SHAWNEE — It was the delicate details and vivid colors of the iconography that captured her attention:
the expressive eyes of Mary, the mother of Jesus.
the deep purple of the grapes hanging on a vine.
the majestic glory symbolized by the pure gold leaf used to create the halos depicted in the religious imagery.
As a teen growing up in Romania, Rodica Focseneanu Cunningham watched with fascination as her grandmother created religious icons with a measured balance of skill and patience.
These days, Cunningham and her husband, Christopher, convey the same expertise as they teach others the techniques she learned all those years ago in her native land.
The Oklahoma City couple recently conducted an iconography workshop at St. Gregory’s University, 1900 W MacArthur. The pair also have taught similar workshops at local churches including St. George Greek Orthodox Church, 2101 NW 145.
At the recent two-week workshop at St. Gregory’s, students learned various techniques aimed at creating reversed glass icons, including how to mix the egg tempura paint, how to use fresh garlic to apply the gold leaf and how to layer the paint over several days to produce the right color.
A blessing of the icons ceremony was held at the conclusion of the workshop. About 25 people gathered as the Rev. Nicholas Ast blessed the icons that had been created during the workshop by students including Sarah Morris and Mireille Damicone. Ast also blessed other icons on display that were previously created by the Cunninghams.
“Each day was a joy,” Damicone, a Stillwater artist, said of the workshop. “I definitely wanted to learn the tradition of the egg tempura, because it’s not something that they teach anymore. I felt like I was studying with a master, plus you don’t see this type of art every day.”
Rich with meaning
Rodica Cunningham, 41, said she grew up in Communist Romania at a time when her family kept its Orthodox Christian faith a closely held secret. She said she remembers her grandmother checking her out of school under the pretense of taking her to the doctor — and taking her to a church instead.
Like most iconographers, Cunningham said religious icons are not simply artwork — they are divinely inspired.
She said many people, like her relatives, probably learned iconography techniques from other family members down through the generations, who probably learned them from monks. She said people started clandestinely making small replicas of the icons they saw at church because the inspired imagery told the stories of the sacred.
“Peasants saw them as sources of inspiration, and they wanted to teach their children the stories of the Bible,” she said. “They would teach their children the patterns and the techniques to move the technique from one generation to the next generation.”
Cunningham said she learned the techniques when she was 17.
She quickly learned that “everything has a specific meaning.”
For instance, Cunningham said a rope in an icon is a often a symbol of the dual nature of Christ. God, she said, is often represented by clouds or a hand coming out of the clouds, symbolizing that believers have not seen God’s face, though He is always present. She said clouds also may symbolize heaven.
Cunningham said another familiar symbolic scene shown in the Romanian iconography is Christ pressing grapes into a Eucharist chalice or Christ with a vine sprouting out of His side. She said these images symbolize Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, also known as Holy Communion.
“You can’t approach it like any other art. You have to have a lot of respect. And a lot of prayer goes into it,” she said of the iconography.
Cunningham said she and her husband met at an art class in graduate school at the University of New Mexico. The couple attend Epiphany of the Lord Catholic Church, 7336 W Britton Road. Each has a master’s degree in fine art and has several areas of art expertise. She said she is often commissioned to create religious icons, and he crafts intricately detailed wood and metal frames for them.
It’s a partnership that works, she said.
“Together, we make one artist, one iconographer,” she said.
To learn more
For more information about the iconography created by Rodica Focseneanu Cunningham and Christopher Cunningham, go to www.iconsbyrc.com.