When asked what prompted her to begin painting icons a decade ago, Sister Madeline Kelly offers a practical response: “I had been weaving, but then I moved from Dallas to San Antonio and realized the loom and yarn were too much to carry around,” she says. A deeper conversation with her soon reveals that painting icons has become a work of love and way of prayer.
“In Henry Nouwen’s book, ‘Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying with Icons,’ praying becomes writing and writing becomes praying,” Sister Madeline says. “For me, praying becomes painting, and painting becomes praying.”
An icon is religious work of art, usually a painting. Iconography is a precise art steeped in tradition and dating back centuries to Eastern Orthodox and Catholic churches. The most common subjects are Christ, Mary, saints and angels.
A former art teacher and artist who has worked in multiple media, Sister Madeline says she first became interested in painting icons after watching a sister from another congregation who came every year to the Ursulines’ retreat center in Frontenac, Minnesota. She began her new artistic endeavor by taking a course from a woman she’d heard about in Austin. She found another teacher at the Biblical Museum of Art in Dallas and took two courses with her before going to Houston for further instruction. She takes extension courses with iconographers around the country.
Although Sister Madeline has painted some non-traditional, or “realistic” icons, she prefers the centuries-old patterns and processes. It is exacting work.
“You can’t vary from the pattern on traditional icons,” she says.” You have to use the right colors for the subject; for example, Mary is red. And you must know how to build it. Traditionally you put on seven or eight layers of each color, starting with very dark and going to light. The layers give volume and bring light. It’s like Rembrandt lighting—when you look the shadows for folds are realistic.”
The recipe for paint used in traditional icons is very precise and has been handed down over centuries. “You create your own paint using dried pigment, egg yolk, either vodka or dry white wine and a little water,” Sister Madeline says. “Pigments come from all over the world. My most recent batch was 50 grams from England. Once you’ve mixed a batch of color, you must keep going. You can’t save the paint—it’s too difficult.”
Sister Madeline has created 15 icons to date, including two each of Michael of Archangel and Mary Magdalene. She says the artist leading a course chooses the icon. “Right now, I’m working on ‘The Motherhood,’ an icon with Anne, Mary and the Christ child, through an extension course led by a Russian artist in Vermont. It’s all done by Facetime. You can’t be a beginner to do it this way. You must know what you’re doing. “
On average it takes her 72 hours to paint an icon, she says, “if nothing goes wrong!“ Her largest icon was 14” x 11” but most are 12-1/2 x 9-1/2.
Sister Madeline’s icons have been featured in a year-long exhibit in Houston and at Ursuline Academy in Dallas, where she was head of the high school’s art department and returned d in January to celebrate her Golden Jubilee. She has sold a number of her pieces.
When she’s not painting, Sister Madeline leads prayer and spiritual workshops at St. Brigid Catholic Church in San Antonio and helps with the planning of a faith historical museum at St. Paul Church. She has worked with persons experiencing homeless at Haven for Hope and visits critically ill patients in their homes.
As to her next work of art, Sister Madeline says she already has an icon planned but won’t reveal the subject. “It’s a gift, and it’s a secret!”