in a nearby monastery, or in
Boscodon Abbey (05). These courses, dispensed in accordance with Russian tradition, purport to help
deepen and understand icon painting as inspired by the Creator Spirit. The next course will be empty. But the calender for 2017 is on the actualites website.
For more details, please call (33)126.96.36.199.75 in French, near Lyon 69.
MY GUIDE TO…
LET ITS PRESENCE UPLIFT YOU
The prime function of an icon is to invite us to pray and interiorise…To incite us to share in the
Mystery. The Holy Spirit flows through the icons, and transfixes them on its way to reaching us. As
such, they are living things. Just allow yourself to be surprised by this discreet presence, to look,
touch, heal through this sanctificatory channel. Next, learning about the history of iconography will
help you relate the image to the Scriptures.
ADMIRE THE LIGHT, AN ATTRIBUTE OF CELESTIAL GLORY
What I endeavour to show in icons is the light of Christ as it resonates in our lives. This light is what I
reveal, without any veneer. Light is the main attribute of celestial glory. Icons portray for us the
Kingdom’s inhabitants as they contemplate the light through which they allow themselves to be
pervaded to the point of becoming radiant, as shown by the halo around the head.
BECOME IMBUED WITH ITS COMPOSITION
The icon ,through the play of colours and shapes, announces that which the Gospel tells us through
the Word. Painted in the spirit of the Faith, it mysteriously makes us feel the presence of Christ, the
Mother of God, the angels and saints. This is what distinguishes it from any other painting. The icon is
a world of matter and spirit. And the codes and canons to which it responds – authenticated by the
Church – are as many access doors leading to a transfigured world.
BE CONSCIOUS OF ITS CONTEMPORANEOUSNESS
We tend to think of the icon as being totally disconnected from reality and civilisations. Yet it is
memory in the anamnetic acception of the term : « Do this in remembrance of me » . Accordingly,
when we contemplate it, let’s be conscious of the contemporaneousness of « he who is, who was
and who is coming » (Apocalypse 1.8) : an infinite presence, immutable over the centuries, that
reveals itself in the icon.