Healing Icons with Cathy Abbott
This project is part of AAC’s Art and Wellness series, exploring the connection between art and healing from various cultural and spiritual perspectives.
What Are Icons?
In the history of art, icons are sacred images used in devotional practices. Typically associated with the Eastern Orthodox religious tradition, icons usually portray Christ, the Virgin Mary, or various saints and angels. The tradition of icons stems back to at least the third century, and the genre has had a long and influential impact upon the history of art.
Icons of religious images developed in early Christianity as a way to connect people to the divine. Historically, icons were produced as static, two-dimensional images, frequently painted on wood panels but also rendered in fresco on walls and ceilings, carved of stone, or cast in metal. Icons were not intended to be revered for their own sake, but were seen as “windows” to the divine, providing a way for ordinary people to gain an immediate and compelling experience of divinity.
What Are Ethiopian Healing Icons?
In Ethiopia, the roots of Christianity stem back to at least the fourth century. Artistic traditions in the country were strongly influenced by Orthodox Christianity, and the earliest known Ethiopian icons date to the 7th century. The icon tradition in Ethiopia developed in a uniquely African way, which includes the distinctive custom of “healing icons.”
Ethiopian healing icons were traditionally rendered in the form of a scroll. These scrolls utilized written prayers and talismanic imagery, believed to be imbued with magical powers, to restore the health of an afflicted person. The practice involved aspects of traditional Ethiopian medicine and engaged imagery from both Christian and Muslim traditions.
The production of these scrolls began with a vellum strip, measured to the height of the person in need of healing. The scroll was then filled with images designed for healing, and prayers written in Amharic or Ge’ez, the liturgical language. Often a face, representing either the person who needed healing or the “demon” who was making them ill, was put at the center of the icon, and surrounded with a cross shape for protection from evil or to contain the evil. In the scroll shown below, angelic figures at the corners provide the protection. These healing icons were intended to be actively used in prayer until the afflicted person was healed.
Cathy Abbott: A Passion for Ethiopian Icons
Cathy Abbott, a minister-turned-artist, first fell in love with Ethiopian icons on a visit to the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore in 2003, where she was captivated by the bright colors, rich patterns, and unfamiliar imagery of these works. Her passion for the art form grew when she traveled to Ethiopia and experienced worship spaces with their walls and ceilings covered with this imagery, such as the icon of Mary with Jesus (a Theotokos—”bearer of God”) from a church in the city of Lalibela, known for its elaborate churches hewn from living rock.
Abbott found herself especially drawn to the image of the Ethiopian saint Abune Gabre Menfes Kaddish, renowned for his holiness. Much like the western Saint Francis, he is typically depicted with animals, often fierce African lions and leopards who are tamed by his gentle spirit. This imagery also reminds the artist of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah’s vision of the “Peaceable Kingdom,” which is referenced in the title of her own images of Abune.
Abbott has adapted traditional Ethiopian imagery to her own working methods. Her images of Abune were created utilizing cut paper and Joomchi, a centuries-old Korean paper manipulation process. In Joomchi, mulberry papers in a range of colors are layered, and then sprayed with water. The layered paper is then agitated for two to three hours, either by hand or rolled between bubble wrap, causing the fibers to bond and adhere firmly to each other. The result is a colorful, textural, and strong art material.
According to Cathy Abbott, her intention is to employ the traditional art form of icons in a new way that provides healing and hope to people in need of spiritual centering. She explains, “I am particularly drawn to healing icons, which use repetitive patterns (much like meditation coloring books) to create a sense of order and peace in the midst of chaotic and unsettled times. With so much violence in the world, and with so much to de-center people in the world, healing icons speak to our need for spiritual grounding. My hope is that through this material object, the viewer or receiver of the icon will experience hope and healing in the midst of a broken world.”
Meet Cathy Abbott
After spending 27 years as an executive in the energy business, Cathy Abbott decided to redirect her efforts, first to becoming a pastor, and now to fulfilling a lifelong ambition to become a full-time artist. Her fascination with icons unites her interests in spirituality and art. She began studying icons and amassed a substantial book and icon collection, eventually traveling to Ethiopia and Russia to experience icons in their native contexts. After a year-long collaboration with a stained glass artist during seminary, Cathy continued to expand her skills as an artist by attending workshops at local art institutions and at the Penland School of Craft in North Carolina. A month-long art residency at the Monastery of St. Gertrude in Idaho allowed her to develop a unique approach to making icons, utilizing the Korean technique of Joomchi.
More of Cathy Abbott’s art can be found on her website at: abbotticons.com.
Create Your Own Healing Icon
You will find several templates of healing icons created by Cathy Abbott in the downloadable project. The first two were created directly in response to the current coronavirus crisis, with the virus depicted as the “demon” in the center. Print out the templates and color them in as you wish. As you color, the artist suggests that you meditate or pray about someone in need of healing, the coronavirus situation, or any other threat to health.