It’s a Friday night at a well-attended opening at the Alla Rogers Gallery, but despite the apparent success of her exhibition “Visible Prayer,” Maria Leontovitsch Manley, 63, is looking at a painting of Mary and Jesus and thinking about beer.
On Mother of God “Hodegetria,” one of more than 20 traditional icon paintings the Bethesda artist has contributed to the show, she points out the gold detailing on the clothing of the Virgin and Child. “I think it was…Guinness,” she says. “[I]t’s very dark and, you know, not…lager.”
Properly boiled, beer thickens to a point where it can be spread on a piece and hold the gold in place. Though suds may seem far afield from traditional Eastern European icon painting (or “writing,” as it’s often called)—a centuries-old practice that typically depicts saints and biblical figures and is known for its use of gilding, often in luminous halos—organic materials are common.
Many icon painters now use acrylics, Manley says, but she prefers traditional methods. “I enjoy doing it the old-fashioned way,” she says. “There’s no chemical in the process.”
Indeed, if you don’t believe in better living through chemistry, traditional icon writing is the way to go: The gesso spread over Manley’s cloth-covered wooden panels is typically made of rabbit-skin glue and chalk. Sheets of gold are held in place by clay. The pigments themselves are made from egg yolks.
By keeping the traditional methods alive, Manley and fellow “Visible Prayer” exhibitor Anna Danylevich, 55, are also staying close to their own heritage.
The daughter of an immigrant from Kiev, Manley lived in Germany until she was 11, when she relocated with her family to England. She became interested in painting as a teenager, and at her mother’s urging, she began studying the traditional icon painting of the Russian Orthodox Church. “I made a Christmas card for my headmistress in school,” she says, “which was a head of the Virgin Mary, and I made it like a mosaic. I cut out tiny little squares of colored paper, and so I guess I was already attracted to the icon then….I think I was about 14.” After her father passed away, “I just became more interested in my background, you know, and my roots,” recalls Manley, who moved to the United States in 1964.
“Most people who are icon painters…they usually have some Slavic roots,” notes gallery owner Alla Rogers. “But that’s changing now, because Eastern Rite Christianity is acquiring a lot of converts in North America from outside the Slavic world.” Indeed, several of Danylevich’s contributions are on loan from Bethesda’s St. Mark Orthodox Church.
But Danylevich originally found her little piece of the East in France. When she was young she was drawn to the Lesna Convent, an outpost of the Russian Orthodox Church in Normandy.
“When you visited that place you[’d] feel, Oh, it’s like a little piece of Russian land,” recalls Danylevich, who grew up in Paris’ Russian émigré community. “Some of the nuns barely spoke French.” After learning icon writing from one of those nuns, she studied in the ’70s under iconographers in New York and at L’Ecole des Beaux Arts in Geneva.
After a 15-year painting hiatus during which Danylevich raised her four children, she resumed her study of technique, following the trail of what inspired her. “Whoa! Who did that? And I would go and find that iconographer,” she says. Her travels took her to New Hampshire and Montreal.
It’s no surprise that Danylevich didn’t find many icon writers in her Kensington, Md., backyard. It’s an art form that was endangered until recent years, due to oppressive policies in the Eastern Bloc. “People painted icons under threat of imprisonment only 15 years ago,” says Rogers. “This is a resurgence of an art form that for 70 years was repressed for political reasons.”—Joe Dempsey
“Visible Prayer” is on view to Thursday, Feb. 16, at the Alla Rogers Gallery, 1054 31st St. NW. For more information, call (202) 333-8595.