Iconography Workshop

In 2016, The International Art Fund came to  interview Mary Jane Miller about the ancient, meditative art of iconography.

At the end of March, Miller traveled from her home in San Miguel, Mexico to Lewes, Delaware to share this gift.  The Sacred Icon Retreat was held from March 28-April 1 at Saint Peter’s Church.  Ten students, one all the way from Utah, immersed themselves into the contemplative art form.

Miller teaches regularly in Mexico.  She takes her students through the process of iconography from start to finish.  The paint contains the egg, the potential for life, and dirt which represents eternity and connection to God as the creator.  Every step contains a spiritual message, from the materials, the symbolism of each layer of paint, and the subjects in the image themselves.  The work transcends the canvas as the process affects each student individually.  Miller continues to lead workshops not because of the icons that are created, but because of the individual experiences that take place.

Iconography is not about the hand holding the brush, but about the soul’s communication with a higher power during that time.  As an instructor, she says, “I try to watch carefully how people become vulnerable, or become powerful, or become confused, and try to fit the teaching to each one of those people.”  Miller sees “how diverse we all are as humans,” but finds perfectionism to be a common struggle that could counter-act the process.  Her student’s words are a testament to the message that iconography is an art form that transcends the self.

Chaplain Julie Vesely found the Sacred Icon Retreat when she google searched ‘ocean, contemplation, and art.’  “I’m here to kind of figure out what’s the next step in what I want to teach and convey to people.”  Four years ago, Vesely decided to use her creativity in her work by leading art and soul workshops.  “I was asked to work in behavioral health units in our hospitals and create groups that would bring spirituality.  I became a spiritual director and facilitated processes that combine spirituality and art.”  Vesley works with people who have a diverse assortment of wounds.  The challenges in each setting are different, but the people have one thing in common.  “Art speaks to a different part of them.  When they are unwilling or unable to talk, some of that [pain] can still come forward and heal.”

Ken Abremski began painting after he retired in 2010. He’s taken three iconography workshops so far.  “Everybody’s icons turn out beautifully.  It’s amazing to see how people come in with no experience and they’re guided through.”  He became interested in iconography to find a different form of expression for his prayer time.  “I like the way that each of the components relates back to something—the earth, the heavens, the sky, the colors.  It’s very rewarding that way…there’s a spiritual aspect behind it.”

What continues to surprise Miller about the workshops is “how many times I am reminded that we don’t do anything alone.  We do the icons together as a group and we are assisted by some kind of energy that has its own agenda, and has its own influence over us, and therefore we’re assisted.  We’re being seen, in a sense.  I need to be reminded of it all the time.  I think that’s why I keep teaching.  I keep thinking ‘I’m the one that’s doing it’ but I’m not the one that’s doing it.  There is no ‘I’, there’s only a ‘we’ and the ‘we’ is going to make peace in the world.”

Maintaining a peaceful space is a part of what Miller hopes to impart on her students.  “My desire for them is to try to take that kind of understanding out into the world and realize that we’re a very diverse, dynamic planet of human beings.  We may be ruining the planet (ha!) but unless we learn how to get along, we’re toast.”  It isn’t just about peace among the students.  Contemplation opens a space within each person as they face the reality of human imperfection.  Acceptance allows a greater, spiritual work to move through the individual.


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Sacred Body Parts

Reliquary is a place that was used to house Sacred Body Parts  of people.

In this work i have bagged up the words which no longer seem to be important or useful in our day to day life. They are words we seldom hear on the news or in general conversations with friends. I noticed even in the google Wikepdia the definitions are strange and off away form any kind of holiness. read for yourself, I welcome your  comments and insights.

Characterized as a mental process involving the creation of a gap between an unpleasant or threatening thoughts and feelings. It is minimizing associative connections with other thoughts so remembered less often is less likely to affect self-esteem.

Indignation It is the split second assessments a person makes (attributions) about their own behavior or in the behavior of others in order to figure out the reason or cause behind it. Judgements made from merely a few or even a single observation. It causes Indignation

Perseverance a word not fully defined or explained on Wikipedia

Sanctity of life is a principle of implied protection regarding aspects of sentient life which are said to be holy, sacred, or otherwise of such value that they are not to be violated or Sanctity was the name for a heavy metal band from Asheville, North Carolina,

Wisdom is the ability to think and act using knowledge, experience, understanding, common sense, and insight.

Loneliness is a complex and usually unpleasant emotional response to isolation or lack of companionship. Loneliness typically includes anxious feelings about a lack of connection or communication with other beings,

Prudence the ability to judge between virtuous and vicious actions, not only in a general sense, but with regard to appropriate actions at a given time and place.

Sacrament a visible symbol of the reality of God, as well as a means by which God enacts his grace. Many denominations, including the Anglican, an outward sign of an inward grace that has been instituted by Jesus.

Holiness is the state of being holy or sacred.

Sacrifice is the offering of food, objects or the lives of animals to a higher purpose, in particular divine beings, as an act of propitiation or worship we call Sacrifice.

Worship is an act of religious devotion usually directed towards a deity. An act of worship may be performed individually, in an informal or formal group, or by a designated leader.

Devotion a quality of being devoted. Now that tells us nothing about Devotion

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Mary Magdelene from Egypt to France

Her feast day is July 22.

Icon by Mary jane Miller

There are more and more scholars today trying to prove or identify the“Cult of Mary Magdalene”, which arose in Provence France during the 11th century. They seek evidence for Mary and her companions having fled persecution in Jerusalem, crossing the Mediterranean in a boat, and landing near Arles in the South of France, named Saintes Maries de la Mer. She is then believed to have retired to the Holy Cave,“Sainte-Baume” on a hill in the Marseille region, and converted the residents of Provence to Christianity. This tradition holds that throughout 30 years, as a Gnostic Apostle of Jesus, she taught her own Disciples there as Christianity was being formalized. These legends of Mary Magdalene were widely accepted throughout the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages.

Mary in the Cave

As a Roman Catholic saint, Mary Magdalene’s relics are accepted as authentic and are venerated at Saint Maximin la Sainte Baume, Provence, attracting throngs of pilgrims to her great Basilica, erected in the mid thirteenth century. Her bones are said to be scattered during the French Revolution, but her head is said to remain in the cave shrine at La Sainte-Baume near Marseille.

The Biblical Mary Magdalene was a woman of independent means, she followed Jesus, and ministered unto him (Mark 15:40-41), (Luke 8:2-3.) She also continued to help and support those first Apostles of Jesus. The iconic Templar symbol for her status as the Apostles patron Saint of is her trademark money pouch and X drawn across her garment. She is also depicted with a flask or alabaster jar and long light colored hair. In France she is frequently identified as the Black Madonna with a child standing in her lap.

Priestess and Healer

I sincerely hope we will discover more real evidence surrounding the first century Essene Gospels, lost archives and historical documents from France which date earlier than the 13th century. Today everyone recognizes women were not mentioned in full through Biblical accounts and that today there are real and important discoveries changing how we read these historical accounts. Women are being restored to their rightful place through our modern-day gender debate, painful as it may be for some.

Mary Magdalene, named Mary of “Magdala”, a town on the western shore of the Lake of Tiberias, 10 kilometers from Copernium, where Jesus based his ministry. Outside of The New Testament accounts and the apocrypha nothing is known about her. Whether she lived in Magdala or simply born there is unknown, but she was apparently a wealthy woman and dedicated follower of Jesus.

The “Wisdom Texts” of the Essene scrolls describe “Wisdom” as a female figure.

We have failed to develop doctrines inclusive of the feminine aspects of God. The early church as it was debating the theological attributes of the Holy Trinity doctrine, wisdom and spirit did have a feminine aspect. In the Essene Priesthood, for the first 300 years or more after the death of Christ, women were given initiatory training. Historian Flavius Josephus documents that women were recognized as Priestesses, and equal to the men.

It is documented that Jesus the Nazarene had studied with the ancient Priesthood of the Essenes in Egypt, and of which he was a High Priest. Their rituals included practices of spiritual purification using energy centers located at seven points along the spinal column, astonishingly similar to what new Buddhists popularly call the seven energy chakras.

Spiritual traditions intentionally practice working with energy chakras to “clear” or “cleanse” the astral body by “removing” clouds or blocks of “negative energy”, perhaps referred to in early Christianity as “demons”. Naturally, the only way to become a High Priest(ess) was necessarily to cleanse one’s own seven chakras, casting out all negative energies, removing all blocks, to ensure that the Holy Spirit would flow strongly through the Priest(ess).

In light of new research and findings the true identity of Mary Magdelena is changing, and effecting women in general.


What became the accepted prejudice against

Icon By Mary Jane Miller Desert Mystic Magadelena

women as wise healers with priestly power is coming to an end and it should. Women have been silenced by decrees since before the 7th century when Pope Gregory (590-604 AD) mistakenly associated Mary Magdalene with a “sinner”’.


Mary’s identity became dirty and sinful in 591. In that year Pope Gregory the Great gave a sermon which overlapped Mary who had been cured of seven demons with the same penitent prostitute who anointed Jesus’ feet with ointment (Luke 7:37-50) This once sermon took any power women had away and launched generations of prejudice against them suing Mary Magdelene as the icon.

The Iconic image of Mary Magdalene

Our society and the institutional church has miles to go and plenty of room for change  especially where women are concerned; their images, their history and their still unrecognized contribution to the revelation of God becoming man and how it is reflected in theology. I am comfortable to provoke the question and the debate; Christ was the son of God and never intended to have a diminished place for women. We will one day come to see women as complete and whole through His eyes.

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St John the Silent

St John presses on his lip in act of silencing himself. I might practice a bit more meditation and prayer  with this image.

The image of St John depicts a visual state of consciousness or a snapshot of a mystical moment you walk in on unexpectedly. Silence. A fine icon has the potential to shock the viewer into seeing and being seen, moving the viewer  into deeper mystery, prayer and meditation.

Iconographers believe the beauty of humankind and our potential to see the divine in all things will save the world. I will take it a step farther and declare that love of beauty will save the world. Our minds are being battered daily with so much noise which is not of God. Mystical silence, love and beauty are experienced in the realm of a still, quiet mind. Icons like St John the Silent must be painted with a still mind and a quiet atmosphere or you cannot reap the benefit of Christ’s presence within.

The deeper we go into blind silence, the deeper we encounter clear, distilled, invisible love. Meditation enables us to experience detachment from purpose, inviting us to embrace quiet inactivity. The revived interest in icons today is a glimmer of hope for the continued expansion of our awareness of beauty and the divine. These images are windows through which the viewer is beckoned closer and closer, to go deeper into a wider horizon.

If you stand in a large room with a window at a reasonable distance from you, you can see some of the exterior and detect what is outside the building. But, if you walk up to a window and press your face against the glass, then you will see the entire outside world. Icons are like pressing your face to the glass. The individual who pauses to gaze at an icon is invited to contemplate what is not seen. Stillness is the place we work out our own unique relationship between self and world.

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Mary Icons

There are three classic prototypes of Mary.

Her icons point towards a new contemporary kind of trinity. Perhaps the concept of Mary is still undeveloped in our understanding and with more contemplation we will come to realize a deeper mystical message in how we are to behave in the world.

Mary receives the divine gift within, creation, she nurtures that gift through tenderness and she ultimately surrenders that gift to the world, offering her son to the world. Humanity in turn learns to recognize our own divine being within, nurture it and let it go, knowing it was never ours to own but rather to share.

The image of Mary has mutated many times throughout centuries of iconography. From the blessed diva, Mother of God gazing into the unknown to a weeping, anguished mother. The Renaissance painters in the 16th century changed into a more human mother in pain or in joy. Mary’s identity has given rise to many doctrinal wars, decrees and debates but her image is more than cult, idol, mystery or divine. She is a fountain of image, triggering great reflection and contemplation.

Mary defined through history

Theologians of the Middle Ages deliberated in detail the Forever Virgin condition of Mary. They had to answer how it could be that Christ was born to someone as common as one of us? Since Christ is All man and All God, His mother would have to be, in some way, all divine. The Roman Catholic Church fashioned the idea of the Immaculate Conception. The concept of Mary being miraculously conceived was declared doctrine in 1854. It was a theological creation which became dogma at considerable expense to women. Ironically, Mary was lifted to the highest place among men, yet somehow, though she was seemingly divine,she had no voice and no ability to act in any other way but constant surrender.

Nearly 100 years later another detail of her divinity needed clarification. Since Mary was immaculately conceived then where would her divine body go at her death? The Orthodox Church specifically teaches that Mary died a natural death, that her soul was received by Christ upon death, and that her body was resurrected on the third day after her repose at which time her body was taken up into heaven. It was decided Mary did not die but rather “slept”. This statement became an Article of Faith in 1950. The Roman Catholic institution needed an example of undefiled sexuality, perfected womanhood with divine meekness and they found it in the Virgin Mary, from beginning to end.

In the language of iconography, Mary has been held in the highest esteem, I guess for her absolute obedience and silence. We acclaim her to be the vehicle for contemplation through service, surrender and acceptance. The delicate line painted through her neck is there to remind us of her deep humility and constant meditation. Mary being portrayed as the quiet servant and mystical, silent mother has been a hindrance to the development of women and their voice in the Christian church institutions.

I have painted many images of Mary and I believe she has much to tell us. The wisdom women have learned through the years of service and observation has been kept in a soundproof room for too long. It is time for women to speak out and be heard on issues that matter to them. Within our human behavior Mary is the queen of teaching us to love what we have been given, to nurture it and then Give It Away.

I find it ironic that Christian mystics, mostly men, have spoken and expanded spiritual understanding of God for nearly two thousand years and, in doing so, have controlled and shaped our society. Mary has not spoken, making our understanding of her elusive. Mary is a woman who, by her human act, gave birth to the most transcendent truth which is love, a love completed in offering. This is by far the very thing the world needs for its healing. The next three icons illustrate the basis for another kind of trinity: Creator, Lover and Giver. The idea is not only Christian, it teaches a new attitude towards creation: we each create, we each love what we create, and we each have the power to give away to the world what we have created.

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Adam and Eve Story

Bishop William Gregg at St Paul’s Anglican in San Miguel Allende gave another insightful sermon, first week in Lent. The first reading was from Genesis.

The silly story we all know about snakes and trees and perfection. What did Eve and all of humanity get invited to learn from that sneaky snake who suggested eating from the tree of good and evil would change things for the better. This archetypal story illustrates the movements of the human heart and mind in a simple narrative, one often overlooked. However, with a little bit of reflection, you cannot help but question, Why are we left to struggle and sweat for things done and left undone?

There is a clue to the answer; When our eyes have been opened to the idea we have a choice, there is no turning back into innocents. It has been set up and sealed. Ultimately, each and every individual will be held accountable for our own actions.

One the one hand, we think we can see things clearly, from God’s point of view, Yippi! On the other hand, our understanding and love of thinking we are God, can lead us and others away from goodness and into the realm of darkness and fear. Knowing good and evil demands that we see our actions through careful investigation, before and after each and every action. I do not know about you, but sometime I want to go back to sleep, close my eyes.

We all make decisions because we think we have power, and we do. The thing is, our activities are our making and according to the story, God will NOT intervene. God has given us free will, another Yippi!  We get to live with whatever or wherever our focus is… on us and ourselves    OR    on God.

Absolute perfection is built into creation and the question is; How do we come to see God’s perfection in creation and what can we possibly add to it?

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Water is Life, and so is Money

Last Sunday I asked the community at St Paul’s Anglican for money. I had to think about what to say and how I could explain why giving money is important. It occurred to me money is a lot like water it flows in and out of our hands. When we throw a stone into a still pond, the rock makes a wide ripple which goes out in all directions. Money does the same thing. St Paul’s Anglican has no trouble being proud of their continuing support for ministries in and around the community of San Miguel Allende.


Water is Life, and so is Money This years budget our came in 15,000 dollars short of our needs. Seems easy enough to fix, however I kept thinking about what is it that stops us from pledging more. I believe the root lies in the way we think of money, you have to let go of the rock to make ripples.

I was walking to church and passed a beautiful house in the midst of not such beautiful houses, I noticed beside the door there was water streaming out, running down the street abundantly. As I came closer to the house there were four Mexicans standing there looking at that precious water running freely into the street. I knocked on the door hoping to get the owners attention but to no avail. The house was closed up and the owners were gone. As I reflected on the situation I thought what a perfect icon of how wealth is wonderful but those so fortunate need to be a better examples, especially when we live in a foreign country and in the desert our behavior is being observed. We the fortunate have enough and at times unknowingly waste.


Money is a funny thing.

We think we own it, it is ours, we deserve it, we worked for it, we control it and we always want more. Water is different. We think the water we use is unending and limitless. We take water for granted because we have so much. But, what if we thought of water as precious and borrowed, delighted when we have it to share and confident there will always be more. Water comes from the sky and grows the trees and fills the rivers.

Money is just paper, made from a tree, which received water freely over time making it big and strong.

Meditate on Water this Lenten season.

The compesino farmers of Mexico value water in a specific way. They believe, if the well has water, it will continue to have water. One thing of paramount importance is that the water is used and shared. As they take water out the whole, it slowly and miraculously fills with fresh water. If not, the well water sits for too long and becomes stagnant and putrid. Eventually the water source gets clogged up and the ground water eventually seeks out a new direction to release, leaving the original well dry and useless. We can cut the budget to make ends meet but that would be like restricting the well, saving money/water rather than allowing it to fill freely.

There are many of us who have more than our share, which is fine, like the man who invests his money instead of burying it. However we are also reminded, to whom much is given, much is demanded. Or, as Maya Angelo said, “if you have learned much than teach and if you have been give much, share.”

My father in law is the peanut gallery.

Valentin and I lived next to him for a time when he was 76 years old. We worked as young artists day in and day out, making and designing one of a kind furniture in San Miguel. Periodically, Don Angel would visit and watch us, he used to say we worked too much! I would respond, “it is not work when you love what you do.” One day he said with some exasperation, “why do you two work so hard, you have no children! ”. I said, “but, we love to work” he persisted with “but why?”. Finally one day there he was again commenting and in my brilliant defense, I said, “well, Jesus worked all the time”. He quickly replied “Yes, But He never took any money!”. He was correct, Christ did not have a bank account, investments or land or even a house of his own. If we say we want to live in the image of Christ and emulate his teachings, my father in law could not have made his point more clearly.


We live in a society where most of us Water is Life, and so is Moneydo work and we receive money. The thing is, we might ask, how does that wealth happen? By grace we are given a talent, by grace we are given the desire to create or produce, by grace we have mind and commitment to showing up every day, by grace there are so many ways to generate wealth. Ask yourself, where all the talent and desire comes from. With a bit of humility, we cannot help but see that much of it is from an unseen mysterious source. Be not afraid to give back, let it go, there will almost always be more.

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