20 January 2022, The Tablet

Prayer painting

Prayer painting

St Frideswide of Oxford, left, and St Catherine of Alexandria, right, both by Irina Bradley


An encounter with an icon of Our Lady in a Moscow monastery took Irina Bradley on a journey of recovery to a new life as an icon artist herself

I was in my thirties, the mother of two young children, when I was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer.  The prognosis gave me a 50:50 chance of surviving the next 10 years; our youngest daughter was aged just two and we were living in Russia at the time. Icons are part of the national identity in Russia, and I already knew a lot about them as I was a practising Christian and icons are part of worship in the Christian Orthodox Church. After the diagnosis, my mother told me about a monastery in Moscow which had an icon of Panakranta, which means Mary Queen of All Queens, that was said to help oncology patients.

I went there to pray to ask God to grant me a wish to see my children grow up, but I was totally unprepared for what happened next. Because while I prayed in front of the icon, I was suddenly suffused with what I can only describe as a column of warmth. It seemed to flow into me from the icon, and I felt comforted, and hopeful. I left that church knowing something real and important had happened. I knew God was on my side, and I knew I was going to make it through.
Seventeen years later, I’m still here. I’ve survived another bout of cancer, but also, I’ve become an iconographer. The connection with the icon in the Moscow church that day set my life on a whole different course; it led me to explore my artistic abilities, to train as an icon artist and to a career that’s seen my work exhibited in Buckingham Palace and, currently, at the Jesuit church in London’s Farm Street. I also teach iconography at the Prince’s Foundation School of Traditional Arts.

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