Work of local iconographer subject of Basilica exhibition

| October 23, 2017 | 0 Comments
Iconographer Nicholas Markell

Iconographer Nicholas Markell, left, demonstrates a painting technique to Diana Lein of St. John the Baptist in New Brighton Oct. 11 during an icon workshop at St. Mary in Stillwater. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

For years, icons created by local iconographer Nicholas Markell have been included in the Basilica of St. Mary’s icon procession, held annually at the Minneapolis parish to coincide with All Saints Day. This year’s procession Nov. 4 will be no exception.

It coincides, however, with the opening of “Windows to Heaven: A Visual Hymn of Praise,” a retrospective of Markell’s work and life. On display in the Basilica’s John XXIII Gallery, the exhibition will focus on Markell as an artist and theologian.

For 32 years, Markell, 56, has been creating liturgical art, primarily focusing on icons, stained glass design and graphics for publications. His word-of-mouth clientele is international, but he’s done many local commissions. His work is visible in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis at several churches, including St. Michael in St. Michael; St. Thomas the Apostle and Our Lady of Lourdes, both in Minneapolis; and St. John the Baptist in Savage.

Iconography, or the painting of icons, is different from other forms of art-making, Markell explained. Rather than being a realistic depiction, an icon packs symbols into the representation of a holy person.

To illustrate the point, Markell pointed to St. Francis of Assisi.

“If you have a beautiful painting of St. Francis and he is preaching to the animals in the forest, it’s a very natural depiction,” he said. “It’s an image that reminds us that he walked on the earth, that he did good things, that he was one of us in earthly things and history.”

Infant of Prague from Iconographer Nicholas Markell

This original work depicting the Infant of Prague will be part of Markell’s display at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

He continued: “If you look at an icon of St. Francis, it reminds you more of who he is now — in heaven, in the spiritual realm — not who he was historically, but who he is mystically. He’s not with us anymore. He has died. His body is in the grave. But, he will be resurrected with the resurrected body.

So, the icon of Francis opens up another realm of him that history could not. That is more real to why he’s present with us now.”

Markell is expanding his work in liturgical design, and he conducts workshops for iconographers of varying levels of experience. His weeklong workshops have been held at his home parish of St. Mary and St. Michael in Stillwater; Mary, Mother of the Church, Burnsville; St. John the Baptist, Savage; and St. John the Baptist, New Brighton. He’s also given workshops in California.

“One of my favorite things with icons is doing the workshops, because it helps expose people to a very rich tradition, some for the first time,” he said. “They get to experience just how deep and rich the tradition is and how prayerful it is. That energizes me and stretches my commitment to what I’m doing. It’s important, and it’s affecting people’s lives. You can’t ask for more.”

In 2013, Father Erich Rutten commissioned Markell to create an icon of St. Thomas Aquinas for the University of St. Thomas’ Center for Campus Ministry. Then the center’s director, Father Rutten gathered information from St. Thomas faculty, including theology professor and Aquinas scholar John Boyle, to inform Markell’s design. Called “Holy Thomas,” the finished 65-by-44-inch icon hangs in the center’s lobby.

“The icon reminds us to keep the love of Christ in our hearts,” said Father Rutten, now pastor of St. Peter Claver in St. Paul.

Markell can create a smaller icon in as little as a week, he said, but “Holy Thomas” took six months. The exhibition’s catalogue includes 170 icons he’s painted over three decades.

Icons on parade

For 23 years, the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis has displayed a collection of icons in its sanctuary to coincide with the feasts of All Saints and All Souls, Nov. 1 and 2. This year, the annual Festival of Icons will open Nov. 5 with the Procession of Icons during the 9:30 and 11:30 a.m. Masses. Nearly 80 icons will be on display this year.

“Whenever we gather for worship, we gather within the communion of the saints, and they are there with us, though we may not see them,” said Johan Van Parys, the Basilica’s director of liturgy in the sacred arts.

People also bring photos of loved ones who have died.

“They place those photos on the side altars so that we are surrounded by all saints and all souls during the month of November,” said Van Parys. “It’s very much a sacred exhibition, and we treat the icons as they ought to be treated. They are not just works of art; they are sacred objects. They should be revered, because the icon is the visual word of God.”

— Melenie Soucheray

“Holy Thomas” is one of Markell’s favorites, as is the icon of the Holy Family he created for St. Joseph’s Hospital in St. Paul. He favors the icons he creates that allow him to “go deeper into the tradition,” and apply that tradition to the needs of the Church today, he said.

A native of Owatonna, Markell earned a bachelor of arts degree in fine arts from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. After working for a short time in marketing, Markell entered the New Jersey novitiate of the Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle, aka the Paulists, in 1985. He was drawn to that community because it was the first American male Catholic religious order, he said. The Paulists work extensively in the media, including book publication, filmmaking, and radio and television production.

He described his discernment with the Paulists as a six-year journey, during which he encountered icons. He first wrote papers about them, then began creating them.

“I had been somewhat familiar with icons through my art studies, but not so much from a theology point of view,” he said. “It was more from an art point of view.”

From New Jersey, he went to Washington, D.C., where he lived at a house for Paulists studying in the area. He pursued theological studies at the Washington Theological Union in Silver Spring, Maryland, and then earned a master of arts in sacred theology and a master of divinity degree.

Along the way, he anticipated ordination, but at the end, he felt like he had been called to the experience of seminary rather than the priesthood. He left the order, but apprenticed in stained glass-making in Virginia before moving back to Minnesota in 1995.

He maintained his connections to the Paulists, working part-time creating studio illustrations and book covers for the Paulist Press. In 1997, he opened Markell Studios in Hugo.

Today, Markell is married and has a son and daughter.

In addition to painting icons, Markell is also a wildlife artist. It’s a hobby, but he’s won several competitions for his efforts, including the 2018 Minnesota wild turkey stamp.

“I come from a background where there were a lot of wildlife artists. I grew up with that,” he said. “It’s relaxing to focus on the natural, but also I do bring in something, which is light.

“In iconography, you’re concerned with light, because Christ is light,” he added. “You are depicting a spiritual light, so it’s not a natural light. Ironically, the work that I’ve done depicts light in a way that maybe would never be depicted in the natural realm. It’s beautiful, and it makes great design. I probably would not have done that wildlife art had I not become an iconographer in the meantime.”

The retrospective of Markell’s iconography at the Basilica is funded through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board and the Arts and Culture Heritage Fund. It’s free and open to the public throughout November on Saturdays, 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Sundays, 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. For more information about Markell’s work, visit





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