By Liz Dossa
The Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows occurs on Tuesday September 15th. This reflection focuses on an icon that was created for this feast. Stay tuned for a spiritual reflection that will publish later this week on the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows.
The pensive face of the Our Lady of Sorrows icon painted by Sister Mary Hope Sanchez is remarkable, especially for her eyes. Downcast and heavy lidded, the eyes contain shadows of Mary’s grief and the clarity of her acceptance. A traditional icon of Our Lady of Sorrows often shows the sorrows of her life as swords in Our Lady’s body, but this image carries the pain in her face and gestures more subtly.
Sister Hope was drawn to painting the image simply because, as she said, “She is so beautiful.” Her slim-fingered hands gesture, one hand indicating “behold” the Christ, the other bent, resting under her chin, showing her acceptance of sorrow. Her grief is clear, her gaze extending to those who look upon her an invitation to share at a time when so many in our world are experiencing sorrow and pain.
It was in Bakersfield, California, in 2009, that Sister Hope discovered icon painting. Sister Hope had previously been the director of Silver Penny Farm, a retreat center, in Petaluma, California, for 18 years. Part of her ministry has been as a spiritual companion, a ministry she describes as one of listening and encouraging. She has been an artist since entering the novitiate. This meditative art form was a natural fit for her.
The tradition of icon painting is exacting. The artist responds to the holy figure as she paints. Prayer, rules and discipline are essential. Expressions are rarely shown, and no side views are allowed. Certain colors are expected: Marian blue, Mary Magdalene red, royal purple. The goal is not originality but rather a reverent recreation of a holy figure.
In the first class, at the Art for Healing program at Mercy Hospital, Sister Hope remembers that everyone began painting “Veronica’s Veil,” tracing the original icon, painting the background black, then layering the figures in light colors on top. Students learned that the essence of this art is to lovingly copy an icon as closely as possible to create “a variant” of the original.
Iconographer Joyce Tanner, the instructor, came to icon painting after a time of soul-wrenching pain in her life. Her son had died of AIDS and her husband of a cerebral hemorrhage. “I was a lost soul,” she said. “I had a friend who was going to Egypt on an archeological dig. I was invited to go along.”
There in the desert, she learned about Coptic art and became immersed in it. Uncovering the ancient holy figures in the desert and seeing them in museums was healing. When she returned to her life in Bakersfield, she said simply, “I was well.”
After studying with master icon painter Peter Pearson, Joyce began transmitting her reverent understanding to students. Sister Hope, who was coordinating eucharistic ministers for the Bakersfield hospitals, was an apt pupil and was pleased with the results.
“Slowly, the figure comes through. It’s exciting. I loved it!” said Sister Hope, who feels the importance of this feast even more deeply today.
“This feast is on the liturgical calendar after the Feast of the Holy Cross,” she said. “It’s a wonderful feast. Today, we have more reason to tie in with what Mary went through. We are going through something very hard. She will understand our sorrow and our need for strength.”
Liz Dossa is a communications manager for the Sisters of Mercy West Midwest in Burlingame, California.