Theophilus, Iconography, and the Contemporary Sacred Artist – Part One

Today’s sacred artist within the Western tradition may have been exposed to many different artistic traditions. Artists may have been classically trained in a formal academy such as the Florence Academy of Art, or, they may have been educated at a secular institution that emphasizes a modern abstract expressionistic form of art. Other models are available, too. Some artists may have been self-taught, or, as in my case, study with specific masters of sacred art that offered intensive workshops to interested groups or individuals.

Upon my retirement from a career in education, I finally had the opportunity to study and actually make art. I knew that the form of art that I wanted to pursue was sacred art and sacred iconography spoke to me as a specific art form. Sacred art necessarily carried with it two elements that were critical for me: a devotion to conversation with God while making the art and an interest in a specific historical methodology for the creative process.

Between 2006 and 2010, I happily studied with four contemporary masters in the field of sacred iconography. They taught me different approaches, techniques, and the use of a variety of materials. This was all well and good, a necessary series of steps for a student artist to go through in order to develop some sense of familiarity and a working comfort level.

After spending time with the last two of my art teachers (Marek Czarnecki and Anna Pokrovsky Gouriev) an important question  had to be answered. They wisely asked all of us to eventually answer this question: “Do you want to paint sacred images in the Russian Orthodox or the Western Latin Rite tradition?”

You see, Marek is Roman Catholic and Anna is Russian Orthodox. They both paint/”write” sacred icons in the Russian Orthodox tradition. Anna’s mother, Ksenia Pokrovsky (marylowell.wix.com/hexaemeron-6#!__xenia-pokrovsky) is a master iconographer who has added a great deal to our understanding of the techniques of sacred iconography within the Russian Orthodox and earlier Byzantine traditions.

Ksenia founded the well known Izograph School of Iconography near Boston, MA, and Marek and Anna assist her with teaching, the creation of sacred icons, and restoration work. Their work is quite beautiful and I highly recommend them to you, your parish, or an educational institution that is interested in high quality iconographic work in the Byzantine tradition.

It is important for a contemporary sacred artist to understand the artistic approaches of the Byzantine/Russian tradition. I learned a great deal from them, not only about sacred art but about myself; yet, their question continued to haunt me. For the year or so after I studied with them I continued to paint in the Russian Orthodox tradition. My first teachers in this art form – Peter Pearson and Dimitryi Andreyev – had built a strong foundation for me. Dimitryi’s father Vladislav, founded the Prosopon School of Iconography, another influential school, in New York City (www.prosoponschool.org).

So, with all of this rich and fruitful tradition passed on to me by four wonderful and prayerful people, I was still left with the unanswered question: Orthodox or Latin Rite? My training had been in pure Orthodox tradition. Wonderful as it is, I still had not answered the question Marek and Anna had posed. Before I could answer it I had to discover if there was a Latin Rite tradition to painting sacred images/icons. This brought up the question of “Why is it that when we hear talk of “sacred icons” today it is always in the context of the Byzantine Catholic/Greek/Russian Orthodox Rite?”

The Western European/Latin (Roman) Rite of the Catholic Church had co-existed and was in communion with the Greek Orthodox/Byzantine/Eastern Rite since the first century. It was 900 years old prior to Russian Grand Prince Vladimir of Novgorod formally converting the Russian people to the Eastern Rite of the Catholic Church. So you would think that there would have been some communication between the Eastern and Western Rites of the Catholic Church and the sharing of information and ideas about sacred art.

So, why do we now just associate sacred icons with the Eastern Rite tradition? It is primarily because of the western European sense of artistic experimentation and creativity that developed around the 12th century. Different artistic, theological, and philosophical traditions developed within Western Europe that affected the Latin Rite of the Church and produced different artistic results. Yet the Byzantine Rite’s art continued to influence Latin Rite artists all the way up to the fourteenth century.

Whereas the Greek/Byzantine/Russian Orthodox approach to sacred art and icons remained steadfast to tradition. While there were different “schools” of sacred iconography within their tradition and different masters anchoring those schools, they always remained faithful to the basic tradition of painting/”writing” sacred icons. You begin to see a shift in thinking within this tradition in the early 18th century when influences from the Western European artistic tradition begin to seep into the Orthodox schools and workshops.

Usually when we think of Latin Rite sacred art we have the images of Giotto, Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Raphael immediately pop into our mind. As Pope Benedict XVI has said in his book The Spirit of the Liturgy the Latin Rite had three specific stages of sacred art develop in its history: the Iconographic, the Gothic, and the Baroque. Each one of these stages contributed to the liturgical life of the Church and had a unique catechetical message for the faithful. It is not to say that the Renaissance artists, many of them working with sacred themes, did not contribute to the artistic tradition of the Church. They certainly did, however, their emphasis, at times, was more on pleasing the patron then on fostering a sense of prayer in the individual penitent.

So, I spent the year 2012 investigating the sources of the Latin Rite’s artistic tradition. The next few posts will reveal what I found, and the fact that a very talented 12th century metalworker and artist, the Benedictine monk Roger of Helmarshausen (also known as Theophilus) was at the forefront of the Latin Rite’s artistic techniques.

It was what Theophilus taught me that finally allowed me to answer Marek and Anna’s question and change my artistic technique. The witness and work of the good Benedictine Theophilus continues to inspire me in the teaching of my own students the prayerful benefits of sacred art. More on Theophilus in the next few days!

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