A Favorite Gift: Stella Maris Icon

By Carrie Gress

 Stella Maris Icon from Iconsart

Stella Maris Icon from Iconsart

Etsy and sites like it have opened up a vast new market for religious items. We now have access to beautiful pieces that in the past would have required extensive travel and window shopping, at the very least.

For Christmas this year, I received this stunning icon of Stella Maria, Our Lady Star of the Sea, painted by an artist in Bulgaria found on Etsy.

Over the years I have been more and more drawn to this devotion of Our Lady. I first started paying attention to it after my husband and I were married at the Star of the Sea Catholic Church in Astoria, Oregon. More recently, while researching my book The Marian Option, I was struck to see the important role Stella Maris has had for centuries, particularly for those who made their living from the sea.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1158) explained more about the meaning of the name Stella Maris in the most glowing of terms a millennium ago:

And the virgin’s name was “Mary” (LK 1:27). Let us also say a few words about this name which means “star of the sea” and is most suitably fitting for a virgin mother. For she is most appropriately compared to a star, because, just as a star emits rays without being corrupted, so the Virgin gave birth to her Son without any injury.

If you follow her, you will not go astray. If you pray to her, you will not despair. If you think of her, you will not be lost. If you cling to her, you will not fall. If she protects you, you will not fear; if she is your guide, you will not tire; if she is favorable to you, you will reach your goal. Thus you will experience personally how rightly it was spoke: "And the Virgins' name was Mary." 

In the icon, the apostles are crowded into a boat looking nervous, and yet, there is Stella Maris, the Star of the Sea, towering over them with one hand raised as if to signify that she is calming the seas.

 The Apostles representing the Church

The Apostles representing the Church

My gift, which arrived this week after several weather related delays, was painted by Agnessa of Sofia, Bulgaria. I reached out to her at her Etsy store, Iconsart, to find out more about her work as a Christian artist.

Agnessa, who has been painting icons for twenty-five years, told me about how she got her start. "Long before icons, I was into landscape, still-life and portrait painting mostly with oil paints," she explained. "But I saw a friend who was an icon painter and I got really interested in this style, that was very different than everything I had done until then." She continued, "He had an icon gifted to Pope John Paul II, so I started to learn from him and then another professional icon painter and restorer helped me advance in this art."

 Saint Archangel Michael,  Iconsart

Saint Archangel Michael, Iconsart

When I asked her if faith was important in the process she said, "Faith is of course important. Before starting a new icon I always try to learn as much as I can for the Saint and throughout the process put my best positive thoughts into my work."

"It always helps me to know who I am painting the icon for, this way I can direct my prayers to them, especially if they had a special reason to order an icon. Recently I painted Saint Peregrine, which is patron saint and protector of cancer patients. I prayed that it brings relief to the person it was for."

In her work, Agnessa said that she makes small changes to the form of her icons to accommodate the setting of a home instead of a church. She explained, "I consider the home setting less canonical, therefore I have a little more freedom in interpreting an icon. I can add a decorative element or slightly change the composition while still staying true to the elements that should not be changed and carry a special meaning."

"Each icon is a little different in the end," she added, "even if it is of the same scene or saint, but this is the beauty of the art of icon painting: no two artists will produce the same art work."

 Visitation of Mary and Elizabeth Icon,  Iconsart

Visitation of Mary and Elizabeth Icon, Iconsart

Carrie Gress