© 2022

Endangered Species, Gold Leaf Paintings And Iconography: With Angela Manno




Elevating earthly elements and organisms, like the bee, to the status of an icon is distinctive. It demands noticeable attention. A living organism, a blur of yellow and black, becomes a symbol of hope and beauty. For the Honey bee, embodying hard work and community, it experiences a change that channels vastly different vibrations. Despite the polarising contrast between the two, there is an unspoken understanding that these organisms are worthy of this uplifted status. The pivotal roles they operate within are integral to historical and deep-rooted ecosystems. The layered meanings they possess have transformative powers for humans and organisms alike.

For Angela Manno, the natural world around us exudes with an ethereal and immense beauty. A notion that doesn’t surpass even the most disconnected of us, our natural surroundings and the elements encompassed within are unparalleled. Within this world are systems,  and within the systems are interconnected creatures, living moving things that resonate across distances.

From one point in prior time in the Byzantine period, to another today in close proximity, the Icons of Endangered Species meet and enclose each other with a resounding humility. That is where Manno’s works uniquely stand, a fusion of Byzantine-Russian traditional iconography with contemporary environmental species loss. One aspect does not overpower the other, instead, the works are visually exquisite and in complete harmony.

Traversing across nature as a spiritual enclosure and it’s elements as sacred organisms, Manno has created works of history, power, and of natural beauty. The bee, nestled amongst gold leaf, is both intrinsically and outwardly captivating. The same goes for Manno’s practice and dedication, to art and work that calls for attention and explores a critical, delicate, degrading element of nature. We spoke to Angela Manno about Icons of Endangered species, and our perspective and insight broadened with each insightful and articulate response.


Fusing polarising aspects like iconography and topical environmental issues is strikingly unique. How did this choice arise?

AM Thank you, although it’s not as polarizing as you might think, since traditional iconography is about depicting sacred images, what the Orthodox Church considers “windows to the divine.”  What I am doing is rendering what I know to be sacred and irreplaceable in a liturgical art form.

This came to pass almost by accident. In the early 1990s, I decided to explore traditional icon painting. I was fascinated by the beautiful materials and the images of angels, and at the same time  was without a studio where I had been able to create those monumental works in batik and color Xerox I spoke of earlier. I thought I would learn how to use egg tempera and gold leaf and then be on my merry way. However, when I attended the first lecture by my teacher, Vladislav Andreyev,  it opened up a whole new world to me and I was hooked.

The meaning behind the icons of old and in the stages in making them and that it was a spiritual practice captivated me so much that I moved across the country to study with him. Soon into the practice, however, because of my knowledge of ecology, evolution and cosmology, I felt the storehouse of traditional images was missing something: an image of the Earth itself, which after all is the context of all life on this planet, of all the saints and personages in the traditional iconographic canon. So my first icon to break the mold was my piece, “The Earthly Paradise: Icon of the Third Millennium.”


In taking earthly symbols, elements and organisms and pulling them upwards towards the status of an icon, what do they now embody?

AM If you spend time in the natural world, you sense the spirituality all around — how everything is interconnected — and the ineffable beauty of it all. It is said that the first “icon” (meaning image in Greek), is that which is created — you, me, the natural world around us, and the universe itself. So to make an image with human hands celebrates that primary, living image. But in a culture that views nature as crass matter, as a “resource” to be exploited, bringing this image into being as a piece of liturgical art is a way to drive home the intrinsic value and numinous beauty of the beings I depict.

What emotions and ideas are embedded into these paintings?

AM I approach each image with reverence and as the image develops on the icon board, I can only describe what I feel as love and admiration for the exquisite beauty and design of each creature. They all have their unique allure. “The Chambered Nautilus,” an invertebrate, is as intricate and unique as the dazzling, magnificent hummingbird.

Traditionally, icons are meant to be contemplated, so that they can draw you closer to the reality behind them. One collector explained her experience with her icon of an Orangutan mother and child in this way:

“I feel as if I am actually developing a relationship with these creatures. The mother looks incredibly caring with an arm firmly but very gently pulling her baby close to her body. She seems kind of proud too. The baby looks totally unafraid and has that wise look very young children sometimes have. I’m sure I will continue to discover more in this icon. . .  even if I had an icon of a horseshoe crab, I think there would also be much to discover in its strange structure. How does it feel to be enclosed in its shell, etc. etc.? I think the main thing is to be really close to it so you see it everyday.”

When I read her words, I knew that I had succeeded even beyond my expectations.

A bee embodies life, prosperity, abundance. The bee is so deeply interconnected and fundamental to our ecosystems, that the threat could have exponential repercussions. What does “Honey Bee” depict?

AM I had been contemplating an image of a honeycomb made out of burnished gold leaf as the background for an icon of the honeybee for many years. Plus I’d been hearing about their decline and watching documentaries about how intelligent they are and how they communicate and it seemed to me this would be a perfect first attempt.  I always have to emphasize that although each being has a use within the fabric of nature, they each have intrinsic value.  As Thomas Berry, one of my great mentors put it, every being has rights — to exist, to habitat and to fulfill its unique role within the great community of being.


How does your both traditional and meaningful Byzantine-Russian practice navigate the works and their meanings as a whole?

AM Traditionally, only the human being is made in the image and likeness of God. However, my thinking is more aligned with this passage from Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica:

“Because the divine could not image itself forth in any one being, it created the great diversity of things so that what was lacking in one would be supplied by the others and the whole universe together would participate in and manifest the divine more than any single being.”

To me, these works simply expand the vision to include the whole of the natural world as an aspect of the Sacred.

We see elements of gold in these deeply moving visuals, reminiscent of Byzantine-Russian icons. How did you go incorporating this crucial aspect?

AM Gold leaf in traditional iconography represents our divine nature. The clay to which the gold leaf is adhered represents our physical dimension. I use all the elements of traditional iconography in my work including the incredibly gorgeous pigments which are all natural, either earth pigments or made from ground-up semi-precious stones. Even the oil sealant is natural (linseed oil) as well as the gesso which is made of marble dust and chalk. Gold leaf is important in my contemporary icons to emphasize the creature’s sacred dimension.


How did you infuse your own artistic expression into the works?

AM That’s a very interesting question. I think my own personal touch is reflected most of all in the compositions. The depiction of the beings themselves are quite faithful to how they appear in reality. In fact that was one of the things that the great conservation biologist E.O. Wilson said about my work when he said, “In her remarkable animal portraits, Angela Manno has found a way to combine exactitude with meaning in the faces of her subjects. . . ”

Between art and activism, do you have hopes for this body of work in terms of highlighting the urgent state of the environment and biodiversity?

AM I do, very much so. I’ve always viewed my work as a form of activism inasmuch as it is able to affect consciousness, since thought, values and attitudes come before any human action.  The more my work can foster an “ecological conversion,” the happier I’ll be, because I think the only way out of the mess we have caused depends on nothing less than a re-enchantment with the Earth as a living reality. Each time I sell one of these works, I donate 50% to an environmental organization, most notably the Center for Biological Diversity, which is another form of activism. Supporting organizations that are protecting biodiversity is essential.

What spoke to you most about the state of endangered species?

AM We are looking at the further unraveling of the fabric of nature each time another species goes extinct. To me, this fabric is an unrepeatable living tapestry. That we allow this to continue is the height of moral failure. It has cosmic consequences, since these beings are as unique as you and me. In the 15 billion years of unbroken evolution, there never has been, nor will there ever be, another you or me. That goes for entire species. Biologist E.O. Wilson reminds us that “global warming is only the first of three environmental crises humanity has been destined to pass through this century as a consequence of human actions [the other one being the growing shortage of fresh water] . . . global loss of biodiversity is the only one. . .that's irreversible.”  

The only change in my awareness since beginning this series is how dire the situation is. At the same time, there are now people rallying all over the globe to stop this unraveling and to stabilize biodiversity through a monumental initiative called The Half Earth Project. Their goal is to protect half the Earth’s land and sea in order to save 85% of species, which will maintain ecosystem functions and avoid total collapse. The project is commensurate with the magnitude of the problem.

As my mentor Thomas Berry used to say, “We live in heroic times.”


“I’ve been a practicing artist for over forty years and have worked in many ancient mediums such as encaustic, egg tempera and batik (the ancient medium of textile design). I also combine them with contemporary media and apply them to contemporary themes. For example, my 13-piece series, “Conscious Evolution: The World at One,” combines batik with color Xerox. The whole series is now in the permanent fine art collection of the Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum and addresses the transformative view of the Earth from space that was first beamed back to us during the early space program. “Self-Discovery,” another piece executed in this same mixed media combination, was commissioned by NASA to commemorate the US return to space flight after the Challenger accident.

I often combine words with my imagery to punctuate my visual messages.

It seems to be my nature to bridge what is ancient and what is new. My chosen materials amplify my message, which is to preserve the wisdom of the ages and infuse our contemporary society and sensibilities with that wisdom.”


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