Scotland's National Catholic magazine

Katherine Sanders: Scotland’s Iconographer

Icons, the traditional religious art, has had a surge in popularity among people looking for new ways to connect with their Faith, said Katherine Sanders, an Orthodox iconographer based in Edinburgh.

“I think there’s a sense that culturally, we are a bit lost,” she said. “We are looking for something that is authentic.

“People are open to looking at different cultural expressions of faith that they may have been worried about doing 20-30 years ago.

“People are looking for meaning. One of the things that people say time and time again about my icons is, ‘I love their faces.’”

She recalled a friend telling her ‘I feel like there’s a person there that I can really connect to.’

“I think that’s what we’re looking for, we need connection, we need something that’s meaningful,” she said. “There’s this sense that icons have a connection.”

Katherine Sanders has been painting icons for about 15 years. Although iconography is a meditative practice, it is difficult to master.

Katherine described the first five years of her iconography being ‘like walks along hot coal, you want to get to the other side.’

Her customers are mostly Catholics and Orthodox Christians, and the process of painting a single icon can take between two weeks to, in one case, four months.

“My initial research involves either reading material that the saint has written or reading about their life. I’ll look at illuminated manuscripts, photographs, other icons.

“Then I discuss the person who’s commissioned the icon what it is about the saint that connects with them. My work is all about that personal connection that people may have.”

The next step in the process is she starts sketching.

“Once I’ve got the drawing pretty-much finalised in my head, I’ll use a very light paint to begin transferring onto the board.”

The paint Katherine uses is a mix of egg yolk with a small amount of vodka and water. Pigment is also added, and the mixing of this and the egg emulsion is called tempering. Some extra water is added at this point. The dilution stops the paint from being ‘thick and clumsy.’

“I transfer the design and gradually build up layers. When I first started, I was taught that you ‘paint from dark to light in the sense that God created darkness and then the light.’ It’s not true. There are different ways to paint.

“My routine for painting is to sit down, put on a headscarf as I would when I’m in church, and then either make the sign of the cross or say the Iconographer’s Prayer. What I find works for me is being able to sing hymns and Psalms while I’m painting.”

The style of iconography is very distinctive and perhaps unusual to modern eyes. It is deliberate in order to show us ‘reality, transfigured.’

“When Christ was transfigured on the mountain and he shone with that light, the Apostles saw his Being as far as they were able. That’s what we try to show in icons. It’s not that we are changing things to suit a type of aesthetic. We’re trying to show humanity in its fullest, transfigured sense.”

For example, saints who in their earthly lives may have worn glasses likely would not in icons.

However, whilst many established rules exist for iconographers of the past, the digital world and their resurgence in pop- ularity bring new issues to deal with.

“I feel very uncomfortable with people putting icons on t-shirts, stickers, and tele- phone cases, because it’s still an icon.

“That’s why I say don’t put them on Christmas cards, because you don’t know what the other person is going to do with them.

“One of the things I’m interested in is whether the icons I create on my iPad are icons. If they are, at what point do they become icons? How do we use icons on stickers, t-shirts, digital media, and Christmas cards, these are things that the previous generations didn’t have to think about.

“They are questions that we need to examine and not be too dogmatic about them.”

Katherine Sanders’ icons can be found at katherinesandersicons.com

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