Former Anglican says art of 'writing' icons allows her to incorporate prayer into her work

PLYMOUTH — Claire O’Reilly didn’t imagine she would ever become Catholic, much less an iconographer whose very work would inspire Catholics in their faith.

O’Reilly grew up in England. Though she wasn’t catechized by her parents, her grandmother was a devout Catholic. At age 8, she was sent to a Catholic boarding school after her mother left the family. Catholic nuns ran the school, and O’Reilly took comfort in the Catholic traditions that her grandmother held dear, especially spending time in adoration.

“I had grown up with the Eucharist meaning something,” O'Reilly told Detroit Catholic. “I would sit there during the consecration and I just knew what was happening, even though it wasn’t explained to me.”

After college, O’Reilly was confirmed in the Church of England, then moved to the United States as an engineer with General Motors. She married a fellow Episcopalian, had two children, and became a freelance artist in order to be home with them.  

O'Reilly holds an icon of Jesus she wrote. Though she's been writing icons for many years, O'Reilly says she's still a novice compared with other iconographers who have perfected the craft over decades. 

In time, she began to question some of the practices of her Episcopal church. Tensions in the marriage grew — in part due to her issues with their church — and eventually, they divorced.

As O’Reilly was adjusting to her new life working full time and being a single mother, she discovered Mother Angelica on EWTN television. A co-worker gave her a rosary from Medjugorje, a purported Marian apparition site in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which O’Reilly learned to pray from watching Mother Angelica. 

She enrolled in the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA), and though she was unable to attend the evening classes, she followed along with the studies at home. Each night, she and her 10- and 13-year-old children would read their RCIA books and study together to prepare to enter the Church in 2002.  

Several years later, O’Reilly remarried a Catholic man, who, along with her father, encouraged O’Reilly to pursue art again. In adoration one day, she asked God what He wanted for her life. 

O'Reilly flips through some of her icons -- the inspirations for which come from Scripture and the saints.

“He told me, clear as a bell, that I should take up iconography,” O’Reilly said. “I didn’t even know what iconography was. So I Googled it right then and said to myself, ‘I could do this! I could really do this!'”

Iconography dates back to St. Luke the Evangelist, who “painted” the face of the Blessed Mother; artists “write” icons rather than paint them because the images are intended to be visual Scripture. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that “Christian iconography expresses in images the same Gospel message that Scripture communicates by words. Image and word illuminate each other” (CCC 1160).

Icons are typically written with many layers of paint in tandem with prayer and fasting. O’Reilly prays novenas or other prayers between layers, and sometimes writes the prayers of friends and family into a layer of her icons.

There are no classes to learn how to become an iconographer; rather, artists learn by working side-by-side with other iconographers. Artists are not considered iconographers until they have been writing for many years; after nine years, O’Reilly is still considered a student of iconography. 

An icon of St. Nicholas sits on a shelf in O'Reilly's home.
O'Reilly adds some detail to an icon she's currently writing.

In 2016, O’Reilly was asked to create a Divine Mercy icon, which was used for banners in churches around the Archdiocese of Detroit during the Year of Mercy. Most people who have the icon in their home or parish don’t know who wrote it; iconography is not to be signed, as “the Holy Spirit is the author,” O'Reilly said.

O’Reilly feels blessed that God ushered her into this new life.

“I’m really just going along with what God wants me to do,” she said. “It’s so strange — it’s like God hasn’t wasted any of my past because I use it all in my iconography — my engineering background, working at home after I had my children, working for a doctor. I always tell people that God will use everything if you let him.”

O’Reilly would like to teach others one day, just as people have taught her the art and spirituality of iconography, including Fr. Damian Higgins of Holy Transfiguration Monastery in northern California. For now, she says, she feels she still has much to learn.