St. Croix Catholic Iconographers Guild Director, Judy Symalla, was the solo artist for the Holiday Season Gallery show at Art Reach St. Croix, 224 North 4th Street, Stillwater, MN.
Judy values the ancient technique of creating Byzantine iconography but also pushed herself to bring a freshness by incorporating a Western perspective in a predominantly Eastern art.
The featured icons, a set of three incarnation icons, was funded by a grant from the Minnesota State Art Board. The exhibit included the three 32x24" icons along with 26 other icons that Judy created.
For information about acquiring an icon call Judy Symalla at (651) 351-0650 or email at email@example.com
A video of the gallery can be viewed here: https://photos.app.goo.gl/PkcAfvqZiX2GvaXP9
A second video in which I name each icon be viewed here: https://photos.app.goo.gl/XVqbuzt7vnkC55KA9
At this point you need to copy and paste the links in your browser.
Journey to Bethlehem
The pregnant Virgin Mary is depicted riding a donkey on the way to Bethlehem for the census with her betrothed, Joseph. A light shines on Mary's belly from heaven representing that the child, Jesus, was conceived by the Holy Spirit. Joseph is depicted with the miraculous blooming staff, that signified that he was God's choice to be betrothed to Mary, and the two turtle doves, which would be the sacrifice when Jesus was presented at the temple. The couple are accompanied by an angel who protects and guides them. It was the angel Gabriel who told Mary she would conceive a Child and name Him Jesus and who told Joseph to trust Mary. Also seen in the icon is the Pillar of Rachel as Mary is the New Rachel. Rachel, the wife of Jacob, the father of the twelve tribes of Israel, died giving birth near Bethlehem. She was buried there and a pillar erected. The Bible depicts “Rachel weeping for her children”. This led to the tradition that, even after her death, Rachel continued to watch over and pray for the Jews as her own children as Mary watches over all of us.
Incarnation of Christ
Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus are seen in front of a cave. Jesus was born in a cave, that served as a shelter for animals, because there was no room for them in an inn. The manger, a feeding trough, in which Jesus was laid is seen in front of the lowly animals. The ox, representing Israel, and the ass, the Gentiles, are both present worshiping the Lord. The manger as a feeding trough points to the fact that Christ will be our food, the Bread of Life. The manger, a box of wood, also foreshadows his death and tomb. While it is common in Orthodox icons to have Joseph in the lower corner apparently doubting all that has happened, I have chosen to place him adoring the Lord. The positioning of the three does honor to them as the Holy Family.
The magi, Balthasar, Caspar, Melchior, are depicted in worship of Christ who is seated on Mary's lap. In His left hand He holds a scroll indicating that he is the living Word of God and He raises his right hand in blessing. The magi have come from the East following a star, which is shown shining above Bethlehem in the upper portion of the icon, to bring gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Gold symbolizes Christ's earthly kingship while frankincense is a symbol of His Godliness. Myrrh, an embalming oil, foretells His death.
Symbolic Lights: The creation of an icon.
In the Russian Byzantine tradition, the icon is created with egg tempera and 24k gold on naturally gessoed boards. The board, once constructed, is sealed with animal hide glue, covered with natural linen, gessoed with 8 to 12 layers of natural gesso and sanded to a completely smooth surface. The gesso is made from animal hide glue, chalk dust and marble dust. It is this pure white absorbent surface in which we begin our icon. The white surface not only reminds us of our beginnings but it continues to reflect light back from it's surface through the many layers of paint.
After the sketch is drawn or transferred on the gessoed board the gold is applied and the lines are either established with black paint or etched into the board. The gold is applied over clay bole. We breath on the hard clay bole to allow it to accept the thin sheets of gold foil. It reminds us of the Bible passage referring to God from Ezekiel - “He will take away the stony heart … and give them an heart of flesh.” It is our softened hearts that are able to receive God's love. The black lines painted over the sketch become our guidelines and remind us of the laws set down by God through Moses.
The first layer of paint is called Roskrish, 'beautiful chaos' in Russian, and is dark colors. To this we will only add lights and veils of colors. We bring light to the dark adding no shadow recalling that Christ brought light to the world. The light of the figures in the icon will come from within. As an iconographer, we are depicting the saint in it's glorified state.
The first layer of light is the light of the body. It is a natural light that helps sculpt the figure and bring order to the chaos. This light covers roughly two-thirds of the Roskrish in each area. This light is then incarnated with color of a veil or wash of paint.
The second light is the light of the soul. It is an interior light covering half of the previous light. On garments this light looks like faceted gems. It gives an edge to the light like in a faceted gem stone. The icon is again painted over with a transparent veil.
The third light is the light of the spirit. It is an enlightenment or the sparkle off of a faceted gem. This light could cover as much as one-third of the second light. Again a veil is applied. This veil, like all the previous veils, is a healing balm bringing harmony of colors as well as a visual vibration.
There is a forth light and it is only applied sparingly. It is the divine light or light of Heaven. It is applied primarily around the areas of the five senses and the hair. This light is called Life-Giving Lines or Ozhivki.
The sketch lines are then re-established but not with black like the “law” that was laid down in the beginning. Christ came to fulfill the law and thus our lines are now transfigured with color.
Finishing details include borders, lettering, light of the eye and the white ring around the nimbus (halo). Lettering is vital to an icon. It is the naming of the icon - to name a thing is to acknowledge its existence. The light of the eyes are painted in the shape of a triangle representing the Trinity for in Heaven, we will see the beatific vision. The ring of white paint around the nimbus is pure white and reminds us of the white of the board we began with and while representing divinity also invites us to create another icon.
Judy was introduced to Byzantine iconography during an intensive week long workshop. She became completely drawn to this traditional art form. She has studied under Master Iconographers as well as studied the icons of the Masters from ancient times and the history and theology behind iconography. She now creates traditional as well as original icons with an interest in bringing the Western perspective to her icons. Her style emerged, not from an effort to create a style for herself but rather, from her desire to create what is True and Beautiful.
Creating icons in the ancient technique of egg tempera, made from egg yolk and natural pigments from the earth, on naturally gessoed boards with 24k gold leaf on clay bole has become her source of creative expression. In keeping with the tradition, she creates icons applying first the dark base colors (roskrish) and then adds successive layers of lights and tinted veils. She values this ancient technique but also pushes herself to bring a freshness to iconography by reflecting the perspective of the West in a predominantly Eastern art. Her icons typically evoke awe in the viewer. By bringing in the Western perspective, Judy hopes to evoke a feeling of comfort and a greater sense of understanding.
She is the founder and director of St. Croix Catholic Iconographers Guild, which has over 100 members and supports iconographers through education and activities. Additionally, the guild has done mission work on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation and created several icons as a group.
Judy Symalla is a fiscal year 2020 recipient of an Artist Initiative grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.