Photo by Scott Wolff
Mary Katsilometes writes icon from scaffolding in Resurrection Church.
Photo by Scott Wolff
Mary Katsilometes writes icon from scaffolding in Resurrection Church.
TUALATIN – Mary Katsilometes climbs the scaffold in the vestibule of Resurrection Church four mornings a week, just as she has for the past four years. For her, every day is Lent and a prayerful preparation for the raising up of a completed icon. It is also a step forward in the revival of an ancient art form.

“The theology of the icon is being reclaimed by the western church worldwide,” said Katsilometes. “You always find icons in Eastern Orthodox churches, of course, but to find one done on a 16-foot panel in egg tempera for a Latin Rite church is quite unusual. Usually you see depictions this large in fresco.”

The first thing one notices on entering the church with its towering ceiling and massive concrete posts and beams is the scale of the three icons already installed in the sanctuary. The first, over the altar, is a crucifix flanked by Mary the mother of Christ and John, the beloved disciple. It measures 13 feet high by 8 feet wide. On the left and right of the altar respectively, of similar size, are icons of the Resurrection and Annunciation.
These are the first of five icons commissioned by the church, thanks to the support of a generous donor. The fourth, depicting Pentecost, sits unfinished on a gigantic easel in the vestibule, where Katsilometes writes the icon according to a canon of ancient artistic techniques. The entire icon must be meticulously drawn to scale before the first brush stroke is applied. She mixes her own egg tempera, a combination of natural pigments, egg yolk and vinegar. Gold leaf is also used.

Katsilometes is in the forefront of efforts to revive authentic iconography. Traditional iconography began to wane in the Eastern church in the 17th century with the reign of Peter the Great, who was enamored of all things western. Looking to the west for inspiration, artists all but abandoned the spiritual and aesthetic discipline of writing icons, Katsilometes said.

“In the West there is often the assumption that the icons were produced by people who just didn’t know how to draw,” she mused. “They see the icons through western eyes, not realizing that every detail of an icon follows strict guidelines and has symbolic meaning.”
Ironically, it was the Russian Revolution that drove Russian artists to Paris, where they sought to revive the ancient art form – an effort that continues today. Katsilometes, who earlier in her education and career concentrated on contemporary art, turned to iconography about 20 years ago. She studied under world authority Egon Sendler, SJ, in France and has travelled extensively in Europe and Russia advancing her knowledge and skills.

“The icon is coming back into both Catholic and Protestant churches, but the western eye is not trained to look for authenticity,” she laments. “So a lot of poorly done icons are getting into churches, and as you know, once bad art gets in it’s hard to get it out.”
The icon is rooted in the dogma of the Incarnation, of God made man, Katsilometes says, and the true author of the icon is the Holy Spirit.  “That’s why the icon is not signed on the front. My job is to show up with my time and talent, and surrender to the prayer made visible in the icon.  This is not just my prayer but the prayer of the community or individual for whom it is being written.”

As they pass through the main doors of the church for Mass, parishioners of Resurrection parish observe and pray with the iconographer, who is now in the process of applying egg tempera and gold leaf to the Pentecost icon. Visitors are welcome to view the icons and watch Katsilometes work.

Katsilometes has conducted numerous workshops and retreats on the spirituality of the icon. Examples of her work can be found at the University of Portland, St. Mary’s Academy and The Catholic Worker House in Portland, Our lady of Gudalupe  Cistercian Monastery in Lafayette and at Queen of Angels Monastery in Mt. Angel. She continues to teach at the Iconographic Arts Institute, which holds annual workshops for aspiring iconographers of all skill levels. The next workshop is scheduled for June 21-29, 2013, at Queen of Angels Benedictine Monastery in Mount Angel.

For more information, call Resurrection Parish at 503-638-1597; or visit her web site at: