Jesus Our Savior – A Sacred Image in the Iconographic Tradition

I have the happy service of presenting a new workshop to interested adults from Massachusetts and Rhode Island beginning on Saturday February 14th, 2015.

In an attempt to give everyone individual attention the class is currently filled at a limit of ten people. We will be pursuing our studies of painting sacred images in the Latin iconographic tradition. I hope to make the artists aware of the importance of studying the Latin and Byzantine origins of sacred images and its inevitable blossoming within the Greek and Russian civilizations.

The workshop will run over a five-week period, for a total of twenty hours of class time. While they will not be painting the sacred image that is found below of Jesus Our Savior, the technique that I used to paint this image will be taught to the artists. Note that the image is painted using acrylic paints; however, I have developed a different approach in manipulating the layers of the paints. This approach evolved out of studying the work of the 12th century Benedictine monk, Theophilus the Presbyter (whom I have written about in previous essays on this blog), and my own experiments over the past few years of working with egg tempera and acrylic paints.

I specialize in painting personal prayer images (9 by 12 inches, or 12 by 16 inches) rather than images that would be found in large church or chapel applications. The image found below (95% finished) is typical of my approach. It is an image that the person in prayer can relate to, yet, it also carries a sense of transcendence. This approach will be taught in the upcoming workshop. I attempt to teach simplicity in both technique and spirituality. I  avoid flourishes and excessive naturalism in facial or garment representation. In this way I have ignored the typical approach of many Latin Rite sacred artists from the mid 14th century onward. I am attempting to rediscover, or reestablish, the Latin Rite techniques of painting sacred icons. This endeavor is a work in progress!

In the upcoming workshop the students will be studying my technique and actually paint an image of St. Michael the Archangel. Upon completion of that sacred image, they will eventually move on to painting an image of the Holy Theotokos, the Blessed Mother, and then complete the sequence in studying and painting a sacred image of Jesus Christ. In upcoming posts I will be blogging about their experience and the steps that they will take in completing the sacred image of St. Michael.

My approach to the painting of sacred images in the iconographic tradition owes a debt of gratitude to my many teachers in the Byzantine and secular artistic traditions. I also owe a profound thank you to the Holy Spirit, whose grace has enabled my hands to paint sacred images. I pray that my sacred art has not offended Him. The image below appears slightly brighter than it actually is as a result of the flash.

Jesus Our Savior by Deacon Paul O. Iacono, Fra Angelico Institute for the Sacred Arts, Copyright © 2011- 2015 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

 

 

Copyright © 2011- 2015 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

The Gospel of John 1:35-42 – An Invitation to Follow Jesus

In our Gospel today we hear John the Baptist proclaim “Behold the Lamb of God.”

We see in our mind’s eye, Andrew and another disciple, probably St. John, listening to the Baptist say those words.

Immediately after Jesus walks by they look at one another and, without saying a word, begin to follow Jesus.

Jesus, sensing their presence, turns and seeing them says,

“What are you looking for?”

They say: “Rabbi where do you live?”

They didn’t presume to say, “Rabbi we want to be your companions – we want to learn from you.” Rather they instinctually knew that this man, whom John the Baptist had proclaimed “The Lamb of God,” was the Lamb of God – the promised Messiah; and they wanted to be with Him.

In what must have been an astonishing moment for them, Jesus in turn says, “Come, and you will see.”

What did they see in those three years they spent with Him? That is what John believed he had to write down.

Those three years, and then the following years of John’s own ministry, had to be written down.

Two thousand years later we experience his excitement in the short clips of his memory as we read the significant facts and unique moments of what he experienced.

For in those facts and moments are contained the unique vision of John’s Gospel and Epistles.

They proclaim his experience of the truth that the Word of God – the Mind of God – was incarnated into the man Jesus, the Son of God.

This was done so that the Father could fully express the meaning of His love and His desire to share that love with His creation.

“Rabbi, where do you live?”

“Come and you will see.”

But this is the 21st century; and many of us do not hear the call of God to “Come and see.”

Maybe Jesus is calling to us and we are too distracted, or hurt, or swallowed up by life’s events; or maybe we don’t know how to see or listen to His message, or are just not listening at all.

But the message of this Gospel is that Jesus’ call – His invitation – is always open.

He invites us, like Andrew and John, to join Him for the afternoon and share a simple meal of bread and wine.

He invites us to be baptised into His family so we can receive the many gifts He desires to give us.

He invites us to know His laughter and joy; and He invites us to suffer with Him by knowing loneliness, sickness, heartache, and loss.

“Rabbi, where do you live?”

“Come and you will see.”

Our imagination can visualize a small Hebrew home, with a low doorway so large animals would not wander in.

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We can imagine that this is where Jesus lived: in a small but adequate house on a simple Hebrew street.

Jesus, and any visitors, would have to bend down to get through the door.

We are asked to bend down, too.

We are to lower ourselves in humility, patience, reconciliation, and love.

For how are we to live with the Creator of the Universe if we are unwilling to honestly look at our own souls in the light of the One who loves us?

Ultimately, we respond to Jesus’ call by inviting Him into our heart. For that is where He truly wants to live, and rest, and share a simple meal of bread and wine.

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The above post is my homily for the 2nd Sunday of Ordinary Time. Year B. I delivered this homily at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Wakefield, Rhode Island on January 18. 2015 at the 8 AM and 10 AM Masses.  Copyright © 2011- 2015  Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved  Thanks to the blog Clerical Whispers for the photograph of a typical Hebrew street scene. Their site can be located at: http://clericalwhispers.blogspot.com/2012/05/exhibition-recreates-gospel-village-for.html

 

St. Thomas: Skeptic, Cynic, and Repentant Saint

It is the evening hour on the first Easter Sunday. Gathered in the upper room the Apostles were in turmoil. They doubt. They fear. They have lost their sense of trust. They believed that Jesus was dead; and they knew that the Temple guards had orders to arrest all of them on sight. Earlier that morning, Peter and John had entered Jesus’ tomb, and came away amazed at what they saw. But the other Apostles in that room (all were present except Judas and Thomas) had not witnessed the empty tomb.

The doors to the upper chamber, like their hearts and minds, were locked – bolted tight. Fear choked their bodies. They felt trapped and disoriented. They doubted. They despaired. The words of Mary Magdalene, John, or Peter himself, were insufficient to break the fear, break the anxiety, break “the idle talk,” as Thomas, had so precisely framed it earlier in the day. At that moment, the Apostles did not realize that Jesus’ mission was still incomplete.

Then it all changes.

Jesus enters their room, blessing them with His peace and Spirit. You see, Jesus returned that night to deliver a very personal message to each of them. He desired to share an understanding of what it means to be members of His divine family who share in His mission to spread the good news of the Gospel.

What is this “Good News”? It is the news of the reality of our redemption won for us by Jesus’ sacrifice. It is the news of the divine mercy of Christ offered to all who desire it. It is the news of the reality of Jesus’ Sacramental grace that comes to us through the Apostles and their successors; and it is the good news of the Gifts and Fruits of the Holy Spirit that dwell within us specifically through the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation.

Jesus, the Eternal Wisdom, in perfect obedience to His Heavenly Father, knew that He had to give them practical spiritual gifts, because His mission would ultimately become their mission to the world. That night, seeing the resurrected Jesus, was the beginning of the awareness of their new role. Full recognition of it would only come at their reception of the Holy Spirit, their Confirmation, on Pentecost.

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A week later, Thomas returned to the upper room. He proved stubborn and unbelieving. He wasn’t there on that first night. He had not seen the facts as they had. As a cynic he was distrustful and contemptuous of human nature and the motives, goodness, and sincerity of others. As a prototype for modern man, he insisted on experiencing it for himself. He wanted contact. He wanted to put his finger into the wounds in Christ’s hands and side.

Then Jesus appears a second time.

Confronted with the resurrected Person of Jesus, challenged with the sight and touch of Jesus’ mortal wounds, and hearing the words “Thomas, do not be unbelieving, but believe – [trust in Me],’” – at that moment, Thomas unbolted the locks of cynicism that had bound him, repented and sincerely proclaimed: “My Lord and My God!”  In front of those assembled, Thomas witnessed and experienced the finest quality of God – the attribute of divine mercy.

Aspects of Thomas’ personality can be found in all of us. We want to believe but have never actually heard the risen Christ speak or seen Him in His resurrected flesh. We observe the behavior of fellow Christians and the temptation to judge them rises in our minds, and, we doubt – the doubt of Thomas: “How can this be true. Look at how they behave.” Vacillation, anger, materialism, pseudo-sophistication, and adolescent anti-authoritarianism are just a few of the things that may fuel our judgmental natures.

You see, the trouble is not with our Scriptural evidence, but with ourselves – with our priorities. By virtue of our Baptism and Confirmation we should walk in faith, not judging others but lifting them up, renewing them, offering them a drink of the cool water of reconciliation with God. A reconciliation made possible by Jesus’ sacrifice and the Gifts of the Spirit.

From these Trinitarian Gifts come the exceptional graces of divine mercy that the Apostles needed for their mission. From these gifts, the timidity, doubt, despair, and dejection of the Apostles turns to courage, faith, love, and trust in Jesus as Lord and God. These Gifts provide them with a life that is totally devoted to spreading the “Good News” – a life that is filled with outward obedience and interior peace.

With this in mind it is truly appropriate that Popes John 23 and John Paul 2 were canonized today in Rome. Their immense gifts, nurtured by the Holy Spirit, filled the Church and the world with an understanding of the peace and loving Mercy that Jesus offers to all of us.

It is also interesting to note that the motto of Saint John’s papacy was “Obedience and Peace” and that of Saint John Paul 2 was “Totally Yours.” These two men, linked by the gifts of obedient Christian service, love of the Blessed Mother, and the desire to maintain interior peace through prayer and the Sacraments provide us with clear direction for living as fruitful Catholics in a weak and faltering world.

Let us pray with devotion and love to our new saints and remember that today’s Gospel has Jesus challenging us as well as St. Thomas when He says: “Trust in me;” and we, like Thomas, need to respond with the simple, yet profound prayer, “My Lord and My God, I trust in you.”

 

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Copyright © 2011- 2014 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved. The above is my homily of 4/27/2014 delivered at St. Francis of Assisi Church at the 10 AM and Noon Masses in Wakefield, Rhode Island USA.  Note on the artwork: The icon dates from the 16th century; the stone pillar relief is found in the Cloister de Santo Domingo de Silos in Northern Spain. It was carved during the renovation of the monastery and dates to 1150. The 13th century saint and founder of the Dominican Order, Dominic Guzman, mother’s name was Joan. She is considered a saint of the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church. St. Joan prayed to the famous Spanish Benedictine monk. St. Dominic of Silos. She named her son, Dominic, in honor of him. St. Dominic of Silos is also considered the patron of all women who are pregnant. During his lifetime St. Dominic of Silos was known for his medical and healing abilities and has been considered the patron saint of women with difficult pregnancies. He died at the age of 73 in the year 1073.

Eugene Burnand and The Greatest Easter Painting Ever Made | Crisis Magazine

Clicking on the attached link found below produces an excellent article by Elise Ehrhard in Crisis Magazine describing the Swiss painter Eugène Burnand’s late 19th century masterpiece The Disciples Peter and John Running to the Sepulchre on the Morning of the Resurrection. 

One writer has described this painting as a visual Lectio Divina since the observer cannot help but feel the joy, hope, and love of these disciples for the Lord. 

May you and your families experience an Easter season filled with the healing love of Christ.

The Greatest Easter Painting Ever Made | Crisis Magazine.

 

Beautiful Russian Sacred Icons at the New Haven Knights of Columbus Museum

If you are in the vicinity of New Haven, Connecticut within the next two weeks take the opportunity to stop by the Knights of Columbus Museum for their magnificent exhibit entitled “Windows into Heaven – Russian Icons and Treasures.”

The Museum is located at One State Street, New Haven, and offers free admission and parking. They are open from 10 to 5 pm.

For the past year it has hosted a private collection of spectacular Russian sacred icons and liturgical artifacts. It is the finest collection of Russian sacred icons that I have observed in the Northeast owing to the fact that each of the icons and treasures are in excellent condition.

You will enjoy artifacts such as a 7th century Byzantine Reliquary (bronze, traces of gold plate, and blue enamel) and three rooms of sacred icons encompassing the portrayal of Jesus Christ, His Mother – the Blessed Theotokos, much loved saints, and angels.

Their website,  www.kofcmuseum.org/en/index.html provides a wonderful overview of the 225 pieces that are on exhibit. They mention that “few customs or traditions have endured for longer than a millennium, but the use of icons in Russia is among them. In this exhibition, the Knights of Columbus Museum is pleased to share more than examples of Russian Orthodox iconography, along with other liturgical and devotional items.

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Icons are often called windows into heaven because they are said to give the viewer a glimpse of the eternal realm. Many of the items are more than 100 years old, predating the Bolshevik Revolution (1917).

In AD 988 Prince Vladimir of Kiev converted to Orthodox Christianity, and he persuaded his countrymen and women to do the same. Thus, iconography was introduced as a means of fostering religious understanding and devotion among all the people of Kievan Rus (present day Ukraine, Belarus and northwest Russia).

The artistic traditon followed the strict models and formulas of the Byzantine Greek Orthodox tradition (these artistic practices developed in Constantinople and Greece and spread both East and West). Ultimately, the Russian sacred art tradition developed its own distinctive styles within each major city of Russia.

As a form of sacred art, iconographers historically prayed or fasted before and during the creation of an icon. Traditionally, icons were painted in egg tempera on wood and often accented with gold leaf or covered with ornately gilt metal covers called rizas. Rich in symbolism, they are still used extensively in Orthodox churches and monasteries, and many Russian homes have icons hanging on the wall in a “beautiful” (or prayer) corner.”

“Icons have been synonymous with Christian prayer and practice for centuries,” said Supreme Knight Carl Anderson. “One of the great traditions of Eastern Christianity, icons are less well known here, and we are pleased that this exhibit will enable residents of the Northeast to grow in their understanding of the history and religious significance of these windows into heaven.” This exhibit concludes on April 27, 2014.

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Viewing this exhibit during Holy Week or the First Week of Easter leading up to Divine Mercy Sunday and the canonization of Pope John 23rd and Pope John Paul 2 on April 27th would be of great assistance in your joyful experience of the reality of the resurrected Christ. My prayers are with you for a prayerful Holy Week and a blessed Easter Season!

Copyright © 2011- 2014 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved. The sacred icons shown are taken from the Knights of Columbus website which offers a history of each sacred image or artifact exhibited.

 

 

Christ in the Wilderness, a Russian Artist, and a Challenge

In the late 19th century a Russian painter, the noted portraitist, draughtsman, and teacher Ivan Kramskoi painted a haunting image of Jesus alone in the desert. It is a painting which expresses the internal struggle of the flesh versus the spirit. It portrays Jesus, in the early morning hours and the cold air of the dawn, with the sun rising over His back.

He is surrounded by small boulders and sits on a rock, hands in front of him, eyes filled with anguish and pain. This portrait of Christ in the desert is not one of victory; looking closely at His face you recognize the seriousness of the struggle and the irrefutable fact of Jesus’ humanity.

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Observe Christ’s clenched hands, gaze deeply into His eyes, and you will see the artist’s portrayal of a Savior that is already at the beginning of His ministry aware of the viciousness of the tempter and the burden of our sins that will weigh upon Him.

Kramskoi’s painting is so powerful because it shows not the physical tearing that was to come in the scourging and crucifixion, but the sensual, psychological, and spiritual battles that would challenge the mission and authority of Jesus Christ.

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Jesus had to confront, in that very first desert assault, whether or not He was going to be faithful to His mission; was He going to be faithful to the anointing that He received from the Father and the Spirit at His baptism?

The Gospel challenges us with the same questions: are we faithful to our Baptismal promises? Are we faithful to the Commandments? Are we faithful to the call that we received at our Confirmation to live and practice the truths that He taught us, not just when we feel like it, but everyday – even in the most difficult of circumstances?

As disciples of Christ we are on a daily basis constantly revolving around the axis of temptation and sin – faith and grace. We understand that temptation, in and of itself, is a test – it is not sin. It is only sin when we willfully place ourselves in its power, when we give into its power to overwhelm our body and soul, – a deadly power that obtains its animus and energy from the original tempter – Satan himself.

Christ lived blamelessly in the face of evil, but you say, I am not Christ, I am a weak man or woman, boy or girl. I say true, we all are, but by virtue of our faithful reception of the Sacraments we have the power of Christ’s grace within us.

Unlike Christ we don’t enter the wilderness of our own temptations alone. When we do face the anguish of our own sin, our own desolation in the face of Satan’s onslaughts, when we peer over the edge of the pit of sin – Christ’s witness tells us “Do not despair. Do not dwell in the pit. Do not accept the pit of sin as being permanent.” Jesus Christ tells us that He has instituted a Church that, with all its human sins and imperfections, still exists – in purity – to convey through its clergy the grace of God.

One of the first things that you notice about Christ in this portrait is that here, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the artist has Jesus’ hands clasped together. Yet, when you walk into a Catholic or Orthodox Church, and look at the crucifix or an icon of one, you see Jesus as He ends His ministry on the Cross, with His hands unclasped, and stretched out, stretched out for each one of us.

This Lenten season we need to reach out our hands to the One, who 2000 years ago, stretched out His hands for our Redemption – and who still reaches out for us today. Reach out to Him in prayer and the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and through Jesus, reach out to those around you who are suffering in the same way, and lead them back to the love of Christ.

Copyright © 2011- 2014 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

Sin and the Sacred Artist

Our society is quite adept at pointing out the sins and foolishness of others. Cable TV, radio talk shows, and various web sites love to dwell on the ignorant and immoral actions of politicians, celebrities, and the man in the street. But, as sacred artists within the Christian Tradition, what does Jesus require of us?

Jesus demands that we become countercultural. He requires us to be more concerned with our own sinfulness rather than the sins or inadequacies of others.

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When we first heard it years ago, last Sunday’s Gospel of Matthew 5: 17-37 must have caught us off guard – with talk of plucking out of eyes and cutting off of hands. Today, as adults and sacred artists, we certainly would have a difficult time practicing our craft if we took Jesus at His word. As you know the graphic figures of speech that Jesus uses are meant to shake us up – to provoke a reaction in us by vividly describing what we should figuratively do rather than falling into certain types of sin.

The vivid images that He uses emphasizes the truth of how dangerous these sins are to our souls. He uses this phrase twice: “it would be better to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into Gehenna.”

What is He saying?

Human nature, combined with the age that we live in, contribute to our forgetting the essence of this Gospel and reflecting on its purpose. It is apparent that Jesus is emphasizing the following three truths: 1) Sin is real; 2) We will be judged on our sins; and 3) Gehenna, that is, Hell, is a real place: the place of eternal sorrow and separation from God.

Now, in the last fifty years, there exists some Catholic and non-Catholic theologians that would disagree with all or some of these three Scriptural truths; in fact, some of them would even cast doubt on the authenticity of the Holy Scriptures. But make no mistake; it is the doctrine of the Holy Catholic Church that we will be personally judged, not by these theologians, but by Jesus Himself.

So, it is wise and prudent for us to understand that Jesus is not mincing any words in this section of Matthew’s Gospel. For Jesus is challenging us to take seriously God’s perception of reality, and the truth that we can, through our personal and social sinful acts, be separated from God not only in this life but for all eternity, too.

Jesus’ words are timeless because He cites pride, anger, vengeance, unlawful divorce, lust, and lying as problems that affect not only the Jewish community – but our community as well. Jesus knows our hearts; and He knew the hearts of the men and women that stood before Him. His goal was to teach and heal us, and most importantly, willfully sacrifice Himself so that we would be redeemed of the stain of Original Sin and the subsequent sins of our life.

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So Jesus is presenting us with an opportunity to be a student in His school of discipleship. Jesus’ school, however, demands that we be honest with ourselves, as artists and as Christians, and recognize and strive to eliminate all sins –  all  barriers – to being His disciple. For how can we produce sacred art in the Tradition of the Church if we are carrying the burden of unrepented sin?

We pray that the Holy Spirit uses us as His instruments to promote the truth, goodness, and beauty of God, His angels and His saints. It follows then that if we are His instruments we must make every effort to model ourselves after Him.  Rather than just copying the image of the sacred model, as a fellow artist Jesus desires us to become the model – alter Christus – another Christ.

I don’t need to tell you that, over the last fifty years within the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church in certain parts of the world, the Sacrament of Reconciliation is widely ignored as a throw back to the Middle Ages. This attitude by American and European Catholics is based on poor catechesis and, possibly, an unwillingness to accept and repent of their own faults and sins. We may have forgotten the reality of sin, but  Jesus, our Judge, has not; and why hasn’t He?

It is because sin is the reality of our separation from Him – and He is always aware of it. It is the reason why He suffered and died for us; however, along with this is His desire to share His mercy with us – if – we want it. Christ’s mercy is always available to us; and as Catholics we are blessed to have the Sacrament of Reconciliation to spiritually cleanse us from our sins. Why would we cast aside such a valuable gift?

Today, Jesus is calling us to repent – let us not turn a deaf ear, and a hard heart, to Him.

Copyright © 2011- 2014 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved. This essay is a modified form of a homily I delivered last week at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Wakefield, Rhode Island, USA. Photo Credits: “Jesus,” and “Jesus Carrying the Cross” from Mel Gibson’s classic film: The Passion of the Christ.