Part Two: Icons, Icon Painters, and Praying With Sacred Icons

The sacred icon is a visual aid that helps the person enter into a conversation with God, an angel, or a saint. If a sacred icon is to be painted with this purpose in mind then it it is a major responsibility of the sacred artist to construct the icon so that it may serve, rather than interfere with or destroy, that purpose. Thus, it is necessary for the sacred artist to curb the desire for ornateness, since it might detract from the prayer itself by focusing the viewer’s eyes on embellishment versus Person, or saint. 

Of all the physical features in an icon, in my opinion, the most important are the eyes. The eyes of the person represented in the icon – Our Lord, the angels, or the saints – are critical. They normally look out at the viewer. They are painted this way because icons, which should be painted in a spirit of deep prayer, are trying to establish or renew our relationship with the Heavenly person portrayed. So, as in typical conversation, we look at the person and they look at us. Yet, in many cases the eyes of the Blessed Mother, as the greatest of the saints, do not look at us; they are usually looking at her Son, or, are looking away from the viewer, or present us with  a “distant gaze.” These particular types of steady and intense looks of the Blessed Mother may also be seen in statues – especially those of medieval France. Please note the following link to an excellent site which shows some of these gazes in statues of Mother Mary and the Christ Child:

vialucispress.wordpress.com/2012/05/04/the-thrones-of-wisdom-dennis-aubrey/  By the way, I highly recommend Dennis Aubrey and PJ McKey’s site for your subscription.

Sacred icons are the traditional form of artistic expression of the Eastern and Western Rites of  the Catholic Church from approximately the 6th century on. The Western Rite moved away from purely painting sacred icons in approximately the 12th century and moved into the Gothic Period of sacred art. The Eastern Rite continued to develop its devotion to sacred icons with differences being seen within the various cultural areas of Orthodoxy – from Greece, to Serbia, Russia, Crete, etc.

As mentioned above, the use of a sacred icon is of practical spiritual value in that it is an aid in prayer. On an additional note, when we pray with a sacred icon, we are doing the same thing as when we speak to someone that we know and love. We speak to them, we may be in their physical presence, or we may be on a phone or computer connection with them, but we are with them in the sense that we are focusing on them at that moment in time – either physically facing them – or –  on a phone or computer screen. So when we pray to an icon we are looking at it in the same way we would look at someone in a face-to-face conversation; for that is what prayer is: conversation with God, Our Blessed Mother, the angels, or a particular saint.

Some people have a tendency to get themselves upset over the use of the term iconographer (icon writer) versus icon painter. The word graphein in Greek means “to write,” and it also means, “to paint.” A linguist and museum curator by the name of David Coomler informs us that in the Russian language the English word “write” is pisat, and the word “paint” is pisat. So, in Greek and Russian we have a double meaning for one word that represents both “to paint” and “to write;” however, this doesn’t transfer into the English language since in English we obviously have two different words to express graphein and pisat: write and paint.

I have no problem with people saying “I am a sacred icon painter.” The reason being – it is correct English. The term iconographer, however, is used and you see it in numerous books and in conversation in non-Russian or Greek formats. When people ask me how I identify myself – as an icon painter or an icon writer – I respond that I am a simple “sacred artist”!

Yet, we have an obligation to be truthful to our Holy Faith, so, when we paint icons we need to be attentive to and follow Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. In that sense, we are “writing” icons because we are scribing into visual form – using paint rather than just ink – the images from Sacred Scripture and Tradition. I may be breaking a grammatical rule in saying that; yet, I feel that it is appropriate owing to the nature of what we are trying to do in painting sacred icons.

May I suggest that as icon painters we must be conscious of the truth that the images that we copy of Our Lord, Our Blessed Mother, the angels, and the saints (saints prior to the 14th century) were and are built on our human imagination, for we do not have an actual authentic portrait of Our Lord, or Our Blessed Mother. There is consensus that St. Peter had a full head of hair and full beard, while St. Paul had a bald or balding head and full beard. I can say that because recent archaeological discoveries in Rome have continued to show those pictorial images for these two saints.

Still, that being said, we cannot be absolutely sure of this because we have no photographs, or, first century portraits of them; but, we do have a sacred tradition that portrays them that way; but this is not true for many of the saints – unfortunately, we just don’t know what they looked like. So we have to be very careful in our portrayal of saints, and remember, that basic cultural and historic research will help us in painting a quality sacred icon or image.

The above photo shows a recent interesting archaeological discovery that occurred in June 2010: The link below shows the cameraman filming  paintings of some of the earliest known images of the Apostles Peter and Paul (these ceiling paintings date from between AD 350 and 400) in a catacomb located under a modern office building in Rome. The images were uncovered using lasers and were under thick deposits of calcium carbonate. ((AP Photo/Pier Paolo Cito)) Click on this link below to see more photos:

http://www.foxnews.com/scitech/2010/06/22/ancient-icons-apostles-peter-paul-rome/#ixzz1voqaPpKJ  Thanks to this site for the information.

 Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

A New Class of Iconographers Begin Their Studies: The Work of The Holy Spirit

On Wednesday evening, May 23rd, ten members of the Fra Angelico Institute for the Sacred Arts here in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence, Rhode Island USA were commissioned and blessed to begin their study, here at the Institute, and work to become competent painters of sacred icons.

As we approach the Solemnity of Pentecost we can certainly see the movement of the Holy Spirit in this work. We are reminded of a commentary by St. Cyril of Alexandria, the bishop and patriarch of Alexandria, Egypt during the years of 412 to his death in 444. He was a man of great learning, holiness, and courage who defended the divinity of Christ and the specific role of Our Blessed Mother – the Holy Theotokos – in the plan of salvation.

In one of his commentaries he summarizes what we see in the early history of our Church, and continue to experience in our own time. He says: “After Christ had completed His mission on earth, it still remained necessary for us to become sharers in the divine nature of the Word. We had to give up our own life and be so transformed that we would begin to live an entirely new kind of life that would be pleasing to God. This, was something we could do only by sharing in the Holy Spirit.” [bold, mine, DPI]

He continues: “It was most fitting that the sending of the Spirit and His descent upon us should take place after the departure of Christ our Savior. As long as Christ was with them in the flesh, it must have seemed to believers that they possessed every blessing in Him, and to dwell in our hearts through faith. Only by His own presence within us in this way could He give us confidence to cry out, Abba, Father, make it easy for us to grow in holiness and, through our possession of the all-powerful Spirit, fortify us invincibly against the wiles of the devil and the assaults of men. It can easily be shown from examples both in the Old Testament and the New that the Spirit changes those in whom He comes to dwell; He so transforms them that they begin to live a completely new kind of life.”

I  briefly mentioned this in passing on Wednesday night to the class of sacred artists.  The statement being that the work of the sacred artist is the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is involved in their training, work, and prayer and He is involved in transforming their lives as well. Why? Because they opened their hearts, and accepted the challenge that was spoken to them in the recesses of their soul.

All sacred artists are intimately involved in Pentecost. They are involved in having their lives changed through the love of the Holy Spirit who comes to dwell in their hearts so their art may give glory to God.

St. Cyril of Alexandria says to us that “….the strength that they [the Apostles at Pentecost] received from the Spirit enabled them to hold firmly to the love of Christ, facing the violence of their persecutors unafraid. Very true, then, was our Savior’s saying that it was to their advantage for Him to return to Heaven: His return was the time appointed for the descent of the Holy Spirit.”

Christian sacred artists throughout the world have been graced by the Lord to create prayer focused art works that have, as their very purpose, to promote prayer and to give glory to God. In this weekend of Pentecost, let us open our hearts, enter into this effort, and together say, “Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of Your love. Send forth Your Spirit and they shall be created. And You shall renew the face of the earth.”

Sacred Beauty has saved the world.

Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved.   The icon of St. Cyril of Alexandria is from the website: traditioninaction.org Thanks to them for the image.

Icons, Icon Painters, and Praying With Sacred Icons: Part One

A few issues have come up in discussing some basic terms with people. I would like to be clear on how I have come to understand these words because it may affect how we view our “ministry” to be painters of sacred icons and or sacred images.

From my understanding, the word icon in English, Greek, and Latin, is the word for image. In our usage as sacred artists, it refers to a sacred image of Our Lord, Our Blessed Mother, angels, or specific saints. The purpose of a  sacred icon is that, as a piece of sacred art, it  focuses an individual in prayer.  A sacred icon is a specific type of sacred art. It is created following certain traditions – tradition with a small “t” and a large “T.”

Many sacred icons are presented with a simplicity of style, the use of color, the types of colors used, the use of symbols, etc. A sacred icon is different from a sacred image, in that the sole purpose of the sacred icon is that it is to be used as a focal point for personal or communal prayer.

A sacred image, however, may have been commissioned by a patron for personal prayer, but it may also have been commissioned for the pure enjoyment of its beauty. In the case of Renaissance sacred art, the Roman Catholic Church became the patron of many pieces of sacred art in order to affect the communal prayer of the faithful who came to the small churches and the great basilicas for Holy Mass.

With a sacred image (such as a religious image painted by Michelangelo or Leonardo) you have the artist’s personal imagination heavily influencing and entering into the creation of the beauty of the image, possibly even manipulating and combining Scriptural passages for the purpose of the story the artist would like to tell. Yet, even though I have just made that statement, the truth of the matter is that it is not always so clear cut. We do have icons, such as the famous Nativity icon of the birth of Christ, in which you have numerous Scriptural passages – conveying different events – being used to convey a catechetical sequence surrounding the birth of Our Lord – and all of this is done on the same icon panel!

In a sacred icon, the imagination of the artist is present, yet, it is supposed to be subordinate to his/her faith’s perception of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition (how the early Church viewed their beliefs and expressed them within their specific cultural tradition). So, if a sacred artist is painting a sacred icon, he or she is aware of the theological, aesthetic, and semantic rules that have been developed and followed through the centuries. These rules – “the Canon of Iconography” – are affected by cultural area and religious Sacred Tradition.

For example, a Coptic sacred icon (see image below), by a painter of the Egyptian Coptic Church will express the image of Christ and a saint (in the icon below an abbot of the Coptic Christian Church) somewhat differently than a Greek or Russian Orthodox painter; and yet, there is nothing wrong with this, as long as the painter is not fomenting apostasy or heresy.

All of that being said, sacred images, for example, by Renaissance painters, can certainly be used to focus an individual in their personal prayer, as do the beautiful stained glass windows of the great Gothic cathedrals. Care must be taken, however, in selecting appropriate images for use in personal prayer. It is my perception that the type of image a soul uses in personal prayer – sacred icons (from the Eastern Rite) or sacred images (from the Western Rite) – is a matter of personal preference and certainly does not  indicate that one type is better or “more truthful” than another. Eastern and Western sacred artists are both working off of their own perceptions and spirituality; there are disagreements with this, but we must always remain charitable with each other.

Within the last twenty years there have been many Western sacred artists that have rediscovered the beauty of painting sacred icons, and are trying to be sensitive to the Eastern Rites’ traditions,  as they bring it back into the consciousness of the Roman Catholic Church. The Eastern Orthodox Churches, thankfully, never lost appreciation for their tradition.

I will post Parts Two and Three on this same theme in the upcoming days. Be sure to look for them on-line or in the archives. Thanks.

Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

The image of Christ and the Abbot – a panel depicting a monk with Christ. It was excavated in the early 20th century from a monastery in Egypt and is located in the Bawit room at the Louvre. Thanks to: Photo by Clio 20, CC attribution share-alike 3.0. I believe the icon dates to about the 7th century.