Icons — the good, true and beautiful

By Kati Ritchie
Special to The PREVIEW


Photo courtesy Roxanne Schick
This icon depicting the Virgin Mary, prominently featuring the immaculate heart of Mary, was painted by Kati Ritchie, a winter resident of Pagosa Springs and a member of the John Paul II Catholic community in Pagosa.

The word “icon” comes from the Greek for image, representation or portrait. Icons are sacred, visual and spiritual treasures of Eastern Christianity, their basic forms having been preserved through tradition for hundreds of years. They are a visual form of the Word of God, a nonverbal sermon, a form of embodied prayer. It is a window into the invisible, into heaven, the new heaven, and the new earth. Because it is an image of eternity, everything is different. Instead of the direct perspective we are used to, icons utilize inverse perspective — what the world looks like from a heavenly point of view, where parallel lines converge behind the viewer.

The art of icon painting had its roots during the Roman Empire after Constantine converted to Christianity in the early fourth century. After the great schism, that is the rupture of the Latin and Greek branches of the Church in 1054, icon painting flourished only in the Eastern or Greek branch of Christianity.

I trained under master iconographer Ksenia Pokrovsky and Marek Czarnecki. Since it is a sacred art, the iconographer must practice prayer. As an iconographer, the first step in creating an icon is much like an archeologist, examining old icons in photos or in real life, to discover the basic underlying form — the older form before each iconographer added bits. Basically, I believe in “economia,” that is the simplest way to convey truth.

An icon is not meant to be a photograph. It is a window into heaven, a vision of a spiritual truth, the uncreated light of Christ shining through a transfigured body. There is a greater and greater contrast between the world the iconographer lives in and the world she/he is painting. Feet barely touch the ground. There are no shadows. The uncreated light of God seems to shine forth from within the saint.

I have been writing or painting — the Greek verb falls somewhere in between these two verbs — for about 10 years. After I could no longer teach because of allergies, my community asked me if it would give me joy to do icons as the Western Church was much in need of image and the only coherent visual tradition was held in the East. Because of my allergies to almost all forms of paint, I began working in a traditional egg tempera paint, where I took powdered, ground, natural pigments from clay and stone and mixed them with an emulsion I made from egg yolk and vinegar. I love the natural harmony of a limited palate of natural pigments.

For the work at Pope John Paul II, I was commissioned to work in acrylic paint, a new media for me. I tried to mix the acrylic colors to approximate the natural pigments I was used to working with. The background color was chosen to harmonize with the lichen on the stone and the shadows in the church.

As to the subjects of the icons, St. Michael the Archangel defends us against evil. Mary and the beloved apostle St. John are in the traditional icon of the crucifixion. Since the parish downtown is the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the traditional image of Mary has been fused with her Immaculate Heart.

The icon of Pope John Paul II was chosen because he is the patron of the parish. It is not a physical portrait of him. I first painted a portrait of him from photographs of him as a younger man, and some of my old Polish friends who had known him, approved the portrait. Then I stylized the portrait. He carries the keys of Peter as pope, his coat of arms. He wears his red travelling cape, white cassock, papal cape, and cross.

It took about a year to finish this set of icons. I began and finished them here in Pagosa Springs and also worked on them in my studio in Burnsville, Minn. As I worked on the icons, a conversation developed between the saint and myself — I suppose you would call it prayer. When a block occurred during my painting the icon, I knew it was time to go to confession. I try to be very careful of moving images such as movies and television as their images last for years in my mind and interfere with prayer and painting. If a person only paints an icon or so a year, they would normally fast, but if a person paints most days as I do, one tries to be moderate in food and drink and maintain a prayerful life. I observe the dietary restriction of my MS — no gluten and very little dairy.

I have no count of the number of icons I have painted/written over the years except for 14 very large ones. Having the icons here at JP II is a small mend in the Great Schism between Orthodox and Catholic churches.

Seeing the icons around the altar makes visible the communion of saints. As I go to communion I can look up and see them looking at me with eyes of love.

Bishop Fernando Isern will be in Pagosa Springs to bless the new icons on Saturday, April 13, following the 5 p.m. Mass. All are welcome to attend.

Kati Ritchie is a native of Minneapolis, Minn., and a winter resident of Pagosa Springs. She is Catholic, a member of the John Paul II Catholic community in Pagosa Springs and the St. Bonaventure Catholic parish in Bloomington, Minn. Kati is a trained archeologist, commercial translator, photojournalist and artist. She was trained in classical atelier tradition and is an art teacher and founding teacher at Trinity School River Ridge, Eagan, Minn. She taught art for 15 years. She is also a member for 40 years of the People of Praise, an ecumenical charismatic covenant community headquartered in South Bend, Ind.

This story was posted on April 11, 2013.