The Iconographer

The iconographer, or writer of the icon, Jeanne Chézard de Matel, The Vessel of God, is Sr. Nancy Lee Smith (IHM), of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, of Monroe, Michigan. Raised in Missouri, the third of ten children, Nancy became a Catholic at the age of eight when her family joined the Church. By 1954 she knew she wanted to be a religious; but ironically, she reveals, it was while praying before an icon as a college student in 1957 that she received her specific vocation to the IHM Sisters in Monroe.

In addition to degrees in English, Theology and Fine Arts with a major in Sculpture, Nancy’s education includes a Master of Divinity degree from St. John Provincial Seminary in Plymouth, Michigan. During her many years of ministry, Nancy served as art teacher, retreat director, pastoral coordinator, campus minister, and hospice chaplain. Just prior to beginning her current ministry as an iconographer, she pastored a priestless parish in Virginia. Sr. Nancy is now doing what she calls her “life’s work.” In her ministry as an iconographer she delicately blends art, theology, and spirituality. Nancy describes her vocation within a vocation: “As an iconographer in the Western Church, cut off from its Eastern ‘lung’ since 1302, I feel a fire in my belly to get the word out, to educate others about icons in every way I can. That is why I am publishing articles, preaching retreats, giving presentations, explaining the symbolism in icons and completing as many commissions as God allows.”

Sr. Nancy’s Russian Orthodox master iconographer mentor, Ksenia Pokrovsky in Massachusetts, told her it takes at least fifteen years to become a good iconographer. Already an accomplished artist and art teacher, Nancy has pursued her interest in writing icons as a student of a variety of teachers, including another Russian Orthodox master iconographer, Vladislav Andrejev.

Pope John Paul II, in his Letter to Artists, says:

The vocation of an artist is to mirror the image of God the Creator…With loving regard, the divine Artist passes on to the human artist a spark of God’s own surpassing wisdom, calling the artist to share in God’s creative power. That is why artists, the more conscious they are of their gift, are led all the more to see themselves and the whole of creation with eyes able to contemplate and give thanks, and to raise to God a hymn of praise.”

Sr. Nancy Lee describes her work of writing icons as “a vocation within her vocation to be a woman religious,” and her call as artist “to make people fascinated with the beauty of God.” For Nancy, writing icons is a contemplative process. It IS her prayer! “It’s one thing to know the techniques,” she says. “It’s another thing to enter into the mystery and to know the deeper spiritual meaning of it all.” In The Art of the Icon: A Theology of Beauty, Paul Evdokimov writes, “An artist knows what a heavenly person looks like through prayer and fasting and grace…under the influence of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the Divine Iconographer…”

As Sr. Nancy has developed her gift as an iconographer, she has turned primarily, though not exclusively, to writing the icons of founders and foundresses of religious congregations, “telling the untold stories of these saintly giants in whose footsteps we follow.” When you listen to Sr. Nancy, you quickly realize that she KNOWS these people! You get the feeling that she is surrounded by the communion of saints, and she draws you into the awareness that we are too!

“The best part,” she says, “about this vocation within a vocation is the prayer, the adventure with the saints and the experience of their presence that they reveal. Sometimes I am working on an icon – like, I might be painting the cheek of the virgin – when, all of a sudden, it is like she is tilting her head up and letting me put makeup on her face. It is like that intimate relationship between a mother and her child. I am working and I am painting and, all of a sudden, she is there and I am touching her face.”

Nancy not only writes icons, but she also wants to help people appreciate the deep theology behind this form of sacred art that, until recently, has been kept more faithfully through the centuries by the Eastern Churches. So she spends her time in her large and spacious St. Joseph Studio, located in Monroe, Michigan. Occasionally, apprentices or expected visitors will come to her work place. She calls St. Joseph her “protector and business partner in this ministry.” St. Joseph Studio, the former laundry building of the IHM Sisters on their motherhouse grounds in Monroe, is the place where, since 1995, Sr. Nancy labors full time creating sacred images, some of which now hang in Rome, Paris, Mexico City, Iceland, and across the United States.

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