New Icon: St John in the Wilderness

In September, 2014 I attended what had become an annual tradition for me: the Hexaemeron workshop in Maggie Valley, North Carolina. The teaching of Ksenia Pokrovsky about highlighting garments, hair and faces based on real life observations (via her hundreds of magazine “photo pictures”) had made a deep impression on me three years prior, and forever changed my approach to iconography. I wrote about that experience here. Our retreat center was named “Living Waters,” and here’s why:

Maggie Valley Stream Living Waters Retreat Center

I arrived Monday at noon, bleary from my first experience on an overnight flight. Everyone else had been there since the night before. I had prepared the pencil drawing on the board beforehand, so I just needed to have it checked (Anna corrected a few lines), and then I was ready to dive in and catch up to my classmates.

This time, I worked independently on my first festal scene, St John in the Wilderness, which shows the Beheading. St John is looking toward heaven, and behind him is an axe in a tree. Next to him is the platter with his head on it. (You can have the same person appearing more than once in the same icon. That way the icon can describe more about the event than if it captured only a single moment in time.) I enjoyed the challenge of portraying the same person’s face twice, one living in an expression of supplication, and one dead (but even in death under grisly circumstances, his face in the icon is calm).

Orthodox Icon Beheading of St John Details
The color scheme is very simple, befitting the ascetic nature of John the Baptist. Only a few pigments were used, and combined with each other to create all the colors needed in the composition: two umbers (brown and green), a couple of green earths, yellow ocher, white, red, and a little bit of ultramarine blue, muted down, for the fur on his inner garment. (St John’s fur is often portrayed blue, reminiscent of the waves in the Jordan River.) I also avoided any gilded detail work (chrysokontilia) on this icon because of the asceticism of the topic; I used yellow paint instead.

I was lucky to have some Russian speaking classmates nearby who translated the Slavonic inscriptions on the prototype I was following, since I wanted to duplicate the title and scroll in English. They told me the title was “the Beheading of St John the Forerunner and Baptist.” I ended up eliminating the last two words in my English version to keep the title all on one line. (We don’t have the same abbreviations in English that exist in Slavonic, so our writing tends to take up more room.)


As usual, I also got to spend time with like minded people and enjoy their company and share ideas and inspiration. That is one of my favorite things about being at a workshop. 2014 was the last time Hexaemeron held a workshop at the Maggie Valley location. I feel a bit nostalgic knowing I may never see Maggie Valley again. In the fall when the leaves are turning, I found it spectacularly beautiful.

Maggie Valley Autumn Leaves

This year (2015) was the first year I was unable to attend the workshop (at a new location in South Carolina). I worked hard at home on other projects, with them in spirit if not in the flesh. And I followed their progress on social media. I hope I can see my friends again sometime. I just don’t know when that will be.

Sometimes I feel sad that many of my icon buddies are 3000 miles away from me. If I dwell on that, I can go in a lonely funk. But the funny thing about painting icons is that I never feel lonely when I’m actually doing the work. God is with me, even when I don’t pay attention, and He gives me the comfort of not feeling alone, for which I’m incredibly thankful.

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All images © 2012-2016 Yvonne Hajdu-Cronin