Twelve Ethical Principles of a Christian Sacred Artist

My friends and fellow sacred artists, allow me to present to you my expression of twelve ethical principles that I have developed for members of the Fra Angelico Institute of Sacred Arts. These principles may be valuable to colleagues in other Rites and Denominations in fostering dialogue about these ideas. I write this as a preface to a series to follow at fraangelicoinstitute.com, on the spiritual and artistic values of Beato Fra Angelico. I perceive Fra Angelico as being one of the last artists of the Gothic Period in Western sacred art that was true to the tradition that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI speaks of in his book Spirit of the Liturgy. Please see the Explanatory Notes that follow these twelve principles. They further reveal my understanding of these points. Upon further discussion with you, these Principles may be edited to reflect your contributions. Thank you.

                        Twelve Ethical Principles of a Christian Sacred Artist

1) A Christian sacred artist’s work is wed to a Christ centered spirituality of service and tradition (with both a small “t” and a capital “T”).

2) A Christian sacred artist bases his or her work on prayer.

3) A Christian sacred artist’s spirituality has its roots firmly planted in Sacred Scripture and Church history.

4) A Christian sacred artist’s spirituality is enlivened when he or she prayerfully unites their inner senses (common sense, imagination, cognition, and sense-memory) fortified by faith, to their creativity.

5) Christian sacred artists recognize that the main work of the Church is threefold: spreading the good news of Christ’s Gospel message, prayer, and for the Western and Eastern Rites of the Church providing the Holy Sacraments (Holy Mysteries) to the faithful.

6) Christian sacred artists are a critical part of the liturgical work and prayer of the Church. They produce sacred arts that are sacramentals if they conform to the aesthetic, semantic, and theological principles of the faith.

7) Christian sacred artists believe that the grace of God compliments and strengthens their technical expertise.

8) Christian sacred artists believe that the act of making their work, and the finished product, is not just art; it is communion with the great mystery of God made visible in Christ and His saints.

9) Christian sacred artists who are members of the Western and Eastern Rites recognize that the creation of sacred art may be viewed as a liturgical act.

10) Christian sacred artists produce art that clearly teaches and preaches the lessons of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, and the Creeds of the Church, thus allowing their artistic message to contribute toward individual and congregational transformation in Christ.

11) Christian sacred artists are aware of the teachings of the 7th Ecumenical Council (2nd Council of Nicaea, AD 787) as it applies to icons and the role that the contributions of St. John of Damascus played in its debates.

12) Western and Eastern Rite sacred artists are aware of, and subscribe to, the principles that apply to sacred art within the writings of their spiritual leaders.

Explanatory notes – the numbers below correspond to the number of the specific Principle above:

 1) The small “t” relates to cultural norms of a specific Rite or denomination. The capital “T” refers to Church Tradition as specified by Jesus Christ, the Apostles, the Fathers of the Church, and the many hierarchical pronouncements proclaimed by Popes, Patriarchs, and Bishops of the Western and Eastern Rites of the Church.

2) Christian sacred artists undertake a great spiritual responsibility. This responsibility requires that the artist be firmly rooted in faith, grace, and prayer for they are promoting the truth, goodness, and beauty of Almighty God, His angels, and saints. Sacred artists are assisted in this by understanding that certain artistic schools or methods, an example being abstract expressionism, have no place in the sacred art of the Church.

3) This unity allows a sacred artist, through prayer, to walk the various paths of Holy Scripture and experience the moment that the Scripture, or story of the saints, presents to the soul. This experience feeds and transforms the sacred artist by affecting the clarity, line, and color of their art. This is how Beato Fra Angelico experienced the Crucifixion, and according to Vasari, as he painted it wept over the enormity of Christ’s sacrifice. In this process Fra Angelico prefigures Ignatius of Loyola by about 100 years in the ability to experience the words of Holy Scripture within his imagination. The use of the word – “imagination” – does not mean or imply “fantasy,” nor does the person at prayer “make-up” images not found in the Gospels or Church history. St. Andrei Rublev, Beato Fra Angelico, St. Ignatius of Loyola and others utilized this type of prayer experience to affect their work.

4) What is prayer? The saints tell us that prayer is the turning of the heart toward Our Lord God and allowing the mind and heart to sincerely speak words of love to Him. It is the connection, the sharing, of rational mind and free will to conversational intimacy with Our Lord, His angels and saints. The sacred artist enters into communion with God through prayer and this communion comforts and assists the sacred artist in their work.

5) The Western and Eastern Rites go a step further and affirm that preaching the Gospel message and delivering the Holy Sacraments (Holy Mysteries) is critical for the spiritual health and salvation of God’s people.

6) An icon is a sacred image (confer John 1:14). An iconographer follows specific traditions of craftsmanship and specific elements of Theological (Scriptural and dogmatic content), Semantic (the visual language of the icon, appropriate perspective, the use of light, line, and color to create form, and correct use of signs and symbols within the icon), and Aesthetic principles (the quality of beauty with the icon itself). These three principles are based upon the sacred Tradition of the Church. The history of the Western and Eastern Rites illustrates that the sacred artist has continually moved through different artistic periods and technical understanding. As it relates to sacred art, the Western Rite of the Church moved out of an Iconographic period into the Gothic period, and then onto the Baroque period. The Eastern Rite stayed within the period of Iconography that developed out of the early centuries of the Church. Cultural conditions, access to earth pigments, and artistic differences affected the Iconographic period within the Eastern Rite of the Church. It is important to note that within the Western Rite a sacred image is an image that is created of a historical holy person or religious scene; however, the artist allows their full creativity and personal interpretation to enter into the craftsmanship and artistic process. Personal creativity and technique, while present within Iconography, is not seen as an important issue. An example of an icon is St. Andrei Rublev’s image of Christ, or his icon of the Holy Trinity. An example of a sacred image is Pietro Annigoni’s image of St. Joseph and the child Jesus in Joseph’s workshop, or Masaccio’s Holy Trinity. I am indebted to one of my teachers of iconography, Marek Czarnecki (whose teacher was Ksenia Pokrovsky), for clarifying the elements of theological, semantic, and aesthetic tradition for me.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI provides a wonderful overview of the three periods of sacred art within the Western Rite in his book Spirit of the Liturgy. You will notice that he does not include the Renaissance within the three traditions. Historical research has shown that Renaissance artists were not inspired so much by prayer in the production of their art; rather, they were motivated by the desire to please themselves, their patrons, or the profit motive. Some of the Renaissance sacred images do have spiritual value and can motivate the viewer to prayer and communion with God.

Icons, sacred images, woodcarvings, calligraphy and other sacred arts if based on the Holy Gospels and Church Tradition spread the good news of the Gospel. The sacred arts are sacramentals when they point the way to God. Sacramentals are blessings. The seven Sacraments (Holy Mysteries) provide the grace that interiorly heal and nourish us. Sacramentals, however, assist us in the exterior visualization of Our Lord Jesus who made that process possible through His Incarnation. It also assists us in the visualization of His angels and especially His saints, who modeled Jesus in their own lives. To picture this one has only to view an icon of St. Seraphim of Sarov, and remember his words that “A true hope seeks only the Kingdom of God…the heart can have no peace until it obtains such a hope. This hope pacifies the heart and produces joy within it.” Christian sacred artists are “hope filled” people.

7) Within the Western Rite, it is believed that “Our justification comes from the grace of God which was merited for us by the Passion of Christ. Grace is a participation in the life of God. Justification is conferred through the Sacramental grace of Baptism. Grace is the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to His call to become children of God, adoptive sons and daughters, partakers of the divine nature and eternal life” (confer John 1:12-18; 17:3; Romans 8: 14-17; 2 Peter 1:3-4). As the Council of Trent teaches – grace is known by faith – and as Our Lord teaches in Matthew 7: 20 “You will know them by their fruits” (confer Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd edition, paragraphs 1987 through 2005).

8) Contemporary Greek artist and iconographer, Dr. George Kordis, writes of this principle in his book Icon As Communion.

9) In the Western Rite, liturgy as defined in the New Testament, “refers not only to the celebration of divine worship but also to the proclamation of the Gospel and to active charity” (confer Luke 1:23; Acts 13:2; Romans 15:16, 27; 2 Corinthians 9:12; Philippians 2: 14-17, 25, 30. Confer Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd edition, and paragraphs 1066 through 1209). The work of a sacred artist (this of course includes all the sacred arts) can be viewed as a liturgical act because it provides a service to our neighbor, in that the sacred art elucidates the reality of the truth, goodness, and beauty of God by providing a means for the individual to hear or visualize that reality. The sacred artist assists the Church in making the reality of Christ present within the community of believers. Sacred artists, by providing this service, are participants in active charity. They aid in providing a “visible sign of communion in Christ between God and men” (confer paragraph 1071, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd edition).

10) Transformation in Christ is a spiritual process. Writers within both the Latin and Greek Rites of the Church and the various Protestant denominations have extensively written about it. The Holy Bible, the Philokalia, Dietrich von Hildebrand, and many other writers provide very helpful advice on this topic.

11) Christian sacred artists, as they study iconography and the various manifestations of sacred art need to also be aware of the significant contributions of Leonid Ouspensky, George Kordis, Aidan Hart, David Clayton, Jonathan Pageau, and the Monk Patrick Doolan. There is enough wisdom in their words and works to advance the studies of any serious Christian sacred artist.

12) Some of the Popes have expressed valuable artistic insights, which will assist the Western sacred artist in their comprehension of their task. A few examples of this are: Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s book The Spirit of the Liturgy, Pope St. John Paul II’s Letter to Artists, and Pope Pius XII’s 1947 encyclical, Mediator Dei. The encyclical Mediator Dei explains in paragraph 187, that “Three characteristics of which our predecessor Pope Pius Xth spoke should adorn all liturgical services: sacredness, which abhors any profane influence; nobility, which true and genuine arts should serve and foster; and universality, which, while safeguarding local and legitimate custom, reveals the catholic unity of the Church” (Pius XII referenced this from an Apostolic Letter of Pope Pius X of November 1903). These three principles, when united with the principles of aesthetic, semantic, and theological truth, provide the Christian sacred artist with a firm foundation on which to build their creative work.

Thank you for reading this and I look forward to your comments, Deacon Paul O. Iacono.

Copyright © 2011- 2017 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

Images:

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St. Andrei Rublev’s Christ (completed 1410, above) and his The Trinity (1411, or 1425-27)trinity-rublev-1410

 

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Masaccio’s Holy Trinity (completed 1428, above) and

Annigoni’s St. Joseph the Worker (altarpiece, completed 1963, below)annigoni, st joseph

 

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

Albert Lapierre – Sacred Artist and Iconographer

This past July I had the pleasure of restoring an icon that was written by the fine artist, Albert Lapierre, from Attleboro, Massachusetts. It is a beautifully done and was commissioned by Joan O’Gara on the occasion of the birthday of her sister, Rosalind, in October, 1998.

Rosalind told me that her sister knew of her appreciation and devotion to the Gospel account of the Visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth; however, Joan was not able to locate a print of this particular icon. In 1997 Joan decided to contact Albert Lapierre who was resposible for the creation of many religious objects, statues, and sacred images. Prior to his passing he had a store and studio in Attleboro, Massachusetts. There are many examples of his work at the LaSalette Shrine in Attleboro.

At the time of Joan’s request, Albert was busily engaged at the Shrine with many projects, and was reluctant to take on another commission. Joan persuaded him, however, to take on this project – telling him that “Our Lady really wanted him to paint this image.” I am told that he didn’t have a comeback for that request!

Mr. Lapierre was able to fit its creation into his busy schedule and it was varnished and ready to be delivered by October, 1998. Needless to say, Rosalind was thrilled by Joan’s gift and it remains to this day an important focal point in Rosalind’s prayer life.

Time does take its toll and the icon sustained some accidental damage over the years. Rosalind located me through a Google search and phoned for a consult. She was especially concerned about areas that had chipped and lost pigment. We met and discussed the damage and she requested that I try to repair it as best as possible.

The repair turned out to be an interesting challenge. First, I believe that it is absolutely essential that a restorer not impact or change the design, colors, or compositional elements of the piece being restored. Respect for the original artist, and what they created, is paramount. Ultimately, the viewer must be able look at the restored piece and be unaware of the fact that it has been restored. There should be no distractions from the original intent of the artist.

My biggest challenge in this restoration was matching the original colors. For this particular icon Mr. Lapierre used acrylics. Since the painting was only seventeen years old, and had not been kept in direct sunlight, the paint had not deteriorated or dulled to any great degree. Thus, my task was to repair the chips that could be restored and then blend in the pigment restoration. The restoration was a success and it was blessed, and delivered to a grateful Rosalind, at a Mass here in South Kingstown at St. Francis of Assisi Church in August 2014.

Albert Lapierre died a number of years ago. Sadly, I never met the man that created such a sensitive and dynamic icon. It was a distinct honor to work on it. I thank Joan and Rosalind O’Gara for the privilege of doing so.

Below are a few images of the piece with a close-up of Mary’s face, and the beautiful catechetical scene of Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah, praying in the Temple.

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

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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.

 

 

A Recent Art Workshop Leads to Another! – The Fra Angelico Institute

This past month the Fra Angelico Institute for the Sacred Arts was happy to sponsor a two day workshop. The purpose of this workshop was to introduce people to the idea that everyone has the capacity for expressing themselves in art. Using acrylic paints the participants were taught the process of “seeing” an image of a rose, breaking down its component parts, drawing the rose, applying and mixing pigments, painting the rose, etc.

Our desire was to ultimately interest people, who possibly never considered themselves as having artistic talent, to see that they could paint a good quality representation of an object. This would then lead to their participation in a sacred art workshop in which they would be learning how to reveal, through prayer, study, and artistic techniques, the spiritual message of sacred images painted in an iconographic style.

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I am happy to say that this workshop will lead to another sacred art workshop here at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Wakefield, Rhode Island. We will conduct our Spring 2014 workshop on Saturday mornings from 9:30 to 11:30 on March 29th, April 5th, 12th, and 26th. An assessment will be made on the 26th to determine if we need additional sessions. The cost of the workshop is $35.00.

Each participant will receive a photocopy of a sacred image, personal instruction, a brief “process” manual of steps, a 1/2 inch wooden board, and brushes. Tube acrylic paints will be provided.  If each participant desires their own tube of paints the cost will be higher. Members of the Institute, or others interested in the process of painting a sacred image in the iconographic tradition, are welcome to contact me by March 20th if they desire to participate in the Spring 2014 workshop. Members of the Institute who have participated in past sacred art workshops will be given the opportunity to paint a new sacred image in the iconographic style. If you are interested please email me at frainstitute@cox.net. 

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

Aidan Hart’s New Book on Sacred Iconography

The article below is reblogged from the always informative Orthodox Arts Journal. The article is the 9th in a series about sacred iconography that was written by Brother Aidan Hart, a British iconographer. Brother Hart has written extensively on all aspects of sacred iconography and has recently published a very comprehensive book on the subject called Techniques of Icon and Wall Painting. The editor at the Orthodox Arts Journal highly recommends it. Brother Hart’s articles are available at his website and he also offers sacred iconography workshops in Britain. This nine part article is well worth the effort of perusing through all of it. His series contains many gems of information that will add to your knowledge of the sacred arts. Links to his site and the series are provided for you below.

Designing Icons (pt.9): Perspective Systems in Icons [from Orthodox Arts Journal]

April 16, 2013

By 

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 Editorial note:  We have convinced Aidan Hart to post a chapter from his new book. “Techniques of Icon and Wall Painting” which is being hailed as the most comprehensive book to date on practicing the art of Iconography.  At 450 pages, with 460 paintings, 150 drawings and covering everything from theology and design to gilding and varnishing, it is a prized possession for anyone interested in the traditional arts.  The chapter being serialized over the next weeks is called “Designing Icons”.  You will see why Archimandrate Vasileos of Iviron called this book the “Confessio of a man who epitomizes the liturgical beauty of the Orthodox Church”.  More details about the book on Aidan’s website.    

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In this section, Aidan discusses the different perspective systems used in icons.

This is part 9  of a series.  Part 1Part 2 Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8

Inverse perspective.

With inverse perspective the lines of a building do not converge on a point on the horizon, inside the painting, but instead they converge on us, the viewers. This serves to include us in the action depicted. The Orthodox hymns make it plain that a sacred event in the past is still acting on us today: “Today Christ is born”, they say, “Today Christ is risen. Let us join with the angels in praising His third day resurrection!”

The Hospitality of Abraham / "Old Testament Trinity" by Fr. Silouan

An example of inverse perspective.  The Hospitality of Abraham / “Old Testament Trinity” by Fr. Silouan

Inverse perspective also gives us the sense that the persons depicted are looking out at us. It is as though the image is drawn not from our own point of view but theirs, and ultimately, God’s. We have already discussed the meaning of repentance as being a change of seeing. We could also explain it as a change of perspective, where we realize that we are not the centre of the universe, but God.

Inverse perspective also draws our attention to the real space between the image and ourselves. The emphasis is on the grace coming to us through real space, rather than us being drawn into an imaginary world or reconstructed scene within the picture. Iconography is above all a liturgical art, designed to be part of a larger sacred dance that involves the church building, the space within the building, the hymns sung within it, and the liturgical movements during services.  As Gervase Mathews puts it:

In the Renaissance system of perspective the picture is conceived as a window opening on to a space beyond…The Byzantine mosaic or picture opens onto the space before it. The ‘picture space’ of Byzantine art was primarily that of the church or palace room in which it was placed, since art was considered a function of architecture.[1]

Flatness

Icons do not attempt to create a great sense of depth. They do use enough highlighting and perspective to affirm that the material world is real and good and part of the spiritual life. Nevertheless, things are kept somewhat more on a plane than in naturalistic painting. In a group icon, like that of Mid-Pentecost for example, people in the rear will be shown the same size, or sometimes even larger, than those closer. Every person is thus kept intimate with the viewer. The mystery of the person overcomes the limits of physical space and distance.

an example of flatness. Mid Pentecost, by Aidan Hart

an example of flatness. Mid Pentecost, by Aidan Hart

Why else do icons retain this flatness? It helps us to pass through the icon to the persons and the events depicted. The aim of the icon is not to replace the subjects depicted, but to bring us into living relationship with them. This explains why statues are not as a rule used in the icon tradition. Their three dimensionality makes them too self contained. Where sculpture is utilized it is kept to base relief.

Romanesque cross by Aidan Hart

Romanesque cross by Aidan Hart

Flatness can also be seen as a intentional weakness, a deliberate imperfection that constantly reminds us that this image is not the reality but a door to its prototype.

There is also an honesty in this flatness. There no attempt to make the picture plane what it can never be, a three dimensional object, let alone the real thing itself.  Incidentally it is this honesty to the picture plane that inspired the American art movement called colour field painting of the 1940’s and 1950’s.

Planarity also gives much greater freedom to arrange things according to their spiritual importance rather than being limited to their position in three-dimensional space. The figures within the icon of Christ’s birth, for example, are often arranged in three bands to represent the heavenly, earthly and unitary realms, and also in a circle centred on the Christ child

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This symbolic arrangement would not be possible if the event were depicted naturalistically, with figures receding toward the distance.

Multi-view perspective

Sometimes a building is shown as though seen simultaneously from left and right, below and above. This helps us to see things as God sees them, and as they are in themselves and not merely as they appear from our single view-point, limited as this is to one place at a time.

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The same multi-view perspective is sometimes applied to time, where the same person is depicted more than once in the same image, such as with Christ in the Nativity icon. The icon tradition can also place an important person in an event at which they were not historically present, but in which they later came to participate spiritually. Icons show things from the view of divine time (kairos  in Greek) and not merely chronological time (kronos). One example is Saint Paul in the Pentecost icon (fig. PentecostIMG copy.tif). He was not even a believer at the time of Pentecost, but later came to be great among the apostles and a pillar of the Church together with Peter, who is shown opposite him.

Isometry

In this approach the sides and edges of an object are depicted parallel, neither converging nor diverging. This affirms how a thing is in itself, rather than how it appears to us. All things have been called into unity in Christ, and this unity preserves and strengthens the integrity of each thing, rather than reducing it to a numerical one. Unity presupposes relationship which in turn presupposes otherness, though not separateness. Isometry affirms this otherness.

An example of isometry

An example of isometry

Hierarchical perspective

Often a personage who is more important than others will be enlarged. A typical example of this is the Virgin in the Nativity icon (see Nativity icon posted above). Conversely someone might be made particularly small to make a spiritual point. The Christ Child is often depicted thus in Nativity icons, to emphasize God the Word’s humility in becoming man for our sakes.

Vanishing point perspective

Although inverse perspective is more commonly used, we do also find instances where lines converge toward a point in the icon’s distance. This is not pursued in the systematic, mathematical way devised by the Renaissance painter, architect and sculptor Alberti Brunelleschi. In fact when this system is used you are likely to find as many convergence points as there are objects. This in itself transports the viewer out of the static vantage point assumed by mathematical perspective, and presupposes instead a much more dynamic experience – surely something closer to our actual experience of life.


[1] Gervase Mathews, page 30.

Theophilus, the Art of Iconography, and the Contemporary Sacred Artist – Part 2

Please take a moment to read the first part of this multi-part essay that I posted a few days ago. I am requesting that you do this in order for you to understand my perspective on creating contemporary sacred art within the Latin Rite.

Creating sacred art for me is a service ministry. It is a ministry through which a sacred artist unites him or herself to God’s Redemptive efforts. If you are a Baptized Christian who has been educated in the faith, regardless of the Rite or the denomination, you know that the Christian faith requires you to cooperate with the grace that the Holy Spirit provides to you through Scripture and the Sacraments. If one does this, and maintains a disciplined prayer life, you are cooperating with the Spirit in the duties that you must perform in your life.

For a Christian, human history is more than the individual searching for God. As the book of Genesis (3: 8-9) tells us, God walked through the Garden of Eden searching for us – for our spiritual parents: “When they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, the man and his wife hid themselves from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called the man and said to him, “Where are you?”

The Lord asks that question of us, too. 

Jesus is constantly calling out to us, constantly searching for us, constantly knocking on the door of our hearts hoping to hear our loving response. Christianity is the faith through which a searching God shows Himself to be so loving and so merciful as to persevere, to the point of sacrificing His own Son, in the effort of bringing rebellious humanity back into His family.

So the history of Christian sacred art shows us that people desired sacred icons (Greek, eikon: image) to reference that sense of family, in the same way that we have photographs today of family members, living and dead, which remind us of the love shared and their importance to our lives. These photographs or images are not idols. Even if a loved one does kiss a photograph or a sacred icon or image, the meaning behind that gesture is that the kiss – the love and respect – is not meant for the celluloid, or the wood and pigment; rather, it is meant for the prototype, for the person it represents, the loved one, God, His saints and angels.

Unfortunately, the faith family that is the Church split in the Great Schism of 1054. The Latin Rite and the Greek/Russian Rite split along cultural, theological, philosophical, political, and artistic lines. This Schism is one of the great scandals that has affected Christ’s Church.

The Schism, however, did not affect trade and the exchange of ideas among the laity. Commerce continued and new products, artistic materials, and techniques were evaluated, bought, and sold. The development of the Latin Rite artistic tradition after the Schism indicates that in Western Europe the linking of faith with the creative impulse was very strong and did much to solidify and unify the various cultural groups within the Latin Rite.

But, what was the Latin Rite tradition post AD 1054? What were the techniques of the Latin Rite artists of the Romanesque and early to mid Gothic period? Were there artistic manuals that were more than just recipe books on preparing pigments and varnishes and which discussed the spiritual underpinnings of the artisan’s art?

Where to begin?

As mentioned before, I happily discovered Pope Benedict XVI’s book –The Spirit of the Liturgy. This became my starting point, with its expression that the three periods within the liturgical art of the Latin Rite can be found in the Iconographic, Gothic, and Baroque styles of art.

I was searching for the techniques that Catholic artists would have used approximately one thousand years ago. Sacred artists within the late Iconographic period and early Romanesque period (AD 900 – 1300) would have approached their art within a disciplined theological, semantic, and aesthetic viewpoint. As Western Europeans, however, they easily accepted innovation and even experimentation if it provided a final product which met the artisan’s demanding and critical eye, and especially that of the master artisan of the workshop.

In the Spring of 2012 I discovered a twelfth century book entitled On Diverse Arts by Theophilus the Presbyter (translated by Hawthorne and Smith, Dover Press, 1979, 216 pages). This book is the critical corner stone of my attempt to link contemporary sacred art with its medieval roots. For Theophilus the Presbyter – a twelfth century master artist – is an individual who can still effectively speak to us in our own time. Theophilus has the perspective and the attitude that provides us with a foundation for our spiritual view of art.

This does not mean that we are slavishly going back in an attempt to reproduce the twelfth century. To do that would not be honest, rather, while staying true to the theological, semantic, and aesthetic beliefs of artists like Theophilus we are able to reinterpret and refresh our current situation in light of the contributions and truths discovered and lived in the past. Truth, goodness, and beauty are not limited by space and time.

O Beauty, ever ancient, O Beauty, ever new.

One of the key ideas of Theophilus that needs to be shared with Christian sacred artists is that the Holy Spirit is moving through our creative efforts, and is actively involved in the artist’s daily work. It is my belief that Theophilus sees the role of the artist as a person with a specific vocation, a calling, who is to unite his call by God to create beautiful works of art with his own prayer life and the Catholic spiritual view of reality.

Many, but not all art historians, believe that Theophilus is the pen name for a Benedictine monk by the name of Roger of Helmarshausen. Roger was a master at metalworking, specializing in gold and silver, and lived in the Benedictine monastery located in the town of Helmarshausen in modern day Germany.

In his manual, On Diverse Arts, Theophilus not only lays out his spiritual vision in three specific prologues to his chapters on painting, glassmaking, and metalworking but he provides specific directions and guidance to fellow artists. For example, he lays out – step by step – the process for creating a sacred image: the types of pigments to use, specific colors for the base coat, shadows, colors to use for hair, beards, skin, drapery, etc.

Theophilus’ union of a sincere spiritual perspective with technical guidance shows him to be a master teacher and mentor. He accomplished this within his own Benedictine monastery at Helmarshausen and his reputation expanded throughout the Rhine-Meuse River Valley in Germany.

In my next post I hope to discuss the spiritual importance of Theophilus’ three chapter prologues, and ultimately their relationship to the contemporary Catholic sacred artist.

In my fourth post in this series I will discuss a marvelous doctoral dissertation on Theophilus that was written in 2010 by Heidi Gearhart, Ph.D.

And in my fifth and last post in this series I will discuss how, in the mode of Theophilus, I am developing a practical sacred art workbook that provides step-by-step advice for the contemporary sacred artist. I have two of the four chapters completed and I will probably self-publish it for my sacred art workshops prior to a publisher (hopefully, :{) !) formally printing it.

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