Sacred Icons and Sacred Images – the Nicene Debate Continues!

AyaSofya
A photo of the inside of the Aya Sofya (Hagia Sophia) church in what is the present-day city of Iznik, Turkey. Iznik was called Nicaea prior to the rule of the Ottoman Turks . This photo shows the interior of one of the rooms in the  building complex that served as the location for the First Council of Nicaea (AD 325). Also, in the late 8th century the Seventh Ecumenical Council met in this building, too. That Council met to debate and decide the issue of iconoclasm (should sacred icons and images be prohibited and destroyed). The written arguments of St. John Damascene (Damascus) won the day and sacred icons were allowed to continue to be made. Iconoclasm was to raise its ugly head again in later years, and came to full fruition during the Protestant rebellion/reformation, the French Revolution, and worldwide Communism in all its cultural forms.  This photo of the inside of the Nicaean building is from Bryan Cross’ website: calledtocommunion.com. It was posted in May, 2010. Thanks Bryan!

I would like to thank one of my readers who identified the  contemporary icon of St. Spyridon (thanks Carol!). The iconographer is the Catholic priest William Hart McNichols. He is a very talented artist who paints traditional icons and sacred images. At times, he steps out of the bounds of the traditional approach and adds his own personal interpretation of the person he is portraying. His artistic vision is unique.

John Daly from Australia emailed me this morning to provide further grist for our mill concerning St. Athanasius, St. Spyridon, and the Council of Nicaea. One of the participants in his iconography school is a Greek Orthodox lady who is the sister-in-law of an Orthodox priest. He is coincidentally named Athanasius.

John had the opportunity to discuss with her the icons that we were analyzing in my posts of the last few days. She provided John some valuable information by explaining  that her mother had given her a beautiful sacred image of the First Council of Nicaea and specifically St. Spyridon’s role in the debate with the heretic Arius. The sacred image is below.

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Greek Orthodox sacred image of the First Council of Nicaea. Notice St. Nicholas on the lower right about to possibly physically strike Arius who reacts by pulling away. On the left you see St. Spyridon, holding a brick with flames streaming upward and water puddling below it to the floor (confer yesterday’s post of April 16th to obtain the explanation of that imagery). The room of the actual Council, as portrayed in this sacred image is quite ornate.

Also, like the sacred icon we examined in yesterday’s post we see the Emperor Constantine, dressed in the royal robes of Byzantine reddish purple (almost a maroon) sitting on the right. On the Emperor’s right we again observe a bishop, maybe its Bishop Alexander of Alexandria, Egypt. In front of him we again see a deacon, dressed in what is either an alb or dalmatic (he would have to stand up to see all the garments).

In the above sacred image, the deacon is again seated at the scribe’s desk. This makes sense, since a deacon serves the administrative needs and report’s directly to his bishop. That is true to this day; yet, throughout the world today the local bishop has his deacons serving in parishes, hospitals, prisons, etc. rather than in an administrative capacity in the local chancery. Notice the bishop is behind the deacon scribe to facilitate accurate communication.

The above sacred  image, which I have never seen before John Daly sending it to me, is very well done. The painter has captured the meaning of the Council as a whole and two of its major participants: St. Nicholas’, in his famous interaction with the heretic Arius, and the great oratorical and mystical abilities of St. Spyridon challenging Arius, too.

Is the deacon pictured in the painting from the Latin Rite or is he Orthodox? Truly, there is no way to accurately tell because the deacon is seated, and what is showing of the deacon’s stole is inconclusive. Depending on the angle of view both the Western and Eastern Rites’ deacon’s stole placement looks the same.

In today’s painting and in yesterday’s post of the icon, the deacon is seated and the possible vertical panel on the Eastern Rite and Orthodox stole is in shadow or not detectable, yet, the panel that drapes from left shoulder and gathers at the waist is visible, and would appear, as you see below, in both Latin, Eastern, and Orthodox Rites!

Just between you and me, I think the deacon depicted in the icon, from my April 16, 2019 post and today’s, is St. Athanasius from Alexandria, Egypt. The Catholic Church, the Eastern Rites in union with Rome, and all the Orthodox Churches venerate St. Athanasius as a great saint and designate specific feast days for him. He belongs to all of us.

The deacon’s stole in the Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church that are in union with Rome; and, the Greek Orthodox, the Russian Orthodox, and Coptic Orthodox deacon stoles look like this:

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Orthodox deacon’s stole in a royal Byzantine fabric (in  what appears to be a royal maroon purple) is bordered in gold thread with gold crosses. Originating at the left shoulder, gathered at the waist, with the fabric of the stole hanging vertically on the left shoulder both in the front and the back. The stole is worn on top of  the ornate gold and white dalmatic.

The cassock, alb, stole, and dalmatic all have the same meaning and functions in both the Western and Eastern Rites of the Church. In today’s Western, that is, the Latin Rite (Roman Catholic) tradition, a deacon wears the rank of his ministry and ordination, the stole, over the alb but under the dalmatic. Latin Rite deacons would wear their stole’s in this manner:

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A Roman Catholic deacon’s stole running from the left shoulder and gathered at the waist, then hangs vertically under the right arm. It is worn on top of a white alb, and under a dalmatic. The dalmatic is only worn during Holy Mass. When the deacon performs baptisms, marriage and funeral services, liturgical prayer services, and formal blessings, etc. the deacon would not wear a dalmatic, so the deacon would appear as in the above photo wearing a simple white or cream colored alb and a stole in the appropriate color..  The stole’s fabric in the photo above is dyed dark purple for Lent; during the season of Advent a purple stole is used, too; sometimes, it is of a lighter purple than the Lenten penitential purple. A white stole would be used for Baptisms. Marriages, Funerals, Holy Thursday services, and during the Easter and Christmas season. Red stoles would be worn at Palm Sunday and Good Friday services, Pentecost, and on the feast days of martyrs.
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A Roman Catholic deacon’s dalmatic which is worn over the white alb and the stole. The dalmatic is in the corresponding color to the stole. The color green is worn during “Ordinary” time (which is the liturgical period that borders the great seasons of Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter).

I’ve really enjoyed this lively information exchange. Thanks to all who participated in it!

May you have a blessed Easter Tridiuum of the Passion and Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Peace be with you.

Copyright © 2011- 2019, Deacon Paul O. Iacono – All Rights Reserved. Permission to reprint must be obtained from the author in writing. Students, and those interested, may quote small sections of the article as long as the proper credit and notation is given. Thank you.

St. Athanasius and St. Spyridon: A Correction and Another Interpretation – Let’s Take A Closer Look!

I am always very appreciative of my readers writing to me and providing new information and interpretations of sacred icons and images. Happily, that occurred last evening when a reader, Mr. John Daly from Australia, provided me with information on the second icon that was in yesterday’s post on St. Athanasius. Let me provide you with that image so we will have a reference point:

THE_FIRST_COUNCIL_OF_NICEA
This is the sacred icon of a bishop confronting a heretic at the Council of Nicaea (AD 325). Mr. John Daly of Melbourne, Australia informed me that we should take a closer look at the details of this icon because of how it depicts the bishop’s castigation of the heretic. I concluded erroneously that it must be St. Athanasius since he was a pivotal orthodox figure at the Council. Even though he was a deacon at that time, and not a bishop at the Council, he was ordained a priest and bishop about three years later, so the iconographer just inserted him as a bishop. Mr. Daly recommends a closer look to discover that it is St. Spyridon of Cyprus.

Mr. Daly is correct – it is St. Spyridon (born AD 270, died 340).

Let’s take a look at the reasons for this correction:

  1. The bishop castigating the heretic Arius is wearing a distinctive hat. The hat is unique. It is shaped like a beehive. It is made of woven straw and was traditionally worn by Cypriot and other shepherds tending their flocks – an apt metaphor for a bishop caring for the flock of his faithful.
  2. St. Spyridon was from the island of Cyprus, and eventually became a bishop serving the people of Trimythous, thus, he would have been invited to the First Council of Nicaea as were all the other bishops in Christendom.
  3. At another time, possibly in Cyprus, St. Spyridon was involved in a debate with a pagan philosopher whom he ultimately converted to Christianity. Besides his theological arguments about the Holy Trinity, the good bishop used a piece of pottery or a brick, to demonstrate to the philosopher how you could have one single substance be also composed of three separate substances (pottery and bricks consist of clay, water, and are unified by the substance of fire).
  4. The story of his discussion with the pagan philosopher continues and says that as soon as St. Spyridon finished speaking the piece of pottery or brick burst into flame, water dripped from it, and clay ash remained in his hand. Well that would have been enough to place me on the road to conversion, and so it was with the philosopher, too. If you look closely at the icon above you can perceive the fire bursting out of the brick and the water puddling beneath it. Hmm, I didn’t see that! As Sherlock Holmes once said, “Watson, you see, but you do not  observe” (taken from the story A Scandal in Bohemia by Sir A.C. Doyle).  Wise advice.
  5. Mr. Daly also relates that it was [and probably still is] common for an iconographer to fuse the two incidents of St. Spyridon converting a pagan, and St. Spyridon at the Council of Nicaea debating with the heretic Arius.
  6. There it is: the beehive woven straw hat, the bishop’s vestments, the water, fire and ash metaphor, the confrontation with an individual that has an opposite argument, and the public venue for both incidents.
  7. So where is St. Athanasius in this icon? Mr. Daly offers that in the upper left corner of the icon, we see an individual portrayed as listening intently to St. Spyridon. He is dressed in a dark alb with a white collar. He suggests that this is St. Athanasius. That argument makes some sense because, as a deacon, Athanasius may not have been up front with the bishops, rather he possibly would be located near the altar ready to perform his diaconal duties. At the same time he is still involved in the proceedings, and/or ready to respond to the needs of his bishop – Alexander of Alexandria.  You notice the priests and monks in the back of the room, too, in dark conical monastic hats and cassocks.
  8. My only issue with that interpretation is that the figure portrayed in the upper left does not have a nimbus (halo) circling his head, nor is he wearing his deacon’s stole; however, the scribe in the lower left corner is wearing a deacon’s stole. My stole comes across my chest from the left shoulder and is gathered at the right hip; and the scribe’s stole does the same thing. Is this individual St. Athanasius? There appears to be writing on his stole. I have no proficiency in Greek so I cannot be of help there.
  9. The scribe in the lower left corner has a halo, too, and so do all the bishops. Did the iconographer think that all the bishops present were saints?  This is not unlikely, since they produced a Creed for Christendom in three months. Truly, a stunning achievement. It indicates that the assembled bishops were very clear in their own minds what the Faith, based on Scripture and Apostolic Tradition, was all about. The bishops all appear very animated and involved in the Council proceedings. It’s obvious that the Holy Spirit was working within that Council!
  10. There is a lot going on in the upper part of this icon, too. Christ, as a young child, is found walking across what appears to be an altar towards another bishop. That bishop on the upper right is seen discussing some issue with, possibly, another dissenter (a priest, or deacon; even though the priests and deacons in attendance didn’t vote, they certainly could influence the bishop of their diocese on issues and arguments).
  11. Sadly, I believe that the only existing documents that we have concerning this Council that are still in existence are the Nicene Creed itself, the procedural rules of the Council, and Emperor Constantine’s address to the assembled bishops. It is said that many of the bishops came, returned to their dioceses, and then came back to the Council. This probably contributes to the fact that we don’t have all the names of the participating bishops, just those mentioned in other documents or in the stories that were passed on through to the faithful (confer Anna Erakhtina’s article The “Model of Meekness,” and Slapping Arius, at http://www.orthochristian.com, May 22, 2016, specifically the contribution by Archpriest Vladislav Tsypin. He discusses the documents available to us today). If anyone has additional information on the actual participants please tell me your source, and the participants, and I will spread the information through a post.
  12. St. Spyridon was also known as a miracle worker, especially for his successful intervention (caused by the prayers of the soldiers and sailors of the Catholic Rites) in the 1716 battles with the invading Ottoman Turks on the Greek island of Corfu.

John, thanks again; this was a fun interaction.

Additional images of St. Spyridon:

ST. Spyridon Orthodox
A contemporary Sacred Icon of St. Spyridon showing his beehive woven straw hat, his bishops stole, the blazing potsherd or brick with water dripping from it, and his holding the book of the Gospels (dogmatic truth based on the Holy Scriptures and the Sacred Apostolic Traditions of the Western and Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church. If anyone knows that artist that is responsible for this beautiful icon please tell me and I will credit him/her in this post. Icon found on Wikipedia and originates at St. Spyridon Orthodox Church in Loveland, Colorado (thanks to them for posting the image of this magnificent icon).
220px-Zemen-monastery-st-spiridon
A medieval icon of St. Spyridon, wall fresco, Bulgarian Orthodox, found in the  Zemen Monastery, Bulgaria. Photograph may have been taken by I.E. Stankov in 2012 using a Canon EOS 600D camera.

In the Roman Catholic Church, St. Spyridon is venerated on his feast day, December 14th; and on December 12th in the Eastern Rites and the Orthodox Church.

Thanks for stopping by and reading this post.

Copyright © 2011- 2019, Deacon Paul O. Iacono – All Rights Reserved. Permission to reprint must be obtained from the author in writing. Students, and those interested, may quote small sections of the article as long as the proper credit and notation is given. Thank you.

St. Athanasius – Coptic and Eastern Orthodox Icons

St. Athanasius of Alexandria was “the Lion” of the Council of Nicaea. He was instrumental in providing well argued testimony rebuking the heretic Arius during the Council’s debates. His verbal skills, as powerful and commanding as a lion, shredded Arius’ arguments. His eloquence convinced the assembled bishops of the correct dogma that Jesus Christ has two, separate and distinct, natures (divine and human), and that Jesus Christ is fully human and fully divine. The heretic Arius insisted that Jesus was “just a creature” of God.

Icon-St.-Athanaius-the-Great
A contemporary icon, completed in The Egyptian Christian Coptic style, of St. Athanasius of Alexandria standing on the back of the heretic Arius (seen in very dark colored clothing) at the Council of Nicaea (AD 325). Athanasius is seen in front of the assembled bishops from the Eastern and Western Rites of the Catholic Church. He is holding the Council’s accepted conclusions in the document known as the Nicene Creed. Notice that he does not have a bishop’s mitre on his head similar to the bishops sitting in attendance behind him, and is dressed in what appears to be a deacon’s dalmatic with cape. The style of this sacred icon is very similar to the style of the Coptic (Egyptian) Orthodox Church’s sacred art; yet, the inscription above his head is in Greek rather than Coptic. Image found at churchofourladyofkazan.org; (thanks to them) throughWikipedia images.

The Council’s main purpose was to address the divine nature of Jesus Christ and the concept of HIs being the Son of God the Father. This had to be done in order to squash the Arian heresy once and for all. It was also to establish a date for the celebration of Easter, resolve organizational and clerical issues, and the development of Church law (what today is called Canon Law). They were also attempting  to settle a schism that had occurred in Egypt. That schism was being fomented by another bishop who had enlisted with the heretic Arius.

The Council was also tasked with development of a Christian Creed that would provide unity of belief for both the Eastern and Western Rites of the Church. This unity of belief was critical since the Church needed a formal set of beliefs  that could be used as a catechetical tool and a binder that kept all the cultural and geographical “Catholic” churches together.

The Council of Nicaea basically resolved all the main issues of its agenda. It was a stunning achievement. The priest Arius was banished for promoting heresy and his ideas declared anathema. Yet, the problem the Council still faced was convincing Arius’ followers of their heretical errors. Banishment or not, an unrepentant Arius continued to spread  his opinions fomenting confusion throughout the Empire.

THE_FIRST_COUNCIL_OF_NICEA
The above image is another example of a sacred icon, however, it is not completed in the Coptic style which originated in Egypt. It is an Eastern Orthodox icon (Greek, Russian, or one of the many other Eastern Rites of the Church), completed centuries after the Council ended in the summer of the year 325. It shows a non-heretical bishop castigating the heretic priest Arius (who is raising his hand in an attempt to stop the speaker). The bishop, because of his hat (mitre), appears to be labeled with Athanasius’ name found at the bottom); however, he is not clothed in a deacon’s dalmatic, nor did deacon’s wear that style of hat. It is believed that Athanasius was not ordained a priest and bishop until after the Council ended. The Emperor Constantine sits on the right dressed in imperial clothes and it may be surmised that it is Bishop Alexander of Alexandria (the bishop of Arius’ and Athanasius’ diocese) who sits to the immediate right of the Emperor.

The Eastern and Western Rites of the Catholic and Orthodox Church have always believed that sacred icons and sacred images are always venerated by the faithful; they have never and are never worshipped.To worship sacred icons, sacred images, statues, and other visual reminders of the glory of God and His saints is against the 1st Commandment (confer Exodus 20: 2-17, and Deuteronomy 5: 6 – 21). If anyone worshipped those visual images they would correctly be called idolaters. Worship is for God alone, that is, the Holy Trinity – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; Three Divine Persons in One God.

Our Savior Jesus Christ is One Person with two natures: human and divine; that is a state of being which is part of the great Mystery of the Incarnation of God into human existence.

Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God, sacrificed in Jerusalem through His Passion, Crucifixion, and death. Jesus, following His Father’s will, suffered and died for us in order to atone for all of humanity’s sins (past, present, future). God the Father and God the Holy Spirit responded by raising Jesus from the dead on the third day, ultimately enabling Jesus to interact and be seen by His Apostles and hundreds of disciples.

Truth, Goodness, Beauty, and Love, incarnate in our Savior.

Thanks for stopping by.

May you continue to have a prayerful Holy Week and a joyous Easter Season.

Copyright © 2011- 2019, Deacon Paul O. Iacono – All Rights Reserved. Permission to reprint must be obtained from the author in writing. Students, and those interested, may quote small sections of the article as long as the proper credit and notation is given. Thank you.

 

Saint Nicholas Slaps a Heretic! A Reflection Appropriate for Palm Sunday

The extensive Gospel reading for Palm Sunday relates the Scriptural and historical truth that Jesus  triumphantly entered Jerusalem, yet, five days later He was arrested, put on trial, tortured, and executed.

As you know, the religious and secular leaders of Israel did not accept Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God. They were adamant about the fact that Jesus was just a man and that His claims, teachings, and healings were all fraudulent.  Their disbelief took place during the first century, yet, two hundred years later there were Christians saying the same thing.

The questions came down to, “Who is Jesus Christ? Is He a man? Is He God? Is He both?”

These were the same questions that the people of Jerusalem, some of them waving palm branches, and their leaders were asking each other.

In the year 325 scholars and clerics were still grappling with those questions, too.

Many deacons, priests, and bishops of the Church had settled the question in their own mind, yet, all of Christendom was not in agreement. Emperor Constantine was worried; as a military man he knew trouble when he saw it. Religious disagreements could easily spread into civil war. Something had to be done.

Stories have come down to us through the centuries that St. Nicholas of Myra, a faith-filled bishop, decided to defend Sacred Tradition and the Scriptural interpretation of the reality of Jesus as the Son of God the Father. The story relates that he not only vigorously defended Sacred Tradition but became so worked up that during one of the debates he slapped the author of this heresy which was called Arianism.

But, was it a verbal or physical slap?

Let’s take a brief look at some of the details:

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Partial icon of the “incident” at the 1st Council of Nicaea. Immortalized in an early icon. The Early Church was well aware of the importance of this Council in debating and agreeing to the specific dogmas of the Church that would be ultimately proclaimed in the Nicene Creed. All catechumens that enter the Church at the Easter Vigil Mass proclaim their belief in the great Sacred Mysteries and historical truths of the Nicene Creed.

Who: Saint Nicholas of Myra, Bishop, (Myra, an Ancient Greek city on the coast of present day Turkey),  vs.  Arius, priest from the diocese of Alexandria, (Alexandria, a city on Egypt’s Mediterranean coastline). Emperor Constantine, Roman Empire, centered in the new city named in his honor: Constantinople (present day Istanbul, Turkey). Constantine convenes an ecumenical council of bishops from the five major patriarchies of Christendom (Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, Jerusalem, and Rome).

What: Supposed incident of Bishop Nicholas “slapping” the priest Arius, at the first ecumenical Council of Bishops: the Council of Nicaea. This was the first Council since the Council of Jerusalem (held in the first century and was attended by luminaries such as St. Peter and St. James).

When: Late Spring and early Summer of the year 325.

Why: The incident concerned the critical issue of who is Jesus Christ, and whether Jesus Christ is “the same in being and the same in essence” as God the Father. Arius was promoting the heresy that Jesus Christ was “just a creature” of God and not a divine Person of the Holy Trinity.

Where: Nicaea, an ancient city in Asia Minor; it is the present day city of Iznik, Turkey.

As it applies to sacred art, the Council of Nicaea provided a specific creed: a set of theological proclamations that impacted  sacred artists from the 4th century to the present day. It is stated clearly in this Creed that God the Father has communicated His love, mercy, and laws to humanity through His revealed word in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. This action culminated in the ministry, passion, death, and resurrection of His incarnated Word, His Son Jesus Christ.

The Nicene Creed definitively proclaimed that Jesus Christ is the same in essence, and the same in being, as God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. So we have the great Mystery of the Incarnation, the nature of Jesus Christ: He is both human and divine – the Son of God – One Person with two natures – human and divine.

orthodox_icon_of_our_jesus_pantocrator_of_sinai._large
The above is a 6th century sacred icon of Jesus as Pantocrator. Pantocrator is a Greek word describing the all knowing, all powerful Son of God: Jesus Christ. The Council of Nicaea declared that Christ, as God, is consubstantial: Jesus is the same in essence (substance) and in being as the Father and the Holy Spirit. Also, Jesus possesses two natures: human and divine. This is truly a great Mystery of the Church. The sacred artist of the above icon, probably a monk, used hot pigmented wax (the encaustic method) to render this likeness. This sacred icon is currently located in St. Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai Peninsula, Egypt. The face has a striking resemblance to the face on the Holy Shroud of Turin.

The day-to-day proceedings and debate notes of the Council have been lost to history, so we will never know if St. Nicholas gave Arius a physical or just a verbal “slap.” Regardless, St. Nicholas made his point and contributed to giving us the gift of the Nicene Creed.

In AD 381, the Nicene Creed was edited and amended at the First Council of Constantinople (thus, the Creed is called the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. Try to say that phrase fast, three times!😃).

Thanks for visiting with me. May you have a prayer-filled Holy Week.

Sources for the above post are found in my bibliography post, entitled Early Church Fathers – A Short bibliography of February 8, 2019. I relied primarily on Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s works, also Aquilina and D’Ambrosio’s volumes.

Copyright © 2011- 2019, Deacon Paul O. Iacono – All Rights Reserved. Permission to reprint must be obtained from the author in writing. Students may quote small sections of the article as long as the proper credit and notation is given. Thank you.

 

 

 

The Holy Trinity – Communication Through Word and Art

Is communication just a trait of human beings? Is it a trait of God?

The Dogma of the Holy Trinity is one of the great Mysteries of the Christian Faith.  All Christians acknowledge and accept that The One True God, the divine Holy Trinity, are three separate and distinct Persons of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Holy Trinity is not three separate Gods. They are one God in three Divine Persons. This is known as the dogma of the “consubstantial” Trinity: each of the three Persons is God – completely and entirely.

These ideas were debated and verified by the assembled bishops at the First Council of Nicaea in AD 325 and subsequent Councils (specifically the ecumenical Council of Nicaea/Constantinople in AD 381).

In the 13th century the Fourth Lateran Council stated: “Each of the Persons is that supreme reality (nature, essence, and substance) of God” (confer Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd edition, paragraphs 198 through 315, pp. 54-84).

These three Divine Persons relate and communicate among themselves and desire to communicate and relate with Their creation. This is verified through Holy Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the historic teachings of the Apostles, the Ecumenical Councils, and the saints of the Church.

The  first of Their creation, the nine choirs of angels, communicate with God and each other, too.

Obviously, human beings communicate and relate through speech, behavior, and the written word, though at times, not very well. To a much lesser extent, there is “communication” in the other members of the animal kingdom (by instinct, chemical, and behavioral signals) and in the plant kingdom (through chemical signals).

God the Father has communicated specifically through His Word, the incarnated Son, Jesus Christ. In accordance with the Father’s will the human Jesus is “born of a woman” into space and time through the great Mystery of the Incarnation of Christ.

Jesus agreed to humbly obey His Father’s will. Through His Incarnation the Divine Son Jesus expresses His two natures: human and divine. He does this while “hiding” the full majesty of His divinity (except for the moments of His Transfiguration, Resurrection, and subsequent appearances to His Apostles).

The Holy Spirit (as the Council of Florence stated in 1439) “Is eternally from the Father and Son; He has His nature and subsistence at once from the Father and the Son. He proceeds eternally from both as from one principle and through one spiration (the life-giving breath of God).”

“When the Father sends His Word to His Creation He also sends His Breath. “Jesus and the Holy Spirit are on a joint mission, while at the same time being distinct but inseparable. It is the Son who is seen, the visible image of the invisible God, while it is the Holy Spirit that reveals Him.” (please refer to page 181 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd edition, also pages 54 through 90).

The Holy Spirit communicates and spiritually shapes us through the Holy Scriptures, liturgical and private prayer, the teachings of the Western and Eastern Rites of the Church, and with the Father and Son in the seven Holy Sacraments (in the Eastern Rites – the Holy Mysteries).

The solemnity of Pentecost recalls the full expression of the Holy Spirit’s “Fruits and Gifts” to the Apostles, and through the Holy Sacraments to us, too  (refer in the Christian Scriptures to the Acts of the Apostles chapter 2, verses 1 – 42; and in St. Paul’s letters to the Galatians chapter 5: verses 22 ff; and 1st Corinthians chapter 12, verses 4 ff; also refer in the Hebrew Scriptures  to the book of the prophet Isaiah chapter 11, versus 2 – 3).

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“The Trinity”: early 15th century; egg tempera and gold on wood panel by St. Andrei Rublev (1370 – 1430).  St. Rublev was a Russian Orthodox monk. He resided and “wrote” with egg tempera paint to produce images of God, the angels, and the saints in sacred  icons. He lived at St. Sergius Monastery in Moscow, Russia. His sacred icon above captures some of  the truth of the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity communicating with each other. God the Son, Jesus Christ, is the figure in the center of this painting.  You see two of His fingers extended to express His human and divine nature, and in a pointing gesture, to the “Cup of His Blood”  made manifest through His Redemptive sacrifice. In this masterpiece you observe the colors blue representing divine life and purple madder/burgundy signifying Christ’s humanity. God the Father is on your left and God the Holy Spirit is on your right. The Holy Spirit is garbed in blue and in green as a symbol of new life and spiritual growth through prayer and the Holy Sacraments (Holy Mysteries). God the Father is painted in both blue, green, and a very light, transparent gold ochre. The First Council of Nicaea (AD 325) verified and promoted the Dogma of the Holy Trinity. This Dogma was reaffirmed, and further explained by the Council of Nicaea/Constantinople in AD 381.

 

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A contemporary copy of the original Trinity by Rublev.

God the Father sent His Son to be born of a woman through the fecundity of the Holy Spirit. The Incarnation of Jesus Christ changed the Universe. God became flesh and walked among us. Why?  In order to teach, heal, and redeem us from our sins. The New Covenant with His creation is written in His Blood. There is, if you have the gift of faith, ample proof that God wants to communicate with you.

It is up to each man and woman to honestly determine whether or not they are ignoring Him, and if so, to decide what to do about it. Time is short.

Copyright © 2011- 2019 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved.

Christ in the Wilderness: Lent – the Season of Preparation – Luke 4: 1-2.

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days He was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, He was famished. (Gospel of Luke chapter 4: verses 1-2)

In the extraordinary painting  below, we see Jesus after He was led into the desert wilderness by the Holy Spirit. He is surrounded by rocks and sand. He sits on a boulder, hands in front of Him. His eyes are filled with the knowledge of reality, of passions, power, and pain, ego and emptiness, sin and self aggrandizement.

This painting may move us from the awareness that in the desert wilderness Jesus is not only thinking through His ministry, Passion, and death but is also viewing our lives – our ministries, our passions, our death.

What do we see?

Let us examine His face.

christ_in_the_wilderness_detail_400

We see the seriousness of the forthcoming temptations; the physical, mental, and the spiritually violent struggle with the devil. It is written plainly upon His emaciated face.

We see the irrefutable fact of Jesus’ humanity.

We see that He is like unto us, except for sin.

This is the face of our Savior; but the victory is not His, yet.

His temptations, public ministry, Passion, and death are still to occur.

What do we see?

We see a man who knows His Mind. He knows His Body, Soul, and Spirit.

He knows His freely accepted duty to accomplish His Father’s will.

This is not the face of a defeated man. It is the face of a determined man who is also Lord and Savior.

**679px-Kramskoi_Christ_dans_le_désert

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. Sins accepted by Him, and through His Passion and death, makes all things new.

christ_in_the_wilderness_detail_400

Jesus had to confront in that desert assault whether or not He was going to be faithful to His mission.

The Gospel passage above challenges us with the same questions: are we going to be faithful to the Commandments, to our Baptismal promises, to the mission given us in Confirmation to live and practice the truths that He taught us?

Are we going to be faithful to the spiritual power and grace given to us, not just when we feel like it, but 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 shackles, when we give into its fueled power to overwhelm our body and soul. That power  – a deadly power – obtains its animus and energy from the original tempter and liar – Lucifer himself.

Hell is real. It is not a mental construct. To say that it doesn’t exist is to call Jesus a liar, and His Passion, death, and Resurrection meaningless.

Jesus the Christ lived heroically in the face of Hell’s demons and witnessed to the power of God’s grace.

But you say, I am not Jesus 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 Holy Sacraments (Holy Mysteries) of Reconciliation (Penance/Confession) and the Holy Eucharist we have the power of Christ’s grace within us. A power, freely given by God and unmerited by us, to resist and overcome temptation and sin.

If we do sin – if we do “miss the mark” – we have a remedy.  We follow St. Paul’s advice: pick yourself up, dust yourself off (confess your sins), and confidently continue on your journey. We must do our part in cooperation with God’s love and mercy.

The Season of Lent is a time of joyful repentance, prayer, and fasting.

Let’s remember the  words of Nehemiah, who in the Hebrew Scriptures says: Today is holy to the Lord your God. Do not be sad, and do not weep; for today is holy to our Lord. Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the Lord must be your strength! (Nehemiah 8: 9-10. 5th century BC)

***

The painting above was created and completed in the late 19th century by Ivan Kramskoi. He was a gifted Russian painter, noted portraitist, draughtsman, and teacher. The painting is entitled Christ in the Wilderness.

Copyright © 2011- 2019 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved. Portions of this essay may be used in accordance with correct notation and bibliographical insertion; contact deaconiacono@icloud.com for more information or questions.

Apologists – Additional Saints Prior to the Council of Nicaea

Today’s post will continue to add to my two previous posts: The Apologists (Defenders of the Faith) – Part 7, and The Apologists – Comparing Icons. 

The men below are also known as the Ante Nicene Fathers. The word Ante (before) refers to the fact that they defended the Faith during the terrible persecutions of the first three centuries of the Church (the Domitian, Decian, Valerian, and Diocletian persecutions). These persecutions occurred prior to the Council of Nicaea (AD 325).

The Council of Nicaea was called by the Emperor Constantine in order for the assembled bishops, and their representatives from throughout the Empire, to discuss, debate, and establish the basic elements of a Creed for the Catholic Church (Eastern and Western Rites).

Prior to calling this Council, Constantine had proclaimed the toleration of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. He accomplished this through the Edict of Milan. This Edict (AD 313) did not mandate that Christianity was the official religion of the Roman Empire, that was to be done by a later Emperor – Theodosius I – in AD 380. The Edict just allowed for Christianity’s toleration as a religion.

The list below provides the additional Apologists who significantly contributed to the defense of all the aspects of the Early Christian Faith, such as the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the Seven Sacraments, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, etc.:

St. Justin Martyr, (born circa AD 100), an excellent writer, debater and teacher. He defended the Sacraments of the Church, especially the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the genuineness and inerrancy of the four Gospels, the Trinity, the two natures of Christ, how reason can come to know God, the Sacraments, God’s revelation and inspiration, etc. He also saw some aspects of ancient philosophy as a precursor of the Christian faith, and wrote two powerful defenses of the Faith to the Emperor and the Roman Senate. He was martyred, along with six other Christians, in AD 165.

St. Justin Martyr is a very important witness to the developing beliefs of the Catholic Church (Western and Eastern Rites) because he is discussing and describing many of the primary dogmatic and doctrinal beliefs of the Church which would be established over one hundred and fifty years later in the Nicene Creed (AD 325), and clarified and confirmed in the Council of Constantinople in AD 381.

St-Justin-Martyr-e1464838721698
A sacred icon of St Justin Martyr, martyred AD 165. He was a powerful teacher, writer, and Defender of the Faith as it was passed down to him from Apostolic Times.

St. Melito of Sardis, (died circa AD 185),  a scholar who saw the immense value and importance of the Hebrew Scriptures and how they contributed to the Christian Scriptures; in AD 175, wrote a defense of the Christian Faith which was published in a letter to Emperor Marcus Aurelius. He was also instrumental in teaching and explaining the two natures of Jesus Christ: one divine and one human. His explanations kept the two natures separate, and teaches that Jesus was truly human and truly divine. He fought the Christological heresies that were developing at this time (especially Marcion’s heresy concerning Jesus’ physical body).

Tertullian, (died circa AD 222) a powerful, yet, at times, tactless writer and lawyer. He wrote on many aspects of early Church theology. He also wrote a spirited defense of the Christian Faith in a letter to the Roman Emperor. Interestingly, he is known for his description of the members of the Christian Faith: “See those Christians, how they love one another,” and “The blood of Christians is [the] seed [of the Church].”

St. Hippolytus of Rome, (died circa AD 236) in his book – The Apostolic Tradition – sets down a manual of liturgical prayers and tradition and it refers to an order of the Holy Mass. The current Eucharistic Prayer 2, in the Sacramentary (liturgical missal) used in the Western Rite, is attributed to the central prayer found in his The Apostolic Tradition.

Origen of Alexandria, (died AD 254), a genius in speculative theology who wrote extensively on subjects such as the belief in One God, the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity, the Holy Sacraments of the Church, etc. He was a voluminous writer and died a martyr.

St. Cyprian of Carthage, (born circa AD 200); he was a student of Tertullian. St. Cyprian was a tireless theologian and worker for unity within the Church, and through his patient and good-hearted efforts solved many controversies and squabbles. As a bishop he proclaimed that he was willing to welcome any pagan or heretic into the Church who confessed their sins, were willing to do penance, and were baptized. His defense and scholarship on the Holy Sacraments is considered important. He died a martyr in AD 258.

In my next post, Part 8, I will briefly discuss the Golden Era of the Apostolic Fathers (AD 325 – 430) whose blossoming occurred after the Council of Nicaea; also in that post, I will discuss and list the Post Nicene Fathers (circa AD 430 – AD 800). In Part 9, I will briefly list some of the important Church Councils of the 5th century and how they affected the Church’s sacred art.

Please review the bibliography page (found at the post of February 8, 2019). It provides the sources that I have been using in this specific sequence of posts on Church history.

Thanks for visiting with me. On this Ash Wednesday allow me to offer you my best wishes for a productive and prayerful Lenten Season.

Copyright © 2011- 2019, Deacon Paul O. Iacono – All Rights Reserved. Permission to reprint must be obtained from the author in writing. Students may quote small sections of the article as long as the proper credit and notation is given. Thank you.

 

Icons – Important Similarities/Differences

Can you pick out the seven similarities between the two sacred icons of Church Apologists that are below? The differences?

IconPM-Irenaeus-2
St. Irenaeus of Lyons (died circa 201). Famous for his manuscripts Against Heresies. He used 21 out of the 27 books of the New Testament in his writings and sermons.

 

SAINT-CLEMENT-I
St. Clement of Alexandria, Egypt.  Born AD 150, died AD 215.                                                               Famous for his manuscripts on the Blessed Mother Mary as the New Eve, the significance of the Holy Eucharist, and other catechetical works.

Let’s take a look at the two icons above.

Both are correct in the way they are represented. From an artistic and symbolic point-of-view there are distinct similarities.

They have seven similarities: the beard (signifying experience, authority, and that the saint is an elder); a large, high forehead (signifying Christian wisdom as influenced by the Holy Spirit which is visualized through the saint’s works and knowledge); the Holy Cross upon the priest’s stole (it appears as a garment that circles the neck and extends down the torso which signifies Christ’s Redemptive suffering and the saint’s  willingness to give witness and suffer for Christ); the presence of the book of the Gospels (the revealed truth of God through His Son, Jesus Christ); the script of the saint’s name at the top or side of the icon; and the halo circling the head (representing the sanctity of the saint).

There are two absolutely necessary and critical indicators that designate a valid orthodox icon or sacred image: the artist must distinguish the person represented with his or her name, and, the icon must give witness to their life and ministry to the Church.

How does the sacred artist accomplish this requirement?

The artist needs to follow this rule: if the person(s) represented is/are a cleric (deacon, priest, or bishop) they need to be clothed with the proper vestments of their rank, and prototypical appearance. If their physical appearance is known (such as St. Therese of Lisieux or St. Maximillian Kolbe) they must be represented in a correct and accurate manner. The artist must also represent some aspect that distinguishes their ministry, such as the Book of the Gospels.

This is also true if the person(s) is/are a martyr, holy man or woman, monk, etc. This is, again, necessary since  the faithful need to know the name of the saint so they “may honor, revere, and give salutation to them and aspire after them” (from The Seventh Ecumenical Council: Concerning the Holy Icons).

The differences between these two icons of Church Fathers are primarily in the icons’ age, the colors used by each sacred artist, the adornment of the garments and book of the Gospels, and whether or not the halo, and area surrounding the figure is gilded. Many of these differences reflect the specific culture the sacred artist lived in, the time period of the artist’s life, and the artistic resources (such as pigments) that were available.

Historically, violent disputes broke out between icon supporters and icon destroyers. The situation came to a head in October AD 787, when the 2nd Council of Nicaea, among other issues, reinstated the validity and necessity of the veneration of holy icons/images. It specifically quoted: Genesis 31: 34; Exodus 25: 19 ff; Numbers 7: 89; and Hebrews 9: 5 ff;) in support of their position. The Council Fathers especially cited various passages of the Fathers of the Church which proved to be critical in the authority of their proclamation. They were also heavily influenced by the writings of St. John Damascene. The Council documents were signed by the Byzantine Empress Irene, as many as (or more than) 300 bishops, and two legates of the Pope.

Sacred icons, sacred images, statues, etc are never worshipped. Worship belongs to God alone as represented in the Holy Trinity. The holy personalities represented give witness to unity with Christ and point us in the truthful –  orthodox –  direction. We venerate sacred statues, icons, and sacred images – never worship them. (See the documents of the 7th Ecumenical Council of the Church (AD 787) to reiterate this position).

Church tradition also warns the sacred artist who paints sacred icons to guard against unnecessary innovations and artistic flourishes. Please remember that in my blog I make a distinction between sacred icons and sacred images. My articles on this subject can be found in the Category window found on the top, right hand side, of my Home Page. You may find that my article A Canon for Catholic Sacred Artists, found in the Category: Sacred Artists, in the month April, 2018 (once there, scroll down to April 2, 2018 and you’ll find the article). That article has a short section in the Notes following the ten elements of my suggested “Canon” that express my opinion on the differences between sacred icons and sacred images.

Thanks for visiting with me. My best wishes for a relaxing weekend.

Copyright © 2011- 2019 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved. Permission to reprint must be obtained from the author in writing. Students may quote small sections of the article as long as the proper credit and notation is given. Thank you. Deacon Paul Iacono, at deaconiacono@icloud.com.

 

 

 

Christian Witness and Sacred Art – The Early Church Fathers – Part 7

A Challenge: Are you as a Christian artist willing to internalize the message of the saint, scene, or Scripture passage you are artistically representing, and then, correctly portray it according to Church tradition?

Sacred artists must have more than just an awarenesses of Jesus, His Mother, angels and  saints because their witness provides us with the foundation stones of our Faith. Sacred artists must be more than artists who propose “Art for art’s sake”.

If we do this what do we become? We become evangelists to the truth, goodness, and beauty of God, through the witness of Jesus Christ and the holy men and women who called Him the Son of God.

In the years immediately following St. Polycarp’s martyrdom (died, circa AD 155, and remembered yesterday, February 22nd, in the Roman Breviary and Missal) a group of eight Western and Eastern Rite scholars and clerics arose known as the Apologists (Defenders of the Faith).

The Apologists defended the beliefs and traditions of the Church that passed down to them, in an uninterrupted line, directly from the Apostles and Apostolic Fathers.  This occurred during the years of continued persecution – AD 155 through AD 313.

The works and ministerial witness of the Apologists provide evidence for the continuity of beliefs and dogmas in the Early Christian Church. It is through this historic development, and the literary and physical witness of their efforts, that we have  religious and cultural traditions which dramatically affected the growth of sacred art. These clerics and scholars desired to unify and establish the beliefs of the Western and Eastern Rites of the Church.

Church artists, and the later group of clerics and scholars known as the Nicene Fathers (who I will cover in later posts), were heavily influenced by their efforts. These two groups, the Ante Nicene and Nicene Fathers all desired to make concrete and visible the correct teaching – the orthodoxy – of the Church. These efforts ultimately produced artistic representations of these early spiritual heroes – a visible sign of the truths of the Gospels being preached – and in some cases, their witness in blood.

The Apologists have also been termed The Ante (Before) Nicene Fathers because they lived and died prior to the establishment of the  Creed of the Catholic Faith, ultimately to be known as the Nicene Creed.

Let us briefly review two of the Apologists: St. Irenaeus of Lyons, and St. Clement of Alexandria. In a subsequent post you will have the opportunity to read three or four sentence descriptions of the contributions of the other six  Apologists.

St. Irenaeus of Lyons was born in AD 130 and died circa AD 202. He speaks of the four Gospels as being the “Four Pillars of the Church,” and was in a position to know that since he heard St. Polycarp (a friend and disciple of the Apostle John) preach. He was steadfast in supporting the belief in Apostolic Tradition. He taught that the true Faith is the one imparted by the bishops of the Church who, in turn, received it directly in an uninterrupted set of teachings from the Apostles. St. Irenaeus was tenacious in his fight against heterodoxy, specifically the Gnostic heresy.

St. Irenaeus understood the value of St. Polycarp’s New Testament scholarship and his emphasis on the Church’s sacred Tradition. He spoke with authority on Mary as the New Eve, and the Holy Eucharist. St. Irenaeus barely escaped death during the persecution of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, however during the round-up approximately 50 other Christians had the joy of earning the holy crown of martyrdom. He may have eventually died a martyr, yet, there is not sufficient evidence to support it.

IconPM-Irenaeus-2
St. Irenaeus of Lyons (died circa 202). Famous for his manuscripts Against Heresies. He used 21 out of the 27 books of the New Testament in his writings and sermons.

Another critical Apologist is St. Clement of Alexandria (born circa AD 150, died circa 215). He led a major catechetical school in Alexandria, Egypt and agreed with St. Irenaeus that the truth and knowledge of the holy Gospels proceed through the bishops and are for the population as a whole and not for any secret society (thus, he fought against the Gnostic heresy).

He taught that in order to understand the truths of the Gospels you must have faith in unison with reason. He is also known for three major catechetical works which are still in existence. These works were meant to accompany catechumens and those baptized into the Christian faith as an aid to their spiritual development. He was not martyred.

SAINT-CLEMENT-I
St. Clement of Alexandria – an Apologist of the Early Church – as represented by an early iconographer of the Eastern Rite of the Catholic Church.

 

Thanks for stopping by the Institute. I hope you have a relaxing weekend.

Copyright © 2011- 2019 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved. Permission to reprint must be obtained from the author in writing. Students may quote small sections of the article as long as the proper credit and notation is given. Thank you. Permission to copy these posts must be obtained from Deacon Paul Iacono at deaconiacono@icloud.com.

The Apostolic Fathers in Roman Catholic Sacred Art – Part Six

This post and an upcoming posts will very briefly explain some of the major figures in the Church history during the period of AD 65 through AD 155 – the period known as the age of the Apostolic Fathers. Ultimately, Parts 7 through 9 will cover some of the key leaders within the three subsequent periods of the early  Church (circa AD 155 to circa AD 800). I am presenting this material because it is critical for anyone studying and painting sacred images and sacred icons to be aware of the theological understanding of the scholars and bishops in the Church’s early history.  Sacred art developed in tandem with the approved theology of the Church. I will ultimately show you how this is expressed, specifically how our Blessed Mother Mary is artistically portrayed in Part Nine and subsequent  posts.

After Jesus Ascension to Heaven the Apostolic Fathers continued the mission of Jesus and His Apostles to shepherd the early Church. The term “Father” refers to the early leaders of the Church who remained faithful to the Apostolic faith and traditions and brought the early Church out of “diapers” into “young adulthood.” These men carried on the spiritual beliefs and religious traditions of the Apostles and, in some cases, directly knew the Apostles (for example, both St. Ignatius of Antioch and St. Polycarp were disciples of St. John the Apostle, and St. Peter consecrated St. Clement of Rome a bishop).

The Apostolic Fathers lived and died between the years AD 65 through AD 155. Their writings began to be circulated around the year AD 95. Apostolic Fathers that I will not cover in this post are Marcion, who was an eye-witness to the martyrdom of St. Polycarp and wrote an account of it and the anonymous writers of important documents: (The Shepherd of Hermas – this document and the Apocalypse of Peter were eventually removed from the canonical collections of Christian writings), The Didache, The Epistle to Diognetus, and The Epistle of Barnabas.

Many scholars believe that the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and the Epistles: of Paul, Peter, James, Jude, and John  were all written before the year AD 100. Yet  it took approximately another four hundred years for the dogmas, doctrines, writings and the Church approved Gospels/Epistles to be studied, discussed, codified, and accepted or eliminated by the bishops of the Catholic Church (Eastern and Western Rites). Concomitantly, the sacred art of the early Church was affected by and developed within these cultural and spiritual currents. To exemplify this I will definitely present images of these developments, as they apply to Our Blessed Mother Mary, in upcoming posts.

The Apostolic Fathers confronted numerous controversies and heresies. For example, Pope St. Clement of Rome (martyred in AD 99 or 101) addressed the question of the authority of the Bishop of Rome and clerical leadership (see his very important Letter to the Church at Corinth written in the first century). The Emperor Trajan (reigned AD 98 – 117) had him martyred by being thrown into the sea with an anchor around his neck.

St Clement of Rome
Pope St. Clement being martyred by drowning (Renaissance image)

While traveling to Rome to be martyred, the bishop St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote significant letters to various churches in Asia Minor on important theological issues. He promoted the structure of clerical hierarchy (deacons, priests, and bishops). Adhering to Apostolic Tradition, Ignatius promoted belief in the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist (which was achieved by a validly ordained male priest through the Scriptural words of Consecration within the liturgical structure of the Holy Mass). St. Ignatius of Antioch is also the first bishop to use the word “catholic” (universal) to describe the first Christian Church communities. He was martyred in Rome’s Circus Maximus by being savaged by lions. His martyrdom occurred in AD 107 – 108.

ignatius_of_antioch_2
Martyrdom of St. Ignatius of Antioch (contemporary sacred icon)

The last Apostolic Father that I will briefly discuss in this post is the bishop St. Polycarp of Smyrna (a city in Asia Minor – currently in Turkey). Polycarp’s name, in Greek, means “much fruit.” St. Polycarp was a friend and disciple of St. John the Apostle; and he was known as a New Testament scholar, and author of an important letter to a Church community in Greece.

St. Polycarp was tireless in his fight against the Marcionite heresy. That heresy grew out of a heresy accepted by some interpreters of the Hebrew Scriptures who claimed that there were “two Gods” – one good and one bad. Polycarp was martyred in AD 155 or 156. The story of his martyrdom relates the attempted burning of this good bishop at the stake, but when the fire had no affect at all his frustrated executioners pulled him out and did the deed with a dagger!

polycarp-martyrdom
Martyrdom of the bishop St. Polycarp (not a contemporary sacred icon; possibly 15th century).Notice that it remains loyal to the story of his witness and martyrdom.

 

The “Great Schism” between the Roman Catholic and Greek Catholic (Orthodox) Rites did not occur until AD 1056; and the Protestant movement did not begin until the middle of the 15th century. The Protestant Revolt came to full force in the early 16th century and continued through to the 17th century. The Protestant sects viewed sacred art as unnecessary for the faithful since they needed to concentrate only on Sacred Scripture (Sola Scriptura).

Prior to AD 1056 all Christians were “Catholics” from different cultural areas of Europe, Africa, and the Near East. Each one of these Eastern and Western Rite communities applied their own interpretation to appropriate liturgical music, sacred art, liturgical disciplines to their regional church environments. Examples of this interpretation are  celibacy for male deacons and priests, and liturgical use of cultural specific language. This was achieved by remaining faithful to approved Catholic Creeds (Nicene and Apostles), Holy Scripture, clerical/hierarchical organization, etc. A unified set of Church dogmas and doctrines developed out of this 800 year history.

Thank you for stopping by and reading this brief post. My next post will briefly review the next group of “Fathers of the Church” – the Apologists.

My best wishes for a restful weekend; and if you are in the United Stats an enjoyable Super Bowl football game!

Copyright © 2011- 2019 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved. Permission to reprint must be obtained from the author in writing. Students may quote small sections of the article as long as the proper credit and notation is given. Thank you. Deacon Paul Iacono, deaconiacono@icloud.com.

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

072Nativity 3 copy 2

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.

073IMG_3774 copy 2

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.

Evgeny Baranov’s Miniature Icons and Rashid and Inessa Azbuhanov Icon Carvings

My sincere thanks to Jonathan Pageau at the Orthodox Arts Journal,  http://www.orthodoxartsjournal.org/, for permission to repost his wonderful presentation of the sacred icon miniatures of Russian artist Evgeny Baranov and the spectacular icon wood carvings by Rashid and Inessa Azbuhanov.

We must take care when we paint/”write” large icons, yet, to complete an icon miniature or a wood carving, with such grace and spiritual truth, demands in my humble opinion, even more skill and patience! Enjoy, and be filled with astonishment!

To see all of Baranov’s miniatures please visit their site:www.orthodoxartsjournal.org/miniature-icons-by-evgeny-baranov/ .

To see the lovely icon wood carvings of the Asbuhanov’s please take a look at the last two images in this post, if you would like to see all of their work please visit this site: /www.orthodoxartsjournal.org/the-russian-master-icon-carvers/

Miniature Icons by Evgeny Baranov and Russian Master Icon Carvers

April 9th and 10th, 2013

By 

Here are some of the most astounding miniature icons I have seen.  They are made by a Russian artisan named Evgeny Baranov who is also a very good goldsmith as you will see below.   These pictures were taken from his facebook page.  I have been trying to get a short interview with some more details, and my lack of Russian seems to stand in the way…  but really, the work stands on its own.

Rashid and Inessa Azbuhanov are a Russian couple who are leading the rediscovery of icon carving in the Russian Church.  Their works grace the collections of Russian politicians from Gorbachev to Putin, European royal families and church authorities from the Russian Patriarch to the Pope of Rome. 

Their works are often large and highly detailed, like wooden lace as they include much chip carving into the patterns of clothing, backgrounds and frames.   There is a certain folk aspect to their work, especially in some of the faces which do not follow the more usual formal tradition of icon carving but are often effective nonetheless.  They recently had a show of their work in Moscow and so I thought it a good opportunity to put up some of their icons.

Despite their great success, they are warm and quite generous, just like their carvings.

More pictures can be found on their website:  http://www.azbuhanov.ru/

Here  also is a detailed article on their recent Moscow show.

[The first five images below are the work of Evgeny Baranov and the last two wood carvings are the work of Rashid and Inessa Azbuhanov.]

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Bishop Josaphat Kuncevych – A Saint of Forgiveness and Unity

In this morning’s Gospel from St. Luke (17: 1-6) we hear Jesus imploring His disciples to teach and practice the art of forgiveness toward those who hurt and abuse us, our families, and friends.

Jesus is teaching that it is so important for people who want to be considered His disciples to follow His example and in no way offer a bad example or scandal to others. Jesus is emphasizing the power of faith to assist us in our efforts to be His disciples. People of faith possess the grace to forgive others.

Our desire to model Jesus enables our hearts to be filled with the grace of the Holy Spirit. This, in turn, empowers us to demonstrate our faith and yes, do the impossible in touching and moving the dead weight of a person’s soul who is mired in sin and dissension.

Faith is infused into our souls at the moment of our Baptism. It is increased at our First Holy Communion and every subsequent Communion, and is increased further still when we receive the Sacrament of Confirmation. The grace of Faith is given to us so that we may possess the spiritual energy to develop a personal relationship with God, and, those around us.

With today’s Gospel in mind we can say that God expects more from us than we can do by ourselves. You see God wants us, with His help, to scale the mountains of our own difficulties and to climb upon the crosses of our everyday life. It is through this stress and burnishing that we receive, in His love, the personality that makes us ready to be His partners in eternity.

We are given numerous examples of this truth through the various saints of the Eastern and Western Rites of the Church. Today we remember Bishop Josaphat Kuncevych who died in 1623. He was born in Poland, and raised within the Ukranian Orthodox Church. He however, as a young adult, converted to the Latin Rite of the Church, became a monk of St. Basil, and ultimately was ordained a bishop.

His fidelity to the Roman Catholic Church, and his outstanding ability to convince members of the Orthodox Rite to unite with Rome while still preserving their Slavonic rite and liturgy, led to his murder and martyrdom for the Church. His enemies dubbed him “the thief of souls.”

St. Josaphat Kuncevych took today’s Gospel to heart. He is, as Pope Pius 11th said of him “the great glory and strength” of the Eastern Rite Slavic Church. He literally was a mover of the mountain of disunity, and energetically believed that there should be fraternal bonds of respectful love, liturgy, and unity between the Eastern and Western Rites of the Catholic Church.

Let us pray today for St. Josaphat’s intercession to obtain the grace of his strength, love, and sense of forgiveness so that we, too, may carry out the Lord’s desire to see the various Rites of His Church living in love and unity.

Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

A Sacred Image – The Sun of Justice, Jesus Christ

You are probably thinking, the poor old fellow has made a mistake in his spelling. Shouldn’t the title read “Son” of Justice?

When I made my preliminary drawing for this sacred image (it is based on the drawings and wood carvings of Brother Martin Erspamer, O.S.B) I desired to have an appropriate name for it.

One evening a passage from Evening Prayer in the Divine Office caught my attention. It was the final prayer and it read: “Father, yours is the morning and yours is the evening. Let the Sun of Justice, Jesus Christ, shine for ever in our hearts and draw us to that light where you live in radiant glory.”

Sacred image copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

That prayer really struck me; there was the title: Sun of Justice, Jesus Christ.

My intent was to have the image direct the prayerful observer to meditate on the truth that Jesus Christ is the Sun, which as a result of His obedient sacrifice on the holy wood of the Cross, shines in our hearts; and through his death and resurrection redeems us of our sins and guides us back to the Father. He is the Son and the Word of the Father. He is the Light of the World. He is also the Sun of Justice, in that we as individuals will all surely have His light illumine our souls and be judged by His standards.

This sacred image is a gift for Fr. Joseph R. Upton. A wonderful and holy priest who serves as the Chaplain of the Fra Angelico Institute for Sacred Art.

The face and garments are not  painted in the language or style of traditional iconography in an attempt to emulate the woodcarving methods of Bro. Erspamer.

I am happy to say that when you are praying in its presence it does provide comfort to the soul.

Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono Essay and photos – All Rights Reserved

Seeds of Faith and Art

In our Gospel today, from St. Mark Chapter 4: 26-34, we have two important parables concerning the reign of God: the first concerns the farmer’s sowing of seed and the second refers to the growth of the seed.

When we examine the threads running through these parables we hear  Jesus explaining not only the functions that the farmer performs, but the nature of the seed that is sown, as well. This first parable is found only in Mark’s Gospel and explains that through the ministry of Jesus, God’s sovereign and all-powerful rule over mankind is made visible.

This is similar to a passage from the book of Ezekiel, chapter 17: 22-24, where we hear God asserting His sovereignty; the prophet Ezekiel concludes his passage with God saying, “As I, the Lord, have spoken, so will I do.” God is telling the ancient Hebrews that they will see what He can do – He will manifest and make Himself visible to them.

In the first parable the evangelist Mark explains that God is the Divine Sower, the Divine farmer, and that God’s power and fruitfulness appears throughout the history of the Jewish people. Mysteriously, at a time known only to God, His reign would suddenly be made visible and manifest – like a seed which was nestled in the warm soil, suddenly appearing one morning as a young shoot – ready to grow into a fruitful plant.

Jesus is that fruitful plant – that vine – that cedar – that shoot of Jesse that developed out of  the family of King David, and suddenly appeared in ministry to all of Israel.

If we are open to its influence, spiritual and natural growth in the life of Jesus Christ is the process  of entering into the rhythm of God’s beating Sacred Heart; with every beat there is growth. We may be unaware of it – but it occurs – it goes on all around us – it sustains us in our very being –  it sustains the very existence  of the universe.

In the second parable from this passage from Mark’s Gospel, we again hear Jesus speak of a growing plant and tell His disciples that the Kingdom of God works like the natural growth process of a typical mustard seed.

Jesus is emphasizing that the growth of the Kingdom of God, and the reign of God in our individual hearts through faith in Him, is exactly like a natural process. A mustard seed is small but when it matures it becomes a large shrub – and the same is true with faith.

When I was younger, my wife and I enjoyed planting a  large garden. we quickly learned that in order to have a successful garden, we needed to thoroughly pastor the soil, sow the seed in a specific way to allow it to germinate, and then water and feed the plants when they sprouted.

I mention this because the Divine Sower must also pastor the seed of faith in order for it to grow. St. Mark explains that Jesus tells His disciples that the Kingdom of God will sprout and  grow in their hearts. Like a garden, their hearts, as well as  ours – must be tilled, warmed, and watered, to receive the seed of His Son who is Sower, Servant  and Savior. Once that is done, the people of the Kingdom of God – the Church – will grow into a mighty plant, a mighty tree, one in which there will be many branches. That tree, as Ezekiel tells us, will be fed and watered with God’s graces.

So, how does this Gospel challenge us – especially those of us who are artists?

Our faith is like an unmarked packet of seeds – God sows – we grow; and sometimes we stand in astonishment at what has – or has not – taken root. As the faith of a child grows and receives the good, or, bad food that the family, Church, and society provides, he or she ultimately begins to make choices – choices which may, unbeknownst at the time, have a dramatic impact on whether their faith bears fruit abundantly, moderately, or not at all.

God is the Divine Sower of the seeds of faith. Each seed that He sows is good, each soul that receives it is good – and we, as pastors of that seed, must do all that we can to assist God in its growth in our own hearts and the hearts of those around us. If you are Christian, you may have been taught to believe that we must never tire of carefully tending the vine of faith that has enwrapped our hearts. God the Father’s witness is our model. He continuously gives of Himself to His Son, who in turn, gives of Himself to us through Scripture and Sacrament, and sends the Spirit to shower His Gifts upon our hearts.

But this blog reaches many people throughout the world. As of the last count, people in 65 different nations have stopped by and read some of these posts. I am sure that there may be many people who are not Christian who read this blog for one reason or another, Some artists may be  attracted to it because of a “prompting” within their soul to see and read about the truth, goodness, and beauty of God, others may just be curious, and that’s fine, too.

So as artists, I believe that the promptings that we follow to create something new, to experiment with color, clay, sound or image, are sprouts of the divine vine that blooms within our own soul. Our art, whether we realize it or not, is an expression of the fruitfulness of that seed that Jesus speaks of in His parable. The problem that many of us face is that we want the vine to “fruit” as quickly as possible. The virtue of Patience is an absolute necessity for the successful artist. We are not born with this virtue, it must be developed, and cultivated. How many artists have been frustrated and irritated by the fact that some thing, some person, some event has gotten in their way to start or finish a project or piece – whatever it might be. Yet, many times, it is the artist him or herself, that is the cause of the delay. For we forget that the seed, when planted, is a good seed. The concept, the idea, the score or sculpture, is a good idea – we just have to follow through with it and have confidence in our own abilities, that it will “sprout.”

So if the Lord is the Divine Sower, who has planted and enabled the seed to germinate, sprout, and take root, it is now our job – as His servants, to model His work, and tend the seed, tend the gift of our faith and our art, as well as we can; and then, know when to get out of the way, and trust God to do the rest.

Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved.     The painting of The Sower is by Harold Copping. Copping was a British artist who was born in 1863 and died in 1932. He was especially known for his Biblical scenes and travelled to the Middle East on a number of occasions to study the people and places of the Bible. Thanks to Bing images and Wikipedia for the reference.

Icons, Icon Painters, and Praying With Sacred Icons: PART 3

My favorite sacred icon of  Our Lord Jesus Christ is the 6th century encaustic icon of Christ Pantocrator (Christ The Almighty One) from St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai Peninsula.

This sacred image was a paradigm shift in the way early Christians viewed and portrayed Jesus Christ. This icon (shown below) is not the thin young  Messiah of the Catacombs, or the Roman nobleman presentation of the first four centuries of Church art (for examples confer Pierre du Bourguet’s book on Early Christian Painting). The Sinai Christ Pantocrator is portrayed as a robust Semitic man, who knows exactly what He is about, what His mission is, and what He expects of His followers in their living out of His Gospel life.

Interestingly, recent research has shown that when the image from the Shroud of Turin is compared to the image of Christ in this icon of Christ Pantocrator there are many points of similarity between the two images; possibly implying that the painter of Christ Pantocrator had seen the facial image found on the Shroud of Turin.

Allow me to suggest that when we are painting a sacred image/icon we must prayerfully enter into conversation with the Heavenly person we are representing, we must research his or her life, and then view what the Traditional forms of their representation has been in the history of sacred iconography.

We should then explore how we could make the truth of the Lord’s or a saint’s holy witness speak – using the language of the palette – to the 21st century. We should learn from the past, and absorb and pass on the beauty that is found within Holy Tradition.

Yet, at the same time, we need to constantly examine the work of some of the fine icon painters in the world today, people like my teachers: Peter Pearson, Marek Czarnecki, Anna Gouriev Pokrovsky, and Dimitri Andreyev. I have recently been influenced by the work of  Ksenia (Xenia) Mikhailovna Pokrovskaya, originally from Moscow, and now living in Massachusetts. Not to be missed is the work of Vladimir Grygorenko from Dallas, Texas. His sacred icons have a richness and luminous quality that is very beautiful and spiritual. We must also become familiar with the work of British iconographers Brother Aidan Hart, and David Clayton; the Norwegian Solrunn Nes, and the Russians: Archimandrite Zinon from the Pskov-Caves Monastery, and Philip Davydov and Olga Shalymova from St. Petersburg, Russia –  all of these people, and many others, prayerfully create beautiful icons that speak to 21st century people who are willing to listen. The wonderful news is that there are many sacred artists and iconographers – known and unknown – that are prayerfully engaging the ancient traditions of Catholic and Orthodox art, and prayer from the heart, throughout the world.

As we enter into our study of sacred art and iconography we need to first start with a survey book which gives us an overview of the sacred artistic tradition of the Eastern Church. We should first examine the great little book Icons and Saints of the Eastern Orthodox Church (ISBN 0-89236-845-4; translated by Stephen Sartarelli and published by the J. Paul-Getty Museum, 2004) and use it as a starting point to observe the styles and techniques of the various regional traditions over the last 1500 years.

We don’t have to “like” all the styles of the images that icon painters, from various cultures, have portrayed down through the centuries. But, we must respect their efforts because, hopefully, they were created in the true spirit of prayer, and each of them can teach us something about technique, color, symbol and theology.

When we begin our studies with a teacher of iconography, and sit down to draw the sacred image and apply the paint and gold-leaf, we must remember that we have a sacred responsibility to the faithful who view our sacred icons and images. These images must be correct from a theological, semantic, and aesthetic point-of-view. Our call, our ministry, is to lead the viewer to prayer and communion with Christ and His Saints, not to a secular admiration for an avant-garde or cavalier attitude toward our Holy Faith, or the people who died witnessing to it.

Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

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

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.

ORO et CREO: PART THREE – A Personal Reflection

This is the third part of a three part series on a Spirit filled idea called Oro et Creo (“I Pray – I Create”). This idea was started by artists Jamie Medeiros and Deacon Tom Lambert. Please check out the first two parts of this series which have already been posted in order to get a full perspective on what they are accomplishing on the parish level.

What is wonderful about what Jamie and Deacon Tom are doing is that they are providing a simple, no anxiety-no pressure structure through which the  Holy Spirit can move the person to unite their artistic and creative impulses to their desire for union and communication with God. This is done in a silent, communal, setting, but it can also be done in an individual setting.

Creativity and prayer go hand-in-hand – it just takes the desire of the individual artist, regardless of the medium, to take the simple step of uniting the creative moment to their spiritual life. How is that done? Simply, it is an affirmation of the will to prepare yourself through short silent prayers, and then to consciously say, “Lord God – I offer this moment of creativity to you, help me to create something which gives You glory;” and  then, you create: poetry, stories, visual art, cosmetic design, fashion design, music, photography – whatever appeals to you.

St. Benedict of Nursia, when he established his community of Benedictine monks at Monte Cassino in 6th century Italy, was concerned that his monks balance their life between work and prayer. He developed his Rule which ordered their day into specific moments of prayer, work, and relaxation. Even in the 21st century we can relate to the significance of this type of structure within our busy day.

The point being that we must be balanced and make time for the important things of our life and not be a slave to the world, materialism, or current fads. St. Paul speaks of this in Colossians 3: 23-24 when he says: “Whatever you do, work at it with your whole being. Do it for the Lord rather than for men, since you know full well you will receive an inheritance from Him as your reward. Be slaves of Christ the Lord.” 

As I perceive it, when we are involved in the Oro et Creo process we have made the decision  to unite ourselves to the Holy Spirit – the Sanctifier – and then, we allow the Holy Spirit to guide us in our creative work. It is through the process of this creative effort that we speak to God and tell Him we love Him.

This process occurs when we are silent, and caught up in the moment of doing our work. It is at these times of intense concentration that we are taken “out of ourselves” (only to come back when we realize that we have been so focused on the creative work that we have forgotten the experience of time).

Our conscious prayerful effort at the beginning of the process expresses to God our love and thanks. From my experience, we don’t have to be consciously involved in constantly praying as we are creating. When your mind reflects on the need to pray – it is then appropriate to say a short prayer – such as “Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner” or, “Holy God, Holy Mighty One, Holy Immortal One have mercy on us,” or, just simply, “Jesus, I love and trust you.”

Jamie and Deacon Tom use the phrase Oro et Creo (I Pray – I Create) which was inspired by the Benedictine motto Ora et Labora (Pray and Work). To this I would add another section of the Benedictine Rule:  ut in omnibus glorificetur Deus, “that in all [things] God may be glorified” (Rule, chapter 57.9) which was also adopted and adapted by St. Ignatius of Loyola in his Jesuit motto: All for the Greater Glory of God. So, in our prayer/creative efforts – our intent – whatever results, should always be our desire to give honor, thanks, love, and glory to God. If we enter into these moments with an open heart and pure soul – it will.

Bravo and thank you, Jamie Medeiros and Deacon Tom Lambert, for your faith, prayer, and creativity! I am sure you have inspired many to continue your ideas in their own settings.

Thanks to ad-orientem.blogspot.com/200 for the icon of St. Benedict.

Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved


ORO et CREO: I Pray – I Create – Part Two – A Wonderful Idea For Your Church

This is the second part of a three part series with Jamie Medeiros, an artist whose parish is in Tiverton, Rhode Island, and Deacon Tom Lambert, a Permanent Deacon within the Diocese of Chicago, and whose parish is Our Lady of Mt. Carmel in Chicago, Illinois.

Please be sure to read Part One of this two part interview in order to obtain a complete understanding of what the Lambert/Medeiros model of prayer and the creation of art is trying to accomplish. It is a model easily applicable to any Christian parish, within any Christian denomination, in the world.

The Interview: continued…

5) Is there any specific format that you use – such as – do you gather after Sunday Mass, do you say specific prayers together, or do you say prayers in individual meditation? Are all the participants Catholic?

Jamie: We begin in the church with some music (to help us transition from our busy days to awareness of God’s presence) and a brief reflection or guided meditation (usually a quote from Scripture or contemplative reading, followed by questions to think about).  We then begin our hour of prayerful creation.  We each go to an area of the church we are drawn to and create for an hour.  As we create, we let the images, questions, and movements guide us in our conversation with God.  Sometimes getting in the creating “zone” helps us rest in His presence. After one hour of prayerful creation, we meet in the front of the church and discuss our prayers (if we feel comfortable doing so).  Everyone places their artwork out for others to see and each of us explains what was going on, what we were thinking about, how it lead us to our results, etc.  There is a closing prayer.

Not all participants are Catholic, but all are Christian.

Deacon Tom: [He answered the format question in the previous post]. It is a parish ministry offered for members of our parish. We do occasionally get non-parishioners.

6) Does the “create” side of the session happen simultaneously with your prayer, or have you divided it – such as 10 minutes for prayer, 50 minutes for “create” after the communal or individual prayer session? Or do the participants desire for it to happen spontaneously?  What types of art are being produced: sketches, paintings, literary, etc. Have you ever had any formal or informal showings of the art that has been produced? Would your parish be open to displaying the art produced?

Jamie: For Oro et Creo, the prayer IS the creation (the Benedictines use the motto Ora et Labora – Pray and Work, we use Oro et Creo – I Pray – I Create, because creating can be prayer).  Our format is basically– an opening prayer, one hour of prayerful creation, and a closing prayer.  The opening prayer varies in length depending on what reflection I find for the week (usually having to do with current liturgical season, daily readings, or creation [the creative process]).

The type of art that is being produced are drawings, paintings, poetry, photography, and mixes of all of these. We have not had any exhibition of works yet.  We have talked about it.  I’m sure our parish would be open to it.

We definitely want to make sure that the practice remains prayerful and that participants are not pressured toward “perfection” of a work because others will see it, but it remains a space for a deep listening and responding to God’s voice.

Deacon Tom: [See previous post, question # 3]. We haven’t had any formal showings of the participants artwork. We have talked about the possibility of displaying the art but most are content to do this as a form of personal prayer

7) Do you have any guidelines that would be important for other parishes within the Diocese or other Dioceses around the world to be conscious of so that it would develop with the minimum number of personal or organizational potholes?

Deacon Tom: We are open to movement of the Spirit and the priority of art as a prayer experience. Silence [during the creative moments] is an important aspect [of what we are doing].

Jamie: I second what Deacon Tom said, “We are open to movement of the Spirit and the priority of art as a prayer experience.” Silence is an important aspect [of the creative moment].

8) Would you mind having people contact you – through your blog  or email – about the process?

Jamie:  Not at all.  They can email me at: medeirosjamie@gmail.com, at my website: www.iliveinhope.com, or blog: jamiedmedeiros.wordpress.com

Deacon Tom:  People can contact me at  olmcinfo2@aol.com  or Deacon Tom Lambert         Our Lady of Mt Carmel Parish    708 W Belmont, Chicago, IL 60657        773-525-0453 x 21.

In the third and last post of this series I will offer a personal reflection on what they have accomplished.

Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

ORO et CREO: “I Pray – I Create” – Part One

Soon after an article appeared in our Diocesan newspaper (The Rhode Island Catholic) in June 2011 on the Fra Angelico Institute for the Sacred Arts, I spoke on the phone with a talented artist by the name of Jamie Medeiros. We talked about the mission and goals of the Fra Angelico Institute and then she explained to me the mission of a group that she started at her parish in Tiverton, RI. Her group’s name is Oro et Creo (I Pray – I Create). I was fascinated by her description since it clearly was another example of the Holy Spirit’s continuing witness to get Catholics, and Christians of all denominations, interested in uniting the dual impulse of prayer and the creation of sacred art in all its various forms.

The following interview (the first part of a three part series) with Jamie Medeiros and Deacon Tom Lambert illustrate how their combined efforts and continuing positive influence have opened up the creative and spiritual impulses of many people.

The Lambert/Medeiros model can easily be replicated in your parish – regardless of where you are in the world. As of last week, this website/blog on The Fra Angelico Institute for the Sacred Arts, is read by people in 63 nations and on every continent except Antarctica. As far as I am concerned, these numbers are a clear example of how the Holy Spirit utilizes all resources to touch people’s hearts and move them back into a closer relationship with Him. Regardless of where you live in the world, and whether your parish is Roman Catholic, Greek or Russian Orthodox, Middle Eastern Catholic, or one of the Protestant denominations, the Lambert/Medeiros model of Oro et Creo, which unites personal prayer and the creative impulse within a church setting and in community with other artists, is a powerful tool of evangelization.

The Interview:

1) What inspired you to establish the Oro et Creo community?

Jamie Medeiros (St. Theresa’s Parish Tiverton, Rhode Island):     In Chicago at Our Lady of Mt.Carmel I had befriended one of the deacons [Deacon Tom Lambert] who had picked up art in his retirement.  He asked if I would meet one of the RCIA candidates [Belinda Cook Blakely] who was a student at The Art Institute of Chicago.  All three of us met after Mass one day and began a discussion about this common thread of art and God.  We discussed the fact that there seemed to be a lot of artists in our parish.  We joked, “we should start a group!”  The Deacon didn’t miss a beat.  He said, “We SHOULD start a group.”  We proceeded to discuss what it might “look like” if we started one.  This was just at the beginning of Lent [2008].  We all saw the movement of the Holy Spirit and thought the timing of this discussion was remarkable.  We picked a day, wrote up a blurb for the bulletin and decided to see if anyone would show.  They did.  We named it Oro et Creo after the Benedictine motto Ora et Labora (Pray and Work).  It is a time to pray while creating.  We continue to sit in wonder of the role of it as ministry for its participants.

Deacon Tom Lambert (Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Parish Chicago, Illinois): Oro et Creo started at Our Lady of Mt Carmel Church, Chicago when I introduced Jamie [Medeiros] and Belinda [Cook Blakely], two artists, to each other. They then approached me to start Oro et Creo because they didn’t find much connection between art and God in their work environments. Although both have moved on, Jamie to start an Oro et Creo group in Rhode Island, the group they started [here in Chicago] is still going on. For the translation of Oro et Creo I applied its meaning of ” I pray – I create” which says (to me) out of my prayer comes my creation. It is an invitation, a prayerful desire for one to create not a command to others, which is how I see Benedict’s Ora et Labora applying to his monks. [Deacon Tom and Jaime are using the phrase differently then St. Benedict, since St. Benedict was speaking in the imperative, that is, he was giving a command to his monks: “Pray and Work.” Deacon Tom and Jaime, however, are using Oro et Creo, the Latin is spelled differently because it  applies to an individual who prays and then creates, or creates while they are in a prayerful state – I Pray – I Create].

2) How long has your Oro et Creo sessions been in existence, what Church did it begin in, and is it taking place right now – name and geographical location?

Jamie: Oro et Creo first met during Lent 2008.  We began it at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church in Chicago, Illinois.  They are still meeting weekly on Monday nights.  Here in Tiverton, Rhode Island, Oro et Creo began the summer of 2010, meeting weekly, and now meets once a month on Mondays (7 pm) at St.Theresa’s Church in Tiverton.

Deacon Tom:  We meet weekly at Our Lady of Mt Carmel Parish 708 W  Belmont, Chicago, IL

3) Is the clergy involved in any way? Can people in your area join at any time and who would they contact and when would they show up?

Jamie: Here in Tiverton, our Pastor approved the program and likes to hear updates.  People are welcome to show up.  We meet at St. Theresa’s in Tiverton, RI on the first Monday of every month at 7 pm, unless it is a Faith Formation GIFT week.  People are welcome to email me with questions.

Deacon Tom: I am involved as a participant and [Parish] staff representative. The leader of the group is a layperson who is an artist.

4) How often do you come together to pray and create? Where do you actually meet – in the Church Hall, in the Church, at someone’s home?

Jamie: We currently meet once a month on Monday nights from 7 – 8:30ish pm.  This is open to change, depending on the seasons/ availability.  We meet in the Church.

Deacon Tom: We meet weekly. We start at the parish ministry center where we gather until everyone arrives. Then we have an opening prayer and then go in silence to the church or chapel. We sketch in silence for about an hour or more. People can sit anywhere in the church outside the sanctuary and sketch whatever they choose to do. Some bring pictures with them to sketch. We then go back to the ministry center where people may or may not choose to show the group what they were working on. Then a closing prayer is said. [Italics and boldface are my emphasis – Deacon Paul Iacono].

Part Two of this Interview with Jamie Medeiros and Deacon Tom Lambert will soon follow. In it they provide additional insights into this wonderful model which can easily be applied in your setting. Come on, what are you waiting for?!! Call one of your friends or church members who is creative, approach the parish clergy for permission to use the church for one hour a week, apply their model and get started!

 Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

Our Living Hope: The Tomb Cannot Hold Us

Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants  – we are all an Easter people. For two thousand years we have – through faith in historical documents and human witness – been invited to believe in a divine act of revelation: the Easter resurrection of our Lord and Savior; for it is in that act that our God shows us who He truly is.

We believe that the resurrection of Jesus is a historical and spiritual fact; and that the resurrection of Jesus not only explains the truth of His promises but it demonstrates what has been promised to us.

On the first Easter morning, Mary Magdalene, Peter, and John saw that the stone had been rolled away from Jesus’ tomb; and as they looked in  – they came face to face with their eternal destiny. Since no stone could have stopped the resurrected Jesus, it was pushed away not to let Jesus out – but to let them – and us – in.

Like Mary, Peter, and John, and all the others, we come to realize that we are an Easter people – which means that we are an eternal people – members, through our holy baptism, of the family of the eternal high God. The tomb could never hold the resurrected Jesus, and – as a people of faith – it cannot hold us.

St. Paul tells us in his epistle to the Hebrews that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (11: 1)

But what is hope? Hope is trust based on a divine promise. We have hope because we trust the words and deeds of Jesus Christ. We trust in His promises to us.

Our hope interacts with our faith in Him – and we are forever changed because of it. You and I are certain of our faith, because we understand and rejoice in the hope that our God does not lie – our Scriptures do not lie  – our Sacred Tradition does not lie; so as an Easter people we possess the hope that St. Peter speaks of when he says: “…we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.   (1 Peter 1:3).

As we celebrate the Easter season, let us – as our Lord tells us today – “Be not afraid”  – let us be joyful and thankful for the gift of faith and the willingness, in the face of all odds, to share our faith and joy with others.

May God grant you a joyous and creative Easter season!

The attached sacred image was painted by Fra Angelico in 1441 and is entitled “The Women at the Tomb.”       Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

What Does The Silence Of Christ Say To Us?

In the passage from the first Epistle of Peter known as the Canticle of Peter (1 Peter 2: 21-24) Peter describes Jesus’ acceptance of His passion. He explains:

“Christ suffered for you, and left you an example to have you follow in His footsteps. He did no wrong; no deceit was found in His mouth. When He was insulted He returned no insult. When He was made to suffer, He did not counter with threats. Instead He delivered Himself up to the One who judges justly. In His own body He brought your sins to the cross, so that all of us, dead to sin, could live in accord with God’s will. By His wounds you were healed.”

In this morning’s first reading we have Isaiah tell us, “He [the suffering servant] does not cry out or shout aloud, or make his voice heard in the streets.”

We can picture Jesus carrying the Cross, carrying the weight of our sins through the streets of Jerusalem to His place of execution.

After receiving a savage beating and scourging at the hands of the Roman soldiers, He said nothing; after having the weight of the Cross thrust upon His raw and bleeding shoulders – He said nothing; as He stumbled and zigzagged through the streets of Jerusalem, being hounded every step of the way by sadistic soldiers and a callous mob, He said — nothing.

What does His silence say to us?

Possibly, if we unite ourselves to His sufferings, we can see that our own life consists of spiritual, physical, and emotional beatings, scourgings, sufferings, and crosses that are thrust upon us.

Like Jesus, we may feel that we are being ground into the street by the suffering we are experiencing – but like Him – we must rise up – to carry our personal cross as best we can.

As Catholic Christians – actually, all Christians regardless of denomination – have as our calling the duty to carry our trials and troubles in the same way that Jesus did. Like Him, we will zigzag through the streets, we too, will stumble and fall; but Holy Week reminds us that we must always see Jesus’ composure, humility and strength in the face of unbelievable pain and extraordinary adversity as a model that we must strive to emulate.

Jesus was not a masochist; nor are we. But we understand that the mystery of suffering contains within it the seed of our redemption – the seed of our spiritual rebirth – for a seed must fall to the ground and have its outer shell stressed, broken, and yes, pulverized, so that its center may take root and give birth to new life.

This week we must make a silent prayer, to join our trials and sufferings, those of our loved ones, and those of our nation – to His, and to implore the Father to help us raise up our nation, family, and ourselves as best we can, so that we may, as Saint Peter tells us, “follow in His footsteps” and silently and without complaint, carry our own cross – as well as the crosses of others.

Special thanks to Fernando Mario Paonessa a contemporary artist for providing the images of Jesus suffering the Way of the Cross. Fernando created these stunning sculptures (reliefs); more images may be found on his website: http://fernandomariopaonessa.eu/pages/via_crucis.htm

Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

The Beautiful Lace Needlework of Esther Paris

Two weeks ago, at our Autumn Meeting of the Fra Angelico Institute for the Sacred Arts, some of the members displayed examples of their secular and sacred art.

The mission of the Institute is to deepen the prayer life of its participants by evangelizing the truth, goodness, and beauty of God through the understanding and creation of sacred art. Some of our members were involved in this effort before they became participants in the Institute – evidence that the Holy Spirit is working in many different ways, through the efforts of a variety of talents, to express the truth, beauty, and goodness of God through artistic creativity.

In this post I’ll be showing the work of the artist Esther Paris. Throughout this week and next, I’ll be featuring the work of other artists that presented their work at our  October 28th meeting.  All of the work is of superb quality and shows a wonderful diversity of approaches, interests, and techniques. Some of the art is secular and some is sacred – but all of it exemplifies the care, commitment, and wonderful creativity of the artists who are members of the Institute. If you are an artist – novice or veteran – seriously consider joining our efforts to give glory to God through the creation of sacred art! If you are interested in learning more, or joining us, please contact me at frainstitute@cox.net.

The photograph below is of the beautiful lace needlework of Esther Paris. Esther is a member of the Institute’s Sacred Needle Arts Guild, and we are very happy to have a person of her talent acting as the “maestro” of that Guild!

Photo and design: Copyright © 2011 Esther Paris All Rights Reserved. Used with permission.

Esther Paris is from Cumberland, Rhode Island and she is the 2011 Eastern States Exposition First Place Winner and People’s Choice Award Winner in the Lace category, Non-Instructors, “Class H – Tatting – Adaptation.” This competition was held at the Eastern States Exposition in Springfield, MA this past September. People from as far away as Florida competed in the various categories within the Lace Competition department. Congratulations Esther! In the future, I will post other work completed by her – it is sure to please!

Copyright © 2011 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

Our Lady of the Rosary

All the events of human history have to be backlit by the reality of our faith that God does not abandon His people. An example of this truth is today’s memorial of Our Lady of the Rosary. This memorial was established by Pope St. Pius 5th in thanksgiving for the Catholic victory over the Muslim army and navy at the famous battle of Lepanto on October 7, 1571. Many rosaries were said by the European faithful during the battle to stem the tide of the Islamic invasion. The admiral for the Catholic Fleet, Andrea Doria, had the miraculous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe (seen below) in the stateroom of his flagship. Prior to the battle King Philip 2nd of Spain had given the Mexican icon of the Blessed Mother to Admiral Doria.

Our Gospel today tells us that our Lord God chose Mary, a humble Hebrew teenager, to be the finest being within His creation. She was offered the opportunity to be the counterpoint to the sin and evil that consumed the world. She was offered the opportunity to be the Theotokos- – the Bearer of God – the Mother of the Messiah.

It is God’s will to have beauty and purity, mercy and justice, exist along side the evil that Satan – with man’s complicity – brought into the world; and it is the Father’s will, through the actions of Jesus and His mother Mary, that they overcome and defeat the evil that Satan spawned.

God is an artist. His palette consists of many different colors. He uses the darks as well as the lights to achieve His end. We too, are artists. Like Mary we have a choice. Mary chose to humbly accept the will of God for her life, even though she did not foresee and understand all that was to take place. She decided to paint the structure of her life – and the life of her family – with the colors of faith, humility, love, and joy. Did the masterpiece of her life include the darkness of suffering, pain, and loss; yes, of course it did, but those dark shadows did not muddy the joy and happiness she was to know in doing the will of God – it was not to interfere with her accomplishing her grace filled mission for the family of God.

It is through the humble statement of Mary to the angel Gabriel, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word,” that our salvation was made possible. It is through Mary’s “Yes” that the Holy Spirit, in an intimate and personal encounter with her, was able to accomplish the pledge made to King David that “the time of the fulfillment of God’s promises and preparations [will begin].” (CCC # 484).

As Catholic Christians we understand that the prayer that we call the Holy Rosary was given to St. Domenic (Domingo de Guzman) in 1208 by the Blessed Mother. If prayed with reverence and attention, the Holy Rosary through the recitation of the four great Mysteries: Joyful, Luminous, Sorrowful, and Glorious, recount the entire life of our Lord and His ministry to us. Mary gave this prayer to St. Domenic so that it might become a vehicle for meditation and contemplation on all that her Son did for us. It is not meant to be a tool of mindless recitation. To say that would be as callous as saying that Michelangelo used his sculptor’s tools to just break marble.

Mary understood – and understands – that we need a process in which we can reflect on the saving actions of her Son, while at the same time, intoning – either privately in silence or audibly in a group – the beautiful prayer of the angel Gabriel at her Annunciation, the prayer that Jesus Himself taught us, and the famous doxology of the Glory be.

Faith, humility, love, and joy – these virtues will help us become better sacred artists – and better people, and the Holy Rosary is an important tool to help us achieve our goal.

The painting below is by Fra Angelico and shows St. Dominic, the Blessed Mother, and St. John the Evangelist. Fra Angelico inserted St. Dominic into the scene in an attempt to suggest to his fellow friars that Dominic’s prayer was so mystical and so intimate that he united himself to the Cross of Christ – and that he embraced the Cross in faith, humility, love, and joy. It is a worthy suggestion for us to contemplate, too.

Copyright © 2011 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

St. Francis of Assisi, Simplicity, and Sacred Artists

Today is the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi. He is one of the patrons of the Fra Angelico Institute for the Sacred Arts. St. Francis reminds us how we admire, and should emulate, the virtues of the saints. When we meditate on the life of St. Francis  – three characteristics of spirit – three virtues –  emerge.

First, he was a simple man. He pursued simplicity. This does not mean that he was of limited intelligence, or that he pursued simplicity for simplicity sake, rather, it means that he tried, and was successful, at eliminating everything from his life that did not lead to, and enhance, his understanding and love of Jesus. In other words, we can see that he kept to what was essential in life: “God, the state of our soul, judgment and eternal life.”

He realized that “to be simple is to see things with the eyes of God.  St. Francis pursued simplicity because he innately knew that God Himself is simple” (Fr. Ronald Knox 1936).

Other characteristics of Francis’ life are the virtues of faith and love. St. Francis understood that by increasing his faith, by praying for faith, by acting faithfully and lovingly, his spiritual muscles would be stressed, and as a result, he would grow stronger in faith and life.

Giotto (1226-1337), born the same year St. Francis died, painted these virtues of St. Francis at work when he portrays Pope Innocent III’s dream of Francis holding up the pillars of the Church. It was St. Francis, and his fellow friars, that would promote, and live in their daily lives, the virtues of poverty, chastity, and obedience that would sweep the imagination of Europe and even gain the respect of the Eastern world.

One of my favorite stories about him that also illustrates this point occurred in the year 1219 – during the Fifth Crusade; Francis traveled to the Holy Land – where he was captured and beaten by the Muslims. St. Bonaventure tells us in his history of the Franciscan Order that St. Francis was brought before the sultan Al Kamil, and preached to him about love and the meaning of Jesus’ life. When he finished his sermon he then challenged the Sultan’s imams to a religious test to determine which was the true religion – Islam or Catholicism. The painting below, entitled Trial by Fire by Giotto,  illustrates the drama of this moment.

“Francis said to the Sultan: “Please have a bonfire lit, and have your imam, along with me, enter the fire – so let it be that his God is the true God whoever emerges from the flames unhurt.”

The Sultan’s eyes lit up – now this is a man of faith. His imams, however, felt that they had better things to do.  But from that moment on Al Kamil was so impressed with Francis that he gave the Franciscans safe passage to travel and stay unhindered – anywhere – in Muslim occupied territories; and as a direct result of this act, eight hundred years later, if you go to Jerusalem you will see that the Franciscans are still the Catholic Religious Order responsible for the maintenance of the shrines in the Holy Land.

Theologian Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio teaches us that “St. Thomas Aquinas explains that a virtue, like a physical muscle, is a habit – a power or capacity – that gets stronger when its exercised – and atrophies – when it is not;” and St. Francis, tells us that faith and loveprayer and service are the main muscles in our spiritual body.

Francis refused to let his spiritual muscles become weak. He exercised them regularly, we could say heroically, so that he would be able to endure all the tests, all the trials, that life presented to him. We need to ask ourselves, however, how did he do it? How did he exercise his spiritual muscles?

The answer is that he balanced himself. He was in harmony with the Lord, and, with himself as a person. He achieved this balance by harmonizing his active life (the life of an ordained deacon serving within the world) with the life of the Spirit (prayer, the Liturgy of the Hours, contemplation, Penance, and the Eucharist). Like the holy Gospel account of Martha and Mary, he imitated the Lord’s understanding by seeing that both were correct, service and prayer, both had their place and both were absolutely essential – especially prayer.

What a wonderful witness he is to us. His life and work always has something to teach, and challenge us,  to greater acts of simplicity, service, prayer and love in our own lives.

As sacred artists we should be humble enough to study and learn from sacred artists who have come before us, but most importantly, we need to study sacred artists that are balanced in their spiritual and artistic lives. One artist that we need to study is Giotto because he is a wonderful example of a sacred artist that combined the principles of action and contemplation. He was balanced. He achieved simplicity in his portrayal of spiritual truths, and as a result, was able to witness to us the need for continual dedication to strive, within our own spiritual and artistic traditions, to serve the Lord and our fellow man by expressing beauty through our sacred art.     St. Francis of Assisi pray for us.

Copyright © 2011 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

Sacred Artists Must Be Empty Vessels

In this morning’s Gospel St. Luke is clear that Jesus is carefully listening to the argument that breaks out among His disciples as to who is the greatest among them. One translation has St. Luke saying, “He perceives the thoughts in their hearts.” 

It would be prudent to say that we are all psychologically and theologically hardwired to look for approval. King David wrote of this in the Psalms when he said:  “You have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with honor and glory.”  David recognized the fact that we are something special in the grand scheme of creation, but Jesus has come to set even the wisdom of King David straight. (Psalm 8 verse 5).

He tells His disciples,  “… for he who is the least among you – is the one who is great.” The disciples must have done a double take when He said this, for it went counter to their understanding of reality. But Jesus uses a child to demonstrate this truth; for  children in ancient times were socially at the bottom of the barrel, they had no rights, and basically were – if a family was lucky enough to have them – equivalent to  domestic staff and servants. Children were expected to be seen and not heard – the watchwords for them were humility, listening, and service. An honorable Jewish child of the first century AD would not be bold enough to assert any supposed rights, or demand anything of their parents. There was no self-seeking here, there was no expectation of a mandatory trophy given to raise self-esteem.

Jesus is telling His disciples to see in the child standing next to Him the model for their own behavior. For they, too, should view themselves as servants; as James would say in a later epistle “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:6).  Jesus explains that we must eliminate from our life everything that blocks our spiritual progress – vanity, self-aggrandizement, power-grabs – and the greatest of all sins – pride. St. Paul tells us very clearly in the 2nd epistle to the Corinthians that the Lord wants us to be empty vessels so that He can fill us up with His love, grace, and power.

We cannot leave this day without mentioning two men who were “empty vessels” for the Lord. They were early martyrs of the Church – Sts. Cosmas and Damian – excellent models for all of us who aspire to be sacred artists. They met their death at the hands of the Emperor Diocletian in the late 3rd century BC.

The above two icons are of the twin brothers Saints Cosmas and Damian. The very top icon was done many centuries ago, and the icon right above these lines is a more contemporary interpretation.  Unfortunately I was not able to locate the names of the artists that “wrote” these two beautiful icons.

Sts. Cosmas and Damian are models for us because they were not interested in making a name for themselves (even though because of their medical skills they were known throughout the Eastern Roman Empire). They were not interested in making money in return for their remedies (they were called the “moneyless ones” since they did not accept money for their services).

The above image is by Fra Angelico. It is his interpretation of Saints Cosmas and Damian miraculously treating the emperor Justinian after he prayed for their help, three hundred years after their death. The leg was healed, and Justinian attributed it to his prayers for their intercession. The icon shows them practicing their skills, following through and using their knowledge (they studied at the famous medical centers in Arabia). As artists (for we can say “the art of medicine”) they confronted all illness head on and relieved suffering, not by just turning to past remedies, but willingly using their common sense and their ability to adapt remedies to new situations. They were “with-it” as the current parlance would say. Yet, they were novel in their approach since they were practical men who “emptied themselves of self,” had a deep love and faith in Jesus, while at the same time, doing all they could to increase their skills for the benefit of their fellow man.

Thus, they apply to our desire to be sacred artists by showing us that we must make the effort, as St. Paul says, to be empty vessels: to allow our own ego to be overwhelmed by the power of the Lord, to confidently go about the process of learning the art form(s) that we are called to concentrate on, keeping our sense of humor as to the rate of our improvement, steadily practicing the art, and prayerfully putting our trust in Jesus to help us be the best artists we can be.

Sts. Cosmas and Damian were committed Christians, and the early Church regarded them with great honor from the moment of their martyrdom. They truly are a symbol of what our Gospel speaks about this morning – for they made it their duty – especially in the manner of their deaths – to empty themselves – and be filled beyond measure with God’s gifts.

Copyright © 2011 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

The Challenge of Sacred Iconography – Part 2: The Byzantine Empire – Justinian and the Church of Holy Wisdom

As we continue our discussion of sacred iconography it is imperative that we take a historical view and look at the major contribution the Byzantine Empire and its civilization made to this sacred art form.

When we speak of the Byzantine Empire we are referring, initially, to the eastern region of the Roman Empire. The Roman civilization was eight hundred years old when it began to feel the pressure of highly motivated foreign tribes that desired to pick away at her borders and plunder her cities. By the fourth century AD the Emperor Constantine moved the capital of the Empire out of Rome, Italy and firmly established it in a new city that he named after himself – Constantinople. He accomplished this by AD 330.

The name Byzantine derives from the Greek colony (Byzantium) that had been established in the 7th century BC in that area of eastern Turkey that borders the Black Sea. It was a successful colony primarily because it had a fabulous harbor – the area known as the “Golden Horn,” and was easily defended. What distinguished the new city of Constantinople from the other major cities of the Roman Empire was the fact that the Emperor Constantine was a convert to Christianity. As a result, the city of Constantinople and the resulting development of the new Byzantine Empire was Christian, as compared to the Roman west, which still had large cultural areas that were dominated by Greek, Roman, Germanic, and Celtic paganism.

The Byzantine Empire lasted for over one thousand years; and within that period of time produced magnificent architectural and portable sacred art. Justinian, the great Roman-Byzantine emperor of the 6th century, heavily promoted the expansion of the Empire (see map) and sacred art – especially in his building the magnificent Church of the Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia) in Constantinople. In the map below the green area is the Byzantine Empire prior to Justinian. The purple is the territory that was part of the western Roman Empire, and was retaken from various barbarian tribes as a result of Justinian’s considerable military efforts.

As you can see from the small image at the left – The Church of Holy Wisdom was an extraordinary undertaking even for the renowned Roman and Greek architects and engineers that worked on its construction. Its completion was complicated because Justinian demanded that his architects build high and have a wide cupola – which ultimately led to cracks forming, partial collapse, and major renovations having to take place within the same century that it was built.

The beautiful and very large mosaics (found below) of Christ, His Mother, and John the Baptist are found within the Church of Holy Wisdom in Constantinople (the first image of Christ is a close-up of the three figure mosaic below it). You will be able to tell from my next post that it had a major impact on the development of the sacred art of the Byzantine Empire.

The large mosaic of the Blessed Mother and the child Jesus dates to the 9th century; and the three figures of Mary, Jesus, and John the Baptist dates from the 13th century. The Church of the Holy Wisdom was the largest church in Catholicism for 1000 years. The Muslims converted it into a mosque after the conquest of Constantinople in 1453. Today, it is a museum, a major tourist attraction, and is considered priceless by the secular Muslim government of Turkey and the entire Christian world.

Copyright © 2011 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

The Triumph of the Cross and Our Lady of Sorrows by Jed Gibbons

Today we celebrate the feast of the Exaltation – or Triumph – of the Holy Cross.

The early Catholic Church was intensely persecuted during the first 280 years of its life – so the symbol of the Cross – the symbol of public humiliation and excruciating death – was rarely used in our Christian iconography. But this doesn’t mean that the early Christians were reluctant to express their devotion to the Cross. Writing in the year 204, the Christian theologian Tertullian said: “At every going in and out, when we put on our clothes, when we sit at table, in all the ordinary actions of daily life, we trace upon our forehead the sign [of the Cross].”

In the year 313, the Emperor Constantine signed the Edict of Milan, which proclaimed toleration for the Christian faith within the Roman Empire. Constantine’s mother, Helena, made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and with the support of the local bishop – excavated the area known as the site of Golgotha. Tradition states that portions of the true Cross, with a partial nameplate still attached was found, resulting in Constantine ordering that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher be built over the site. The church was dedicated nine years later, with a portion of the Cross placed inside it. So the feast that we celebrate today marks the dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the year 335. That Church was unfortunately destroyed by the Muslims in the year 1009, only to be rebuilt centuries later, with the new occupants – all Christians – vying for control of the site! Unfortunately even among our brother Christian Churches there have been numerous clashes and conflicts over the control of this holy site. It is as if all of us – as guardians of the Church’s holiest site – had not internalized the meaning of the true Cross – the meaning of what happened on that site 2000 years ago – the meaning of the Father’s supreme sacrifice of His Son for the sake of His creation. God’s love was raised up on Golgotha that day and Satan’s venom was forever neutralized, but the sting of Satan’s original bite in the Garden of Eden still remains.

The truth of our Scripture readings tell us that Moses lifted up the bronze serpent, a sign of sin, and the people were healed. Jesus makes an analogy of the serpent with the healing power of the Cross – since it is a sign of our sin and our redemption. When the Father, through the Holy Spirit, lifted up Jesus in the resurrection, the Holy Cross was no longer viewed as a sign of evil and sin – rather it became a sign of Christ’s victory and our salvation.

Our Savior, through the instrument of the Holy Cross, shows us the level of His love for His  creation. The Father shows His love for us by giving us the best He has  – His Son – and His Son shows His obedience and trust in the Father – through His willingness to take upon Himself all sin and become a perfect offering back to the Father on our behalf. The Fra Angelico Institute for the Sacred Arts chaplain, Fr. Joseph Upton, gave a beautiful homily today at morning Mass in which he emphasized that every day, we too raise up Jesus on the Cross. In every Mass, we have re-presented the sacrifice of Jesus for us. We commemorate His act and we thank Him for it in His gift of Himself to us in the Eucharist. We unite ourselves to the Triumph of the Cross through the Mass.

As sacred artists, on a daily basis, we must attempt to imitate this profound love of God in our creation of artistic works, and in our families and community. Our love must be strengthened by the truth of our faith – and by the triumph of the Cross; when we do this we will understand that the crosses that we carry, and the sufferings that we endure, unite us to the Lord, and help us transform our lives into His. Our Blessed Mother is our model for this transformation.

Tomorrow, September 15th, is the memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows. The Invitatory prayer that begins the Office of Readings in the Liturgy of the Hours says, “Let us adore Christ, the Savior of the world, who called his mother to share in his passion.” Those words reminded me of a beautiful illuminated miniature by Jed Gibbons, a very fine artist from Chicago. I met Jed when he was teaching at the St. Michael’s Institute for the Sacred Arts at Enders Island in Mystic, CT. Jed has produced some truly inspirational work (his Stations of the Cross in the chapel on Enders Island are exquisite) and this piece that you see below captures not only the theme of the Triumph of the Cross but the truth of the Church’s teaching that Mary shared in the passion of her  Son. This piece is entitled   Maria, Mater Misericordiae (Mary, Mother of Mercy); it was completed in 2006, and was done in historic earth pigments and 23 karat gold. It measures 6.75 by 9.25 inches. I thank the Foundation for the Sacred Arts website for the image.

Copyright © 2011 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved. Image copyrighted by Jed Gibbons All Rights Reserved

 

Sacred Iconography and Personal Creativity – Do Not be Afraid!

What is iconography?

The Sacred Iconography Guild is one of the twelve Sacred Arts Guilds that is sponsored by the Fra Angelico Institute. As of this post we have six members of this Guild who have expressed interest in learning this particular artistic tradition of the Church. Unfortunately, many people in the 21st century do not know the traditions of the Western (Latin, that is the Roman and affiliated rites of the Church) or the Eastern (Orthodox, that is the Coptic, Greek, Russian, and other Middle Eastern Rites) of Christ’s Church. All of these Rites have beautiful liturgies, the Sacraments – Holy Mysteries, and traditions – of which sacred iconography is one. This Institute hopes to be one more voice – among many – bringing these traditions to light to a new generation of people. So this post hopes to begin the survey of what sacred iconography is and how we can participate in it.

The word icon is Greek for “image.” Specifically, as it is applied in our usage, it refers to a sacred image that has been painted by a trained iconographer in a way that portrays the sacred presence of Jesus Christ, His mother – “the Theotokos,” His angels, and the saints. Icons in both the Latin Rite and Eastern Rite Churches are venerated – never worshipped. They act as sacred windows or doorways that allow us to view the heavenly realm of divinized humanity or the visual representation of Scriptural truth.

Iconography is simply the study of icons, their development through the centuries (the first iconographer is considered to be St. Luke the Evangelist), the techniques and methods used by various “schools” of iconography within specific cultural regions – and within specific national areas. By “school” I mean a collection of iconographers working under a master iconographer that has a specific style through which they portray Our Lord and the sacred people, mysteries, and historic occurrences within the Church’s history.

Sacred icons portray theological reality. So, it is mandatory that a sacred iconographer follows the “canon” of iconography that developed through the centuries. The “canon” consists of the rules that an iconographer must follow in painting, that is, “writing” an icon. I say “writing” because the tradition states that an iconographer must be aware of the great responsibility that he or she has in conveying the “Scriptural truth” within the image itself. In other words, the iconographer must not change Holy Scripture. He or she paints (“writes”) what is in Holy Scripture, or within Church history and Tradition, because as Pope Benedict 16th has said: sacred images have an important role to play in the “catechesis of the people.” So the iconographer cannot be portraying his or her version of Scripture – or Church history – to do so would be as bad as one of the Evangelists changing the words of the Gospel as he writes or prints a new copy because he desires to be creative or “express” himself.

So this brings up the question of the role that an artist’s personal creativity and skill plays in the development and expression of the written icon. I highly recommend that you go to the websites of my teachers (Peter Pearson; Dimitri Andreyev (Prosopon School); Marek Czarnecki (Seraphic Resorations); and Anna Pokrovskaya Gouriev (Izograph School) to examine their galleries and to see the beauty of their work. Examine an icon of our Lord Jesus or our Blessed Mother by Peter, Dimitri (or his father Vladislav), Marek, Anna (or her mother Xenia) and you will see not only the display of creativity of these iconographers, their skills, their color choices, their simplicity and purity, but also, the truth, goodness, and beauty that is the theological truth of their icons. Their icons are 20th and 21st century pieces of sacred art – yet – they are firmly within the “canon” of the Church’s perception of iconography and serve as models for the expression of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.

As our Lord said to His disciples in the boat as they were being tossed about by the sea – “It is I. Do not be afraid.” This applies to us, too, as spiritual travelers, artists, and novice iconographers – the Lord is with us – we have nothing to fear because we have put our trust in Him.

Copyright © 2011 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

The Eternal Now and the Coronation of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Today is the memorial of the Coronation of our Blessed Mother. Sacred icons and images have expressed the Queenship and Coronation of the Holy Theotokos – the Mother of God – for at least 1500 years. The icon The Virgin Salus Populi Romani, a 5th century icon, displayed in the Church of Saint Mary Major in Rome, and seen below, shows the Blessed Mother dressed in typical first century Middle Eastern garb as she holds her Son who gives a blessing. This icon reputed to

be a copy of one that was painted by St. Luke the evangelist who tradition states knew the Blessed Mother and spoke and listened to her .

A 6th century icon of the Blessed Mother and Child displays a coronation theme – in which the Blessed Mother and her Son are in Heaven. Mary sits on her throne with Her Son on her lap, surrounded by St. Theodore on the left and St. George on the right, while two angels look up as the hand of the Father gives a blessing. This icon is found in the Monastery of St. Catherine in the Sinai Peninsula.

Our iconic images painted (“written”) by orthodox iconographers of both the Latin, Greek, Russian, Coptic, and other Rites agree with the ideas found within our Holy Scriptures. For example, today’s Gospel passage tells us “… the Lord God will give to Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.” This Scripture explains that the Lord willingly takes the initiative to come forth – with hands extended – to meet us and share the reign of His kingdom.

In sacred art we visualize this not only in the extension of Christ’s hands on the cross – but also, in the extension of the infant Jesus’ hands, to give us a blessing, as He sits in His mother’s lap – or is caressed in her arms – an image that is found not only in the above icons but in numerous statues found in Latin Rite churches throughout the world.

Our first reading – from Isaiah – also speaks of Christ in regal terms – as Emmanuel (God is with us) – the “Prince of Peace.” And we can even get apocalyptic and speak of the Books of Daniel and Revelation which recall the truth that the world will be transformed through the birth of the Redeemer, made possible by Mary, (“a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars… who gave birth to a son – a boy destined to shepherd all the nations with an iron rod. Her child was caught up to God and His throne”). – This woman, our Blessed Mother, enables the incorporation of the reign of God into the world. She is the  woman destined to crush the head of the apocalyptic serpent.

St. John of Damascus speaks about this in the 8th century when he says of the Blessed Mother that she “has become the terror of demons, the city of refuge for those who turn to her. [He has her say:] Come to me in faith, O people, and draw as from a river of grace. Come to me in faith, without doubt, and draw from the mighty and certain source of grace.”

On the solemnity of the Assumption – we recalled Blessed John Paul 2nd saying “…the Assumption of the Mother of Christ in Heaven forms part of the [Lord’s teaching about] His victory over death – the beginning of which is found in the death and resurrection of Christ.”

So in today’s memorial – Mary, the humble daughter of our Heavenly Father, garbed in the majestic robes of a queen takes her place next to the throne of her resurrected and ascended Son.

Why? 

Because the Church desires to teach us that Mary is privileged – beyond all other women and men – to be the first and most significant human being to participate in the glory, triumph, and reign of God. By her very willingness to become the Mother of God – the Theotokos – she agreed to become our spiritual Mother, too.

In this beautiful sacred image by Blessed John of Fiesole, also known as Fra Angelico, the great Dominican artist of 15th century Florence, portrays the moment of Our Lady’s Coronation – with the Heavenly court surrounding her. Interestingly, you see men and women saints that were alive thousands of years after Mary’s assumption observing the event. Why did the good Friar do that? He is expressing the fact that Heaven is within the eternal now of the Trinity – the knowledge of that coronation moment is known by St. Thomas Aquinas – who looks out at the observer (in the lower left corner) – and notes the truth, goodness, and beauty of God in desiring this for His beloved and humble human daughter – the Queen of Heaven.

The Blessed Mother, in her regal beauty, authority, and power, has not left us orphans – for she is “the Living Temple of the Holy Spirit, the Inviolate Mountain, the ladder” that joins Heaven and earth – the “One who Shows the Way” (Hodigitria) to her Son and to our Heavenly reward.

If we remain faithful and loyal to the teachings of Christ – as expressed through our Sacred Scriptures and our Church – and as the Epistle of St. James teaches – “Act on that faith…” then we, too, will reign alongside our Heavenly Mother as we give praise and glory to God.

Our Lady – Queen of Heaven – pray for us.        Sources: John Paul 2, L’Osservatore Romano, August 15, 1983; Pope Pius 12th – encyclical Ad Caeli Reginam, October 11, 1954.

Copyright © 2011 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

The Dormition – Assumption of Mary

Over the past two weeks, our Sunday Gospels have stressed the truth that to be a faithful disciple of Christ we must keep our focus – in good times and bad – on Jesus. On August 15th, the solemnity of the Assumption/Dormition of Mary, the Church again directs our gaze – for in focusing on Mary we see not only our Queen – but the one true sign – the Great Sign – who points the way to her Son.

Her signature was that of a perfect disciple – for she possessed the confident competence and the courageous commitment – of true faith.

In the “fullness of time” – after millennia of human history – the Father of Mercies saw in Mary – a loving and lovable woman who possessed great courage – the person – who in her simplicity and purity would be completely open, totally surrendering, and free from the pollution of pride or self-will.  She was the woman who would be the New Eve – the mother of the living – the mother of a new creation. She is, as the Eastern Rite proclaims, the All Holy Onethe Panagia, who as our spiritual mother shows us the way by guiding us to her Son – and through His grace – enables us to be reborn into eternal life.

It is through our own rebirth, through water and the Spirit, that we are able to bear fruit and imitate Mary in bringing the newborn Christ to others. St. Maximus the Confessor speaks of this when he says “Every soul that believes, conceives and gives birth to the Word of God according to faith. Christ is the fruit – and all of us – are mothers of the Christ.” (quote found in Vladimir Zelinsky’s  “Mary in the Mystery of the Church: The Orthodox Search for Unity” which is contained in Mary CoRedmptrix, Mediatrix, Advocate – Theological Foundations II. M.I. Miravalle, S.T.D., editor).

This beautiful sacred icon was done by one of my teachers – the master Marek Czarnecki of Seraphic Restoration Studio in Meriden, Connecticut. It is done in the traditional egg tempera and measures 13 by 17 inches. It is different from one of the most famous sacred images of  the Italian Renaissance – The Assunta by the master – Titian – yet Czarnecki’s sacred icon is theologically, aesthetically, and semantically correct. Titian painted his Assunta between 1516-18.

Our Catechism (of the Catholic Church, paragraph 966), proclaims that “The Immaculate Virgin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up – body and soul – into heavenly glory, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things, so that she might be the more fully conformed to her Son, the Lord of lords, and the conqueror of sin and death”

This proclaims the wonderful news that the Assumption of Mary is a participation in the act of her Son being raised from the dead – and so is a Sign – a Sign that points to our own resurrection and union with God. The Eastern Rite liturgy says on its August 15th celebration of this solemnity: “In giving birth you kept your virginity; in your Dormition you did not leave the world, O Mother of God, but were joined to the Source of Life.”

Our Blessed Mother’s words in her beautiful Canticle, and her personal destiny, are inseparably linked to our own – for she is one of us; and by keeping our focus on her Son  – we too – through the grace of God – will experience His mercy which lasts from age to age on those who fear Him.

 

Below Titian’s masterpiece is a traditional Orthodox icon of the Dormition (or falling asleep) of Mary with the grieving apostles surrounding her bed. This icon was painted (“written”) by Irina Kolbneva.

One of the purposes of this blog is that we will explore how a sacred icon is painted (“written”) in the Eastern Church’s tradition and how the Western Church began to explore new avenues of visual expression after being in harmony with the Eastern Church for the first thousand years of our existence.

(Additional sources: The Book of Revelation, Chapter 19; Lumen Gentium, 59; and Pope Pius 12th in his Munificentissimus Deus (November, 1950).  Our Lady of the Assumption, pray for us.

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


A Reflection on St. Matthew 14: 22-33

Today’s Gospel reading cuts right to the heart of the matter – and asks the question: do we have faith in our Lord Jesus Christ?

St. Peter certainly came face-to-face with that question. As a commercial fisherman he knew how dangerous that storm was and that his boat and companions could easily perish in its waves. Then, suddenly, Jesus appears – walking on the water. The companions respond – “It’s a ghost!” Jesus calms them and says “Get a hold of yourselves! It is I. Do not be afraid!” Peter speaks up and says, “Lord, if it is really you, tell me to come to you across the water.” Jesus responds “Come.”

Peter gets out of the boat and begins to walk toward Jesus, but when the wind begins to buffet him he becomes frightened and begins to sink. He cries out “Lord, save me!” Jesus at once stretched out His hand and caught him.”

Jesus want us all to walk toward Him – in faith – on the “water” of our life. He wants us to cast aside our fears and commit to Him with a radical faith. We are all like St. Peter; we want to walk on the water toward Jesus but the winds of doubt mingle with the inner turmoil of our own hearts, and the circumstances of our own life, to affect our faith. Peter’s faith was tested – as ours is – everyday. His example of calling out to the Lord – in faith – should be our prayer, too, especially when we pick up the tools of our art and begin to feel the winds of self-doubt and dissatisfaction brush against our cheeks.

Copyright © 2011 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

What is a Sacred Arts Guild?

We, here at the Fra Angelico Institute for the Sacred Arts, believe that the foundation stones for this Institute are its Sacred Arts Guilds. A Sacred Arts Guild is a collection of people within a specific type of art form such as painting, sculpture, wood-carving, story writing, music, etc. The Sacred Arts Guilds are made up of those artists who are willing to come together on-line through posting and commenting with me on this blog, and when possible, in person to discuss and share their sacred art with other interested artists, and, if working in the same field, be willing to discuss and solve problems, gain insight, and rejoice with fellow artists in a final product that was personally satisfying and prayerful to create, simultaneously inspires others to prayer, and gives glory to God.

Within our Institute there are numerous categories of Sacred Art Guilds:

Painting of Sacred images

Sacred illuminated miniatures

Sacred calligraphy

Sacred stained glass

Sacred architecture and gardens

Sacred needlework – includes the knitting of prayer shawls/quilts

Sacred ceramics and tile work

Sacred music: singing, playing, or composing of music and chant

Sacred sculpture and wood working/carving

Sacred photography and the digital arts

and the Written word: sermons, essays, poetry, literature, drama

It is our prayerful hope that these Guilds will bring together individuals with a love for God and who desire to create beautiful works – to give glory to God – improve their own personal prayer life – and evangelize their fellow man.

Our motto being: Accept Lord, our prayers, petitions, and creativity, as the fruits of our day.

Copyright © 2011 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

Welcome to the Fra Angelico Institute

Our First Post

As our first post – on August 1, 2011 – I would like to explain that the mission of the Fra Angelico Institute for the Sacred Arts is to promote the creation of Christian sacred art and unite the creative process to the artist’s personal prayer life. Over the coming months we will be discussing various topics within the sacred arts, the creation of sacred art, important sacred artists from the past and present, and the development of our personal prayer life in union with our personal creative efforts.

The Fra Angelico Institute for the Sacred Arts was founded by myself and my wife Jackie in 2009. I am an ordained Roman Catholic deacon in the Diocese of Providence, Rhode Island. Professionally, before my retirement, I was a teacher of history and the humanities. I have studied and created sacred art since 2006. I am a sacred image painter.

An Amazing Revelation!

In my very first sacred art workshop, that was conducted by the talented and very fine teacher, Rev. Peter Pearson, I was profoundly struck by the impression that the actual creation of sacred art was of great importance to the improvement of my own personal prayer life. As I followed Peter’s directions in the creation of a sacred image, I realized that the truly spiritual connection I was experiencing was not the result of anything artificial, rather, it was the yearning of my soul to “connect” with the Person  coming into view on the wooden panel (the image that I was painting was an interpretation of St. Andrei Rublev’s icon of Jesus). It became very clear to me, as it had to so many other artists down through the centuries, that the creation of sacred art, regardless of what medium or form it takes, is a profoundly spiritual and prayerful act – IF – the artist decides to open up their mind, heart, and soul to the whispers of the Holy Spirit.

Join Us In This Exciting Adventure!

We think that the Institute is an exciting adventure in art and prayer. Currently we have over twenty people from the Diocese of Providence who are members, and, a few from out of state. The ideas and images that you will be seeing are meant to be educational, inspirational, and practical in the improvement of your development as a sacred artist. You may be a seasoned artist – secular or sacred, or, you may be a complete novice – all are welcome. In future posts I will explain the different categories of art you may want to explore and – if you are an experienced artist – display and express your creativity in the galleries on this site.

As Roman Catholics we have a specific theological perspective and faith tradition, however, please consider following us if you are from a different Christian denomination. After all, my teachers of sacred art are Episcopalian, Russian Orthodox, and Roman Catholic; and the participants in the sacred arts workshops that I have attended have been from many different Christian and non Christian denominations. Thanks for your interest and we look forward to your comments.

Copyright © 2011 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved