When Mary Burke FMM sits before a blank piece of wood, paint brush in hand, ready to commence an icon, she prays. If painting for herself, she contemplates the Gospel story that she is about to depict in the striking colours and gold leaf, or if it’s a commissioned piece, she’ll pray for the person for whom she’s painting the icon. And she continues to pray throughout the whole process. ‘Iconography is a form of art, but it’s a functional art,’ Mary said. ‘It has a purpose, which is to engage with the viewer’.

Speaking about the practice of iconography, a special mode of Christian sacred art that dates to the time of the apostles, and which came to the fore in the Byzantine era, Mary says, ‘People are often struck by the two-dimensional nature of icons, which can sometimes look a bit strange, but it’s done this way for a reason.’

The two-dimensional nature of it means that the third dimension is in the eye of the beholder. It’s designed that way because the icon wants to engage, it wants to connect with the viewer with the purpose of developing relationship, because faith is around relationship. God is around relationship.’

Mary explained that Christian iconography always ‘related to figures in the Gospels or people who have lived a Gospel life, including the saints. And it still does to this day’. ‘Some people say it’s the “Gospels in painting”, that it’s another way of telling the Gospel and I think that’s why it’s held with such sacredness, particularly in the Eastern Orthodox tradition.

‘I really love the Scriptures and I love the stories – they’re so rich. And so, my icons like to tell those stories. As I paint them, I think about and read about how we interpret these stories for today, because these stories have come from a particular culture and a particular time but they're so rich that we can take them and find meaning in them today.’ Mary cautioned, however, that ‘we actually have to do a bit of work around that – it doesn’t just come naturally’. ‘But when you put the time and effort in, I’ve found that it’s been so rich for me,' she said.

When painting an icon, Mary likes to use cedar wood as the base, due to its light weight. This is particularly important when the icon is large. The wood is cut to size and ‘braced’ so that it doesn’t buckle. ‘You glue cloth onto the wood and to prepare the surface, apply many layers of a gesso mixture, which once dried, has to be sanded so that the finish is a bit like marble,’ explained Mary. ‘It’s really nice and smooth and that’s what absorbs the paint. Once it’s dry and ready, you begin.’

Mary sketches a drawing first, and then begins painting the work in layers, from the darkest colours to the lighter ones. She also uses real gold leaf for the haloes and sometimes the background, which is carefully glued to the surface. ‘It’s very tricky because the gold leaf, which are square pieces, are so fine – you only have to breathe on it and it all buckles!’

An icon can take anything from one week to several months depending on the amount of people in the scene, the size of the wood and the number of layers that need adequate time to dry between each application and before the final varnish is applied.

It takes a lot of patience and a lot of mistakes.'

Mary, who is based in Sunshine West, first discovered iconography in the Middle East. Following her final vows as a Franciscan Missionary of Mary, she was sent to a village to the north of Israel where she was engaged with members of the Melkite Church of the Eastern Catholic rite. Mary explained that many of the rituals and symbols are like the Orthodox Churches – however, they’re in union with the Holy See – and so, ‘icons are just a part of life, the church is full of them, and people’s houses are full of them.’ She said, ‘They’re such a part of ordinary life over there and that was a really new experience for me.’

She explained, ‘At one point I was in a village in the north of Israel, an Arab village, and the priest there really appreciated icons. The church was like a big cement barn; it was bare. But, bit by bit, during the time he was there, he commissioned icons to go around the walls. Not only were they beautiful works of art, creating a beautiful place of prayer, but he also used them catechetically, referring to them in his preaching all the time.

‘That really had a big impact on me, introducing me to both their meaning and how they can be used, and in the sense of creating something beautiful,' said Mary.

While in the Middle East, Mary attended meetings in Jerusalem where one of the other sisters, who was an accomplished iconographer, would work. ‘I used to go and sit and just watch her paint and talk to her about it,’ said Mary, ‘And I thought, “One day I’d love to do this”. So, when I eventually came back to Australia, after six years in the Middle East, I found an iconographer here in Melbourne, Anna Prifti, and attended her classes, which really gave me a lift. And I’ve just taken it from there.’

Ten years later, Mary has produced 50-60 icons for herself and for her clients. Many of her works can be found in homes or in schools, and have been created for weddings, baptisms, and other special occasions. She recently finished an icon, Washing of the Feet, which ‘is such a powerful story’.

‘The more I go into the story, the more I’m bowled over,’ said Mary, ‘Particularly when thinking about life in the church today, where we’re talking about how we want change, how we want collegiality, and how we want synodality. Well, the Washing of the Feet has it there for you.

If we can delve into that story and hear about working together as human beings, as equals, without having to have “lord and servant” and how we approach each other as human beings and persons. It’s just so rich.

‘So, just to be thinking about that and then translating it into, what’s this saying to our world today? What’s it saying to me in my personal life? Into wider things about how do we use the power in our world, in our governments, in our organisations, our workplaces, our families, our communities? How do we hear what Jesus is calling us to in a Gospel life today? And what are the challenges for us? Jesus wants to say, “Come on, there’s something important here for you to learn. Don’t back off”.’

Looking ahead, Mary intends to continue creating icons that are based on the Gospels. ‘I’d really like to work my way through the main stories of the life of Christ, because I think they’re so central to our faith,’ she said. ‘And they keep having meaning for us and meaning that we have to keep pulling out. When I paint something, it challenges me to say, “Well, what’s this about? How are you understanding this? How would you explain this story? Why would you do it? What meaning does it have?”

‘I just happened to begin with the Washing of the Feet, and I’ve also done the Last Supper, but I’d like to paint an icon of the Baptism and explore more deeply “what’s that about?” And the Transfiguration – how do you make sense of that?

‘When it comes to the Gospels we often think, “Oh, we’ve heard this story before. But no, we haven’t. Hear it today. It’s something different than it was yesterday or last year. It’s important for us to keep ourselves open to that freshness. It’s so critical, otherwise, our tradition just dies, and we lose something too precious. And that’s the gift of iconography. It continues to draw us into the story, and to provoke a response. Again, it’s about relationship with God.’

Melbourne-based iconographer Mary Burke FMM

If interested in commissioning an icon, please contact Mary Burke FMM. Some of Mary’s work can also be seen at Uriel’s Workshop in Coburg North, in Melbourne’s inner north.