St. Tabitha Icon

I have finished my icon of St. Tabitha.  Intended for persons who are not familiar with icons and their symbolic language, this image of her is not strictly traditional.  I hope that it will lead the recipients to prayer and reflection.

St. Tabitha is the patron saint of seamstresses and tailors.  Her feastday is October 25. I found a beautiful Eastern Orthodox prayer to honor her, and it follows below.

With the flow of the many–streamed river of almsgiving,

You watered the dry earth of the needy.

Showering alms on the widows and the poor,

You shone with the light of your works

And were radiant with grace, O Tabitha.

Glory to Christ who loves you!

Glory to Christ who has blessed you!

Glory to Christ whom you followed as a true disciple and a spotless lamb!

You served the Savior in holiness

By your God-fearing deeds,

And were a model of love as his disciple.

O Tabitha, we praise your memory!

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The corrections

I had a faint memory of cleaning house one day, washing walls.  I had grabbed a cleaner, 409 it was, and began to scrub without noticing that it said on the bottle:  do not use on painted surfaces. It began to dissolve the paint on the walls. I saw the paint color on the cleaning rag–and quickly stopped.  Now, looking looking with sad bewilderment at St.Tabitha, I remembered that day.

Hmmm. Latex paint is like acrylic paint. Perhaps putting 409 on a cotton ball and wiping it on the offending areas would work.

I tried it.  I wiped it gently, nothing happened.  Then I took a stiff little paint brush and carefully scrubbed the 409 in small circles. This did seem to be working.  I wiped the chemical cleaner off with a moist paper towel and left the icon to dry.

It seemed to have worked.  I can still see the error, but not as distinctly.  I put another coat of paint over it, after painting in the lettering. I didn’t want to lose those painstakingly drawn letters under too many coats of paint!  I think this is working.  (huge sigh of relief here).  I continue to highlight the face and hands, all areas of the icon, and grow near to completing the image of St.Tabitha.


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The First Step: Prayer

The most logical first step in beginning to correct or repair an icon, is to pray.

This prayer was shared with me recently by a fellow iconographer.  It is lovely, and was perhaps written especially for young iconographers attending workshops given by Ina Hecker.  It certainly spoke to me, as I begin to ponder how to repair my St.Tabitha icon.

Iconographer’s Prayer

Teach me, Lord, to use wisely the time which You have given me, and to work well without wasting a second.  Teach me to profit from my past mistakes without falling into a gnawing doubt.  Teach me to anticipate the project without worry, to imagine the work without despair if it should turn out differently.  Teach me to unite haste and slowness, serenity and ardor, zeal and peace.

Help me at the beginning of the work when I am the weakest.  Help me in the middle of the work when my attention must be sustained. And especially fill all the emptiness of my work with Your Presence.  Lord, in all the work of my hands, bestow Your Grace so that it can speak to others and my mistakes can speak to me alone.  Keep me in the hope of perfection, without which I would lose heart, yet keep me from achieving perfection, for surely I would be lost in arrogance.

Purify my sight when I am doing poorly, for one is never sure that the work will turn out badly; Yet when I am doing well, one is never sure that the work will turn out well. Lord, let me never forget that all knowledge is in vain unless there is work.  And all work is empty unless there is love.  And all love is hollow unless it binds me both to others and to You.

Lord teach me to pray with my  hands, my arms, and all my strength. Remind me that the work of my hands belongs to You and that it is fitting to return this gift to You.  Yet, if I work for the pleasure of others, like a flowering plant in the evening I will wither. But if I work for the love of goodness, I will remain in goodness.  And the time to work for goodness and for Your Glory is now.


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St.Tabitha meets Murphy

I took my little icon of St.Tabitha to the coast, on a short vacation, hoping to make some progress in the painting.  I worked by the window, painting industriously, but perhaps scrimping a bit in the prayer department.  I began to highlight the face, the basket of clothing, eager to finish.  Things seemed to be going okay . . .  for a while.  Then, it happened.  Murphy’s Law.  You know the one:  what can go wrong, will go wrong.

I live by it.

Haste makes waste.  That’s another one . . .

Icons are holy and prayerful, but so often they, too, run smack dab up against these tongue-in-cheek “laws”.  Especially when the prayers are scrimped on.  

I had thought I’d make the background smoother, a bit deeper, and put an even, light, transparent layer of yellow over it.  But it didn’t dry evenly.  And some of the new highlights in her face had hard, harsh edges. A “hole” developed in the middle of her throat, plus her neck looks funny.  2 dog hairs managed to imbed themselves in the paint, despite the fact that no dogs were present . . .  So now, I face making corrections, lots of them.  How to correct acrylic paint on Claybord?  I will be finding this out the hard way.

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St.Tabitha icon progresses

There is not much about St.Tabitha in the Bible.  Just some basic facts, most important of which is that she is the only woman specifically named as a disciple of Christ.  The word “disciple” refers to learning, to being a student of, and, having learned, to follow.  This she did, following the Lord with loving charity to those less fortunate.  St.Tabitha’s ministry was to the widows of Joppa, a city located in what is now the modern state of Israel.  She made clothes and tunics for them, sewing them herself and distributing them to those who had nothing.  Evidently she was much loved, and her ministry effective and broad enough that the Christian community was aware of her.  There was much grief at her passing.

Peter himself was called to her deathbed, and he raised her from the dead in the name of Jesus.  An amazing story.  And the Scripture account ends there, with no information on how she might have responded to this incredible experience, or how her life progressed from there.

I have been reading reflections on this saint, imagining what sort of person she was, what her total life story might have been.  They are just speculation, these reflections, but they help to gain a clearer picture of a remarkable woman of the first century A.D.  In a way, this slow, hesitant depicting of this saint is like the slow emerging of a visual image of her in the icon.  Bit by bit, layer by layer, an individual  face begins to come clear, to guide people of this century closer to St.Tabitha’s Lord and ours, Jesus Christ.

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St.Tabitha: Icon in acrylics 2

One of the most freeing and fun steps for me is applying the underpainting. You can’t really make a mistake here. Start with prayer, and then begin to apply the paint. What you are doing is doing is establishing the dark, neutral undercolors that will provide the shadows and darker areas for the icon.  In a way, this is the “ugly” stage of the icon.

Once the undertones are established, most of the modelling and definition of the features will be done through the painting of the light.  I have always liked that analogy of the light creating shape and form out of darkness, spiritually as well as artistically!



It can take a long time to build up the highlights using transparent light colors on top of a dark ground.  Patience is required, but sooner or later, patience is rewarded with a soft, glowing highlight.



I make many mistakes along the way, but with a long slow process such as this, they can easily be painted over.  Whether it is wrong color in the background (yes, that is happening here for sure),  an uneven texture (that, too), or a minor drawing correction (probably), it is fairly easy to correct.   Many careful and wise iconographers make color and highlight studies beforehand, but impatient ones like me prefer to work out the problems right on the board, and to experiment freely all the while.

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St. Tabitha: an icon in acrylic paints

The next thing to do is to “open” the icon, using a transparent wash of yellow ochre paint as the underlying layer.  I find that having this color underlying all areas of the image gives it a unity, and a warmth throughout.  The yellow used for St.Tabitha is Yellow Iron Oxide.

I am using acrylic paints for this icon, and I use a very limited palette.  It is not necessary to buy and use dozens of colors and pigments.  Most of the time I use only 8 to 10 pigments, mixing every different color that I need. There are just a few “workhorse” colors that are needed, and the limited palette lends further harmony and unity to the image.  Yellow ochre is an important color in iconography, so I have 3 different shades of ochre, and everything else can be mixed to order using these simple basic colors!

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Icon of St.Tabitha: beginning

Once I have the drawing made, and transferred to the board, it is time to mix up some paint and brush on the lines.  Iconographers do the “lining” in various colors:  reds, blacks, or the local color for each area.  I never use black in my icons, except on rare occasions.  I’ve always felt that straight black deadens the color.  I mix up several reds/greens/blues/etc  together to make a dark neutral color to use instead.  In this case it is a dark greenish color, as the image will have lots of green and tan in the garments.

I used graphite pencil for the lettering (because I can erase it if I mess up.)  Calligraphy is not my strong point.  In the final painting, the letters will be in red.  I have been told that the lettering is in red on icons because it is representative of the Blood of Christ.  What is for sure is that every icon has the name of the person depicted inscribed on it.  It is important for the viewer to know the name and identity, for prayer is a relationship, whether praying to our Lord or with a holy saint.

When I designed this icon, I made the halo overlap into the border.  The image area of an icon has been called “a window into heaven”, and the border represents the world.  The life of a saint allows heaven to break into the world for all to see.  St.Tabitha gazes at the viewer, witnessing to the reality of Christ.  She holds a cross in her right hand.  She also has a basket of clothing, for her particular ministry was to sew and distribute clothing and alms to widows, orphans, and the poor.  She is a shining example of carrying forth her faith into good works and love of neighbor.

I don’t need to worry much about what she might have really looked like.  Sometimes there is specific knowledge of a person’s appearance and physical characteristics, but that is not the case with St.Tabitha.  That really doesn’t matter:  even if the appearance is somewhat generic, the letters naming the saint make it definite who it is, and the important truth is that we are looking at a person glorified by the love and grace of God.  It is a spiritual portrait of a glorified individual living in the Presence of God in heaven, and not a physical likeness.  All of us are an icon in the making, and with God’s grace will live in His Presence for all eternity.

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Icon Process: St. Tabitha

I am beginning to work on a new icon, for a faith sharing group.  I am using acrylic paints, on a small piece of Claybord.  Acrylic paints dry very quickly, and require little care once they are dry.  This particular little icon needs to be light, portable and very durable, and I think this material will meet those criteria.  I begin with prayer for the group, and ask St.Tabitha to be with me and pray for me as I work on her image.

The  next step is researching her story, beginning with Scripture:  The story of Tabitha, also called Dorcas,  is found in only one place– Acts 9:36-42.  The name Tabitha is Aramaic, and means “gazelle”.  Dorcas is the Greek word for “gazelle”.  Episcopalians, Lutherans, and other Protestant traditions use the name Dorcas.  Catholics and Orthodox refer to her as Tabitha.  She is the only woman in Scripture specifically called “disciple”.  Her feastday is October 25.

“Now in Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha (which translated means Dorcas). She was completely occupied with good deeds and almsgiving. Now during those days she fell sick and died, so after washing her, they laid her out in a room upstairs.  Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, hearing that Peter was there, send two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.” So Peter got up and went with them.  When he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs where all the widows came to him weeping and showing him the tunics and cloaks that Dorcas had made while she was with them.  Peter send them all out and knelt down and prayed.  Then he turned to her body and said “Tabitha, rise up.”  She opened her eyes, saw Peter, and sat up. He gave her his handand raised her up, and when he had called the holy ones and the widows, he presented her alive.  This became known all over Joppa, and many came to believe in the Lord.”

After reflecting on these words, I did additional research in books and online, reading as much about her as I can find.  I also looked for existing icons and paintings of the saint.  These I use for planning colors, position, and other details.

Icon research

Icon research

I carefully determine the geometry for the image.  The geometry is figured out by relationships between areas rather than simply measuring.  One important part of the geometry is to figure out the measurement of 1/12th of the image area.  This is important because the 1/12 size will be the length of the figure’s nose, and the nose module is the radius of the circle that forms the face (eyes/nose/forehead) as well as roughly the size of the hands.  A double “nose radius” is the size of the head.  Thus all the size relationships of the image begin with the length of the nose. The size of the halo is most often 3 to 4 times the radius of the nose nodule . . . Careful attention to the geometry results in a harmonious, balanced design.

Finally, I begin to make sketches to size, and refine the drawing in preparation to putting it on the board.

More to follow as the icon progresses.

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Bl. Pope Paul VI’s Message to Women


Very interesting and very pertinent, too.

Originally posted on 8 Kids And A Business:

Below is the full text of Bl. Pope Paul VI’s message to women as part of the  speeches and messages at the close of the Second Vatican Council,  December 8, 1965. You can read the entire text of the closing speeches and messages here.

pope paul viTO WOMEN

And now it is to you that we address ourselves, women of all states—girls, wives, mothers and widows, to you also, consecrated virgins and women living alone—you constitute half of the immense human family. As you know, the Church is proud to have glorified and liberated woman, and in the course of the centuries, in diversity of characters, to have brought into relief her basic equality with man. But the hour is coming, in fact has come, when the vocation of woman is being achieved in its fullness, the hour in which woman acquires in the world an influence, an effect and a power…

View original 406 more words

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