When iconographer Patricia Ballard is stuck on a challenging pattern or discouraged by a mistaken stroke of the brush, she looks to heaven for help.

“I would ask God, and ask the angels,” she said. “I would ask Our Lady.”

With the music of 11th-century nun and composer Hildegard von Bingen playing in the background, Ballard diligently pores over her work in a small studio in Port Moody, B.C., a sacred artist on a mission to connect herself and others with the divine.

I don’t have internet here, usually I don’t have my cellphone on, and I’m just in this space and this world where I’m wanting to communicate with God, and I want God to help me or the angels and the saints to help me work the piece.”

She hopes those viewing her art also get the sense there’s more to life than the physical.

“This is the goal: to carry the individual into the realm of the divine for the purposes of understanding, knowing, being close to God. Each person in his or her own way experiences something through it,” she said.

“You’re working through paint and wood and gold. It’s through the material that you are carried to this other world.”

Her latest piece, the Coronation of the Virgin, was installed in the Archdiocese of Vancouver’s Chapel of the Annunciation just before the feast of the Queenship of Mary Aug. 22.

The icon is a larger version of an original work by 14th-century Italian artist Giacomo di Mino and depicts Jesus placing a crown on the head of Mary, his mother. Watching are seven archangels and four angels playing period musical instruments.

Mary’s coronation was a common subject for Italian artists in the 13th to 15th centuries, said Ballard. These images of Mary “became common as part of a general increase in devotion to Mary in the early Gothic period and continues today,” she said.

Her icon differs slightly from the original, the most notable difference at first glance being its size (it is much larger at 33.5 inches by 55 inches)Jesus’ cloak changed from black to a deep blue, and the Swarovski crystals shining brightly in Mary’s crown.

Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB, has called it a masterpiece, while Ballard calls it a spiritual journey. It took her three years and two months to complete the project using traditional tools like egg tempera paint, rabbit skin glue, and gold leaf.

“This is the most complex piece I’ve ever done, and the most challenging,” said Ballard.

Particularly challenging sections were the precise lines and folds of fabric, the complex tapestry in the background, and the patterns on Mary’s crown, created by adding many layers of material, then scraping away sections of gold leaf to reveal the paint beneath. Every paint colour was mixed with precision.

Perhaps the most complex part was Our Lady’s veil, which covers a large part of the icon and had to be done perfectly on the first attempt, otherwise Ballard might have had to recreate large sections of Mary’s face.

“You have to be very disciplined,” said Ballard, a trained artist who produced secular works until she became a sacred artist in 1999.

Patricia Ballard working on the icon in her studio in 2017.

She would pray and listen to sacred music or work in silence on the Coronation of the Virgin, and hopes viewers also have a meaningful, spiritual experience when they encounter it.

“It's like a piece of sacred music. You listen to it and then you are taken off into this other world. You don’t know how it’s done but when you get there, you know you’re thereWhen the music is finished, it’s over. With sacred art, it’s frozen in time. It will remain, you just have to look at it,” she said.

“It’s a vehicle, sacred art, through which you can travel into this world and God can also. It’s a two-way street: God can come down to you through it. It doesn’t happen all the time, but this is what you strive for and what musicians strive for.”

Iconographer Frank Turner has a studio down the hallway from Ballard’s. He dropped in to see the Coronation and offer a second set of eyes countless times in the three years she was steadfastly working on it.

“You can see the care and attention that went into the creation of this piece. It’s quite impressive,” said Turner. “Particularly the gold work is very masterful.”

He commended Ballard for the innovative way she solved some visual challenges; some “gems” in the crowns of the angels are a depression in the gold with a carefully-placed drop of ink inside.

“One of the greatest challenges of the process” is keeping heart while working on a complex, time-consuming piece, said Turner. “You have to commit to doing what it takes.” In Ballard’s case, now, “the fruits are there for all to see.”

Angels are depicted playing an ancient form of violin and a harp at Mary’s coronation in heaven.

Pope Pius XII instituted the feast of the Queenship of Mary in 1954.

“From the earliest ages of the Catholic Church a Christian people, whether in time of triumph or more especially in time of crisis, has addressed prayers of petition and hymns of praise and veneration to the Queen of Heaven,” he wrote in the encyclical Ad Caeli Reginam, announcing the new feast. 

He called for a new Marian feast “so that all may recognize more clearly and venerate more devoutly the merciful and maternal sway of the Mother of God” and “help preserve, strengthen, and prolong that peace among nations which daily is almost destroyed by recurring crises.”

Ballard said the Coronation of the Virgin carries a message for everyone, whether they feel a closeness with her in prayer or not.

“She is, in her being, what God has promised for us: that our bodies and souls will be joined together in paradise. We are destined to live together with God in his glory,” she said.

“It’s hopeful. When you see this image, you see this perfect being, perfectly reflecting Christ. It’s something we strive for ... it’s the call for holiness in us.”

She added the image may carry a special message for consecrated men and women. Ballard, herself a consecrated laywoman with the Daughters of the Church, said Catholics who choose to make private vows often feel a special connection with Mary and draw strength from her example.

“It’s like keeping your eye on the goal. This is why you’re consecrated,” she said“Ultimately, you will be with God.”

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