Mrs. Bennett's icon.
Mrs. Bennett's icon.
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Joan Bennett's recently-completed icon of St. Kateri Tekakwitha is supposed to be symbolic - so she hopes people aren't confused by the simultaneous rising and midday suns, nighttime constellations and yellow sky it portrays.

"Icons are not realistic and it's for a reason," Mrs. Bennett said; they're meant to glorify their subjects. "If I made [the sky] blue, it would look natural; it would look too much like this world. It's not a decorative painting.

"Icons are different from other religious art," she added. "An orthodox explanation would be [that] they're the Gospel in color and light. They're the window into the intangible realities of the kingdom. They're a sacramental."

Mrs. Bennett offered to write the icon for her parish, St. Mary's in Cooperstown, in honor of St. Kateri's canonization last fall. (Icons are considered to be "written," not drawn.) The complex pieces of an icon take research and an often lengthy process of painting, oiling and carving wood boards with hand-mixed natural materials.

Preparation for Mrs. Bennett's depiction of St. Kateri involved visiting diocesan shrines, studying books and even interviewing a Mohawk from the western part of the state.

The artist blended her own egg tempera paint and gilding for the icon's 24-karat gold halo and followed traditional, labor-intensive steps she's picked up from lessons with a Russian instructor 100 miles from her Fly Creek home. Iconography is prevalent in Eastern Catholic churches; it has its roots as a catechesis tool for early Christians who couldn't read. It's been making a comeback and can be found in the Roman Catholic Church, as well.

"They're like a window into [a subject's] presence as a person in the kingdom and a way of facilitating our relationships with God," Mrs. Bennett said. "Being still before an icon and being open helps you notice things."

Mrs. Bennett will soon give the icon to St. Mary's after having it blessed. It incorporates a handful of symbols requested by the parish's pastor, Rev. John Rosson, including a wooden cross, a turtle to signify St. Kateri's clan, Iroquois imagery and a blue blanket over the saint's plain dress and white overgarment.

Mrs. Bennett added other subtle touches: bowing lilies; two sets of sun, a nod to apparitions seen after St. Kateri's death; two sources of water, embodying baptism; and a northern Milky Way constellation pointing to the cross in St. Kateri's hands.

In Iroquois tradition, Mrs. Bennett explained, "Death wasn't a moment. It was a passage, a journey into the next world. This is the belief that laid the groundwork for the belief in the resurrection and the kingdom."

Mrs. Bennett is a retired teacher from Washington, D.C., who discovered iconography in an art museum four decades ago. She began studies after she moved to New York in 2006 and has produced about two dozen icons. She is also the author and illustrator of "The Sense of Wonder Series" children's early readers and a community volunteer.

She said she knew nothing about St. Kateri before taking on the project, but has felt inspired by the saint's "courage to be unconventional in the expression of her faith." She hopes the icon is "an invitation on a different level to prayer in [Kateri's] presence - an image that's a vehicle for prayer, in that moment, for that person."