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Brisbane’s newest Sister goes back to the drawing board with icon classes

Sacred art: Sr Josephine Marie with an icon of the Crucifixion that she painted for her community’s new convent in Brisbane over two days. Photo: Emilie Ng

IF you have ever felt bad for disliking a holy icon of Our Lady, Sr Josephine Marie can empathise.

The former New Zealand artist who now lives in Brisbane with the Sisters of Mary Morning Star, once dismissed sacred icons as unattractive paintings by people with no artistic talent.

“I just thought Mary always looked so sad, this is done by people who really don’t know how to paint, the perspective’s all out …,” she said.

It’s a different story now – Sr Josephine Marie is midway through a beginner’s class on icons in Brisbane, teaching eight students the basics of writing icons and the theory behind the ancient art form.

“What I love is that it’s a real journey of faith for people because we don’t see, in faith, with our eyes,” Sr Josephine Marie said.

“With icons, they are like a help for our faith in the sense St John of Damacus said, ‘Every time we look at an icon, we grow in love for the one represented in it’.”

She has first-hand experience of the power of the saint’s opinion.

More than 10 years ago she met Michael Pervan, the director of the Studio of John the Baptist in Auckland, who had seen a selection of her work and invited her to be his apprentice, eventually leading to a full-time job for her.

At the studio she wrote dozens of exquisite icons using pure gold leaf and other natural materials, and passed on the ancient technique of iconography through art classes.

“During that time I definitely changed my opinions about icons,” Sr Josephine Marie said.

“So no longer were they poorly drawn pieces of art that weren’t tasteful to me; they really became windows into the mystery of my faith, and meeting places with God.” 

Sr Josephine Marie looks at her icon
Seeing God: Sr Josephine Marie venerates the icon of the Crucifixion, which she wrote when her community first established its convent in Brisbane. Photo: Emilie Ng

It was also through icons that Sr Josephine Marie found her vocation to religious life.

“In the process of writing an icon, the image of whoever you’re painting is coming, so Our Lady gives her face or Our Lord gives His face and you’re there,” she said.

“What was growing in me was this thirst – Lord, I want to see your face, let me hear your voice. 

“I wanted to no longer try and depict him but I wanted to see him.”

When she entered the convent in Spain, Sr Josephine Marie took on a strict regime of silent prayer and study, leaving little time for writing icons.

At times when she did grace the paintbrush, she relied on providence for her materials.

“When I was in the novitiate, one of the things I did – because obviously I didn’t have access to real gold leaf – at Easter time somebody had given us little Easter eggs with gold wrappers on it, so I put a note on the table: ‘Dear sisters, please give all your Easter-egg wrappers back’,” Sr Josephine Marie said.

“So with these little Easter-egg wrappers I did the halo of Our Lady.”

That resourcefulness will be necessary in Brisbane, where she is one of four sisters who were picked to start a new house in Australia.

To introduce themselves to the archdiocese, and to feed Sr Josephine Marie’s artistic soul, the sisters offered a five-week iconography course during Advent.

And, after four years without students, Sr Josephine Marie led her first class two weeks ago.

“When I left the studio, I thought I was leaving it all,” she said.

“Funny how the Lord works because he comes and says, ‘What’s good, He will restore’.”

Sr Josephine Marie said there was already a waiting list for future courses.

“We don’t have dates yet but if anyone is interested they’re more than welcome to contact us now,” she said.

The Sisters of Mary Morning Star are living at the former presbytery at St Finbarr’s Church, Ashgrove.

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