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Iconographer offers students Lenten lesson in ancient art form

March 20, 2015
Christina Gray

Brushstrokes become a form of prayer in San Francisco native artist Sean Kramer’s icon painting classes at St. Patrick School in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

During Lent for the past six years, Kramer has taught middle-school students there the ancient art of Christian iconography, which involves far more than just paint and a paintbrush.

“As one works on an icon, one is working on oneself, realizing oneself as a more complete image of God,” Kramer, an iconographer and teacher at the New Hampshire Institute of Art in Portsmouth told Catholic San Francisco. “The materials and steps in making an icon are all symbolic of levels of ourselves and the stages of our transformation,” he said.

Kramer said that icon painting began with the Egyptians who used to paint portraits of the dead on mummy caskets. The practice and its techniques was later taken up by early Christians, whose icons were an amalgamation of Greco-Roman, Middle Eastern and Egyptian art forms.

In the first millennium of the church when the majority of the people were illiterate, stylized portraits of the saints, the Blessed Virgin and Christ provided images of those who had gone before in the faith. Today icons are still considered symbolic windows to the sacred through which the faithful can contemplate holy mysteries and seek blessings in return.

“Icons are portraits of those who look back at us, and in their expression and eyes convey to us something of what they see, but which remains to us still, a mystery,” Kramer said.

Kramer, who was educated at Catholic schools in San Francisco including St. Cecilia School and St. Ignatius College Preparatory and Archbishop Riordan High School (and is the nephew of Dominican Father Bruno Gibson), was invited by St. Patrick to teach the class which is funded by the local Knights of Columbus council.

The child of artist parents, Kramer discovered his own talent and passion for art while at St. Ignatius, though he gave up art school to study the classics at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula.

The one-time Maronite monk said he was called to iconography almost by accident. He was living in Colorado as a hermit when a spot in a local class taught by a Russian icon painter opened up. Kramer took it, not expecting to like it. But he did, so much so that he relocated to the East Coast to study iconography from a renowned teacher in New Hampshire.

“It brings together all my main interests; art, philosophy, theology, spiritual practice, symbolism, connecting with nature and natural materials,” said Kramer.

Kramer begins each class with St. Patrick students, a prayer asking God, the saints and angels to “help us make these holy icons images that will remind us and those who see them of God’s presence and love for us.”

Kramer said that one of his teachers painted in much the same way Catholics pray the rosary.

Instead of counting a prayer for each bead, she would say “Jesus have mercy on us” with each brushstroke to keep her focused, he said.

Students begin by tracing an image of Jesus or Mary onto carbon paper and then on to a wood panel where they will use three layers of paint to create the icon, said Kramer.

Traditionally, paints are made with materials that come directly from the earth, and color choice and placement is symbolic.

The wooden panel onto which the icon is painted, for example, symbolizes the cross, he said. Color pigments from rocks and minerals are mixed with egg yolk, while white wine is added to preserve the paint. The results, Kramer said, is a painting that has more dimensions and light than the “flat” or “plastic” look of acrylic paints.

For the first layer, faces are painted green, because humans are a mix of earth and heaven, Kramer tells his students. “Just as green is made by mixing the heavenly color blue with the earthly color yellow.”

Kramer tells students after the icon is finished that the sketch represents God’s idea of each artist.

“God had an idea of you and he made you,” said Kramer. As you live your life, he said, you are coloring it and adding more colors. “At the end of your life, you’re going to be a finished painting.”

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