Betsy Porter

Betsy Porter
Art and Iconography

Creation And The Divine Order

The creative power of God can be imagined as a passionate and inquiring Wisdom, a Logos, a Spirit which supports and pervades the universe.

How can anyone make icons of this creative force? Although the Orthodox tradition provides only a few examples, inspiration is everywhere!

Several of the icons on this page have a dark blue background shining with 8-pointed stars, to emphasize the cosmic importance of the event or person depicted.

Sophia, The Wisdom Of God

Egg tempera and gold leaf on sculpted board, 11 x 14 inches, 1999
Photograph by David Elliott

Sophia, the personification of Holy Wisdom, appears in Proverbs 8 as present and assisting at the Creation, and in Proverbs 9:1-6 as a hostess who invites everyone to her feast. She has been much revered in eastern Orthodoxy. Churches and cathedrals, most famously Hagia Sophia in Constantinople-Byzantium-Istanbul, have been dedicated to her. More recently, she has been understood as a feminine image of God.

Orthodox icons depict Sophia as a red-winged angel, enthroned as empress, the central figure in a large composition. Here I have developed the central figure as depicted in Scripture, hostess and priest at that wonderful banquet to which she graciously invites us all.

The First And Second Days Of Creation

Egg tempera and gold leaf on sculpted board, 9.5 x 12.5 inches, 2000
photograph by David Elliott

This icon illustrates the beginning of the story of creation in Genesis 1: 1-10. God brings the heavens and the earth out of chaos, creates light and separates it from darkness, then separates the waters above from the waters below. The Spirit of God, moving over the face of the waters, is shown as a dove.

Like the Pentecost icon at the bottom of this page, this piece is based on an early Gothic illumination in the Oxford Bible, attributed to William de Brailes.

The "flame" carved board was made in Serbia. The gilded background is embossed with a checkerboard pattern.

The woodcut used as a pattern.

The Fourth Day Of Creation

Egg tempera and gold leaf on sculpted board, 11.5 x 12 inches, 2002
Based on a woodcut from a Venetian Bible, 1511
Border inscription from Bishop Seraphim Segrist

On the fourth day of Creation (Genesis 1: 14-19), God fills the sky with sun, moon, and stars – dancing them into being! Plants have already started to grow on the young earth; but fish and birds and animals are yet to come. This is the springtime of the world, full of possibility!

The Fourth Day Of Creation

Egg tempera, gold leaf, and shell gold on shaped sculpted board
11 x 12.5 inches, 2008
Photograph by Richard Anderson
Border inscription from Bishop Seraphim Segrist

I missed the first version, so here's another! This time I selected an arched board, providing more space for stars. In this version, the ocean waves are bigger, and highlighting is done with fine lines or "assiste" technique. The Creator's garment is illuminated with accents of shell gold.

To see the steps by which this icon was painted, go to the Step by Step page.

ADAM AND EVE (for Chris and Eliza)

Egg tempera and gold leaf on sculpted board, 9 x 12 inches, 2003
Inspired by a woodcut illustration by Caren Loebel-Fried
Photograph by Richard Anderson

Although this was painted as a secular piece, a wedding gift for my nephew and his bride, many friends have seen it as depicting Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

The parents of us all, sexual and unashamed, make their bed in a friendly plant, surrounded by the moon and stars. The roots of the plant go deep into the unknown and mysterious past, and its leaves reach out in expectation and hope to an equally unknown future.

Adam and Eve have a difficult life ahead. But in this special moment, love is all, and the universe is beautiful.

ADAM AND EVE (for Dave and Cheryl)

Egg tempera and gold leaf on sculpted board, 11 x 13 inches, 2009

For their wedding gift, Dave and Cheryl requested an icon of Adam and Eve, but with animals, similar to the Tree of Life icon below.

We are in Eden before the Fall. The tree (this time temperate-zone rather than tropical) holds plenty of apples, and the serpent is just another little creature. Some of the animals have yet to finish evolving into those we know.

But here are creatures of a new kind - humans! In discovering one another and learning how to love, they are also discovering their own abilities and starting to apprehend their own wisdom.

Neither version of "Adam and Eve" may be reproduced for commercial use.

THE TREE OF LIFE - Veni Creator Spiritus

Egg tempera and gold leaf on shaped sculpted board, 13 x 15.6 inches, 2006
Photograph by Richard Anderson

This piece was commissioned by the Island Press of Washington, DC, and used as cover art for Evolution and Christian Faith by Joan Roughgarden.

It symbolically depicts the numerous and inter-related life forms of planet Earth, coming into being in response to the presence of the Holy Spirit, shown as a descending dove. The image contains air, land, and sea, by day and by night, all filled with active small creatures. All of the creatures are in contact with the tree, its trunk and branches and roots.

This highly detailed image took at least 80 hours to complete. It is much influenced by American folk art. Nature guidebooks were of great help in painting the little creatures.

"Tree of Life" is copyrighted and may not be reproduced for commercial use.


Egg tempera and gold leaf on shaped sculpted board,
13 x 15.6 inches, 2004
Based on an icon by Andrei Rublev in the Tretyakov Museum, Moscow
Border inscription from Christopher Bamford (paraphrased)
Photograph by Richard Anderson

This highly symbolic image of three angels, gathered around a table outdoors, has become the most popular and beloved icon of the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They are pictured at a moment of solemn decision as to their future relationship with the problematic human race. The bread and wine on the table prefigure the Eucharist, and remind us that their decision is not without cost.

This icon type derives from the story (Genesis 18: 1-15) of Abraham and his wife Sarah, an elderly and childless couple who entertained three mysterious strangers, outside their tent under the oak trees. The strangers promised that Sarah would bear a son whose descendants would become a great nation. Earlier icons of “The Hospitality of Abraham,” showing Abraham and Sarah with their visitors, gradually developed into “The Holy Trinity,” where only the three angelic visitors are depicted.


Egg tempera and gold leaf on sculpted board, about 14 x 17 inches, 2013
Painted for 2013 Santa Barbara workshop with instruction by Dmitri Andreyev
Photograph by Richard Anderson

The 2004 version above depicts the angelic visitors in a setting resembling our northern California landscape, with an oak tree that has actual oak leaves, and a building reminiscent of St. Gregory's Church. This larger version with gilded background adheres more closely to the Rublev prototype.

The luminous translucent greens were made possible by thin washes or floats of malachite pigment.


Egg tempera and gold leaf on shaped panel, 11 inches x 12.5 inches, 2008
Photograph by Richard Anderson

This piece was painted in honor of the “Ubuntu” theme for the 2009 General Convention of the Episcopal Church. “Ubuntu” is an African word popularized by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, meaning humaneness encompassing a sense of caring, sharing, and being in harmony with all of creation.

In this version of the Trinity icon, the three angelic figures are seated cross-legged on the ground – and they seem much more comfortable there than at a table! They do not need their wings, their hiking staffs, or even their outer garments – for they are at home beside the living waters, sharing a meal under the star- filled sky. The leaves of the tree of life have grown into the “ubuntu” which they enjoy among themselves and with all their creation.

These androgynous persons represent not only the Holy Trinity, but our own best selves, and our best hopes for our human society and our beloved planet. Their differing skin colors and hair styles can barely suggest the diversity of humankind.


Egg tempera and gold leaf on sculpted board, 11 x 14 inches, 2006
Photograph by Richard Anderson

The mysterious figure in this icon, personifying the silence of God, is identified with Christ but is here depicted as a female angel. Although dressed and crowned as a princess, she does not seek to be noticed, but holds her hands crossed in peaceful expectancy, to receive whatever God offers her.

This icon type was popular in 18th-19th century Russia, and is identified with the silent inward “breath prayer” or “prayer of the heart,” a brief personal mantra containing a name of God, repeated constantly until it becomes integral to the rhythms of body and soul. The inscriptions in the border come from The Way of a Pilgrim, a classic description of this way of prayer.


Egg tempera and gold leaf on shaped sculpted board, 6-1/8 x 7-3/4 inches, 2013
Photograph by Richard Anderson

A small devotional icon on an unusual board, with edges stained dark brown rather than covered with bole.

Unlike the figure above, this angel is not veiled. She wears a dainty lace collar that extends over her shoulders.


Egg tempera, shell gold, and gold leaf on shaped panel, 9.5 x 12.5 inches, 2007
photograph by Richard Anderson

In this highly symbolic representation, the Christ Child is shown as Eternal Logos, awaiting incarnation as the Light of the World. Christ Emmanuel is the Promised One. He is like the baby or grandchild we long for. He is the concentrated potential of the universe, the hope of the world, the beloved inner child within each of us - a humanized Big Bang waiting to happen.

In icons, Christ Emmanuel shines like the sun! His garments are brilliantly colored, adorned with jewels, and illuminated with fine lines of real gold ("shell gold") applied over the paint. This historic technique requires careful workmanship and advance planning.

Christ Emmanuel often appears as part of other icons, most notably Our Lady of the Sign. In some icons of The Annunciation, Christ Emmanuel appears on Mary's chest, to indicate that she is now pregnant with this special baby.


Egg tempera and gold leaf on sculpted board, 9.5 x 10 inches, 2002

Here is a simpler and "earthier" interpretation of that longed-for baby, the future of the human race, the one who makes all things new.


Egg tempera and gold leaf on shaped sculpted board, 13 x 17 inches, 2011
Photograph by Richard Anderson

"Come Heavenly Comforter and giver of life, blowing everywhere and filling all things, treasury of blessings and giver of life, come and abide in us!"

This icon illustrates the astonishing story told in Acts 2. The Holy Spirit is here depicted as a dove descending from a starry heaven, accompanied by flames of fire.

Although painted in a Russian style, this non-orthodox image is adapted from one of the delightful early Gothic illuminations in the Oxford Bible, attributed to William de Brailes, who worked in Oxford, England, in the middle of the 13th century.

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