Charlottean creates traditional Christian icons

Just inside the nave of St. John's Episcopal Church on Carmel Road hangs a large icon of St. John the Evangelist. It is painted in traditional Byzantine style, gilded with gold leaf that symbolizes the eternal light of God, positioned before a kneeler so that all who enter may stop and pray before it.

To the Christian faithful, icons are far more than simple art objects, says Christine Schaeffer, a longtime member of St. John's, who created the icon for her parish. These sacred images are seen as "windows to heaven."

"Imagine ... you are seeing your loved one through a car window, or you're out raking and they're on the inside, and you go to that window and you kiss each other through the window. That's very much what (praying with an icon) is like," Schaeffer says.

"You are not showing devotion to that piece of glass. You're kissing what's on the other side, what the glass is bringing you closer to."

Schaeffer, 57, has spent a decade as a contemporary iconographer. She has lived in Charlotte for 24 years and has two grown children. Son Justin maintains her website, Theologia Iconographia ( www.theologia-icons.com), where viewers can find samples of her work and can commission her to create icons for their homes or communities.

George O'Hanlon, director of the Iconofile School of Iconography in Willits, Calif., says there are probably fewer than 100 professional iconographers in the United States - "people who paint at a very high level of craftsmanship" and whose icons are commissioned by churches or individuals. He does not know of any other iconographers working in Charlotte.

Neither does the Rev. Michael Varvarelis, dean of Charlotte's Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral on East Boulevard. When Holy Trinity commissions icons, he says, it invites iconographers to come here for the duration of the work. "Most of them come from the old country."

The vast majority of iconographers working today are in Russia; most of the rest live in Greece or the Balkans, according to O'Hanlon.

The word "iconography" comes from the Greek words for "image" and "to write." (Iconographers will frequently say they "write" icons, emphasizing the careful discipline they practice in making them.) From the earliest days of Christianity, the faithful prayed with these holy images. Some of the most famous icons today were created in Russia and the Byzantine empire in the Middle Ages.

O'Hanlon, whose institute is devoted to teaching the history of icons, said these images are both an "organic link to the past" and a living tradition that must develop so it continues to have meaning for people today. He points to a contemporary Russian Orthodox iconographer working in China who has incorporated regional styles into his icons, which look like hybrids of Orthodox icons and Tibetan thangka paintings (Buddhist devotional art).

A faith walk with art

Schaeffer's own "faith walk into iconography" began when she was a girl growing up in Batavia, N.Y.

"From as far back as I can recall, I could even go back to age 5 ... I loved religious imagery," she says. "I would stop breathing, literally, when I saw (it)."

Later in her life, she became an artist, trying to reveal in her paintings the truths she was grappling with, "such as the meaning of love, say, and the sacrificing that goes on there."

Ultimately, though she "put heart and soul" into her efforts to convey these truths, she didn't feel her art was going in the right direction. Too much of it was about her own ego.

"More and more, I wanted to know what I should be doing as an artist," she says. "It's important to me that I serve God in my artistry because that was what he gave me. It was a gift."

When the disparate strands of her life converged in her mid-40s - her love of imagery, her faith, her art and her search for truth - she found her calling.

Training with a master

To become an iconographer, a person trains with a master. Schaeffer studied at Kanuga, an Episcopal retreat center outside Hendersonville, which sponsors weeklong workshops by California-based iconographer Teresa Harrison. Schaeffer has also done independent study at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

She now has icons in her hometown of Batavia, Philadelphia, Boston and around Charlotte, as well as other locations in the United States. One of her icons - an image of 16th-century French priest St. Vincent de Paul - is in a small mission church in the region of Pucallpa, Peru, in the Amazon basin. The church received the icon from St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Charlotte, its sister parish.

Schaeffer is working on an icon of the Archangel Raphael, a gift from a couple for their daughter, who is graduating from medical school. (Raphael means "God has healed.")

When someone commissions an icon from Schaeffer, she asks for photos of the person who will receive the piece. She keeps the photo before her as she works.

"It helps me get to know the person, and also, your mind wanders," she says. "An icon takes hours and hours and hours. With these pictures, your mind is always brought back to this family or this person who, because of their request, this is coming into being."

When she prepares to create an icon in her studio at her SouthPark home, she begins with a prayer to God. "I always pray that 'My hands be his hands' and that he guide me and guide my thoughts," she says.

Although most icons are still found in Orthodox churches, their use in prayer and worship is becoming more prevalent in other Christian denominations. The Iconofile school in California, O'Hanlon says, has taught at least 1,000 people. More than half the students are Catholic. The majority of the others are Lutherans and Episcopalians.

'Icons are for everyone'

Schaeffer hopes to find a space, perhaps at a church, where she can hold workshops. She wants to spread the message that "icons are for everyone." You don't have to be Orthodox - or even Christian - to find spiritual benefit, she says, as long as you are a seeker of God.

"When the world has so much imagery that is not good for us, everywhere you turn ... there are examples everywhere of what you should be, what you should look like, what you should buy, what you should make, what you should drive - those images affect you," says Schaeffer.

There is no better antidote, she says, than to surround ourselves with icons, "these inspirational images ... that should be our home base."