The Sacred Artist’s Cultivation of Silence

I recently received a post from the always challenging and informative blog entitled Catholicism Pure and Simple. It features a short film by the Benedictine monk Abbot Christopher Jamison, O.S.B.

In this film Fr. Jamison speaks about silence and how critical it is for our well being. He mentions that its cultivation is a necessary prerequisite for certain types of prayer. The good news is that we can begin the process of cultivating silence by setting aside at least five minutes but no more than thirty minutes during the day. During that time we participate in an ancient Christian technique of developing awareness of our breathing, the silence that is within us, and the need to enter into this type of prayer in order to hear the still, quiet voice, of God. I’ll have more about this ancient Christian prayer technique in future posts.

Finding silence is especially important for the sacred artist. Sacred artists must prepare themselves prior to picking up the tools of their art and creating a sacred image. They accomplish this  through the cultivation of prayer throughout the creative process. The disciplines of silence, fasting in its various forms, and repentance for sins are important components of the Christian artistic and soul journey.

What is especially helpful about this ten minute film is that Fr. Jamison and a parishioner demonstrate the process of cultivating silence through an actual short period of silent relaxation and spiritual meditation. It is a simple yet profound moment that demonstrates how easily you can connect with the rhythms of your body and soul, and in the process, develop your prayer life with the Lord, His angels, and saints. This film is not only necessary viewing for the sacred artist but for all who are interested in a mature relationship with God.

Lesley Green – A Rhode Island Sacred Artist

One of the great blessings the Lord has granted me is the privilege of meeting so many wonderful people who are interested in studying and creating sacred art. An example of this is the fine Rhode Island artist, Lesley Green.

Lesley is no stranger to art. She has been interested in it since adolescence and received a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design. She continued to pursue her studies while taking time out to marry and raise a family.

I first met Lesley a number of years ago, when my wife and I started the Fra Angelico Institute for the Sacred Arts.  We invited people from around the Diocese of Providence to come to our first informational meeting. I could tell upon first meeting her that she was highly motivated to consider studying and prayerfully create sacred art.

My first workshop in sacred art soon followed that meeting and Lesley came to learn the basics of how to paint a sacred icon. Her excitement and interest were, and still are, gratifying to see. She continued to make rapid progress with me and took the advice that I give to all of my students: “Branch out, and study with as many other sacred artists as you can.”

I firmly believe that a sacred artist needs to be exposed to, not only a variety of artistic talents and skills, but to the prayerfulness of other iconographers as they practice their ministry in sacred art. As a result, she has since enjoyed studying with Rev. Peter Pearson and Michael Kapeluck, two artists from Pennsylvania who paint in the Russian Orthodox style.

Lesley realizes that her art is more than art for art’s sake. As a committed Roman Catholic she understands that her art is a dramatic form of silent evangelization of the Word of God. She takes seriously the invitation of St. John Paul 2’s 1999 Letter to Artists to participate in the “call” to the vocation of a sacred artist. He tells us that in doing so we fulfill our personal responsibility to do our part in spreading the Good News of Christ. He says,

“In order to communicate the message entrusted to her by Christ, the Church needs art.  Art must make perceptible, and as far as possible attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God.  It must therefore translate into meaningful terms, which is in itself ineffable.

Art has a unique capacity to take one or other facet of the message and translate it into colors, shapes and sounds, which nourish the intuition of those who look or listen. It does so without emptying the message itself of its transcendent value and its aura of mystery.” 

It is this “aura of mystery” that Lesley is prayerfully attempting to make visible to the viewer of her art. For, as sacred artists, we are all called to make visible the “ineffable mystery” that is God, His angels, and His saints.

Lesley’s most recent completed icons of Saint Gabriel and St. John the Baptist are quite lovely. I especially like the fact that St. Gabriel is shown holding the Holy Eucharist. As you know, the Archangel Gabriel was depicted in the Hebrew Scriptures as being a healer, especially of the eyes. This sacred icon aptly shows that the source of the Archangel’s power is Christ Himself. The second icon showing St. John the Baptist in a prayerful pose indicates that even in Heaven he continues his mission of imploring us to repent of our sins.

St. Gabriel the Archangel and St. John the Baptist, pray for us.

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

 

The Little Oratory – A Beginner’s Guide to Praying in the Home – A New Book by Clayton and Lawler

Friend and fellow sacred artist David Clayton, in association with Leila Marie Lawler, has written a wonderful book entitled The Little Oratory: A Beginner’s Guide to Praying in the Home. Sophia Institute Press published this book in the spring of 2014.

In a beautiful writing style that is truly accessible to all readers, Clayton and Lawler explain the purpose of a home oratory, the role that prayer, chant, and sacred art can play in the life of an individual or family, and the significance of maintaining a faith filled prayer life with young and adolescent children.

The word oratory derives from the Latin oratorium, and orare, which means to pray. An oratory is a sacred space set aside for prayer and meditation. A little oratory refers to a space within a home that is recognized as the home’s sacred space, and which is used as a focal point for individual and family prayer. It may be small as a simple shelf containing a crucifix and sacred art, or it could be a larger corner table space. The authors perform a marvelous service in reviewing all the questions that a family, single parent, or individual will face in designing their home’s sacred space.

I was happy to read chapters and sections that describe how to keep children on track during prayer, the length of a daily prayer time, leadership of the family prayer group, praying with a breviary (The Divine Office) and Holy Scripture. There are also sections on how to introduce the rosary into family life, and many other valuable and pertinent issues such as the role that chant and sacred art plays in the life of today’s Roman Catholic.

The Little Oratory is divided into twelve chapters and eight appendices. It contains lovely in-text illustrations by Deirdre M. Folley, and eight sacred images drawn and painted by David Clayton. These sacred images by Mr. Clayton may be separated from the binding of the book so that they can be framed and prayed with during each liturgical season of the year. They also provide for you a publisher’s website through which you can download additional images and line drawings that may be used for children’s activities.

You may ask why does each Catholic home need a little oratory? Good question, for the answer reaches to the heart of who we are as 21st century Catholics. It is obvious that we are surrounded by a secular society that bombards us with continuous messages that can easily distract and exhaust us. In response to this onslaught we need to make a space within our homes that is a quiet and reflective corner that focuses on God and will allow us to recharge our minds and rest our souls. This sacred space will be a visual reminder of the holy presence of God, the Blessed Mother, the angels and saints in our lives. So our little oratory acts as a bridge between our homes, our parish church, and the Lord Himself. It is a link that connects us with Divine Word, Song, and Image during the course of our week. Through the authors’ efforts families and individuals relearn, or learn for the first time, the necessity of understanding and respecting the idea of a sacred prayer space in the home

The Little Oratory – A Beginner’s Guide to Praying in the Home is a valuable and resource filled book. Every Catholic that reads it will come away refreshed and filled with ideas on how to bring the life of the Church into their home. It can be purchased on-line or through any major bookstore. This paperback’s cover price is $19.95.

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

 

The Last Supper – Jesus as Servant, Christ as Sacrifice: An Evening Meditation

At the Last Supper, on the night He was betrayed, our Savior entrusted to His Church the memorial of His death and resurrection.
This memorial came to us through the Institution of the Holy Eucharist, a memorial that He intended would be celebrated forever by His Church in the magnificent prayer that is known as the Holy Mass.
Let us adore Him, and say:
Jesus, sanctify Your people, redeemed by Your blood.
Lord, You humbled Yourself by being obedient to the Father’s will, even to accepting death, death on a cross.
Please give all who faithfully serve You the gifts of:
obedience to Your Holy Word found in Your Gospel,
service to our neighbor because they are reflections of You,
and patient endurance in all our troubles and tests.
Christ Washing Peter's Feet, Ford Madox Brown

Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet, (1852-56) by Ford Madox Brown (1821 – 1893), Tate Britain, London.

(Meditation based on the Intercessions, Evening Prayer for Holy Thursday, found in the Roman Breviary: The Divine Office, volume 2, page 465. Thanks to the Catholic Artists Society for the posting of Ford Madox Brown’s painting, please visit their site and consider becoming a member: http://catholicartistssociety.posterous.com ).

Copyright © 2011- 2013 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

 

 

St. Teresa of Avila – On Love

On October 15th we celebrate the Memorial of the great Spanish saint and the first woman declared a “Doctor of the Church” – Teresa of Jesus, also known as Teresa of Avila.

Saint Teresa grew up in the early 1500’s and at the age of 20, entered the Carmelite convent in Avila. She freely admitted that for twenty years she had a very difficult time with prayer and distractions. Compounding the problem was the lifestyle of her fellow nuns. In the 16th century, Spanish convents were very relaxed places since a festive, vain, and worldly attitude was prevalent. The idea of strict discipline, contemplative prayer, and living a life of poverty and service was not a priority.

At the age of forty, Teresa’s life suddenly changed. While she was praying she had a profound religious experience. She fully realized the depth of the sacrifice God’s Son Jesus had made for humanity and vowed to pursue a life of spiritual perfection, centering on poverty and developing the art of mental prayer known as contemplation.

She realized that the Carmelite convent that she was living in was not contributing to her spiritual life; and with characteristic energy, she decided to break away from it. With her friend St. John of the Cross, she founded a reformed Carmelite order for friars and nuns known as the Discalced Carmelites. Her new order met with great hostility both from within the Church hierarchy, the regular Carmelite Order, and from the local parishioners, yet, she didn’t give up on her vision of reformation from within the Church.

What does her witness have to say to us today?

First she teaches us the value of perseverance. Both in prayer and in the vision we have been given by God to do whatever He asks us to do. Getting up, going to work every day, reforming a religious order or providing a home for your loved ones, completing your work for the Church – all of this – no matter how mundane or important, is fulfilling the will of God and is evidence of your love for Him.

Second, her life was a model of charitable patience. St. Teresa of Avila received a great deal of verbal, emotional, and spiritual abuse by fellow Catholics. This woman suffered both from physical and mental pain. The physical pain was caused by numerous ailments, however, her emotional pain was caused by people, fellow Catholics, that should have known better, yet, sadly, were far from practicing the cardinal virtues or willing to see the need for internal reformation.

But most importantly, her experiences give us a wonderful description of the art of contemplation and love of God.  In one of her books she says, “Mental prayer, in my opinion, is nothing other than an intimate sharing between friends – between Jesus and ourselves; it means frequently taking the time to be alone with Jesus whom we know loves us. The important thing is not to think much about saying a lot of words, but to love much, and do those actions which best stirs you to the love of our Lord. [What is this spiritual love?] Love is a desire to please God in everything.”

Saint Teresa of Jesus died in 1582 at the age of 67. She disliked gloom and always attempted to radiate joy, cheerfulness, and good spirits. In spite of her many physical ailments and emotional sufferings she kept her sense of humor and her vision of reformation: of self and of her beloved religious community. Her books are filled with optimism as well as a profound understanding of prayer, human nature, and spiritual warfare. We would be wise in applying to our own restless spirits the advice she gave to her fellow nuns, she said:  “Let nothing trouble you, let nothing make you afraid. All these things pass away. God never changes. Patience obtains everything. God alone is enough.”

Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved.   Notes on the painting: The above painting is by one of the great painters of the early 19th century – Francois Gerard. Gerard, who died in 1837, painted this masterpiece of St. Teresa of Avila ten years earlier. It was commissioned for a hospital and before its placement was shown in the salons of Paris. It is one of the great masterpieces of French Romanticism. It is painted in oils, on canvas, and measures approximately 3 feet by 5.6 ft.

Saint Monica – Patron of Mothers

Today is the memorial of St. Monica, the extraordinarily faith-filled mother of St. Augustine.

In the year 321, Monica was born in Algeria into a family that was devoutly Christian. As a child she was baptized a Christian and was raised to be a dutiful wife. She was given in marriage to a bad tempered, adulterous pagan official, by the name of Patricius.

In examining the life of Saint Monica one is struck by the extent of the abuse she and other women endured throughout their marriage. Under the laws of the time Monica’s husband could physically and emotionally abuse his wife. Compounding the problem was the fact that Patricius’ mother also lived with them and she, like her son, ridiculed his young wife. Monica had three children with this man and, of course the most famous was her oldest, the man that history now knows as Saint Augustine.

But it is important to reflect for a moment on how she dealt with all the stresses of her life: family relations that mistreated her, children that ignored her model of conduct and faith, a culture that looked the other way when her husband abused her. The circumstances of St. Monica’s life could easily have made her a miserable woman, a sour daughter-in-law, and a depressed parent, yet she didn’t become any of these; instead, she became a saint. A saint that is known for two major personal qualities: her love of Jesus Christ and her prayerful persistence in bringing her physical family into the family of God. This beautiful painting, by artist John Nava, (http://johnnava.com) eloquently captures her spirituality and desire for prayer and union with Christ.

Monica was upset to learn that Augustine had accepted the Manichean heresy and was also living an immoral life. Manichaeism stated, among other things, that there is no all knowing good power, so there is neither lord nor savior. She was so angered by his beliefs that she refused to let him eat or sleep in her house and became enraged when he explained to her that his belief trumped her faith in Jesus Christ. She threw him out of the house, but later pursued him and attempted to reason with him.

Monica took comfort in the fact that she had a dream that assured her Augustine would return to the faith. From that moment she vowed to continually pray and fast for her son and to remain close to him so that she would have the opportunity to discuss her faith with him. The histories tell us that she in fact stayed much closer than Augustine wanted.

One night Augustine told Monica that he was going to the docks to say goodbye to a friend. Instead, he himself set sail for Rome. Monica was stunned when she learned of Augustine’s trick, but she booked passage on the next boat. When she arrived in Rome, she learned that he had left to travel to the city of Milan in northern Italy where he hoped to obtain a teaching post. Monica pursued him to Milan, and it is in Milan that both mother and son came under the influence of the great saint Ambrose who was bishop of Milan.

Bishop Ambrose became Monica’s spiritual director, and ultimately, she accepted Ambrose’s advice. He advised her that what she was doing was correct – that prayer and fasting would have its affect on the situation. He commended her persistence and directed her to keep the faith, and in humility, accept her circumstances. Monica did exactly that, and in Milan, became a leader of devout women, some of whom were also being abused by their husbands.

Ultimately, Saint Monica won the day; her abusive husband, mother in law, and her youngest son and daughter were all baptized into the faith. Augustine, too, eventually saw the logic of his mother’s faith, became a catechumen, and took religious instruction from Ambrose. In the year 387, Bishop Ambrose baptized Augustine into the Catholic faith in Milan’s cathedral.

Saint Monica was an exemplary mother; a woman who perseveringly pursued her wayward family not with threats but with prayerful cries to heaven. Let us pray that she intercedes for all mothers in our day so that they may learn to guide their children to God. Let us also pray that she teaches mothers, through her example of prayer and fasting, to remain close to their children, even prodigal sons and daughters, who have sadly gone astray.

St. Monica, pray for us.

Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved. Painting of St. Monica is copyrighted by John Nava. All Rights Reserved.

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