March 17, 2010

Lessons of faith in strokes of a brush


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Jill Brady/Staff Photographer: Iconographer Christopher Gosey demonstrates for students, from left, Meadie Brownell of North Yarmouth, Sam Nawfel of Freeport, Helen Blewett of Cape Elizabeth and Sophie Kourakos, also of Cape Elizabeth, during an icon painting workshop at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church Saturday, April 12, 2008. *for Religion*

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Jill Brady/Staff Photographer: Helen Blewett works on her icon painting of St. John the Baptist while attending a workshop led by iconographer Christopher Gosey at the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Portland Saturday, April 12, 2008. *for Religion*

Staff Writer

Sam Nawfel hunched over a table, paint brush in hand, and carefully applied another line of red onto the icon of John the Baptist that lay before him.

Three days of patient brushwork had yielded a classic image of one of Christianity's most revered saints, complete with the narrow mouth, elongated nose and large eyes that typify a religious icon.

Some might describe the flat, highly symbolic nature of such images as simplistic or primitive.

But not Nawfel.

''There's so much more than meets the eye,'' he said. ''It's there for those who want to pursue it.''

An appreciation for the art of iconography drew Nawfel and eight others from the Greater Portland area to Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church this month for a three-day workshop in icon painting.

Led by Christopher Gosey, an iconographer based in Manchester, N.H., the session combined instruction in the basic skills of making an icon with a more subtle lesson in faith.

''My workshops are really designed to show you that with prayer and trust, you can do anything,'' said Gosey, a former architecture intern who started painting icons in 1990.

Iconography dates back to the 3rd century and the Byzantine Empire, when the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and proclaimed Byzantium to be the new capital of the Roman Empire.

The word ''icon'' comes from the Greek ''eikon,'' which is defined in theological terms as the word of God depicted in lines and color. Thus, icons are often said to be written rather than painted.

Greek or Russian icons are the most widely recognized versions of the form, but numerous other ethnic groups and regions found religious expression in iconography, including Syrians, Armenians, the early Celtic Church, Egyptians and Ethiopians.

Gosey specializes in the Ethiopian form, which is distinguished by its more brilliant colors, greater modeling of faces and richly patterned clothing. At the Holy Trinity workshop, he provided acrylic paints for the participants in place of the traditional animal protein-based tempera.

Nawfel, a member of the Holy Trinity congregation, attended with his wife, Bonnie, and the couple's 18-year-old daughter, Alysia. All three created icons of John the Baptist, the second icon that all iconographers produce, according to tradition.

At a previous workshop given by Gosey in 2006, participants did the first icon dictated by tradition -- the Virgin Mary, or Theotokas, as she is known in the Greek Orthodox Church.

Sam Nawfel said making his own icons gave him much greater insight into the meaning of the icons inside the Holy Trinity Church, where he regularly gives historical tours.

''All these saints, they're our community,'' he said.

Icons are considered signs as much as they are likenesses, and their design and execution are tightly prescribed by tradition. Facial features, expressions, gestures and position all have symbolic meanings, and the materials used in icon production are steeped in history.

Icons are created on wooden panels, using glue made from animal hides, ground mineral pigments and gold leaf or paint. Gold is likened to light and is symbolic of God's pre-eternal glory, while the pigments contain the animal, vegetable and mineral elements of the created world.

Gosey imparted the traditions of the iconographer as he led participants through his workshop, peppering hands-on instruction in applying layer after layer of paint with tidbits of religious and iconographic history.

As he taught, early Christian music wafted through the Holy Trinity parish hall from a portable CD player, lending a meditative air to the workshop.

Nancy Hancock, who was attending her first session -- and was thus making a Virgin Mary icon -- said patience, concentration and an eye for detail were keys to success. Even after three days of work, she had much more paint to apply to her image.

''But the time flies,'' she said.

The icons completed at the Holy Trinity workshop will, according to tradition, be taken to the church altar for the priest's blessings.

Staff Writer Dieter Bradbury can be contacted at 791-6329 or at:

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