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Iconographer, Mary Jane Miller

Updated: Jul 3, 2020

For 20 years I made money, it was a job and a service. I messed around in plenty of mediums and treated clients honestly. I gave them what I thought they wanted as best and creatively as I could. I said yes to everything and every medium, murals, weaving, furniture, etc. At the age of 40, I was invited to an icon writing workshop with an orthodox priest. That first icon encounter swept me up like a wave. From then on, I was driven to contribute to the practice of ancient iconography. Artists have titles which describes the technique or subject of their work; photographer, print maker, abstract artist, landscape artist, portrait artist, etc.  I am an Iconographer. Icon painters choose to be restricted within a tradition which has a deliberate vocabulary. Iconographer, Mary Jane Miller delights in an unseen community of tradition, past, present and future.

All my life I have been living in preparation for this work. I think now, “If I stop painting Icons, I will no longer paint at all.” It is a privilege to work in the medium of egg tempera and design sacred image.

Where do all these ideas come from?

The Byzantine Church in Constantinople elevated icons as a way to visually record the Christ story.Owning a book was luxury, and most people could not read anyway. The Byzantium Empire preceded the Renaissance. The legacy of biblical pictures is vast, however; Renaissance and Byzantine images are not the same. Byzantine images have neither the bleeding Christ, sorrowful weeping mother Mary, the wiggly baby Jesus or anguished suffering saints. This imagery developed after the black plague in Europe where 20 million died and the church adopted the idea that we are sinful.

The earlier Byzantine church emphasized mystical awe and wonder which only comes from Knowing God. Often the faces of Byzantine icons expressionless, gazing towards the viewer in a blank and distant stare. Backgrounds and garments are abstracted, while the flesh seems to breathe.

My own Struggle

Traditional icons of the Byzantine Church, 500 to 1500 AD are understood to be written by religious people who reproduce church doctrine and biblical text in story form as icons, using prayer as the vehicle.  I have tried for 20 years to respect and learn from the tradition, yet with a noticeable amount of kicking and screaming. I Love the image but resist the confinement within the tradition. I vacillate between, my artist ego and the mysticism required to write down what we cannot see. Humans are called to be walking Icons of the divine, breathing and conscious. Iconographer, Mary Jane Miller needs to paint and pray so to create what we cannot see.

The iconographer paints with traditional egg tempera; egg yolk + water mixed with million year old stone ground into a fine dust called earth pigments.  Egg yolk represents the raw potential for life and the earth pigment, “eternity”, mixed together to create divine image. Sounds easy! Which part, the painting or the divine image? The process begs the question, who is the artist?

How do artists transform ideas into image?

Let me reverse the question, how can the work transform me into an idea. Iconographers are always trying to paint what we cannot see. Iconographers live in a twisted dimension: as you paint you theoretically become the image. Internally iconographers believe “beauty will save the world”, the beauty of humankind and our potential to see the divine in all things. As an icon painter, I copy image and do not call it my own, traditionally one does not sign their own work. As an artist I “imagine” new images from time to time. The images of the past continue to transform me, and one day I will write one image of lasting beauty for humanity. Yup these are lofty thoughts and ridiculously pious ideas but I feel helpless to give up trying. Peace be with you

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