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

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

 

The Birth of Mary – The Pure Disciple Who Shows Us the Way

We cannot allow this day, September 8th, to slip by without celebrating the nativity of  our Blessed Mother. For as the Invitatory in the Roman Breviary says for today’s feast: “Come, let us celebrate the birth of the Virgin Mary, let us worship her Son, Christ the Lord.”

It is right, and proper, and good that we do this. Inspired by divine Wisdom, the Holy Church of Jesus Christ, has through the years been fractured, tempted, and bruised by the assaults of Satan. Yet, in this feast we remember that we are saved, that Satan, ultimately, has been defeated by the willingness of a young woman to be the Mother of our Savior. It is through the grace filled moment of Mary’s conception and birth that we have the Scriptural road diverge toward final fulfillment of the Divine Will.

As Saint Luke tells us in chapter 1 of his gospel verses 26 ff., her birth began the dramatic shift in the theological paradigm since it provided the opportunity for her to ultimately see, understand, and say a quiet “Yes” to the truths that Gabriel announced to her. Mary, is the pure disciple, and because of that she “… found favor with God… the Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the most high will overshadow you.”  For what end? The end is clear, Gabriel tells her “You shall conceive and bear a son and give him the name of Jesus. Great will be His dignity and he will be called Son of the Most High… hence, the holy offspring to be born will be called the Son of God.”

The sacred image below is by the late 19th century American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner. Of all the sacred art that has been done through the centuries, I believe, this is the best image of that moment of the Annunciation, the moment in which the Old Testament became the New, because it is correct in the manner in which it presents the theological, symbolic (semantic) and artistic truth of that instant in historic time (I thank freechristimages.org/index.htm for the clarity of Tanner’s painting). 

So it is at her birth that we have the road of our spiritual journey fork to the right. Mary’s decisions and actions allowed us to ultimately come to the point in our own life in which we, too, must make a decision. Mary shows us the way (as our Orthodox brothers and sisters would say – hodegetria) to Christ her Son, as she lovingly holds Him in her arms.

The ancient sacred icon, that you see below, is the earliest image of the Blessed Mother holding the Christ child. It is found in the catacombs of Priscilla, on the Via Saleria in Rome, and is dated to circa AD 225.

The sacred art of the early Church desired to express the beauty of the Scriptural truth. As you can see from the following two images – the first a Byzantine icon, and the second a painting by the great 13th century master painter – Duccio, from Siena, Italy. Duccio led a school of painters to infuse a strong sense of the humanity of Jesus and Mary into their figures.

These images, and others like them, continue to have an impact on the hearts and minds of those who are open to their Truth. As simple human beings, and as Catholic artists, it is our delight to not only appreciate them, but, to venerate and delight in the Truth that they convey – all of which was made possible by the birth of a humble Hebrew teenager two thousand years ago.

May she continue to show us the way.

Copyright © 2011 Deacon Paul O. Iacono 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

Fra Angelico’s Beautiful Image of St. Lawrence

Today we celebrate the feast of the St. Lawrence – a deacon – and third century martyr. St. Lawrence was one of the seven deacons of Rome who ministered to the people and acted as the Pope’s administrators.

There is little historical evidence remaining on St. Lawrence. His Acts had been lost by the time of St. Augustine. The tradition of the Church states that he was a native of northern Spain and was ordained by Pope St. Sixtus around AD 257. The Pope made him responsible for the distribution of the Church’s alms.

Carl Brandon Strehlke mentions (in his contribution to Lawrence Kanter and Pia Palladino’s magnificent collection of essays and images on the life and works of Fra Angelico) that controvery with the story ensues at this point – the date of his martyrdom. Some accounts state that  Lawrence was martyred under the emperor Decius (AD 249 – 251) and others insist that it was under the reign of Valerian (253 – 260).

Regardless, the Church’s tradition states that Lawrence was martyred soon after the emperor Valerian issued an edict in early August of 257, requiring all bishops, priests, and deacons to be denied a trial and immediately be put to death. Valerian’s  command was carried out. On the 6th of August Pope Sixtus II was arrested in the catacombs and executed, with two other deacons, Felicissimus and Agapitus. Lawrence is purported to have said, as the Pope and the two deacons were being led to torture, “Where are you going, Holy Father, without your son? Where, O Bishop, without your archdeacon? Before you never approached the altar of sacrifice without your servant, and now you are going without me?”  St. Sixtus was said to have commented that he would follow them soon.

The emperor Valerian’s administrators came to St. Lawrence and demanded access to the wealth of the Church. Lawrence asked for a few days to assemble it; but, ever resourceful, between the 6th and the 9th of August, St. Lawrence distributed much of the treasury to the poor. On the third day, when he was supposed to hand over the monies, he presented himself to the prefect, and then led them to a room in the Vatican. There he presented the blind, the poor, the sick and maimed, and with the force of  a saint declared:  “Behold the jewels of the Church!”

Valerian ordered that Lawrence be taken out and martyred – slowly – in payment for his churlish behavior toward imperial dignity. On August 10, 257, St. Lawrence refused to renounce our holy Faith, and subsequently was roasted on a gridiron used for beef cattle. Legend says that he was of good humor to the very end – instead of giving in and releasing information on the whereabouts of the other four deacons and the additional monies, he simply said to the Roman executioners: “I’m done on this side! You can turn me over now!”

You can understand that this story of faith and heroism had to be proclaimed and visualized. And close to 1200 years after the event, one of the finest painters in the Western tradition – Fra Angelico – was called to complete the task. The good Dominican friar was selected by Pope Nicholas V in 1447 to decorate a Vatican chapel dedicated to the two most famous archdeacons of the Church – the first century martyr St Stephen of Jerusalem, and the 3rd century martyr – St. Lawrence of Rome.

Fra Angelico successfully completed the task the Pope set for him. He linked the narratives of their stories together so that they convincingly expressed the main elements of each saint’s life. They are true catechesis as well as beautiful art. I have included one of my favorite images from Fra Angelico’s rendition – it portrays St. Lawrence in an exquisite rose colored dalmatic (the garment which signifies the deacon’s service and loyalty to his bishop – in this case the bishop is Pope Sixtus II). It shows him distributing the Church’s monies to those in need. It was painted (fresco) between 1447 – 1449 and is approximately 9 by 7 feet.

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