Jesus Our Savior – A Sacred Image in the Iconographic Tradition

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

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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A Recent Art Workshop Leads to Another! – The Fra Angelico Institute

This past month the Fra Angelico Institute for the Sacred Arts was happy to sponsor a two day workshop. The purpose of this workshop was to introduce people to the idea that everyone has the capacity for expressing themselves in art. Using acrylic paints the participants were taught the process of “seeing” an image of a rose, breaking down its component parts, drawing the rose, applying and mixing pigments, painting the rose, etc.

Our desire was to ultimately interest people, who possibly never considered themselves as having artistic talent, to see that they could paint a good quality representation of an object. This would then lead to their participation in a sacred art workshop in which they would be learning how to reveal, through prayer, study, and artistic techniques, the spiritual message of sacred images painted in an iconographic style.

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I am happy to say that this workshop will lead to another sacred art workshop here at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Wakefield, Rhode Island. We will conduct our Spring 2014 workshop on Saturday mornings from 9:30 to 11:30 on March 29th, April 5th, 12th, and 26th. An assessment will be made on the 26th to determine if we need additional sessions. The cost of the workshop is $35.00.

Each participant will receive a photocopy of a sacred image, personal instruction, a brief “process” manual of steps, a 1/2 inch wooden board, and brushes. Tube acrylic paints will be provided.  If each participant desires their own tube of paints the cost will be higher. Members of the Institute, or others interested in the process of painting a sacred image in the iconographic tradition, are welcome to contact me by March 20th if they desire to participate in the Spring 2014 workshop. Members of the Institute who have participated in past sacred art workshops will be given the opportunity to paint a new sacred image in the iconographic style. If you are interested please email me at frainstitute@cox.net. 

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Lady of Guadalupe – An Icon of The Woman Who Will Crush The Serpent

Today’s feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patroness of all the Americas, recalls the apparition of our Blessed Mother on the hill of Tepeyac in present day Mexico City. This approved apparition occurred from December 9th through the 12th 1531. Guadalupe is the Spanish translation of the Aztec phrase that Juan Diego heard Mary associate herself with – the name, interestingly, in Aztec means “she will crush the serpent of stone.”

In the same year as this Marian apparition, rebellion and protest against the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church was sweeping Germany, France, and England. While millions of people were leaving the faith in Europe, the  Blessed Mother, through the miraculous image that appeared on Juan Diego’s tilma, convinces millions of people to enter the Catholic faith in Central America.

As the European rebellion was tearing down millennia of Church theology and sacred tradition, Our Lady was building up the understanding of both the Spanish clergy in Mexico and the Native American population of the love of God and the assurance of her compassion and protection.

Our Lady spoke to Juan Diego in his native dialect. She identified herself and said:  “Juanito, the humblest of my children, know and understand that I am the ever virgin Mary, Mother of the true God through whom all things live. It is my ardent desire that a church be erected here so that in it I can show and bestow my love, compassion, help, and protection to all who inhabit this land and to those others who love me, that they might call upon and confide in me. Go to the Bishop of Mexico to make known to him what I greatly desire. Go and put all your efforts into this.” (footnote 1)

You probably know the rest of the story. The Bishop is told of this event, disbelieves Juan Diego, and then the bishop asks for a sign. Juan Diego reports back to Mary and is told by her to cut the Castilian roses that are growing and put them in his poncho which is called a tilma. The tilma is opened in front of the Bishop and other witnesses, the roses fall out, and the miraculous image of Our Lady appears on the tilma.

But is this story true?

Here are some of the historical facts:

1) The extraordinary conversion of multi-millions of Native Americans, and the Aztecs in particular, who, as a blood thirsty civilization, were known to kill as many as 20,000 human beings in one day to appease the blood lust of their primary god.

2) The roses that Juan Diego cut were native of Damascus, Syria, and did grow in Spain, but were unknown in Mexico at that time.

3) The tilma, or poncho, that Juan Diego wore was made of the agave fibers traditionally used by the Native Americans. These fibers were a natural substance that should have deteriorated within 35 years, and yet, today, the 481st anniversary of the event – this tilma is still in excellent condition.

4) Through scientific analysis done over the last forty years, it has been determined that the pigments used on the tilma are not of natural or man-made material, and there is no glue or sizing on the tilma to fix the pigment in place. Plus the colorization or iridescence of the image on this “icon not made with human hands” would not have been able to be produced by a human artist in the 16th century. This iridescent effect would have been seen only in nature.

5) Our Lady is represented in the colors and dress of a pregnant Aztec princess. Modern astronomical research has shown that the stars on Our Lady’s image are in the configuration of the stars in the heavens on the nights of the apparition in 1531.

6) Most remarkably, a microscopic analysis of Our Lady’s eyes was completed by Peruvian engineer and optical scientist Dr. Jose Aste Tonsmann (who trained at Cornell University and worked at IBM). He magnified the iris of the Virgin’s eyes 2,500 times and, through mathematical and optical calculations, was able to identify the witnesses of the Guadalupan miracle at the moment Juan Diego unfurled his tilma before the bishop and other witnesses [the bishop was Juan de Zumarraga, the Franciscan bishop of Mexico City.] (footnote 2)

But most importantly, these few miraculous facts about the icon of Our Lady of Guadalupe, do not stress the key issues of this apparition:

1) You see, Our Lady came to the Mexican people – as she comes to us this Advent season – as a pregnant young woman who is promoting life and her protection – not only for her unborn child – but for all of us.

2) Our Lady calls to us through this icon to stress that she loves us, has compassion for us, sees our tears, and desires to offer us her love and comfort.

3) As the Mother of the incarnate Son of God she also points to her Son, and desires a church to be built so He can be properly worshipped, the people receive His graces, and so she can be there to assist us in our prayers to God.

4) Mary has always reminded us that He is the One, True, All Powerful God who desires our love, respect, and obedience.

As the Roman Breviary says this morning: “Who is this that comes forth like the dawn, as beautiful as the moon, as resplendent as the sun? You are the glory of Jerusalem, the joy of Israel; you are the fairest honor of our race. O Virgin Mary, how great your cause for joy; God found you worthy to bear Christ our Savior.”

And as the Book of Revelation tells us, God has found Mary worthy to crush the head of the Serpent. All praise, honor, and glory be to God! And may the Blessed Virgin’s love help transform us into the image of Christ. Amen.

Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

Footnotes and  sites to investigate for more information:

(1) From a report by Don Antonio Valeriano, a Native American author of the 16th century; as published in the Supplement of the New Feasts and Memorials for the General Roman Calendar – The Liturgy of the Hours.

(2) “Science Sees What Mary Saw From Juan Diego’s Tilma”   Zenit News Service, 2001.

Zenit News Agency. Science Stunned by Virgin of Guadalupe’s Eyes. 1/14/2001

http://www.miraclehunter.com/marian_apparitions/index.html

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