Virgin Mary: Trust and Obedience in the Lord

On this solemnity of the Annunciation, March 25th, we remember St. Luke’s account of the Annunciation:

“Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary.”

“And when the angel had come to her, he said, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women.” When she had heard him she was troubled at his word and kept pondering what manner of greeting this might be.

And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for thou hast found grace with God. Behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb and shalt bring forth a son; and thou shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he shall be king over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end”

“But Mary said to the angel, “How shall this happen, since I do not know man?”

“And the angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee; and therefore the Holy One to be born shall be called the Son of God. And behold, Elizabeth thy kinswoman also has conceived a son in her old age, and she who was called barren is now in her sixth month; for nothing shall be impossible with God.”

And Mary said, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word.” And the angel departed from her.” (Luke 1: 26-38)

Mary, the Blessed Mother, the Theotokos – “the God bearer” at first, questions Gabriel, “How shall this happen…” Upon his explanation Mary undertakes her all important journey with perfect trust and obedience to God’s will. She accepts her eternal role not in fear but in love. Mary will be the God Bearer, the bearer of her Son Jesus, our Savior, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.

Jesus, at the moment of His conception, is both true God and true man: two natures in one Person.

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Icon of Mary: it is the icon called The Madonna of Saint Sisto, located in Rome in the Dominican convent of Monte Mario. It is one of the oldest and most beautiful icons of the Virgin from antiquity.

 

Mary is the perfect disciple of God. She provides us with the model of love, obedience, and trust in Him. There were many times throughout her life that she had to express her trust and obedience, and at times not knowing where the journey would lead. It led from the great joy of her pregnancy, Jesus’ birth, family life, through to His ministry, and her motherly presence before the Holy Cross.

A few verses later, in her beautiful canticle the Magnificat, she exclaimed to her kinswoman Elizabeth her lack of doubt in what has happened.  She praises the mercy of God and her willingness to be the servant of Him who is faithful to His word. In her humility, trust, love, and obedience to God, Mary, as the New Eve, will be given the privilege of crushing Satan at the end of time.

From the beginning, the Catholic Church has never worshipped Mary. The Church venerates her as the first disciple and its greatest saint.

On this beautiful Solemnity of the Annunciation let us join with the great St. John Henry Cardinal Newman in his prayer to Jesus: “Dear Jesus, Your Holy Mother cooperated with the divine plan for the human race. Let me try to imitate her in her obedience and service to You.” Thank you, Jesus.

Note: The sacred image that appears at the top of all of my posts is The Annunciation by Fra Angelico.

Copyright © 2011- 2020, 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.

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.

 

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).

iconorininal
“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.

 

trinityicon
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.

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 Canon of a Catholic Sacred Artist

Allow me to suggest to my fellow Catholic sacred artists a “canon” of ten fundamental propositions. These ideas and proposals are my personal musings. They assist me in organizing my thoughts and behavior. It is my hope that they will act as an organizational tool for the interested reader, too. They may also assist you, as they have for me, in providing clarity to our foundation and purpose as sacred artists.

The term “Catholic” in this document refers to the Latin Rite (Rome) and the more than twenty Rites of the Eastern Rite Catholic Churches that are in union with Rome. Sacred artists within the Orthodox Rites and the Protestant denominations may also find some of the proposals helpful in their work.

The use of the term “canon” refers to the the original Greek word, kanon, which indicates a “model” or “standard.” My suggestion is that the following “canon” acts as a “model” for the sacred artist since this is the first in-depth publication of my thoughts on this subject and there is no consensus by the Catholic sacred art community as to its acceptance by a majority of artists and commentators in the field. Consensus may or may not be achieved in the future. Please consider these thoughts as a beginning, a starting point.

This post is a revision of a previous post in March 2017 with a similar theme. Also, as mentioned earlier, I will eventually discuss the spiritual and artistic values of Beato Fra Angelico (Guido di Pietro – Fra Giovanni da Fiesole, 1395 – 1455). I would be remiss if I did not say that he was my model for this post. I perceive Fra Angelico as being an artistic and spiritual giant of Latin Rite art who exemplified, in his behavior and sacred art, many of the ideas found in the “Canon” below.

The reader should also view the Explanatory Notes that follow the ten propositions to obtain commentary.  I have provided a list (which is also a starting point) of five organizations in the Explanatory Notes below to assist you in your own studies. If you are aware of other organizations or Catholic colleges that promote the sacred arts, please contact me with that information. You are invited to reflect on these ideas in the Comments Section or, if you wish, send me a private email at deaconiacono@icloud.com.

The Canon of a Catholic Sacred Artist

1) The Latin Rite, and the more than twenty other Rites of the Catholic Church that are in union with Rome, have a traditional foundation: Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the dogmas and doctrines of the Church. This foundation ultimately impacts the Catholic sacred artist within a specific cultural tradition. Catholic sacred artists accept and believe in this foundation.

2) A Catholic sacred artist’s first priority is to develop his or her personal holiness in light of the prayer and Sacramental traditions of our Church; specifically, worship through attendance at the sacred liturgy of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, reception of the Sacraments, and liturgical prayer – through the Liturgy of the Hours and/or sacred music.

3) A Catholic sacred artist understands the value of the Adoration of the Eucharistic Face of Christ (the true icon). Eucharistic Adoration is necessary, and highly recommended, because it is based on the artist’s desire for friendship with Jesus Christ, the need to express that friendship in an act of praise and thanksgiving, and Jesus’ desire for friendship with the artist. Within that prayer form, which requires the development of interior silence and stillness of soul, the sacred artist receives inspiration and solace. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has reminded us in his book The Spirit of the Liturgy (Ignatius Press, page 90) that “Communion only reaches its true depth when it is supported and surrounded by adoration.” The word “adoration” is used because we are acknowledging the Real Presence of the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.

4) Creativity within Catholic sacred art is influenced by many ideas, the foremost being the expression of the truth, goodness, and beauty of God. The creativity of the sacred artist should always be disciplined by the truth that the artistic product must be able to be clearly understood by the viewer or listener so that it may aid their worship and veneration of God, His saints, and angels.

5) Catholic sacred art brings artistic life to Christ’s Gospel message and the witness of the historic and spiritual personalities of the Church. Sacred art, in all its various forms, contributes to the New Evangelization of the Catholic Church.

6) Catholic sacred art can be a sacramental if  it conforms to the aesthetic, semantic, and theological principles of our Faith.

7) Catholic sacred artists believe that the Sacramental grace of God strengthens personal faith and allows them to become co-creators of artistic beauty. The artist becomes a co-creator when he/she attempts to make a beautiful artifact and ensures that the attributes of the artifact are truthful, good, and beautiful.  For the Catholic artist, God is the source of all beauty, truth, and goodness.

8) Catholic sacred art is a critical part of the liturgical work and prayer of the Catholic Church. An artist’s creative act of making their art form, and the finished product, is not just art; it is communion with God. Sacred art, therefore, is a cultural artifact that turns our heart, mind and soul towards God in praise, penance, petition, and thanksgiving,

9) Catholic sacred art enhances the sacred liturgy of the Church, and may make a significant contribution to the praise, thanksgiving, and repentance of the viewer or listener.

10) Catholic sacred artists are willing to continually learn not only about their Faith and Church traditions, but to professionally grow by increasing their awareness of developments within Catholic sacred arts, its present day contributors, networking and sharing ideas, and continually improving their personal artistic techniques within their artistic discipline.

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

1) Culture is the fundamental engine that propels history; and the foundation stones of any culture is its Faith. An acceptance of the importance of a faith tradition (and tolerance of other faith traditions) by the people of a nation or continent significantly contributes to the growth of its inhabitants; rejection of the role of faith has shown that a culture will be stunted and eventually collapse. Within a culture that is growing in a positive manner there is the belief in a critical idea: tradition. This idea applies to faith and religious systems, political life, scientific exploration (such as the scientific method), the arts, etc. Tradition, however, is not an idea that is, in its application, suffocating to an individual’s growth or creativity. Positive change can certainly occur within a culture that follows specific traditions.

Briefly let us apply this word, tradition, to the Rites of the Catholic Church. A Rite represents a church tradition about how the Holy Sacraments are to be celebrated. There are over 23 Rites within the Catholic Church, of which the Latin Rite (Roman Catholic) is the largest with over 1.5 billion members. The other 23 Eastern Catholic Rites are in union with Rome, however, the Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches, have not been in union with Rome since the 11th century.

Faith in Jesus Christ and the Nicene Creed has been the mortar between the foundation stones of every culture of Eastern and Western Europe for millennia and for hundreds of years in the Americas. Our Faith and its religious tradition must be viewed in two ways: a small “t” relating to cultural norms of behavior within our specific Rite, and, a capital “T” referring to Church Tradition. This idea of Sacred Tradition was specified by Jesus Christ, the Apostles, the Fathers of the Church, and the many hierarchical pronouncements proclaimed by Ecumenical Councils and Popes (such as the Nicene Creed, or the 7th Ecumenical Council and its promotion of sacred icons). This understanding is in association with the teaching authority (the Magisterium) of the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church and Eastern Catholic Rites that are in union with Rome.

Colin B. Donovan, STL informs us (confer EWTN website) that when we consider the transmission of faith we must acknowledge that historically there are three major groupings of Rites: Roman, the Antiochian (Syria) and the Alexandrian (Egypt). The Byzantine Rite, the fourth major Rite, developed out of the Antiochian. These various Rites came into existence because the Apostolic ministry, within different cultural centers of the Roman Empire, ultimately saw the elements of the Faith being “clothed in the symbols and trappings” of a particular culture. This was promoted because the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Faith required that the Church become “all things to all men so that some might be saved” (see First Corinthians 9:22).

Historically, the four major Rites ultimately gave birth to over 20 liturgical Rites that currently exist, are in union with Rome, and to this day are serving the faithful. Applying this idea we can say that it is incumbent upon sacred artists within these Rites to ensure that their art provides a clear, unambiguous message to the world (in relation to the “t” and “T” of  tradition). This demands faith, loyalty, and trust by the artist in Jesus Christ and the truths of the Church.

2) Rev. Deacon Lawrence Klimecki from Pontifex University has written insightfully on his blog about creativity, beauty, the role of the artist, and sacred art. He asks an important question: “What is sacred art? Is it liturgical art? Devotional art? Art with religious themes? The Catholic artist must address the issue of “who” is the audience? What purpose and need is the “sacred” artist trying to meet” in their creative act of making art, architecture, music, poetry, drama, or literature? In trying to answer Deacon Klimecki’s valuable questions we may begin by saying that the term sacred, from the Catholic Church’s cultural point-of-view, is any idea or artifact that refers to, and makes visible (if possible) the truth, goodness, and beauty of God, His saints, and angels. It also critically assists in a person’s worship of God and veneration of His angels and saints. Sacred artistic artifacts convey or represent the dogmas, doctrines, artistic styles within a specific time period, and the historic personalities of the Faith.

Sacred art, in all its various forms (architecture, painting, sculpture, stained glass, illuminated manuscripts, metalworking, music, etc) are the visual and auditory means through which we are assisted in our desire, through our soul, intellect, and senses, to be in union with the all knowing, all powerful, and beautiful God of Sacred Scripture and Tradition. Sacred art, therefore, is a cultural artifact that turns our heart, mind and soul towards God in praise, penance, petition, and thanksgiving, 

Catholic sacred artists undertake a great spiritual responsibility. This responsibility requires that the artist be firmly rooted in faith, the reception of the Holy Sacraments (especially Reconciliation and Holy Eucharist), and personal and liturgical prayer. Besides Eucharistic Adoration, some prayer aids for sacred artists would be participating in sacred music and/or praying the Liturgy of the Hours (Divine Office) either alone or in a group.

3) Saint John Paul 2, in note 61 of his encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia (The Church Comes from the Eucharist) explains that “By giving the Eucharist the prominence it deserves, and by being careful not to diminish any of its dimensions or demands, we show that we are truly conscious of the greatness of this gift. We are urged to do so by an uninterrupted tradition, which from the first centuries on has found the Christian community ever vigilant in guarding this ‘treasure.’ Inspired by love, the Church is anxious to hand on to future generations of Christians, without loss, her faith and teaching with regard to the mystery of the Eucharist. There can be no danger of excess in our care for this mystery, for “in this sacrament is recapitulated the whole mystery of our salvation.”

What is prayer? The saints tell us that prayer is the turning of the heart toward Our Lord, His Blessed Mother, the angels and the saints and allowing our mind and heart to sincerely speak words of love, praise, thanksgiving, and repentance to them. The sacred artist enters into communion with the Heavenly Court through the union of their prayer with creativity.  This communion comforts and assists the sacred artist in their work. Unity allows a sacred artist to walk the various paths of Holy Scripture and experience the moment that the Scripture, or a story of the saints, presents to the soul. This experience feeds and transforms the sacred artist by affecting the clarity, line, form, and colors of their art (a tip-of-the-hat to my friend and teacher Dr. George Kordis and his seminal work on line, color, and form). This may also be how Beato Fra Angelico experienced the Crucifixion, and according to Vasari, as he painted he wept over the enormity of Christ’s sacrifice. In this process Fra Angelico prefigures Ignatius of Loyola by about 125 years in the ability to experience the words of Holy Scripture within his imagination. The use of the word – “imagination” – does not mean or imply “fantasy,” nor does the person in prayer “make-up” images not found in the Gospels or Church history. St. Andrei Rublev, Beato Fra Angelico, St. Ignatius of Loyola and others utilized this type of prayer experience to affect their work.

4) While remaining loyal to Sacred Tradition, the Church’s artistic tradition is fluid and is always affected by the artist’s creativity and understanding. This may lead to new styles and interpretations of artistic expression. These new expressions, however, are never vulgar or disrespectful, and will provide no confusion as to the meaning of the images within the art form. Sacred art, while not exclusively catechetical, does certainly play a role in the catechesis of the faithful.

5) Also, the Western Rite, and the Eastern Rites, affirm that preaching the Gospel message through (word, service (Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy, and sacred art), and celebrating the Holy Sacraments is critical for the evangelization, spiritual health, and salvation of God’s people.

6) Icons, sacred images, woodcarvings, calligraphy and other sacred arts if based on the Holy Gospels and Church Tradition spread the Good News of the Gospel. The sacred arts are sacramentals when they point the way to God. Sacramentals are blessings. The seven Sacraments provide the grace that interiorly heal and nourish us. Sacramentals, however, assist us in the exterior visualization of Our Lord Jesus who made that process possible through His Incarnation and Redemption of humanity. It also assists us in the visualization of His angels and especially His Blessed Mother and the saints, who modeled Jesus in their own lives.

An icon is a sacred image (confer John 1:14). An iconographer follows specific traditions of craftsmanship and specific elements of Theological (Scriptural and dogmatic content), Semantic (the visual language of the icon, appropriate perspective, the use of light, line, and color to create form, and correct use of signs and symbols within the icon), and Aesthetic principles (the quality of beauty with the icon itself). These three principles are based upon the sacred Tradition of the Church. The history of the Western and Eastern Rites illustrates that the sacred artist has continually moved through different artistic periods and technical understanding. Within sacred art artistic styles change (this may be a good thing), but the truth of the Faith, and the witness of the Church’s spiritual giants – the witness of Jesus Christ and His saints – cannot.

David Clayton, Provost at Pontifex University,  has pointed out that we need to remember and apply the two ideas of  St. Theodore the Studite (AD 759-826) in his criteria which must be followed if an icon is to be considered a sacramental, thus, worthy of veneration: 1) The icon must display the title of the saint or feast day represented, and,  2) the image needs to display the essential physical characteristics and attributes of the saint represented, such as keys for St. Peter; a book of Scriptures, a bald head, or sword for St. Paul; dalmatics, the Book of the Gospels, or thuribles, for deacons; or the gaunt figure of St. Mary of Egypt, etc.. Each angel or saint has a specific name and attributes.

The Roman Catholic Church moved out of an Iconographic period into the Gothic period, and then into the Baroque period. The Greek and Russian Orthodox Church and many of the Eastern Catholic Churches in union with Rome stayed within the period of Iconography that developed out of the early centuries of the Church. Cultural conditions (such as geographical location, political influence, and the affect of the Western European Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries), access to earth pigments, artistic differences and changes in style all affected the Iconographic period within the Eastern Rite of the Church.

It is important to note that within the Latin Rite a sacred image is a religious image that is created of a historical holy person or religious scene; however, the artist allows their full creativity and personal interpretation to enter into the craftsmanship and artistic process (an example being Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel).

Historically, personal creativity and technique, and the change of specific artistic styles are present within Eastern Rite iconography. Their sacred icons are affected by the culture, historical moment, style, and geographical location of the artist (examples being Coptic vs. Greek, or, Novgorod vs. Moscow). The Eastern Rites, those that are in union with Rome, and those that are not, believe that the sacred icon must be faithful to Sacred Scripture, historic reality, and the Traditions the Church.  The icon’s meaning must be easily recognizable by the viewer. The artistic style may change but there is no room for personal interpretation to change the way Christ, His angels, or saints are portrayed (an example of this would be portraying Christ as doing some action outside the truth and witness of the Gospels, or having Him beheaded rather than crucified). Sacred icons should never be static and “flat.” The personality of the sacred artist is present in their art, and yet, that is not the most important issue.

A sacred icon is made in a specific manner. The techniques of production (from type of board to board preparation, drawing of the image, the necessity of line giving form to color – “its logos” as discussed by one of my teachers, George Kordis, the type of perspective, the predominant use of egg tempera and natural materials – earths and minerals, the lack of symmetry, moving from dark colors to light, and the final blessing by a priest or deacon) are taken seriously by the Orthodox and Eastern Rite Churches. It is my opinion  that if a Latin Rite artist decides to paint a sacred icon, out of respect, they should study and follow the traditions of the Eastern Catholic Rites and the Orthodox Church. This can be accomplished by either studying with their iconographers or with Roman Catholics who have studied with them and follow their traditions of iconography.

I do believe that a Latin Rite sacred artist may paint a religious image in the style of a sacred icon, but, must be careful to explain the difference between the two types of representation. I currently follow this methodology of differentiating a sacred image (religious art) from a sacred icon, and, religious art painted in the style of a sacred icon. My basis for this is respect for the Orthodox and Eastern Rite traditions and how they view their sacred art forms. Yet, it must be admitted that the “traditions” of Orthodox sacred art were primarily formalized by the Greek artist Photis Kontoglou (1895-1965), and the Russian artist and historian Leonid Ouspensky (1902-1987). Thus, these two scholars, within the last one hundred years, outlined what they believed was the historic “tradition” of Orthodox painting, and this “tradition” became formalized within the Orthodox community.  A Catholic artist from another Rite, or within the Latin Rite, may not be concerned with these issues. I believe, however, that the Latin Rite sacred artist must not only be aware of the currents within the Orthodox sacred art community but be respectful of it, too.

In his book Spirit of the Liturgy, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI provides a wonderful overview of the three periods of sacred art within the Roman Catholic Church (Iconographic, Gothic, and Baroque).  You will notice that even though he discusses the Renaissance he does not include it within the three traditions. High Renaissance artists were not inspired purely by prayer or catechesis in the production of their art. For many their motivation was the desire to please themselves, their patrons, or the profit motive. Renaissance sacred images do have spiritual value and some can motivate the viewer to prayer and communion with God.

An example of an icon is St. Andrei Rublev’s image of Christ, or his icon of the Holy Trinity. An example of a sacred image is Pietro Annigoni’s image of St. Joseph and the Child Jesus in Joseph’s workshop, or Masaccio’s Holy Trinity. A sacred image painted in the style of an icon is my rendition of St. Michael Holding the Holy Eucharist. Pictures of these icons and images are found below.

7) The attributes of the sacred artifacts are beautiful. These attributes conform to the three basic elements of beauty as defined in the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas: clarity – the listener or viewer can discern what the artifact is, what it means, and that it reflects a “radiance” to those who perceive it; proportion – the listener or viewer can discern the artifact’s unity, order, harmony, and the correct relationship of its individual parts;  and integrity  – the listener or viewer is able to understand the “wholeness” of the artifact. Is beauty in the eye of the beholder? Certainly it is affected by the individual’s culture, geographical location, historic period, and other issues; but, we can also say that it is objective, in that people of Faith do not deny the Truth, Goodness, and Beauty of God.

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

8) Contemporary Greek artist and iconographer, Dr. George Kordis, writes of this principle in his book Icon As Communion. Numerous authors have written in this field, to name a few, with the titles of their books:  Sister Wendy Beckett’s Real Presence, Meditations on the Mysteries of Our Faith, and  Encounters With God; Paul Evdokimov’s The Art of the Icon; David Clayton’s The Way of Beauty: Liturgy, Education, and Inspiration; John Saward’s The Beauty of Holiness and the Holiness of Beauty; Christoph Cardinal Schonborn’s God’s Human Face; Jem Sullivan’s The Beauty of Faith; Monsignor Timothy Verdon’s Art and Prayer; and Jeana Visel, OSB, Icons in the Western Church.

9) In the Roman Catholic Church, liturgy as defined in the New Testament, “refers not only to the celebration of divine worship but also to the proclamation of the Gospel and to active charity” (confer Luke 1:23; Acts 13:2; Romans 15:16, 27; 2 Corinthians 9:12; Philippians 2: 14-17, 25, 30. Also, review the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd edition, paragraphs 1066 through 1209).

The work of a sacred artist (this of course includes all the sacred arts) can be viewed as a liturgical act because it provides a service to our neighbor, in that the sacred art elucidates and visualizes the reality of the truth, goodness, and beauty of God. The sacred artist assists the Church in making the reality of Christ present within the community of believers. Sacred artists, by providing this service, are participants in active charity. They aid in providing a “visible sign of communion in Christ between God and men” (confer paragraph 1071, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd edition).

10) Transformation in Christ is a Sacramental, prayerful, intellectual, and fellowship process. A Catholic sacred artist must be involved in all four of these transformative elements in order to reach their full potential. A student of this process would be remiss if they did not investigate the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine on these issues.  St. Augustine writes beautifully in his Confessions on the truth and the beauty of God, one paragraph begins: “Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you”….  Artists are wise to remember that their art must not only be good and truthful in its message, but beautiful as well because they are reflecting the truth, goodness, and beauty of God Himself.

Catholic sacred artists, as they study the various manifestations of sacred art over the last two millennia, should network and become aware of the contributions of contemporary leaders and contributors in the various fields of Catholic sacred art. The Catholic Art Guild, The Catholic Artists Society, The Foundation for Sacred Arts, and the Institute of Catholic Culture are organizations to help you discover contemporary issues in Catholic sacred art; they also occasionally provide seminars and lectures in sacred art. Pontifex University, an on-line Master of Arts Degree program in Roman Catholic sacred art, is also another opportunity for a sacred artist or student who desires to advance their knowledge and understanding of sacred art.

Some of the recent Popes have expressed valuable insights on beauty, sacred art, and the role of the sacred artist. A few examples: the many writings of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI such as, his 2008 homily in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in which he discussed the architecture and stained glass windows of St. Patrick’s as a quest for truth and faith; his Meeting With Artists in November 2009, his 2002 comments “The Feeling of Things: The Contemplation of Beauty,” and his  book The Spirit of the Liturgy. Professor Matthew Ramage’s January 2015 essay “Pope Benedict XVI’s Theology of Beauty and The New Evangelization” (found in Homiletic and Pastoral Review), is an excellent introduction to Pope Benedict XVI”s contributions to truth and beauty in sacred art.

Emphasis must also be placed on the absolutely critical document for any sacred artist: Pope Saint St. John Paul II’s Letter to Artists. Pope Pius XII’s 1947 encyclical, Mediator Dei, from a liturgical point-of-view it explains in paragraph 187 that “Three characteristics of which our predecessor Pope Pius Xth spoke should adorn all liturgical services: sacredness, which abhors any profane influence; nobility, which true and genuine arts should serve and foster; and universality, which, while safeguarding local and legitimate custom, reveals the catholic unity of the Church” (Pius XII referenced this from an Apostolic Letter of Pope Pius X of November 1903). These three principles, when united with the principles of aesthetic, semantic, and theological truth, provide the Catholic sacred artist with a firm foundation on which to build their creative work.

Thank you for reading this and I look forward to your comments. Please see the images below, too.

Pax Christi,   Deacon Paul O. Iacono

Originally posted April 2, 2018; updated June 2, 2018

Fra Angelico Institute for Sacred Art.

Copyright © 2011- 2018 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

Images:

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

 

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

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

Deacon Paul O. Iacono’s sacred image done in the style of an icon: of St. Michael Holding the Holy Eucharist, (completed 2015-2017). Please see my post on this blog of September 29, 2017 for a brief explanation.

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My text/last photo, Copyright © 2011- 2018 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

 

 

Paul in Arabia and Damascus

Galatians 1:15-18 relates St. Paul saying: “But when God, who had set me apart from the time when I was in my mother’s womb, called me through His grace and chose to reveal His Son in me, so that I should preach Him to the Gentiles, I was in no hurry to confer with any human being, or to go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before me. Instead I went off into Arabia, and later I came back to Damascus. Only after three years did I go up to Jerusalem to meet Cephas (Peter). I stayed fifteen days with him.”

St. Paul’s wanderings were not without profit. Galatians, being the first Epistle after Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, relates Paul’s working through how his life had changed since his theophany of Jesus Christ. It relates his plan for spreading the Good News, debating issues of Jewish Law, and invoking all to live in the wisdom of the Holy Spirit. Time undoubtedly was spent praying about how the Lord was working in his life, what the Lord was requesting of him, future plans, settling up business affairs in Damascus,  and other large and small personal issues.

We all go through periods similar to those just described by St. Paul. So has it been for me. No theophany was experienced (!) but personal and medical issues have had their affect. The lessons learned echoes what is read in the first chapter of Galatians. I am better for it. For all types of adversities are allowed by the Lord, not because He wants us to suffer, but “to burnish us,” to make us shine with the virtues of fortitude, humility, and patient endurance. As the Saint says: “If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit…”

I see from the subscription list that this blog site has not lost any subscribers, in fact over the last two years of inactivity it has increased in membership. Thank you! I have plans for new posts for the upcoming months, specifically a series on the spirituality and virtues of Beato Fra Angelico and how they influenced his art. Are the virtues of a 15th century Italian Dominican priest transferable to us? I believe so, because, in reality, they are based on the Beatitudes that all Christians, regardless of Rite or denomination, hold dear.

May the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. Thanks, talk to you soon.img_2151The above sacred image is an unfinished copy of St. Paul based on St. Andrei Rublev’s masterpiece. It is being painted by Deacon Paul O. Iacono. It is egg tempera on a gessoed wood panel.

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

Jesus Our Savior – An Image that is a Work in Progress

I have the happy service of presenting a new workshop to interested adults from Massachusetts and Rhode Island beginning on Saturday February 14th, 2015.

In an attempt to give everyone individual attention the class is currently filled at a limit of ten people. We will be pursuing our studies of painting sacred images in the Latin iconographic tradition. I hope to make the artists aware of the importance of studying the Latin and Byzantine origins of sacred images and its inevitable blossoming within the Greek and Russian civilizations.

The workshop will run over a five-week period, for a total of twenty hours of class time. While they will not be painting the sacred image that is found below of Jesus Our Savior, the technique that I used to paint this image will be taught to the artists. Note that the image is painted using acrylic paints; however, I have developed a different approach in manipulating the layers of the paints. This approach evolved out of studying the work of the 12th century Benedictine monk, Theophilus the Presbyter (whom I have written about in previous essays on this blog), and my own experiments over the past few years of working with egg tempera and acrylic paints.

I specialize in painting personal prayer images (9 by 12 inches, or 12 by 16 inches) rather than images that would be found in large church or chapel applications. The image found below (95% finished) is typical of my approach. It is an image that the person in prayer can relate to, yet, it also carries a sense of transcendence. This approach will be taught in the upcoming workshop. I attempt to teach simplicity in both technique and spirituality. I  avoid flourishes and excessive naturalism in facial or garment representation. In this way I have ignored the typical approach of many Latin Rite sacred artists from the mid 14th century onward. I am attempting to rediscover, or reestablish, the Latin Rite techniques of painting sacred icons. This endeavor is a work in progress!

In the upcoming workshop the students will be studying my technique and actually paint an image of St. Michael the Archangel. Upon completion of that sacred image, they will eventually move on to painting an image of the Holy Theotokos, the Blessed Mother, and then complete the sequence in studying and painting a sacred image of Jesus Christ. In upcoming posts I will be blogging about their experience and the steps that they will take in completing the sacred image of St. Michael.

My approach to the painting of sacred images in the iconographic tradition owes a debt of gratitude to my many teachers in the Byzantine and secular artistic traditions. I also owe a profound thank you to the Holy Spirit, whose grace has enabled my hands to paint sacred images. I pray that my sacred art has not offended Him. The image below appears slightly brighter than it actually is as a result of the flash.

Jesus Our Savior by Deacon Paul O. Iacono, Fra Angelico Institute for the Sacred Arts, Copyright © 2011- 2015 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

 

 

Copyright © 2011- 2015 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

The Way of Beauty On-Line Course and Reimbursement Scholarship Opportunities

The mission of the Fra Angelico Institute for the Sacred Arts is to teach the truth, goodness, and beauty of God through the prayerful creation of sacred art.

We are happy to announce that we have recently entered into a partnership with Thomas More College of Liberal Arts to present a wonderful on-line course to anyone interested in Catholic Culture and the sacred art of the Church. We also have a special opportunity for teachers of history, art, religion, and the humanities in Catholic high schools of the Diocese of Providence who complete this course.

Thomas More College of Liberal Arts is offering an on-line course entitled The Way of Beauty. This course has been designed by David Clayton and is being successfully implemented at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts. David is an Oxford University graduate, sacred artist, published author and broadcaster, and holds the position of Artist-in-Residence and lecturer in Liberal Arts at the College. David is passionate about Catholic art and music, the forms it has taken through the centuries, and the reinvigoration of Catholic culture. David’s blog can be found at www.thewayofbeauty.org.

As stated on the College website the Way of Beauty course “focuses on what shapes a Catholic culture and what makes it beautiful. It discusses the general connection between worship, culture and beauty particularly through the prism of visual art. The course program consists of a 13 episode video series and an e-book written by David Clayton. This book is only available to those who take this course. Participants who complete the on-line program are eligible to receive 25 hours of Continuing Education Units endorsed by Thomas More College of Liberal Arts. The College is regionally accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. Time spent in this program may also be able to be used towards later college credit offerings.” The cost of the on-line course is $99.00.

For the 2014-2015 academic year, The Fra Angelico Institute will provide reimbursement scholarships, through a competitive selection process, to Diocese of Providence high school teachers who enroll and complete the Way of Beauty on-line course.

In an attempt to provide a competitive atmosphere among the teachers, The Fra Angelico Institute for the Sacred Arts will provide a total of five reimbursement scholarships, one per high school, to Catholic high school teachers with the best implementation process.

In order to enter the competition to receive the reimbursement scholarship an interested Diocesan teacher will:

1) Notify the Fra Angelico Institute of their interest through our email at frainstitute@cox.net.

2) Formally register by clicking on the tab and following the prompts for the On-Line Course through www.thewayofbeauty.org.

3) Through the teacher’s personal Google account, participate in the program which consists of 13 on-line videos (approximately 30 minutes apiece) produced in association with Catholic TV.

4) Read the e-book – The Way of Beauty: Liturgy, Education, Art, and Inspiration. This e-book has been written exclusively for this course.

5) Submit on school stationary a statement from the teacher that the course has been completed, a one-page summary of how the course will be actually implemented in their curriculum, and one or two suggestions on how the course may be improved.

6) Submit a letter from the principal of their high school stating that they support the teacher in their desire to implement the goals of this course.

Using the US Postal System, these documents should be mailed to: Deacon Paul Iacono, Fra Angelico Institute for the Sacred Arts, St. Francis of Assisi Church, 114 High Street, Wakefield, RI 02879.

We hope you enjoy the course and best wishes to the teachers who compete for the reimbursement scholarships!

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

Albert Lapierre – Sacred Artist and Iconographer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

 

Aidan Hart’s New Book on Sacred Iconography

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

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

April 16, 2013

By 

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

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

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

Inverse perspective.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flatness

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

an example of flatness. Mid Pentecost, by Aidan Hart

an example of flatness. Mid Pentecost, by Aidan Hart

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

Romanesque cross by Aidan Hart

Romanesque cross by Aidan Hart

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

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

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

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

Multi-view perspective

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

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

Isometry

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

An example of isometry

An example of isometry

Hierarchical perspective

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

Vanishing point perspective

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


[1] Gervase Mathews, page 30.

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

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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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Fr. Richard Reiser’s Beautiful Icon of the Transfiguration

The article that is found below my opening comments, and the image of the Transfiguration, is reblogged, through the courtesy of Fr. Richard Reiser, St. James Catholic Church Omaha, Nebraska. I really enjoy Fr. Reiser’s iconographic style. He is able to convey the Scriptural truth of the Transfiguration while, at the same time express it in contemporary language accessible to contemporary Christians. Bravo, Fr. Reiser! Thank you!

Fr. Reiser studied with noted master iconographer Philip Zimmerman who founded the St. John of Damascus Icon Studio in Pennsylvania. My first teacher of iconography, Rev. Peter Pearson, studied with Phil in the early 1990’s.

I especially enjoy this icon of Fr. Reiser and the way in which he expresses the “glorious memory” of that moment of the Transfiguration, as I expressed it in the post on Monday August 6th, as rivers of uncreated rainbow light – passing from Christ to the Apostles. The memory that would give them hope.

Notice also, as Father Reiser pointed out to me in an email, that St. James is larger than the other saints, resulting from the fact that he painted this icon for his parish church – St. James Parish in Omaha, Nebraska.


                                                                                     Icon of the Transfiguration (Mark 9: 2 – 10)

God our Father in the transfigured glory of Christ your Son, You strengthen our faith by confirming the witness of Your prophets, and show us the splendor of Your beloved sons and daughters.

As we listen to the voice of your Son, help us to become heirs to eternal life with Him who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

Each icon panel measure 36″ x 54″  Church of St. James, Omaha, Nebraska

copyright Fr. Richard J. Reiser, iconographer

TRANSFIGURATION OF THE LORD       

An Article by Fr. Richard J. Reiser  

A HISTORY OF ICONS

An icon is a religious work of art done in a symbolic and stylistic manner. Its main focus is not with realism but with spiritual realities.  The icon was a favorite art form that developed in the early Church and became the preferred style of religious representation for the Eastern Orthodox Church.   In the Roman Catholic Church, mosaics and types of statuary were the prominent styles of art used for religious representation.

Realism or accurate perspective is not a primary concern in iconography. The main purpose of an icon is to draw the viewer into the realm of the holy through contemplation. An icon in this sense means to “see through to the divine,” or to be a “window to heaven”.  In icons, the details of the eyes should draw the viewer into a vision beyond the present. The perspectives are more subject-centered as a way of focus, rather than relying on realistic horizon lines.  The icon does not, after all, represent the material world, but the realm of the Divine.

The stoic faces on the figures in icons suggest that the holy ones, whose lives of service work are now accomplished on earth, now contemplate and rest in the presence of the Divine (signified by the light [halo] which surrounds the heads of the holy figures).

THE TRANSFIGURATION ICON

The two-panel icon of the Transfiguration has been done in a contemporary method and should be understood as a religious painting done in an iconographic style since it was not written (painted) following the strict rules of traditional icons that included rigorous fasting, special prayers, and special mixing of pigments with egg whites. This icon is written with acrylic paints.

The two oaken panels each measure 36″ x 54″, and their rounded tops echo the architectural detail found elsewhere in the church.  The event of the Transfiguration is found in Matthew 17: 1 – 8 and Mark 9: 2 – 8.  The naming of the icon (Transfiguration) is done in English, but in a contemporary Slavonic (Old Russian) style of lettering.

The images on the panels are of Jesus Christ, St. Elijah (1), St. Moses (1), St. Peter, St. James, and St. John. Jesus Christ and St. James are larger than the other figures to give them prominence; Jesus, since he is the main figure of the Transfiguration, and St. James, since he is the patron of the parish.   The icon is designed to invite the viewer to participate in the event of the Transfiguration by allowing the light coming from Christ in the first panel to confront the viewer, then, inviting the viewer to connect the light of Christ to the apostles in the second panel.   The rays of light that emanate from Christ were done in a stained-glass style that reflects the shape and colors of the stained glass found elsewhere in the church (2).

THE MOUNT TABOR PANEL (at right)

The central figure of the right panel is Jesus Christ, clothes in white and surrounded by light in the traditional manner which depicts Him in glory, along with the creedal statement of “Light from Light.”  The aureole (the gold-leaf background) which surrounds the entire body of Jesus.   Christ’s halo contains the traditional Greek letters that identify Jesus Christ as “I Am,” the title of God given to Moses in Exodus 3:14 and given human expression in Jesus as the divine Son of God.   The Greek letters to the left and right of the aureole are the traditional abbreviations for “Jesus Christ.”   High right hand is raised in the traditional gesture of blessing where the two joined fingers represent the two natures (human and divine) of Christ.

A scroll is held in Christ’s left hand and is symbolic of Christ being the Word that became flesh (John 1:14).

The haloed figure of Moses to the right of the Christ figure bows in deference towards Christ who is the completion and fulfillment of the law. Moses reverently holds the two tablets of the Ten Commandments without directly touching them.  They symbolize the law with the word Torah (3) inscribed on them in Hebrew. Moses is represented as the younger man than he was at the time he received the tablets of the law.   The garments of Moses are brownish red and blue.

The haloed figure of Elijah to the left of the Christ figure, also defers to Christ as the completion and fulfillment of the prophets. Elijah was taken up to heaven in a whirlwind. His garments are green and blue.

All three figures on the right panel stand atop Mount Tabor (4).  The mountain suggests the place of God’s revelation to Moses in the Old Testament when he was given the law (Deuteronomy 5), and the place where Elijah the prophet experienced the voice of the Lord in the gentle breeze (1 Kings 19: 8 – 13). Icons of the Transfiguration show Jesus Christ as God’s full revelation by being presented on a mountain.

THE APOSTLES PANEL (at left)

The apostles panel of the left is divided into three plateaus each supporting one of the apostles closest to Christ. The center plateau is larger and bright and it supports St. James. He is shown humbled on his knees, because of the experience of the Transfiguration.   He is reaching forward while attempting to secure stability and balance on the rocky plane.   He is presented with his hand shielding his face from the light.  His outer garment flows in the wind generated by the force of the transfigured Christ. The trees representing creation also bend by the power of Christ’s transfiguration. He is attempting to seek Christ, but with difficulty. The halo surrounding his head marks him as a saint. His outer garment is purple and his undergarment is green.

The upper plateau supports St. Peter who is held back from the force of the Transfiguration by a ledge where his feet are supported.   His outer garments flows in the win. As the leader of the apostles, he points to the light and to Christ. The haloed figure is presented with the traditional gray hair and beard suggesting wisdom. Positioned on the rock, he is named by Christ as the “Rock” on which Christ will build His Church. His outer garment is the traditional gold, and his undergarment is green.

The haloed figure of St. John is the bottom figure. He is the brother of St. James. His right hand shield his face from the light.   His outer garment flows in the wind. His left hand reaches forward clinging to the rock. A ledge supports his forward right leg and holds him which his back leg waves freely with the force almost releasing his sandal. His beardless face is the traditional way of depicting his youth. He is said to be the youngest of the apostles. His outer garment is green and his undergarment is blue.

The maize-colored border of both panels reflects the color and stained glass of the central rose windows in the church (5).  The medallion on the right panel border holds a piece of rock from Mt. Tabor. The medallion on the left panel border holds a relic of St. James.

THE INSCRIPTION

The inscription on the back of the icon panels reads:

The Transfiguration   Feast – August 6    Blessed by Fr. Richard Reiser   August 6, 2006

Donated by Colleen Mahoney in memory of the William and Colleen Mahoney Family

Fr. Richard Reiser, iconographer

Notes:

(1) In the Orthodox tradition, both Elijah and Moses are considered saints.

(2) A similar technique with the fishing net was used by Brother Robert in the “Calling of James” icon in our church.

(3) The first five books of the Old Testament’ they present all of the 613 laws and interpretations that are central to Judaism.   In Jewish services the scrolls of the Torah are still extravagantly decorated and venerated with respect when they are proclaimed.

(4) Mount Tabor is more of a geographical mound in the area of Galilee and not a mountain as such.

(5) This border also is found on the “Calling of James” icon.

Copyright © 2012 Reblogged image and article by Fr. Richard J. Reiser. All Rights Reserved

Summer 2012 Workshop in Painting Sacred Images – A Few Reflections

Over the past six years I have participated in numerous workshops in sacred art and have produced a number of sacred images, each of which helped me understand the techniques of this sacred art.

In 2006, I participated in my first workshop at St. Michael’s Institute of Sacred Art at St. Edmund’s Retreat in Mystic, CT. The instructor was Peter Pearson, an Episcopal priest from Pennsylvania. He introduced the class to the beautiful and prayerful experience of painting a sacred image in the Russian Orthodox tradition; however, rather than using egg tempera paints (in which you mix the yolk of an egg with natural earth and mineral pigments) he taught the techniques using acrylic paints.

A note on acrylics versus egg tempera pigments. I personally believe that they are both valid materials to use. I have studied and painted images in each of these techniques and I personally do not have a solid preference, although, I believe it is helpful for a student to learn the techniques in acrylic first and then study sacred imagery using egg tempera pigments. I find both materials – natural or synthetic colors – enjoyable.

There are some people in the Internet community who become quite exercised over the fact that there are artists creating sacred images using acrylic paints. It is not necessary to get into, as Pearson would say, “the egg wars” debate, other than to mention that all sides are respectfully entitled to their opinion. Neither the Catholic or Orthodox faith exclusively owns sacred art, imagery, or iconography. Church art has always been (for at least the last 1500 years) an outgrowth of the Catholic and Orthodox creative spirit desiring to unite art with prayer. It was certainly part of the early tradition of the Roman Catholic Church prior to the winds of Western civilization moving the Catholic artists’ barque into Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque ports of call.

In the late 20th and early 21st century, a growing element of the sacred art tradition of the Roman Catholic (and the Eastern Rites churches which are in union with Rome) has revolved around reestablishing traditional sacred imagery and iconography as part of the Catholic artistic heritage. Sacred iconography has always been a part of the Orthodox churches liturgical tradition, and they are to be saluted and commended for keeping the bright light of this sacred art tradition alive within the Church community.

It is probably part of the Western European/American mindset to accept and utilize new developments in artistic materials and techniques. This is why I believe some of us do not have any problem using acrylic paints. Acrylics are synthetic paints (composed in a lab) rather than natural earth or mineral pigments. My personal spirituality does not think that the Lord is concerned with the materials used in prayer, rather, He is interested in the intent and the creative outcome of that sincere prayer. You use what you think works, have fun with, and is readily available. There are many ways to catch a fish – as the Lord said to Peter – “throw out your nets again!”

So, on a practical level acrylic paint can be fun to work with, but it can also be problematical. Years ago Peter Pearson recommended a line of paints to us from the Chroma company called JoSonja. These paints are primarily used in the decorative crafts, yet, because of their color lines, they fit the bill for painting in a more traditional way – similar to the Russian tradition. By this I mean that the Russian Orthodox colors are primarily muted, unlike the Greek Orthodox who had a wide range of brilliant colors to choose from for their artwork. Geography and geology play an important part in understanding the color palette and artistic techniques of a civilization.

The nice thing about the JoSonja line of paints (available at DickBlick.com and other outlets such as Jerry’s Artarama) is that they are inexpensive but of surprisingly good quality. They also have an entire range of mediums, (such as flow medium and glazing medium) which are essential in getting the results you want, especially for the multi thin layering and highlights of the image’s face. The JoSonja line has also produced a polyurethane satin varnish that compliments the chemistry of the paints and mediums in their line. It was used on my sacred image for the recent workshop and went on without any problem. I applied this varnish with a one and one-half inch flat wash brush from Princeton Art and Brush Company (item # 4050 FW). It has very fine and soft bristles – perfect for streak free varnishing. I must give you a warning: work quickly as the varnish dries rapidly. It is non toxic and cleans up with soap and water.

I produced a manual for the workshop which explained each step, yet, found myself talking more than I really wanted to, owing to the fact that this was the participants first sacred image, and for many, their first venture into art in many years. A sacred image workshop should be a place in which the participants can enter into prayer while they paint; hopefully, the next workshop will more conducive to this necessary element.

All the adult participants were very good sports and reacted with quite a bit of patience to some of the more difficult parts of the process. They were all happy with the results and want to embark on another workshop – which is good news! Please find below a few photos from the workshop and the Mass at which the sacred images were blessed. You can see the images in the sanctuary in front of the altar. I am behind the altar to the left vested in a green dalmatic, and Father Joseph Upton the Institute’s chaplain, has his hands raised as he recites the blessing over the sacred images. Thanks again to everyone who participated and see you soon!

Copyright photos and images © 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

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

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 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

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.


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