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).

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“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.

 

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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?

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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.

 

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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.

 

 

 

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

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

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

Part Two: Icons, Icon Painters, and Praying With Sacred Icons

The sacred icon is a visual aid that helps the person enter into a conversation with God, an angel, or a saint. If a sacred icon is to be painted with this purpose in mind then it it is a major responsibility of the sacred artist to construct the icon so that it may serve, rather than interfere with or destroy, that purpose. Thus, it is necessary for the sacred artist to curb the desire for ornateness, since it might detract from the prayer itself by focusing the viewer’s eyes on embellishment versus Person, or saint. 

Of all the physical features in an icon, in my opinion, the most important are the eyes. The eyes of the person represented in the icon – Our Lord, the angels, or the saints – are critical. They normally look out at the viewer. They are painted this way because icons, which should be painted in a spirit of deep prayer, are trying to establish or renew our relationship with the Heavenly person portrayed. So, as in typical conversation, we look at the person and they look at us. Yet, in many cases the eyes of the Blessed Mother, as the greatest of the saints, do not look at us; they are usually looking at her Son, or, are looking away from the viewer, or present us with  a “distant gaze.” These particular types of steady and intense looks of the Blessed Mother may also be seen in statues – especially those of medieval France. Please note the following link to an excellent site which shows some of these gazes in statues of Mother Mary and the Christ Child:

vialucispress.wordpress.com/2012/05/04/the-thrones-of-wisdom-dennis-aubrey/  By the way, I highly recommend Dennis Aubrey and PJ McKey’s site for your subscription.

Sacred icons are the traditional form of artistic expression of the Eastern and Western Rites of  the Catholic Church from approximately the 6th century on. The Western Rite moved away from purely painting sacred icons in approximately the 12th century and moved into the Gothic Period of sacred art. The Eastern Rite continued to develop its devotion to sacred icons with differences being seen within the various cultural areas of Orthodoxy – from Greece, to Serbia, Russia, Crete, etc.

As mentioned above, the use of a sacred icon is of practical spiritual value in that it is an aid in prayer. On an additional note, when we pray with a sacred icon, we are doing the same thing as when we speak to someone that we know and love. We speak to them, we may be in their physical presence, or we may be on a phone or computer connection with them, but we are with them in the sense that we are focusing on them at that moment in time – either physically facing them – or –  on a phone or computer screen. So when we pray to an icon we are looking at it in the same way we would look at someone in a face-to-face conversation; for that is what prayer is: conversation with God, Our Blessed Mother, the angels, or a particular saint.

Some people have a tendency to get themselves upset over the use of the term iconographer (icon writer) versus icon painter. The word graphein in Greek means “to write,” and it also means, “to paint.” A linguist and museum curator by the name of David Coomler informs us that in the Russian language the English word “write” is pisat, and the word “paint” is pisat. So, in Greek and Russian we have a double meaning for one word that represents both “to paint” and “to write;” however, this doesn’t transfer into the English language since in English we obviously have two different words to express graphein and pisat: write and paint.

I have no problem with people saying “I am a sacred icon painter.” The reason being – it is correct English. The term iconographer, however, is used and you see it in numerous books and in conversation in non-Russian or Greek formats. When people ask me how I identify myself – as an icon painter or an icon writer – I respond that I am a simple “sacred artist”!

Yet, we have an obligation to be truthful to our Holy Faith, so, when we paint icons we need to be attentive to and follow Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. In that sense, we are “writing” icons because we are scribing into visual form – using paint rather than just ink – the images from Sacred Scripture and Tradition. I may be breaking a grammatical rule in saying that; yet, I feel that it is appropriate owing to the nature of what we are trying to do in painting sacred icons.

May I suggest that as icon painters we must be conscious of the truth that the images that we copy of Our Lord, Our Blessed Mother, the angels, and the saints (saints prior to the 14th century) were and are built on our human imagination, for we do not have an actual authentic portrait of Our Lord, or Our Blessed Mother. There is consensus that St. Peter had a full head of hair and full beard, while St. Paul had a bald or balding head and full beard. I can say that because recent archaeological discoveries in Rome have continued to show those pictorial images for these two saints.

Still, that being said, we cannot be absolutely sure of this because we have no photographs, or, first century portraits of them; but, we do have a sacred tradition that portrays them that way; but this is not true for many of the saints – unfortunately, we just don’t know what they looked like. So we have to be very careful in our portrayal of saints, and remember, that basic cultural and historic research will help us in painting a quality sacred icon or image.

The above photo shows a recent interesting archaeological discovery that occurred in June 2010: The link below shows the cameraman filming  paintings of some of the earliest known images of the Apostles Peter and Paul (these ceiling paintings date from between AD 350 and 400) in a catacomb located under a modern office building in Rome. The images were uncovered using lasers and were under thick deposits of calcium carbonate. ((AP Photo/Pier Paolo Cito)) Click on this link below to see more photos:

http://www.foxnews.com/scitech/2010/06/22/ancient-icons-apostles-peter-paul-rome/#ixzz1voqaPpKJ  Thanks to this site for the information.

 Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

Icons, Icon Painters, and Praying With Sacred Icons: Part One

A few issues have come up in discussing some basic terms with people. I would like to be clear on how I have come to understand these words because it may affect how we view our “ministry” to be painters of sacred icons and or sacred images.

From my understanding, the word icon in English, Greek, and Latin, is the word for image. In our usage as sacred artists, it refers to a sacred image of Our Lord, Our Blessed Mother, angels, or specific saints. The purpose of a  sacred icon is that, as a piece of sacred art, it  focuses an individual in prayer.  A sacred icon is a specific type of sacred art. It is created following certain traditions – tradition with a small “t” and a large “T.”

Many sacred icons are presented with a simplicity of style, the use of color, the types of colors used, the use of symbols, etc. A sacred icon is different from a sacred image, in that the sole purpose of the sacred icon is that it is to be used as a focal point for personal or communal prayer.

A sacred image, however, may have been commissioned by a patron for personal prayer, but it may also have been commissioned for the pure enjoyment of its beauty. In the case of Renaissance sacred art, the Roman Catholic Church became the patron of many pieces of sacred art in order to affect the communal prayer of the faithful who came to the small churches and the great basilicas for Holy Mass.

With a sacred image (such as a religious image painted by Michelangelo or Leonardo) you have the artist’s personal imagination heavily influencing and entering into the creation of the beauty of the image, possibly even manipulating and combining Scriptural passages for the purpose of the story the artist would like to tell. Yet, even though I have just made that statement, the truth of the matter is that it is not always so clear cut. We do have icons, such as the famous Nativity icon of the birth of Christ, in which you have numerous Scriptural passages – conveying different events – being used to convey a catechetical sequence surrounding the birth of Our Lord – and all of this is done on the same icon panel!

In a sacred icon, the imagination of the artist is present, yet, it is supposed to be subordinate to his/her faith’s perception of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition (how the early Church viewed their beliefs and expressed them within their specific cultural tradition). So, if a sacred artist is painting a sacred icon, he or she is aware of the theological, aesthetic, and semantic rules that have been developed and followed through the centuries. These rules – “the Canon of Iconography” – are affected by cultural area and religious Sacred Tradition.

For example, a Coptic sacred icon (see image below), by a painter of the Egyptian Coptic Church will express the image of Christ and a saint (in the icon below an abbot of the Coptic Christian Church) somewhat differently than a Greek or Russian Orthodox painter; and yet, there is nothing wrong with this, as long as the painter is not fomenting apostasy or heresy.

All of that being said, sacred images, for example, by Renaissance painters, can certainly be used to focus an individual in their personal prayer, as do the beautiful stained glass windows of the great Gothic cathedrals. Care must be taken, however, in selecting appropriate images for use in personal prayer. It is my perception that the type of image a soul uses in personal prayer – sacred icons (from the Eastern Rite) or sacred images (from the Western Rite) – is a matter of personal preference and certainly does not  indicate that one type is better or “more truthful” than another. Eastern and Western sacred artists are both working off of their own perceptions and spirituality; there are disagreements with this, but we must always remain charitable with each other.

Within the last twenty years there have been many Western sacred artists that have rediscovered the beauty of painting sacred icons, and are trying to be sensitive to the Eastern Rites’ traditions,  as they bring it back into the consciousness of the Roman Catholic Church. The Eastern Orthodox Churches, thankfully, never lost appreciation for their tradition.

I will post Parts Two and Three on this same theme in the upcoming days. Be sure to look for them on-line or in the archives. Thanks.

Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

The image of Christ and the Abbot – a panel depicting a monk with Christ. It was excavated in the early 20th century from a monastery in Egypt and is located in the Bawit room at the Louvre. Thanks to: Photo by Clio 20, CC attribution share-alike 3.0. I believe the icon dates to about the 7th century.

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

Welcome to the Fra Angelico Institute

Our First Post

As our first post – on August 1, 2011 – I would like to explain that the mission of the Fra Angelico Institute for the Sacred Arts is to promote the creation of Christian sacred art and unite the creative process to the artist’s personal prayer life. Over the coming months we will be discussing various topics within the sacred arts, the creation of sacred art, important sacred artists from the past and present, and the development of our personal prayer life in union with our personal creative efforts.

The Fra Angelico Institute for the Sacred Arts was founded by myself and my wife Jackie in 2009. I am an ordained Roman Catholic deacon in the Diocese of Providence, Rhode Island. Professionally, before my retirement, I was a teacher of history and the humanities. I have studied and created sacred art since 2006. I am a sacred image painter.

An Amazing Revelation!

In my very first sacred art workshop, that was conducted by the talented and very fine teacher, Rev. Peter Pearson, I was profoundly struck by the impression that the actual creation of sacred art was of great importance to the improvement of my own personal prayer life. As I followed Peter’s directions in the creation of a sacred image, I realized that the truly spiritual connection I was experiencing was not the result of anything artificial, rather, it was the yearning of my soul to “connect” with the Person  coming into view on the wooden panel (the image that I was painting was an interpretation of St. Andrei Rublev’s icon of Jesus). It became very clear to me, as it had to so many other artists down through the centuries, that the creation of sacred art, regardless of what medium or form it takes, is a profoundly spiritual and prayerful act – IF – the artist decides to open up their mind, heart, and soul to the whispers of the Holy Spirit.

Join Us In This Exciting Adventure!

We think that the Institute is an exciting adventure in art and prayer. Currently we have over twenty people from the Diocese of Providence who are members, and, a few from out of state. The ideas and images that you will be seeing are meant to be educational, inspirational, and practical in the improvement of your development as a sacred artist. You may be a seasoned artist – secular or sacred, or, you may be a complete novice – all are welcome. In future posts I will explain the different categories of art you may want to explore and – if you are an experienced artist – display and express your creativity in the galleries on this site.

As Roman Catholics we have a specific theological perspective and faith tradition, however, please consider following us if you are from a different Christian denomination. After all, my teachers of sacred art are Episcopalian, Russian Orthodox, and Roman Catholic; and the participants in the sacred arts workshops that I have attended have been from many different Christian and non Christian denominations. Thanks for your interest and we look forward to your comments.

Copyright © 2011 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved