In a small corner of his basement, Timothy Quinn, a professor in the department of philosophy, merges the temporal with the divine. A trained ikonographer, Quinn has painted saints, angels and other historic Christian figures for almost 30 years. Greek for “image,” an ikon is a pictorial representation of Scripture painted on a carved wood pallet that’s revered in Orthodox churches.
“This kind of art is not a form of self-expression,” Quinn says. “When you look at tradition, it’s a form of asceticism. The painter is the same as the brush or the paint—it’s an instrument.”
That asceticism has translated itself into centuries of devotion and a tradition that sees few alterations. Most ikonographers learn through apprenticeships, and painting styles remain so unchanged that ikons from the third century resemble those of the 20th.
Before Quinn applies the first brushstroke, however, he fasts for three days to center himself. Using egg tempera, Quinn renders an image in a flat, almost cubist fashion, using long, fluid strokes similar to letterforms. His human subjects, easily recognized by their elongated noses, small mouths and large eyes—symbolic of divine insight—take shape against a gilded background of 22-karat gold, which, as Quinn explains, helps “communicate a sense of the glory of God.”
And although he’s taken a temporary hiatus from painting (“Three children will have an effect on one’s ability to get a lot of painting done.”), Quinn’s completed hundreds of ikons for patrons around the country, including the Romanian Catholic Bishop of North America.