Arresting religious icons, created by Al Sauls, B.A. in Studio Arts ’20, touch people, inviting observers to feel their intimate connection to the world beyond this one. A contemplative work portraying Jesus graces a wall in UST’s Link Lee Mansion — the Son of God’s stunning, haloed, disembodied head staring with a weary, unspoken knowing.
Iconographer Sauls said, “Painting an icon has been compared to a profound act of prayer. It takes my mind and me elsewhere. I’m honoring something and opening up to the Light so that it shines through my hand and me as I create from my own understanding.”
People who sit with Sauls’ work experience a similar centering presence of the individuals represented.
History of Icons
Since the third century, artists have been expressing the greatest mystery by creating icons, which means “image” or “likeness.” From massive panels to miniatures and personal objects like necklaces, the icons feature holy people such as the saints, Mary, and angels. The intent is to bring the believer closer to that sacred figure.
Often, religious icons are distinguished by particular characteristics.
“Russian iconography, for instance, would have a cutout or raised indention on the top of the wood plane to denote the separation between heaven and earth,” Sauls said.
In general, images tend to face the observer, have the same facial expression, and the same pose and gesture for that individual or scene. Despite the parallels, each rendering of Mary presents itself as a unique creation, which extraordinarily produces similar soul stirrings.
Sauls’ Process & Materials
Sauls explained his works as the result of a mystical collaboration.
“When I depict sacred people, I’m not working by myself. I’m creating their images with everyone who ever created an icon as they tell me ‘This is how it’s done.’”
The artist, who cares for his mother and father at home in Fresno, Texas, goes quiet for days, even weeks, given over to the wood, the gesso base, the egg tempera washes, and whatever other materials call to him. Different textures and colors capture his fascination.
A self-described “renegade,” he sometimes uses his discretion to step outside the historical rules — ingeniously employing formica, plastic, or papier-mâché to achieve a particular look — as he takes holy images from the past and brings them into the future.
Fascinated by His Favorite
Sauls also enjoys painting in other styles, especially surrealism. But on most Saturdays, he can be found inside The Menil Collection, transfixed before Saint Nicolas from Northern Russia, one of his top 10 favorite icons.
“I just go and stare at it,” he said.