Art can feed both body and soul, and prayer is often enhanced through artistic holy images rich in color, form and imagination. In the Roy Place-designed Benedictine Monastery on North Country Club, Sister M. Carmela Rall, OSB, of the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, is keeping alive an ancient, classic form of soulful nourishment: the practice of iconography.
The icon is a layered, intricate form of antique portraiture depicting saints, and dates back almost 2,000 years. There are references to icons of apostles Peter and Paul presented by Pope Sylvester to Constantine the Great. In Eastern Orthodox Christianity, with its elaborate symbolism of saints written in the form of the icon, the sacred art became an important vehicle of prayer.
Sister Carmela, one of the 23 sisters who reside at the Monastery, is an artist as well as a religious. She has worked with art most of her life, and since joining the order in 1950, she has painted in oil, watercolor as well as acrylics. She began her religious vocation serving at the Mother House in Missouri. She then spent another 20 years in Illinois before moving to St. Louis, where she served for one decade. Sister Carmela came to Tucson about 10 years ago, and became interested in iconography when a Dominican priest visited the Monastery to speak about the sacred art. His workshop turned out to be the catalyst of Sister Carmela’s attraction to iconography.
Painting icons is a special call, she says: “There is a prayerful ritual as the process of ‘writing’ the image evolves.” She explained a discipline that combines fasting and prayer during the “writing” of the icon, in addition to artistic skill.
Iconography brings full circle Sister Carmela’s artistic and spiritual callings. Between her other monastic duties, Sister Carmela finds time to paint. Although there is very little room in strict, classic iconography for artistic license, there is a signature style that is fresh and exciting noted in her work. Sister Carmela believes icons are living forms of prayer — simple yet reverent spiritual doorways “to communion with heaven.”
The writing of an icon follows the orthodox tradition of multiple steps that dictate movement of the mind, heart and hand of the icon writer. Sister Carmela proceeds with prayer and fasting as she writes the icon. An initial sketch is made of the Icon holy image to be represented on birch wood. She then moves on to detailing the image, using layers of painting. She applies a myriad of rich brushstrokes in the prayerful process — culminating in the addition of numerous symbolic details and ornamental inscriptions that adorn the icon. A transparent layer of acrylic finishes the sacred art.
An icon is a messenger of hope, notes Sister Carmela. She always asks the individual requesting the icon to join in prayer during the progression. “This creates a bond with the icon and also its meaning and message,” she says.
Currently, Sister Carmela is finishing a number of works, including a set created in colored pencil of the Stations of the Cross (an artistic devotion to the Crucifixion of Jesus). She recently completed a large-size icon of St. Jude for a Nebraska church, and she regularly creates greeting cards for the Monastery and her religious order. Rarely these days does she accept commissions for new icons, although prints of her 31 icons are sold in the Monastery gift shop and on its website.
By applying ancient craft techniques along with her vision of spirituality and aesthetics, Sister Carmela’s art lifts people’s spirits. Her liturgical imagery allows a pathway of faith and prayer for those who appreciate this unique link to an enduring, spiritual process that goes beyond art.
– For information on Sister Carmela’s iconography, cost and availability:
– A History of Icon Painting by L. Evseyeva (Moscow: Grand-Holding Publishers).
Copyright 2002 -2005.