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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Discipleship, Wisdom’s Light, and the Art of Charles Bosseron Chambers

The Gospel of Luke 8:16-18 emphasizes that God desires us to respond to His generosity by using our gifts in union with His wisdom and grace. The Lord desires to give us His gifts but He also desires to challenge us. As good stewards of His wisdom, we are not meant to conceal Wisdom’s Light under a “vessel or hide it under a bed.” By virtue of our Baptism, we are all sent out into the vineyard – some early – some late, but called and sent nonetheless, to proclaim the good news of God’s salvation.

We need to remember, however, that we will be attacked and maligned when we stand in the vineyard of our existence and promote His love and defend the truth of the Church. Christian discipleship does have a cost.

As you read this, Christian martyrs of our own day die in Asia at the hands of the Islamic State, or through the harassment and torture of hostile governments throughout the world. Spiritual martyrdom is also happening in America, at the hands of a secular and hostile media and government that appears to have lost its sense of ethics, Constitutional roots, and tradition. This is exemplified by the recent action of the Oklahoma City Convention Center refusing to hear the arguments of Christians, and Catholics in particular, who are deeply offended and outraged by the planned Satanic mass and exorcism of the Holy Spirit that will occur in a few days.  Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, and his staff, have shown courage and determination in attempting to stop this blasphemy; thankfully, they were at least successful (through the persuasion of a lawsuit) in getting the Satanists to hand over the consecrated host which was to be desecrated in their ceremony.

What does the bravery of Archbishop Coakley tell us? It tells us once again that our Church, under pressure and intimidation, refuses to run, refuses to fold, and refuses to hide the Light of Christ’s love, truth, and beauty in a darkened world. Let us pray that the bravery of today’s martyrs who suffer in the public square, or in silence, may inspire us in our ministry of discipleship.

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The above painting, entitled The Light of the World, was painted by Charles Bosseron Chambers (1882 – 1964). Mr. Chambers was born in St. Louis and was known for his figurative work, mainly portraits and works with religious motifs. He studied art at the Berlin Royal Academy and at the Royal Academy in Vienna. In 1916, Chambers returned to America and settled in New York City. It was in New York City that he painted the The Light of the World.

This painting by Chambers was the first painting that made an impression on me as a child. My mother hung a  framed reproduction of it in the bedroom. I remember staring at it in the dim light that filtered into the room from the hallway and wondering what the child Jesus was thinking. At that time it appeared to me that He had a concerned look in His eye. Why? What was He concerned about?

We still have the picture. Now that I am approaching my sixty-seventh year I understand why He is so concerned, but I recognize that it is a concern enveloped in eternal love; a Love that will never be diminished, a Light that will never be withdrawn, no matter what the blasphemies hurled against Him.

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

Lesley Green – A Rhode Island Sacred Artist

One of the great blessings the Lord has granted me is the privilege of meeting so many wonderful people who are interested in studying and creating sacred art. An example of this is the fine Rhode Island artist, Lesley Green.

Lesley is no stranger to art. She has been interested in it since adolescence and received a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design. She continued to pursue her studies while taking time out to marry and raise a family.

I first met Lesley a number of years ago, when my wife and I started the Fra Angelico Institute for the Sacred Arts.  We invited people from around the Diocese of Providence to come to our first informational meeting. I could tell upon first meeting her that she was highly motivated to consider studying and prayerfully create sacred art.

My first workshop in sacred art soon followed that meeting and Lesley came to learn the basics of how to paint a sacred icon. Her excitement and interest were, and still are, gratifying to see. She continued to make rapid progress with me and took the advice that I give to all of my students: “Branch out, and study with as many other sacred artists as you can.”

I firmly believe that a sacred artist needs to be exposed to, not only a variety of artistic talents and skills, but to the prayerfulness of other iconographers as they practice their ministry in sacred art. As a result, she has since enjoyed studying with Rev. Peter Pearson and Michael Kapeluck, two artists from Pennsylvania who paint in the Russian Orthodox style.

Lesley realizes that her art is more than art for art’s sake. As a committed Roman Catholic she understands that her art is a dramatic form of silent evangelization of the Word of God. She takes seriously the invitation of St. John Paul 2’s 1999 Letter to Artists to participate in the “call” to the vocation of a sacred artist. He tells us that in doing so we fulfill our personal responsibility to do our part in spreading the Good News of Christ. He says,

“In order to communicate the message entrusted to her by Christ, the Church needs art.  Art must make perceptible, and as far as possible attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God.  It must therefore translate into meaningful terms, which is in itself ineffable.

Art has a unique capacity to take one or other facet of the message and translate it into colors, shapes and sounds, which nourish the intuition of those who look or listen. It does so without emptying the message itself of its transcendent value and its aura of mystery.” 

It is this “aura of mystery” that Lesley is prayerfully attempting to make visible to the viewer of her art. For, as sacred artists, we are all called to make visible the “ineffable mystery” that is God, His angels, and His saints.

Lesley’s most recent completed icons of Saint Gabriel and St. John the Baptist are quite lovely. I especially like the fact that St. Gabriel is shown holding the Holy Eucharist. As you know, the Archangel Gabriel was depicted in the Hebrew Scriptures as being a healer, especially of the eyes. This sacred icon aptly shows that the source of the Archangel’s power is Christ Himself. The second icon showing St. John the Baptist in a prayerful pose indicates that even in Heaven he continues his mission of imploring us to repent of our sins.

St. Gabriel the Archangel and St. John the Baptist, pray for us.

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

 

Eugene Burnand and The Greatest Easter Painting Ever Made | Crisis Magazine

Clicking on the attached link found below produces an excellent article by Elise Ehrhard in Crisis Magazine describing the Swiss painter Eugène Burnand’s late 19th century masterpiece The Disciples Peter and John Running to the Sepulchre on the Morning of the Resurrection. 

One writer has described this painting as a visual Lectio Divina since the observer cannot help but feel the joy, hope, and love of these disciples for the Lord. 

May you and your families experience an Easter season filled with the healing love of Christ.

The Greatest Easter Painting Ever Made | Crisis Magazine.

 

Beautiful Russian Sacred Icons at the New Haven Knights of Columbus Museum

If you are in the vicinity of New Haven, Connecticut within the next two weeks take the opportunity to stop by the Knights of Columbus Museum for their magnificent exhibit entitled “Windows into Heaven – Russian Icons and Treasures.”

The Museum is located at One State Street, New Haven, and offers free admission and parking. They are open from 10 to 5 pm.

For the past year it has hosted a private collection of spectacular Russian sacred icons and liturgical artifacts. It is the finest collection of Russian sacred icons that I have observed in the Northeast owing to the fact that each of the icons and treasures are in excellent condition.

You will enjoy artifacts such as a 7th century Byzantine Reliquary (bronze, traces of gold plate, and blue enamel) and three rooms of sacred icons encompassing the portrayal of Jesus Christ, His Mother – the Blessed Theotokos, much loved saints, and angels.

Their website,  www.kofcmuseum.org/en/index.html provides a wonderful overview of the 225 pieces that are on exhibit. They mention that “few customs or traditions have endured for longer than a millennium, but the use of icons in Russia is among them. In this exhibition, the Knights of Columbus Museum is pleased to share more than examples of Russian Orthodox iconography, along with other liturgical and devotional items.

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Icons are often called windows into heaven because they are said to give the viewer a glimpse of the eternal realm. Many of the items are more than 100 years old, predating the Bolshevik Revolution (1917).

In AD 988 Prince Vladimir of Kiev converted to Orthodox Christianity, and he persuaded his countrymen and women to do the same. Thus, iconography was introduced as a means of fostering religious understanding and devotion among all the people of Kievan Rus (present day Ukraine, Belarus and northwest Russia).

The artistic traditon followed the strict models and formulas of the Byzantine Greek Orthodox tradition (these artistic practices developed in Constantinople and Greece and spread both East and West). Ultimately, the Russian sacred art tradition developed its own distinctive styles within each major city of Russia.

As a form of sacred art, iconographers historically prayed or fasted before and during the creation of an icon. Traditionally, icons were painted in egg tempera on wood and often accented with gold leaf or covered with ornately gilt metal covers called rizas. Rich in symbolism, they are still used extensively in Orthodox churches and monasteries, and many Russian homes have icons hanging on the wall in a “beautiful” (or prayer) corner.”

“Icons have been synonymous with Christian prayer and practice for centuries,” said Supreme Knight Carl Anderson. “One of the great traditions of Eastern Christianity, icons are less well known here, and we are pleased that this exhibit will enable residents of the Northeast to grow in their understanding of the history and religious significance of these windows into heaven.” This exhibit concludes on April 27, 2014.

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Viewing this exhibit during Holy Week or the First Week of Easter leading up to Divine Mercy Sunday and the canonization of Pope John 23rd and Pope John Paul 2 on April 27th would be of great assistance in your joyful experience of the reality of the resurrected Christ. My prayers are with you for a prayerful Holy Week and a blessed Easter Season!

Copyright © 2011- 2014 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved. The sacred icons shown are taken from the Knights of Columbus website which offers a history of each sacred image or artifact exhibited.

 

 

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

Baptism, Discipleship, and the Art of Lorenzo Lotto

In our Gospel last week we stood at the banks of the Jordan River and witnessed Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist. Today we hear John announce to all that the Spirit of God rests upon Jesus who is described as the Lamb of God and the Light of the World. John goes on to say that Jesus is not an angel, a prophet, nor a magician; rather, He is the incarnate Son of the Most High God. John reminds us that as the “Lamb of God” Jesus has a specific mission. His role is to teach and preach, and most importantly, it is to heal, and that healing can only occur through sacrificial service – specifically through the sacrifice of His own blood.

We are just one month past the celebration of the birth of Jesus and today our Gospel reminds us of the purpose of His mission.

Five hundred years ago a beautiful painting was completed by the Italian artist Lorenzo Lotto entitled the Nativity of Christ. Lotto presents the typical stable scene, yet, his spiritual insight focuses on one specific artistic touch: he places on the wall behind a kneeling St. Joseph the image of a crucifix with the body of Christ emanating a beautiful glowing light that spills out onto the wood of the cross and the stable itself.

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To my knowledge, Lotto’s innovation was the first time such an insight had been seen in Western art, but its originality is emphasized by the fact that your eye naturally moves from the crucifix, through the eyes of Joseph and Mary, and then down to the open arms of Jesus. Here as an infant, on the wood of the manger, He freely opened His arms to Mary and Joseph; and as an adult carpenter, He freely laid Himself down upon the wood of the Cross, to be sacrificed in an open embrace of love for all.

The challenge of this Gospel is that Christ offers us, as His disciples, the model of sacrificial service. No matter who you are, or what your age or station in life, you can perform sacrificial service to those around you. But it must be offered in the same redemptive spirit that Christ offered His service: with spiritual love and compassion for the souls of those in need. By virtue of our own Baptism we are all called to serve others as Christ has served us. You may be a mother or father caring for children or elderly parents – this care, if offered in the spirit of Christ – is sacrificial service. You may be a sacred artist, laboring quietly and prayerfully to create beautiful images that will assist yourself and others in prayer. This creative labor is sacrificial service.

You may be a child or teenager that courageously doesn’t participate in the bullying of another and comforts the one injured – if offered in the spirit of Christ – this is sacrificial service. You may be an adult – sick or aching from the pain of years of courageous work for your family or on behalf of the Church’s needs, such as supporting the pro-life movement or other social and moral justice issues. You see, if in prayer – you offer up your pain and efforts for souls in need – this is Christ-like, redemptive, sacrificial service. So as we offer sacrificial service on behalf of others, we turn our mind to God and place ourselves in His presence. This presence is a moment of prayer for us.

Allow me to make a recommendation: when we offer sacrificial service we should say the first verse of Psalm 70, which says, “God come to my assistance, Lord make haste to help me.” By saying this prayer, awareness of our Baptismal discipleship takes root. For it is in that short verse that we successfully unite ourselves to Jesus in the Jordan River, and like Him, receive grace from the Father to continue our mission, even if it ends up on Calvary.

As we travel through the dark days of winter, let us not forget that the Light of Christ is always present to us, and that Jesus’ arms will always remain open to patiently help us as we serve others.

God come to our assistance. Lord, make haste to help us.

***The above homily will be delivered by me at St. Romuald Chapel at 10 AM, and Noon at St. Francis of Assisi Church, South Kingstown, Rhode Island, USA on Sunday January 19, 2014. Copyright © 2011- 2014 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved. Notes on the Painting: Lorenzo Lotto’s Nativity of Christ was completed in 1523. It is painted in oil on wood, and is presently in The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

The Gospel of St. Luke 12: 49-53 – The Sword of Christ

The following is a homily that will be delivered by Deacon Paul O. Iacono at St. Francis of Assisi Church, South Kingstown, Rhode Island on the weekend of August 17/18 2013.

In our first Scriptural reading for this weekend (Jeremiah 38: 4-6, 8-10) we see the prophet Jeremiah thrown into a well as a result of his faith-filled preaching. He was lowered into a mud filled cistern in an attempt to shut him up and tame his ability to disturb the people’s apathy.

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A month ago we witnessed the spiritually uplifting events of Steubenville East held here in South Kingstown, in which Catholic teenagers and young adults from all over the Northeast gathered together to worship God and share experiences in a faith-filled setting.

The following week we saw Pope Francis travel to Brazil, express his love, teach, and witness to as many as three million people at World Youth Day.

But when these young people returned home you can be sure that advice was given to some of them, by well meaning people, who said, “Its great that you had an uplifting experience but don’t get carried away and go off the deep end.”

What does that kind of talk do?

It throws cold water on the fire of enthusiasm – it attempts to tame and control a person’s faith.

All people, regardless of age, who desire to live out and practice the Holy Scriptures in their daily lives must guard against being tamed by the world, and even at times, by some well meaning people within the Church.

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The message of this weekend’s Gospel (Luke 12: 49-53) is counter cultural. The Gospel does, at times, cause trouble. It can set a soul on fire with love for God and fellow man, and that soul then understands through wise spiritual counseling, the mission it has been given by the Lord to continue His work here on earth.

The saints all experienced this fire, this blaze of mystical love and desire for God that not only consumed them, but – by their witness –  those around them, too.

Jesus tells us in St. Luke’s Gospel that He wants to inspire a mystical fire – a blaze of faith, love, and action, and yet, He knows this will cause division; Jesus is exclaiming that His peace is not the peace of the world.

The peace and love that Jesus offers to us is often at odds with the frauds, shams, and counterfeits of this world: the politics, economics, and religious expressions that do not lift people up in love, unity of purpose, and individual liberty, but tear them apart, in anger, stress, and confusion.

When the Gospel of Jesus Christ becomes a blaze roaring in our souls the Holy Spirit gives us the gifts of fortitude and perseverance. These gifts strengthen us to stand up to pagan society both in a public and private way. This strength makes us dangerous, and historically has been a cause for division in the eyes of societies – from the time of the Roman Empire to the world today. Why else would members of the entertainment world and the news media attack the Catholic Church’s beliefs, its clergy, religious, and laity alike?

They attack a Church weakened by the public and private sins of her people but still bold enough to proclaim the Gospel.

They attack because they know the Gospel message is dangerous to their agenda.

They attack because they know that a core group of faithful followers, that cross denominational lines and who truly still number in the millions, cannot be bought off or intimidated. 

My brothers and sisters, Jesus Christ’s Redemption of mankind brought us salvation, peace, and love; but the sword He carries does have two sides – for it sharply divides those who take the Cross and the Gospel seriously from those who do not.

Today’s Gospel challenges us to know that like Jesus, Jeremiah, and the saints we must expect misunderstanding, ill treatment, and possibly even death when we glorify God by living a Gospel centered life.

Our faith provides us with the grace and love of God. Yet, the Cross refines our perspective to see that God’s love is a purifying fire of salvation and covenant that demands that  His people not compromise with the world, or declare a bogus truce with evil. So when you stand before society proclaiming your faith – do not be afraid. Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus and the witness of His Blessed Mother and the saints – in the end all will be well.

Copyright © 2011- 2013 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved. The first image of Jeremiah in the cistern was painted by the artist Marc Chagall; the second image is by Paul Hardy. Thanks to Wikipaintings for the images.

Roger of Helmarshausen O.S.B. – Theophilus the Presbyter: Part 3 – The Prologues

Last February, in Parts 1 and 2 of this article, I shared with you some thoughts on an important figure in the history of Western European art: the Benedictine monk, Roger of Helmarshausen, also known by his pen name, Theophilus the Presbyter.

Dom Roger was born in the late 11th century during a dramatic time in Western European history. In 1066 the Normans successfully invaded England and defeated the Saxons, which forever changed the history of England and the Continent. In 1084, St. Bruno founded the Carthusian Order in France, and in 1098 the foundation monastery of Citeaux saw the beginning of the Cistercian Order.

In 1095, at the Council of Clermont, Pope Urban II preached the First Crusade in an attempt to restore Christianity to the Holy Land. In 1115, St. Bernard became the abbot of the monastery of Clairvaux; and remained its abbot until his death in 1153. In 1120 we have the extraordinary sculptor Gislebertus working on the tympanum of Autun Cathedral in the Burgundy region of eastern France, and in 1150 we have Abbot Suger beginning the rebuilding of the abbey-church of St. Denis in Paris, which ushers in the beautiful Gothic period in Western art and architecture.

It is within this dynamic and exciting environment of the early 12th century that the Benedictine monk, Roger of Helmarshausen (considered by many, but not all scholars, to be Theophilus the Presbyter) compiles and writes his important manuscript De diversis artibus (On Divers Arts), also known as Schedula diversarum artium, or simply the Schedula. His book contains three chapters of which only one (the most extensive and detailed) deals with metallurgy, the other two deal with painting and the making of stained glass.

Many scholars believe that On Divers Arts was written/compiled between the years 1100 and 1140. Besides its importance as a medieval artistic treatise, On Diverse Arts is known as containing the first very early description of oil paint, thus, conclusively proving Georgio Vasari (1511-74) was mistaken in claiming that the van Ecyk’s were the first to develop the use of painting in oils.

Dom Roger’s artistic skills revolved around metallurgy, specifically in the crafting of exquisite gold and silver liturgical furnishings, an example of which can be seen in the image below of a Portable Altar, c. 1120, Oak box, clad in partly gilded silver, feet of gilded bronze, 165 x 345 x 212 mm (approx. 6.6 by 13.6 by 8 inches), found in the Cathedral of Paderborn, Germany.

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Dom Roger’s contributions to the understanding of late 11th and early 12th century Western European sacred art are so numerous as to be out of the purview of this post to catalogue them all. My goal today is to mention how specifically a contemporary sacred artist in the Western Tradition could benefit in reading his book On Diverse Arts.

This is my main point: if a sacred artist picks up Dom Roger’s book and quickly scans through the Prologues to each of the three chapters in the book they will miss the entire point of what he was trying to accomplish. It is a book that requires the reader to view its contents not as another medieval manuscript of pigment recipes or the social anthropology of a highly skilled 12th century artist. Clearly, Dom Roger is inviting us into his working world and the spiritual perception of the application of prayer to work, which is true to the motto of his Benedictine Order: Ora et Labora.

Each of the three prologues discusses the development of specific spiritual values in relation to the sacred art (painting, glass making, or metalworking) the student is pursuing. There is a progression through different skills and obstacles that the student must master in order to reach the heights of individual artistry.

St. John Climacus and other Patristic Fathers in discussing a soul’s spiritual journey speak of a similar progression up the “ladder of ascent” to the Godhead and spiritual union with God. The soul’s journey is fraught with problems and obstacles, yet, those souls that persevere are rewarded for their efforts. Dr. Heidi Gearhart, presently of Harvard University, also speaks of this idea in her research on Dom Roger when she identifies the intention that he is interested in a progression forward, an ascent, through different and more complex art forms to the pinnacle (in his mind) of artistry – which is Dom Roger’s own specialty: the art of gold, silver, and bronze metal work.

The First Prologue to the chapter on painting emphasizes the need for the sacred artist to be humble in his/her approach, they should not neglect the wisdom of the past, nor should they be idle or selfish with the artistic gifts they have received. They have the duty to pass on to their receptive students the wisdom of the arts that they have been given by God, and have gained through study, and experience; and lastly, your art should always give glory to God and to His holy name.

In the Second Prologue, which is the preface to the chapter on glass making, we read that Dom Roger is emphasizing his adherence to the guidance of Holy Wisdom. In a passage of mystical quality he says “I drew near to the forecourt of holy Wisdom and I saw the sanctuary filled with a variety of all kinds of differing colors, displaying the utility and nature of each pigment…” He goes on to say that he can accomplish superior effects through the use of glass alone, thus, “without repelling the daylight and the rays of the sun.”  We wonder whether Abbot Suger in Paris was familiar with Dom Roger’s experiments with glass prior to or during his renovation of the abbey church of St. Denis – the precursor of French Gothic churches.

The Third, and last, Prologue, the preface to the art of metal work, takes us into the recesses of Dom Roger’s soul, for in this preface he is stressing that the Holy Spirit bestows on the sacred artist the grace of the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit. These Seven Gifts: Fear of the Lord (which means that we do not desire or act to offend God in any way), Understanding, Counsel (Spiritual Prudence), Fortitude, Knowledge, Piety, and Wisdom have been given to us through the compassion of God. These Gifts are given to the artist who sincerely desires them through the Sacraments of the Church, sincere prayer, and activity, which acknowledges the truth, goodness, and beauty of God. The sacred artist should always be open to cooperate with the grace of God. Dom Roger implores his students to understand that their work should reflect the truth that it is executed under the authority, direction, and guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Dom Roger’s perspective is solidly within the Benedictine tradition of attempting to live within a state of spiritual wisdom, and to transfer that wisdom, through teaching and practical workshop application, to another generation of monk/artists. Humility, creative technique, investigation, silence, prayer – listening to Holy Wisdom – enable him to succeed at his art.

His approach is to remain true to his spiritual values as a Benedictine. He recognizes the absolute significance of the role that the Holy Spirit plays in assisting, molding, and inspiring the artist in his or her efforts to create artworks which give glory to God and to share their knowledge with those who are willing to learn.

My next post on this subject will present a brief overview of some salient research by an outstanding scholar of this period of European art history: Dr. Heidi Gearhart of Harvard University.

Copyright © 2011- 2013 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved         The quotations are taken from the John G. Hawthorne and Cyril S. Smith translation from the Latin of Theophilus’ On Divers Arts, published by Dover Publications, New York, 1979.

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

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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.

St. Peter’s Affirmation of His Love for Christ Is A Model for Us

In our Scriptures for the 3rd Sunday of Easter we have the extraordinary contrast of St. Peter’s deeds in the first reading with that of his behavior in our Gospel. In the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles we see Peter’s defiance of the priests and the elders in the Temple. This defiance is in direct contrast to his cowardice two months earlier on the night of Jesus’ arrest; and it also differs from what we visualize in today’s Gospel.

The events of this Gospel occur before our first reading and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. This Gospel recounts the third appearance of Jesus to the disciples after the resurrection. St. John tells us that even though Jesus had commissioned the disciples in His first two appearances, to go out and spread the Good News, they are still a little shaky on what they should be doing.

Their confusion caused them to be stressed, and like all of us today, they relieved their stress by returning to some activity they were comfortable with – in their case it was fishing, but they weren’t successful, they fished all night long and came up empty.

As dawn breaks upon the Sea of Galilee, John first notices someone standing on the shore, and that person called out to them: “Have you caught anything to eat?”

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They respond – “No.”   So this Person tells them where to fish – and their nets overflow. John, at that point realizes who it is, and tells Peter  –  “It’s the Lord!” and Peter immediately swims ashore. They all arrive to find that it truly is Jesus and He has made breakfast for them! After their shared meal, Jesus gets down to business: He begins to test Peter.

It is natural for us to feel uncomfortable for Peter. He is being asked three times whether or not he loves Jesus. The humiliation of the public questioning must have stung him and yet Jesus continues to ask, and He responds to Peter’s affirmations with:  “Feed my lambs,” “Tend my sheep,” “Feed my sheep.”

Jesus is asking Peter to totally bare his soul to Him. In Peter’s threefold denial of Jesus on Holy Thursday night, in his propensity for loudly proclaiming his devotion to Christ, in his subsequent denials, in his guilt, in his sins, in his pre Pentecost lack of action  – Peter is, ultimately, a reflection of all of us; but Peter is dramatically different – from us and from the other Apostles, because it is in this flawed man that Jesus continues to recognize and affirm “the rock,” on which His Church would be built.

Peter’s answers on that Galilean beach, and his willingness to publicly say that his deeds would follow his words, became the affirmation of his most inner self back to the Lord. His sincere “Yes” enabled him to become a leader, a man of deeds, and not empty words. His affirmation enabled Peter to receive the grace of Jesus’ mercy and love, and this enabled him to complete his mission to be the shepherd, the leader, the Vicar of His flock.

Pentecost provided Peter and the Apostles with the final graces of total transformation. A Eucharistic banquet on the beach and the confirming fire of the Spirit at Pentecost enflamed these once confused and dejected men to go out, and in the name of Jesus Christ, transform the world.

We have received the sacramental grace of the Spirit   in Baptism, many of us have received the grace of Confirmation, and we are fed on a weekly basis through the Eucharistic Banquet at Mass. Similar to Peter and the Apostles, we are on that Galilean beach surrounded by the  love and mercy of Jesus Christ.

My brothers and sisters by the virtue of the Sacramental graces that we have received, we in turn, have the same mission. For we are required to tend the flock – the lambs – the sheep – of our own families, friends, strangers, and help open their hearts to the love and mercy of Christ.

Let us pray for the continued outpouring of the gifts of the Holy Spirit that will enable us, like St. Peter, to stand up in the marketplace of our lives and feed the flock that we have been called to shepherd.

Copyright © 2011- 2013 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved. The above was a homily delivered by Deacon P. Iacono at St. Francis of Assisi Church Wakefield, Rhode Island on Sunday 4/14/2013. Notes on the artist: The painting of Christ Appearing on the Shore of Lake Tiberias is by James J. Tissot (15 October 1836 – 8 August 1902). Tissot was a French artist who spent much of his career in Britain. He was born in 1836 to a family of Italian descent in the port town of Nantes, France. His father, Marcel Théodore Tissot, was a successful drapery merchant while his mother, Marie Durand, assisted her husband in his business and designed hats. His mother was also a devout Catholic and instilled pious devotion in Tissot from a very young age. In 1885, Tissot experienced a re-conversion to Catholicism, which led him to spend the rest of his life illustrating the Bible. To assist in his completion of Biblical illustrations, Tissot traveled to the Middle East in 1886, 1889, and 1896 to make studies of the landscape and people. (source: Wikipedia article on the artist, and the Brooklyn Museum: www.artabase.net/exhibition/1868-james-tissot-the-life-of-christ).

Evgeny Baranov’s Miniature Icons and Rashid and Inessa Azbuhanov Icon Carvings

My sincere thanks to Jonathan Pageau at the Orthodox Arts Journal,  http://www.orthodoxartsjournal.org/, for permission to repost his wonderful presentation of the sacred icon miniatures of Russian artist Evgeny Baranov and the spectacular icon wood carvings by Rashid and Inessa Azbuhanov.

We must take care when we paint/”write” large icons, yet, to complete an icon miniature or a wood carving, with such grace and spiritual truth, demands in my humble opinion, even more skill and patience! Enjoy, and be filled with astonishment!

To see all of Baranov’s miniatures please visit their site:www.orthodoxartsjournal.org/miniature-icons-by-evgeny-baranov/ .

To see the lovely icon wood carvings of the Asbuhanov’s please take a look at the last two images in this post, if you would like to see all of their work please visit this site: /www.orthodoxartsjournal.org/the-russian-master-icon-carvers/

Miniature Icons by Evgeny Baranov and Russian Master Icon Carvers

April 9th and 10th, 2013

By 

Here are some of the most astounding miniature icons I have seen.  They are made by a Russian artisan named Evgeny Baranov who is also a very good goldsmith as you will see below.   These pictures were taken from his facebook page.  I have been trying to get a short interview with some more details, and my lack of Russian seems to stand in the way…  but really, the work stands on its own.

Rashid and Inessa Azbuhanov are a Russian couple who are leading the rediscovery of icon carving in the Russian Church.  Their works grace the collections of Russian politicians from Gorbachev to Putin, European royal families and church authorities from the Russian Patriarch to the Pope of Rome. 

Their works are often large and highly detailed, like wooden lace as they include much chip carving into the patterns of clothing, backgrounds and frames.   There is a certain folk aspect to their work, especially in some of the faces which do not follow the more usual formal tradition of icon carving but are often effective nonetheless.  They recently had a show of their work in Moscow and so I thought it a good opportunity to put up some of their icons.

Despite their great success, they are warm and quite generous, just like their carvings.

More pictures can be found on their website:  http://www.azbuhanov.ru/

Here  also is a detailed article on their recent Moscow show.

[The first five images below are the work of Evgeny Baranov and the last two wood carvings are the work of Rashid and Inessa Azbuhanov.]

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Easter 2013

“The splendor of Christ risen from the dead has shone on the people redeemed by His blood, alleluia.”

“Our Redeemer has risen from the tomb; let us sing a hymn of praise to the Lord our God, alleluia.”

“Alleluia, the Lord is risen as He promised, alleluia.”

Fra_Angelico_024

God our Father, by raising Christ Your Son You conquered the power of death and opened for us the way to eternal life. Let our celebration today raise us up and renew our lives by the Spirit that is within us [through our Baptism into Your Life]. Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.” Amen

Notes on the painting: This painting by Fra Angelico is found in one of the “cells” (cell 31), that is, one of the rooms that were used by Dominican friars as their personal living quarters in their priory, or what is today called the Museo de San Marco, in Florence, Italy. The painting portrays Jesus Christ, after His resurrection on Easter Sunday morning, entering into that spiritual place where the souls of the righteous deceased were waiting for their expected liberation by the Messiah. Christ’s hand is extended to Adam, Eve is behind him and St. John the Baptist is next to her, followed by all the righteous from past history. Jesus, the Son of God, will now lead them into Heaven, to rejoice forever with the Trinity. The door to this spiritual place has been shattered, catching a demon under its fall. Other demons cower in a corner, totally overcome by the beauty, majesty, and spiritual power of God Himself. Jesus Christ’s image is one of love, mercy, tenderness, and welcoming. He is happy to be there and to be the source of their personal spiritual Redemption and liberation. This Redemption was made possible by Jesus’ bloody sacrifice and death on the Holy Cross which is represented on the standard that He holds.

This painting is a fresco and is approximately 5 feet by 6 feet in size. It is called Christ Storming Hell, and is also known as Christ in Limbo. It was completed between 1437 and 1450.

We pray that  you have a Happy Easter Day and a grace filled Easter Season!

The quotations are taken from volume 2 of the Roman Breviary – The Divine Office, page 524-526, antiphons and closing prayer for Easter Sunday morning.

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

Good Friday

“Come, let us worship Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who redeemed us with His Precious Blood.”

“If we wish to  understand the power of Christ’s blood, we should go back to the ancient account of its prefiguration in Egypt. Sacrifice a lamb without blemish, a one year old male, commanded Moses, and sprinkle its blood on your doors. If we were to ask him what he meant, and how the blood of an irrational beast could possible save men endowed with reason, his answer would be that the saving power lies not in the blood itself, but in the fact that it is a sign of the Lord’s blood. In those days, when the destroying angel saw the blood on the doors he did not dare to enter, so how much less will the devil approach now when he sees, not that figurative blood on the doors, but the true blood on the lips of believers, the doors of the temple of Christ.

If you desire further proof of the power of this blood, remember where it came from, how it ran down from the cross, flowing from the Master’s side. The gospel records that when Christ was dead, but still hung on the cross, a soldier came and pierced his side with a lance and immediately there poured out water and blood. Now the water was a symbol of baptism and the blood, of the holy eucharist. The soldier pierced the Lord’s side, he breached the wall of  the sacred temple, and I have found the treasure and made it my own. So also with the lamb: the Jews sacrificed the victim and I have been saved by it.”

It was about nine in the morning when they nailed Jesus to the cross.

From noon until three o’clock there was darkness over the whole world.

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At three o’clock, Jesus cried out in a loud voice: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

It is finished.

When we were His enemies, God reconciled us to Himself by the death of His Son Jesus Christ.

An innocent Jesus sacrificed for us, the guilty.

Realize that you were delivered from the futile way of life your fathers handed on to you, not by any diminishable sum of silver or gold, but by Christ’s blood beyond all price: the blood of a spotless, unblemished lamb chosen before the world’s foundation and revealed for your sake in these last days. It is through Him that you are believers in God, the God who raised Him from the dead and gave Him glory. Your faith and hope, then, are centered in God.  (1 Peter 1: 18-21)

“Awake, O Sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.”

Copyright © 2013 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

Notes on the painting: Christ’s Crucifixion, is by the Spanish master Diego Velazquez (1599 – 1660); it was completed between 1631 – 32.

All the Scriptural quotations are taken from The New American Bible (1970) Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. The “Awake, O sleeper…” verse is taken from an ancient homily from the first centuries of the Church. First quotation is from The Roman Breviary: The Divine Office, volume 2, page 467. The second quotation is from The Catecheses by Saint John Chrysostom (AD 347-407), archbishop of Constantinople, Byzantium (present day Istanbul, Turkey). His Catecheses is also found in volume 2 of the Breviary, pages 473-475.

The Last Supper – Jesus as Servant, Christ as Sacrifice: An Evening Meditation

At the Last Supper, on the night He was betrayed, our Savior entrusted to His Church the memorial of His death and resurrection.
This memorial came to us through the Institution of the Holy Eucharist, a memorial that He intended would be celebrated forever by His Church in the magnificent prayer that is known as the Holy Mass.
Let us adore Him, and say:
Jesus, sanctify Your people, redeemed by Your blood.
Lord, You humbled Yourself by being obedient to the Father’s will, even to accepting death, death on a cross.
Please give all who faithfully serve You the gifts of:
obedience to Your Holy Word found in Your Gospel,
service to our neighbor because they are reflections of You,
and patient endurance in all our troubles and tests.
Christ Washing Peter's Feet, Ford Madox Brown

Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet, (1852-56) by Ford Madox Brown (1821 – 1893), Tate Britain, London.

(Meditation based on the Intercessions, Evening Prayer for Holy Thursday, found in the Roman Breviary: The Divine Office, volume 2, page 465. Thanks to the Catholic Artists Society for the posting of Ford Madox Brown’s painting, please visit their site and consider becoming a member: http://catholicartistssociety.posterous.com ).

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

 

 

Theophilus, the Art of Iconography, and the Contemporary Sacred Artist – Part 2

Please take a moment to read the first part of this multi-part essay that I posted a few days ago. I am requesting that you do this in order for you to understand my perspective on creating contemporary sacred art within the Latin Rite.

Creating sacred art for me is a service ministry. It is a ministry through which a sacred artist unites him or herself to God’s Redemptive efforts. If you are a Baptized Christian who has been educated in the faith, regardless of the Rite or the denomination, you know that the Christian faith requires you to cooperate with the grace that the Holy Spirit provides to you through Scripture and the Sacraments. If one does this, and maintains a disciplined prayer life, you are cooperating with the Spirit in the duties that you must perform in your life.

For a Christian, human history is more than the individual searching for God. As the book of Genesis (3: 8-9) tells us, God walked through the Garden of Eden searching for us – for our spiritual parents: “When they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, the man and his wife hid themselves from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called the man and said to him, “Where are you?”

The Lord asks that question of us, too. 

Jesus is constantly calling out to us, constantly searching for us, constantly knocking on the door of our hearts hoping to hear our loving response. Christianity is the faith through which a searching God shows Himself to be so loving and so merciful as to persevere, to the point of sacrificing His own Son, in the effort of bringing rebellious humanity back into His family.

So the history of Christian sacred art shows us that people desired sacred icons (Greek, eikon: image) to reference that sense of family, in the same way that we have photographs today of family members, living and dead, which remind us of the love shared and their importance to our lives. These photographs or images are not idols. Even if a loved one does kiss a photograph or a sacred icon or image, the meaning behind that gesture is that the kiss – the love and respect – is not meant for the celluloid, or the wood and pigment; rather, it is meant for the prototype, for the person it represents, the loved one, God, His saints and angels.

Unfortunately, the faith family that is the Church split in the Great Schism of 1054. The Latin Rite and the Greek/Russian Rite split along cultural, theological, philosophical, political, and artistic lines. This Schism is one of the great scandals that has affected Christ’s Church.

The Schism, however, did not affect trade and the exchange of ideas among the laity. Commerce continued and new products, artistic materials, and techniques were evaluated, bought, and sold. The development of the Latin Rite artistic tradition after the Schism indicates that in Western Europe the linking of faith with the creative impulse was very strong and did much to solidify and unify the various cultural groups within the Latin Rite.

But, what was the Latin Rite tradition post AD 1054? What were the techniques of the Latin Rite artists of the Romanesque and early to mid Gothic period? Were there artistic manuals that were more than just recipe books on preparing pigments and varnishes and which discussed the spiritual underpinnings of the artisan’s art?

Where to begin?

As mentioned before, I happily discovered Pope Benedict XVI’s book –The Spirit of the Liturgy. This became my starting point, with its expression that the three periods within the liturgical art of the Latin Rite can be found in the Iconographic, Gothic, and Baroque styles of art.

I was searching for the techniques that Catholic artists would have used approximately one thousand years ago. Sacred artists within the late Iconographic period and early Romanesque period (AD 900 – 1300) would have approached their art within a disciplined theological, semantic, and aesthetic viewpoint. As Western Europeans, however, they easily accepted innovation and even experimentation if it provided a final product which met the artisan’s demanding and critical eye, and especially that of the master artisan of the workshop.

In the Spring of 2012 I discovered a twelfth century book entitled On Diverse Arts by Theophilus the Presbyter (translated by Hawthorne and Smith, Dover Press, 1979, 216 pages). This book is the critical corner stone of my attempt to link contemporary sacred art with its medieval roots. For Theophilus the Presbyter – a twelfth century master artist – is an individual who can still effectively speak to us in our own time. Theophilus has the perspective and the attitude that provides us with a foundation for our spiritual view of art.

This does not mean that we are slavishly going back in an attempt to reproduce the twelfth century. To do that would not be honest, rather, while staying true to the theological, semantic, and aesthetic beliefs of artists like Theophilus we are able to reinterpret and refresh our current situation in light of the contributions and truths discovered and lived in the past. Truth, goodness, and beauty are not limited by space and time.

O Beauty, ever ancient, O Beauty, ever new.

One of the key ideas of Theophilus that needs to be shared with Christian sacred artists is that the Holy Spirit is moving through our creative efforts, and is actively involved in the artist’s daily work. It is my belief that Theophilus sees the role of the artist as a person with a specific vocation, a calling, who is to unite his call by God to create beautiful works of art with his own prayer life and the Catholic spiritual view of reality.

Many, but not all art historians, believe that Theophilus is the pen name for a Benedictine monk by the name of Roger of Helmarshausen. Roger was a master at metalworking, specializing in gold and silver, and lived in the Benedictine monastery located in the town of Helmarshausen in modern day Germany.

In his manual, On Diverse Arts, Theophilus not only lays out his spiritual vision in three specific prologues to his chapters on painting, glassmaking, and metalworking but he provides specific directions and guidance to fellow artists. For example, he lays out – step by step – the process for creating a sacred image: the types of pigments to use, specific colors for the base coat, shadows, colors to use for hair, beards, skin, drapery, etc.

Theophilus’ union of a sincere spiritual perspective with technical guidance shows him to be a master teacher and mentor. He accomplished this within his own Benedictine monastery at Helmarshausen and his reputation expanded throughout the Rhine-Meuse River Valley in Germany.

In my next post I hope to discuss the spiritual importance of Theophilus’ three chapter prologues, and ultimately their relationship to the contemporary Catholic sacred artist.

In my fourth post in this series I will discuss a marvelous doctoral dissertation on Theophilus that was written in 2010 by Heidi Gearhart, Ph.D.

And in my fifth and last post in this series I will discuss how, in the mode of Theophilus, I am developing a practical sacred art workbook that provides step-by-step advice for the contemporary sacred artist. I have two of the four chapters completed and I will probably self-publish it for my sacred art workshops prior to a publisher (hopefully, :{) !) formally printing it.

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

The Penitent Magdalene and the Way to True Conversion of Heart – A RePost Of Fr. Jason Smith’s Essay

As we begin the season of Lent I thought you would enjoy this article by Father Jason Smith. It contains a magnificent sacred image painted by George de La Tour (1593 – 1652). La Tour is one of my favorite artists; I especially enjoy his beautiful sacred image of St. Joseph teaching the child Jesus. During his lifetime La Tour was considered to be the painter for the French nobility. His son Etienne became his pupil and followed his father’s style so closely that it is very difficult for today’s art historians to determine the author of certain paintings within their collection.
La Tour was a master of the chiarascuro (light/dark/shadow) technique. He developed this technique in new ways, adopting a softer, gentler, and simple approach to presenting the interplay of light, shadow, and color.  After his involvement with a Franciscan led spiritual revival he eventually devoted himself to religious subjects. His two paintings on Mary Magdalene are masterpieces of this style of art and they truly speak to the soul who is interested in listening.
The de La Tour family unfortunately died in 1652 as a result of an epidemic that devastated his city.
The essay below was written a few years ago by Fr. Jason Smith. Fr. Smith’s essay on the truth, beauty, and meaning of de La Tour’s painting reflects the Lord’s ability to use sacred artists to express His continual grace and mercy to us. It is my wish that you spiritually profit by the painting and its analysis. Thank you Fr. Smith for posting this fine essay.

The Penitent Magdalene and the Way to True Conversion of Heart   By Fr Jason Smith, published at the Biltrix blog 

“I have found no better representation of conversion and penance in art than The Penitent Magdalene, by George de La Tour. Though simple, it expresses the essential elements behind every conversion, and we can find in it powerful lessons to apply to our own life. Let’s take a closer look.

The Penitent Magdalen, George de la Tour

The painting presents Mary at the very beginning of her conversion, on the night that she met Jesus Christ for the first time. Her life is just as it was the day the Lord crossed her path. Yet the subtle but evocative tension in the painting makes it evident that her world has been shaken and she knows she must change.

She has returned home, alone, and cannot sleep. She sits down at her vanity which until this afternoon was the center of her life. La Tour paints nothing superfluous here; only those things most dear to her, things to which she has clung for happiness and fulfillment, but that have only served to leave her feeling empty inside: Her richly embroidered clothing, her silver mirror with its carved and gilded frame, her fine jewels and her string of pearls which, while tossed aside, are still within her grasp.

Interestingly enough Mary’s head is turned away from the viewer—leaving us to imagine her expression, and even better, identify ourselves with it—and, while facing the mirror, she is not looking into it. She is gazing far beyond; she has realized there is something more to life then what is external, then in those things which she has placed her security and happiness. The Lord had cast seven demons from her life, seven lies that she had believed about God and about herself; this night, however, she is finally free of them, but she knows that the changes she has to make and which still lie ahead will be hard.

The flickering flame of the candle is the primary source of light. It is soft, calm, inviting, strong, and supersedes the light of an ordinary candle. It keeps the menacing darkness away. It illuminates her face and her heart—primarily her heart—to show that she has focused on the core of who she is, and subtly shows the love that she has felt that day. Yet it also shines on the mirror and on her robes and on her jewels—the light of Christ has begun to enlighten everything in her life. It is the power of the Holy Spirit through which all true conversion and penance is inspired.

She holds a skull, which at first seems macabre, and certainly was not a fitting decoration for her vanity, but is symbolic of the gravity and seriousness of the assessment she is making of her life. Her hands are folded calmly upon it and it rests gently in her lap; this is not an anxious and tense conversion, but a realistic one. She knows her life will end; she recognizes her mortality; she is asking herself what is truly important in her life—not her mirror or her jewels—and she is preparing her heart to die to those things.

But what will she exchange them with after she gives them up? What will tomorrow morning bring? She stares into the darkness looking for an answer but there is no reply. Conversion always requires faith. The answers and the way are presented gradually. There is a natural trepidation when it comes to change, conversion, stepping out to follow the Lord, and, yes, penance—but this is only a smaller aspect of a larger and more liberating truth, which Pope Benedict expressed so well in his inaugural homily:

Are we not perhaps all afraid in some way? If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom? And once again the Pope said: No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation. And so, today, with great strength and great conviction, on the basis of long personal experience of life, I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life.

Conversion and penance should never be thought of as a loss but as a transformation, an exchange, for something greater: From what is bad to good, from good to better, and from better to best. In reality the Lord does not ask us to give anything up; rather, he asks that we chose the better part, to go from vice to virtue, from complaining to gratitude, from bitterness to forgiveness, from vanity to humility, from lust to love, from anger to patience, from discouragement to hope, from where we are to where we know we are called by the Lord to be.

Conversion and all it entails is a calling of love and is not reached with an empty white knuckle attitude. Notice how gently her hands are folded upon the skull. It is not angst but Christ’s transforming love that impels and inspires her to change. The strength to do this does not come from within one’s own will, though the will is certainly needed, but from the light and the guidance and the power and the fire of the Holy Spirit active in an open heart. Notice how Mary’s garments show how open her heart is.

I’m not certain if George de la Tour ever underwent a conversion himself, but through candlelight and shadow, a mirror and jewels, a skull and robes, and a facial expression we can’t see, he captures the essential elements of one: The love of Christ and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”

Fr Jason Smith

Penitent Magdalene essay: Copyright © 2012-2013 Fr. Jason Smith. All Rights Reserved

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

The Christmas Star of Bethlehem – Merry Christmas, Everyone!

Even though the vast majority of us are not astronomers, the famous star of Bethlehem still has a great ability to intrigue us especially as it relates to its actual astronomical occurrence. As Christians we believe in the Christmas story, not as legend or myth, but as an actual historical occurrence which led to the Redemption of mankind by the Son of God – Jesus Christ.

There are many elements of the Nativity of Christ that are expressed by the evangelists, and one of the most interesting is the illumination of Israel by a brilliant star at the time of the actual birth of Jesus. The Christmas Star has intrigued artists and poets in its ability to shed light on the truth of the cosmic meaning of Christmas; and in recent years some research has been done using computer animation and astronomical programs to determine if, when, and where it actually occurred.

The EWTN network usually airs a contemporary and extremely popular documentary entitled The Star  (of Bethlehem) (please examine the filmmaker – Rick Larson’s site – for a wonderful, multipart, overview of his documentary: www.bethlehemstar.net/

The following post attempts to determine the birth date of Jesus Christ in light of the astronomical evidence. The quotes I provide are taken from a fascinating study entitled Probable Date of Birth of Christ found in this website: www: copiosa.org/christmas/birth_date.htm by Father William G. Most (Fr. Most’s article offers a summary of the work done by  E. L. Martin, in his book The Star That Astonished the World, ASK Publications).

“In the evening of June 17, 2 BC, there was a spectacular astronomical event in the western sky. Venus moved eastward seemingly going to collide with Jupiter. They appeared as one star, not two, dominating the twilight of the western sky in the direction of Palestine. This conjunction had not happened for centuries, and would not happen again for more centuries. Jupiter was considered the Father, Venus the Mother.

Then not many days later, Venus came within 0.36 degrees of Mercury. On September 11 came the New Moon, the Jewish New Year. This happened when Jupiter, the King planet was approaching Regulus, the King star. Further, there were three conjunctions of Jupiter and Regulus within the constellation of Leo, the lion, which was considered the head of the Zodiac.

Now Genesis 49:10 had foretold there would always be a ruler from Judah, whom Jacob called the lion, until the time of the Messiah. The star Regulus, which astronomers called the King Star, dominated Leo.

The Magi, being astronomers and astrologers, would surely read these signs. (The three conjunctions with Regulus were August 12, 3 BC; February 17, 2 BC, and May 8/9, 2 BC). In Hebrew, Jupiter was called sedeq = “righteous,” a term especially pertaining to the Messiah.

On September 11, Jupiter was close in the constellation of Virgo, the virgin. On September 3rd of 3 BC Jupiter was in conjunction with Regulus, the brightest star in the constellation of Leo — Leo the Lion, which was associated with Kings, and the Lion of Judah, as foretold by the dying Jacob in Egypt in Genesis 49:10.

Also, on December 25 of 2 BC, Jupiter stopped for 6 days over Bethlehem. This is a normal motion for Jupiter; it stops twice, and reverses its seeming movement. This may have been the very time the Magi came with their gifts. This was also the time of the Hanukkah festival, during which it was customary for Jewish Fathers to give gifts to their children.

The shepherds watching their flocks in the fields indicate a date either in late summer or early fall.

E.L. Martin [whose research this article is based on] thinks the birth of Jesus was in September, 3 BC (Jupiter in conjunction with Regulus), and the probable date of the Magi was December 25, 2 BC (Jupiter stopped for 6 days over Bethlehem).”

Please don’t forget when we speak in BC time, the “ladder of time” comes down from let us say 10,000 BC to 1 BC, in a descending order, so 3 BC comes before 2 BC.

In AD time (Anno Domini, a Latin phrase which means “the year of Our Lord” the “ladder of time” is ascending, so, we are currently in the year 2012, but as of midnight December 31st, we will then be in the year 2013, or two thousand and thirteen years since the birth of Christ. When this Gregorian Calendar system was developed and applied to western Europe, approximately five hundred years ago, they did not have the sophistication of computer/astronomical observations to correct the date of Christ’s birth, if we agree with Martin’s research, to the year 3 BC.

“The above span of dates (approx. 16 months) coincides with The Slaughter of the Innocents, where Herod killed all males under the age of two years. Herod died shortly thereafter. Interestingly, More than 600 planetariums here and in Europe have revised their Christmas star show to match this work of E. L. Martin.”

594px-Giotto_-_Scrovegni_-_-18-_-_Adoration_of_the_Magi

The above painting is entitled the Adoration of the Magi by Florentine painter Giotto di Bondone (1267–1337). The Star of Bethlehem is shown as a comet above the child. Giotto witnessed an appearance of Halley’s Comet in 1301.

“Magi were not really just astrologers. They served as court advisors, going from one royal court to another. It would not then be difficult to suppose they had come from a great distance with gifts. In those days all astronomers were acquainted with astrology. They were also mathematicians.” This is the end of Fr. Most’s article.

For more information check out Fr. Most’s website: copiosa.org/christmas/index.htm. As you go down this index on the left hand side you will see Fr. Most’s complete article on the Probable Date of the Birth of Christ. His site has some very interesting articles that can be very helpful in explaining to people – especially children – the origins of Catholic Christmas traditions.

220px-Nativity_Icon

The above icon was written (painted) in Russia and displays, in a lovely catechetical way, the entire Nativity narrative: the angel’s appearance to the shepherds, the Star of Bethlehem (appearing as a disk with a shaft of light coming down to the cave of the birth, the actual birth of the child Jesus being wrapped in swaddling clothes by His Blessed Mother – Mary, the coming of the Magi, the washing of the child Jesus, and St. Joseph being visited by an old man in furs (some refer to this last image as the temptation to doubt that confronted Joseph.

Soon after the dream visitation by an angel, St. Joseph realizes the nature of this Child. He understands that he is given the responsibility to care for Him and His mother and raise the child as if He was his very own. St. Joseph does exactly that; he is the epitome of quiet, loving leadership, and a model for all fathers.

St. Joseph is silent throughout the entire Gospel narrative. Yet, his actions speak louder than words. We see in St. Matthew’s Gospel (Chapter 1: 18ff) that he ultimately had a thoughtful plan to quietly divorce Mary when he learns that she is pregnant; however, he is not stubborn or hard of heart, for when the angel Gabriel visits him and tells him what is happening he does not rebel and say “No, I will not do it” out of pride or ego. Rather, he changes his plan and trusts the angel’s message which was sent by God to him.

This is so important – and it should speak volumes to us – if we, too, have open hearts and minds to hear what God is telling us in prayer, Scripture, and the grace of the Holy Sacraments. These three sacred tools, along with a holy orthodox spiritual director, will assist us on our path – and like the Star of Bethlehem – lead us to the Christ.

In the immortal words of Tiny Tim Cratchit: “… and a Merry Christmas, everyone!”

Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

December 21, 2012 – The Archangel Gabriel’s Greeting to Zechariah

A very clear narrative greets us in the Gospel by St. Luke. He tells us that both Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were both righteous before God: walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord – they were blameless; but they have no child. Elizabeth was barren and both were elderly. We read of Zechariah silently bringing his heavy heart before the Lord – even after all those years – it was still burdened with disappointment. The couple probably remembered Psalm 112 which says:

“Happy the man who fears the Lord, who takes delight in his commands. His sons will be powerful on earth; the children of the upright are blessed.”

Zechariah was a priest, and on that day – by lot – it was his turn to enter the chamber within the Temple called the Holy Place and burn incense on the special altar. The Holy Place was a small chamber that led to the Holy of Holies, which housed the Ark of the Covenant.

For whatever reason, Zechariah that morning carried his disappointment with him into the Holy Place; and while he was there the archangel, Gabriel, appeared on the right side of the Altar of Incense. Gabriel tells Zechariah not to be afraid and that his prayer was heard before the throne of God. Gabriel continues with the joyous news that Elizabeth will bear a son, and that he will be called John – which in Hebrew means – “the Lord is gracious.” This child will grow and be great before the Lord, and even from his mother’s womb – he will be filled with the Holy Spirit.

But, in a typically human way, Zechariah questions the archangel’s announcement. His query must have been different in tone. It must have had the typical masculine attitude of “Are you kidding me!” Zechariah’s tenor makes Gabriel, and possibly God, indignant – and Zechariah is struck speechless for his insolence.

In Scripture, few lines later, we see Gabriel’s announcement to Mary. She questions him, too, as “How can this be since I do not know man? But Gabriel does not strike her speechless. We have to be struck by this difference. What does it teach us?

It is clear that God knows our hearts. God knew what was on Zechariah’s heart when he was in the Holy Place. Zechariah does not trust the message or the messenger, and by inference – he does not trust God. God knows his heart; and disciplines this good man. Like Zechariah, we, too, may disbelieve God. In our sophistication or position in life we may say “Well that’s fine, but, the Scriptures don’t apply to our situation, or this specific teaching was acceptable years ago, but, too much time has passed and it doesn’t apply to my problems.

The Gospel says that Zechariah and his wife were good and righteous people. It was mentioned that he kept all the Commandments and ordinances. Yet, when his big moment comes – where is all that goodness and righteousness? It might still be there in his heart, but, there was also a pocket of doubt – a crevice of skepticism – that was significant enough for him, as a priest of the Almighty God, to be struck speechless in punishment for not trusting Gabriel’s message.

As sacred artists, as Christians, this Gospel asks us to stop, and check our souls in this last week of Advent. It asks us how patient, confident, and trusting have we been of the Lord’s message to our hearts, and have we allowed this to carry over into our actions? Have we become more interested in all the hype about the end of the world from a pagan culture, or, have we trusted in the Word of the Lord and His messengers?

Zechariah learned the hard way that when the Lord prepares us for His coming He desires us to be alive, awake, and alert to His call and to trust His message. So, our prayer in these last days of Advent should echo that of Zechariah, who in the months of speechless waiting, most likely in his mental prayer said,  “Lord, I believe; cleanse me of my disbelief. Lord, I trust, heal me of my distrust;” and it should also echo that of Mary – who in humility and expectation waited patiently for the graciousness of the Lord to take fruit in her womb.

Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

Thanks to angels-angelology.com for stained glass window image

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

The Immaculate Conception of Mary – The Beauty of the New Eve

We are about to begin the second week of Advent and as you may know the word Advent has its root in the Latin word adventus which means “coming.” The liturgical term adventus is similar to the Greek word parousia which refers to the Second Coming of Christ at the final judgment of the world.

Through the millenia Church scholars have linked these two words together because they hope to instill within us the understanding that we are on a spiritual journey. In this journey we experience the waiting period – the longing – for the coming of Jesus, the actual birth of Jesus, and then, we again experience the waiting time for His return at the Second Coming.

As part of our preparation for the great solemnity of Christmas, the Catholic Church, in both the Western and Eastern Rites, remembers the significance of Mary’s immaculate purity as being a necessary part of this entire spiritual journey.  For in her humble “Yes” to the invitation to be the Mother of the Messiah, Mary becomes the New Eve – the mother of Jesus – and the Mother of the Church.

Our sacred Tradition tells us that Mary was the daughter of Saints Joachim and Anne. They were devoted Jews who raised their child to be loyal and pure within the Jewish holy tradition. Mary was born within the royal line of King David and was betrothed, and later married under Jewish law, to Joseph, a respected Jewish carpenter from Nazareth.

Little is known of Mary’s day-to-day life other than the references to her in the Gospels. Those early references indicate that she was a loving, concerned, and devoted person. During her Son’s ministry she attended the wedding feast at Cana, was present at Jesus’ crucifixion, and was most likely with the Apostles at the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.

The most famous Old Testament prophecies concerning the coming of the Messiah are Genesis 3:15, Isaiah 7:14 and Micah 5:1-4. In all three prophecies the Mother of the Messiah plays a prominent role.”Therefore the Lord Himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” [Isaiah 7:10-14].  The name Immanuel in Hebrew means “God is with us.”

As the mother of Jesus, and the wife of Saint Joseph, Mary is the greatest saint. She is the model of faith, purity, and maternal devotion for all Christians. Mary is called the Blessed Virgin because our Sacred Scriptures tell us that she conceived Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit, so Saint Joseph is the foster father, not the biological father, of Jesus.

To become the mother of the Savior, Mary was “enriched by God with gifts appropriate to such a role.” (Lumen Gentium). Mary freely gave herself to God with complete trust even in the face of possible confusion about what was happening to her, and she freely responded and consented to God’s Will for her life. Mary’s “Yes” to God’s request that she become the Mother of the Incarnate Son of God, Jesus, enabled our Redemption to occur.

What is the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception?

The Church teaches that Mary was conceived without sin.  This is the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception which we celebrate on December 8th of every year. This Solemnity explains to us that Mary received from God a special grace which is known as Prevenient Grace. Prevenient Grace is a “grace that comes before.” This means that prior to Mary’s biological conception, God decided that in His plan for salvation history He needed a totally pure woman to be the New Eve – to be the New Ark – free from all stain of sin and free from any future sin.

This was possible through God’s gift of Prevenient Grace which was given at her conception. Mary burned with God’s grace, purity, and love – gifts that were freely given by God.  She, like the burning bush that Moses confronted, was enriched by these gifts and, like a warming fire, softly radiated the grace of God’s love to those around her.

As The Catechism of the Catholic Church states in paragraph 491, the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception means that “Mary was redeemed from the moment of her conception.”  Pope Pius 9th  announced this Dogma when he said: “Mary was preserved immune from all stain of original sin.” This was accomplished through the power of God. He willed and acted so that Mary should be free from the stain of sin. Mary, as the angel Gabriel described is “full of grace”… “Hail Full of Grace / Rejoice Highly Favored One.”

The Fathers of the Eastern Catholic Church also agree with this truth and verify it when they address the Mother of God as “the All-Holy” (Panagia) and celebrate her as free from any stain of sin.

Theotokos-the-burning-bush-Inner-Liturgy-of-the-Heart

An interesting article entitled Mary in Scripture, on the EWTN website, explains “The angel Gabriel’s greeting to Mary is of great consequence for our understanding of Mary and Marian doctrine. The greeting has been variously translated as “Rejoice highly favored” and “Hail full of grace.”

The object of the varied translations is the Greek word kecharitomene which refers to one who has been transformed by God’s grace. The word is used only one other time in the New Testament and that is in the Epistle to the Ephesians where Paul is addressing those who, by becoming Christians, are transformed by grace and receive the remission of sins. It is clearly significant that Mary is considered to already have been transformed by grace before the birth of Christ.” ( Confer the article “Mary in Scripture” at this site: http://www.ewtn.com/library/MARY/MARYINSC.htm

So, we see that God intervened and did not allow the stain of Original Sin to be passed to Mary. She – as the pure vessel – would receive the redemptive grace of God before the actual Redemption took place. This is logical and filled with common sense. Why would God the Father have His Incarnate Son be conceived in a woman who was tainted by the stain of Original Sin? As the Scriptures state – we do not put new wine into old wineskins. To make a commonplace analogy: would any self respecting surgeon, cook, artist, or musician use soiled instruments as they were healing, creating, or performing a masterpiece in their art?

The Christian scholar Origen (AD 185 – 254) made a very interesting observation, he said,  ”Because the angel greeted Mary with new expressions, which I [Origen] have never encountered elsewhere in the Scriptures, it is necessary to comment on this. I do not, in fact, recall having read in any other place in the Sacred Scriptures these words: “Rejoice highly favored one, O Full of Grace. “ Neither of these expressions is ever addressed to a man: such a special greeting was reserved only for Mary.” (quote taken from the article referenced above – “Mary in Scripture.”

In the year AD 431, at the Council of Ephesus in present day Turkey (attended by over 200 bishops from throughout Christendom), Mary was named Theotokos (the God Bearer) and a model of Christian living. “Mary is truly “Mother of God” since she is the mother of the eternal Son of God made man, who is God Himself.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd edition, #509).

She is called the New Eve because just as the original Eve brought sin and death into the world, Mary, as the bearer of spiritual life, brought Jesus (the New Adam) into the world. This provided the opportunity for grace, Redemption from Sin, and salvation to impact and transform mankind for all eternity.

Since 1964, Mary has been honored as the Mother of the Church She is called The Mother of the Church because through her free choice she cooperated with God’s plan to be the Mother of God – mother of our Redeemer. As a result of His life, ministry death, and resurrection He was able to transform us into a new people and build a new “arc of salvation” (the Church) for us.

By the 700’s the Catholic Church celebrated four major Marian solemnities: the Annunciation (Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she would be the Mother of the Savior), the Presentation of Mary in the Temple, the Assumption of Mary into Heaven, and the Birthday of Mary. The Immaculate Conception became popular by the tenth century. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, Saint Louis de Montfort, Pope John Paul II and many other saints of the Church have written extensively on Mary and her role in the Church and in the lives of individuals. The Church teaches that Mary was assumed into heaven with body and soul united. 

Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, and all of the Eastern Rite Catholic Churches DO NOT worship Mary. WORSHIP IS RESERVED FOR GOD ALONE. The Western and Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church pay respect and reverence to Mary but never worship her.

ourlady2

The meaning of Our Blessed Mother Mary for us today is that, especially at this time in history, we must remember that she spiritually pleads for mercy on behalf of us before the throne of God. She does this in the same way that a mother would intercede with the father on behalf of her children. She loves us with the love of a true mother – for she sees not only our faults but our inherent goodness, too. Please God that we respond to the graces she has to offer us. Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.

Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

Some sources on the concept of Prevenient Grace: “Every time we begin to pray to Jesus it is the Holy Spirit who draws us on the way of prayer by his prevenient grace” (#2670 Catechism of the Catholic Church). “That grace is preceded by no merits. A reward is due to good works, if they are performed; but grace, which is not due, precedes, that they may be done [St. Prosper].” Can. 18. #191 Council of Orange II A.D. 529 (Second Council of Orange).  St. Augustine also wrote extensively on the concept of grace; and my Associate Pastor Rev. Joseph R. Upton, also mentioned it in his beautiful sermon for this solemnity’s vigil Mass on December 7, 2012 at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Wakefield, Rhode Island.  Special thanks to the blog: http://classicalchristianity.com/category/holyfathers/theotokos-mary/ for the Orthodox sacred icon of Mary and the Child Jesus surrounded by the Burning Bush.

Our Lady of Sorrows – Seven Sorrows – Seven Graces

Today is the memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows.

The Roman Breviary tells us that in a sermon by St. Bernard of Clairvaux he explains that “The martyrdom of the Virgin is set forth both in the prophecy of Simeon and in the actual story of our Lord’s passion. The holy old man said of the infant Jesus: He has been established as a sign which will be contradicted. He went on to say to Mary: And your own heart will be pierced by a sword.”

Yesterday, we celebrated the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. That feast asks us to remember that it was through the Cross, through the violent execution of our Lord, that our redemption took place. The triumph of the Father’s love for His creation, and the Son’s sacrifice, was able to reorder a sin filled world.

As St. Andrew of Crete reminds us “the legal bond of our sin was cancelled and through His death we obtained our freedom and death was trodden underfoot.” Today, the Church in its wisdom again reminds us of the scene of Christ’s victory – and the people that witnessed it.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux eloquently reminds us that along with the death of Christ you have Golgotha being the scene of the martyrdom of Mary. He stresses the phrase, the martyrdom of Mary, because Jesus, as Mary’s child, held a unique and special place in her heart. This is true of the relationship of every mother to their child or children.

All mothers will tell you that every one of their children is special to them; all the more so with Mary, who knew and understood the role that her child was to play in our lives. So when the lance tore through His chest and entered His heart, the prophecy of Simeon, uttered so many years earlier flooded into her mind: “He has been established as a sign which will be contradicted, and your own heart will be pierced by a sword.”

Mary witnessed the execution, she saw the spear tear through her Son’s lifeless body and the violence of that act ripped through her as well. Her body and soul filled with pain and, at that moment, she suffered the martyrdom of every mother who witnesses the death of an innocent child.

At Golgotha, watching the agonizing death of her Son, our blessed Mother, in obedience to the Father’s will for her life, stood by the Cross not only to witness the death of her obedient Son, but to hear her Son say that she was to now be the mother, not only of John, but all of us who believe in Him as Lord and Savior.

Through the sufferings of Mary, the mother of God, we have been made sharers in Christ’s passion. Through Mary’s original obedience to the Father’s will and invitation, we have be given the supreme gift of being able to participate in His Sacramental life, which enables us to share in His rising to everlasting life.

The Church has identified “Seven Sorrows” of Mary: 1) The prophecy of Simeon, 2) The flight into Egypt, 3) The loss of the child Jesus in the Temple, 4) The meeting of Jesus and Mary on the Way of the Cross, 5) The Crucifixion, 6) The taking down of the Body of Jesus from the Cross, 7) The burial of Jesus.

According to the 14th century visions of St. Bridget of Sweden, mystic and patroness of Europe, Our Blessed Mother Mary grants Seven Graces to all souls who honor her on a daily basis by saying seven Hail Mary’s and thinking about the above Seven Sorrows. The Seven Graces are: 1) Mary will grant peace to their families; 2) They will be enlightened about the divine mysteries; 3) They will be comforted in their sickness and assisted in their work; 4) They will be given additional graces as long as what the soul asks for does not violate the will of Jesus or the eventual sanctification of their own soul;  5) Mary will defend the soul in their own particular spiritual battle with the demons, and, will provide her protection to them; 6) The soul will be helped at the time of their death and will experience seeing the face of the Blessed Mother; 7) Mary told St. Bridget that she obtained these graces from Jesus so those souls who are in the state of grace and spread this devotion among their families and friends will be attain Heaven.

St. Paul’s 2nd Letter to Timothy (2: 10-12) directs us to the Scriptural truth of these ideas when he says, “I bear with all this for the sake of those whom God has chosen, in order that they may obtain the salvation to be found in Christ Jesus and with it eternal glory. You can depend on this: If we have died with him we shall also live with him; if we hold out to the end we shall also reign with him.” These words, while not said by Our Blessed Mother, were in reality, lived by her.

our-lady-of-sorrows

Let us pray that through Our Lady of Sorrows, her love and grace shall bring the hearts of all of us to her Son, so that His Heart may reign in the hearts of all mankind.

Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved. Notes on the paintings: The first painting is an archetypal Gothic Lady of Sorrows from a triptych by the Master of the Stauffenberg Altarpiece, Alsace, c. 1455. The  second image is of a 15th century sculpture for a cathedral door showing the Seven Sorrows of Our Lady (by Adriaen Isenbrandt, circa 1490 – 1511). The third image, The Madonna in Sorrow, is by the 17th century Italian artist Giovanni Salvi (also known as Sassoferrato). The fourth painting is by William- Adolphe Bougereau, a French realist painter (1825 – 1905).

 

The Most Holy Name of Mary

This is my third post in as many days on Our Blessed Mother Mary. September is an appropriate time to remember the significance of Mary in the life of the Church and, more importantly, in our own lives. For as the Mother of God she is, necessarily, the mother of our own spiritual life. She nurtures us to understand that her Son is always there for us. He does not impose Himself on us and neither does Mary. They desire us to freely choose kinship with them.

Today, September 12th is the memorial of the Most Holy Name of Mary. The name Mary is one of the Greek forms (others being Maria and Mariam) of the Hebrew Miriam (Miryam; and in Aramaic, Maryam). Webster’s Dictionary defines its meaning as “rebellion,” another dictionary refers to the name as meaning  “strong.”

It is interesting to note that Mary’s name contains within it the seed of understanding who and what she means to the Church. God the Father, from all eternity, fashioned Mary in His mind to be His future daughter. The Holy Spirit, at  her immaculate conception, shaped her heart, mind, soul, and body. The incarnate Son of God, Jesus, was in turn shaped by her own womb, and at the end of those nine months, gloriously born to become the Redeemer of Man.

Our Catholic Catechism speaks of this when it says, “Mary, the all-holy ever-Virgin Mother of God, is the masterwork of the mission of the Son and the Spirit in the fullness of time. For the first time in the plan of salvation and because his Spirit had prepared her, the Father found the dwelling place where his Son and his Spirit could dwell among men. In this sense the Church’s Tradition has often read the most beautiful texts on wisdom in relation to Mary (confer Proverbs 8: 1-9: 6; Sirach 24). Mary is acclaimed and represented in the liturgy as the Seat of Wisdom. In her the “wonders of God” that the Spirit was to fulfill in Christ and the Church began to be manifested.” (confer paragraphs 721 – 722ff in the Catechism of the Catholic Church).

Are these ideas prefigured in her name?

If we are to use the terms “rebellion” and “strong” as the meaning for the name Mary then we may ask “Rebellion against what? Strong for what ends?”

The Church’s Tradition, from the earliest centuries, teaches that Mary was to was to be the faith-filled instrument that God would use to enable the Son of God to enter into the world of men, as man and God. She was the instrument of faith, humility and obedience that would model the skills that we personally need in order to rebel against the forces of this world, the forces of Satan, himself. Her name, along with the victory won for us by her Son, is the rallying cry for all who desire to see the forces of Satan destroyed. Her name – Mary – sustains us in our own fight, our own rebellion, against the serpent and his wily attempts to seduce us, too.

Satan’s victory at the Tree in the Garden was short-lived. St. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon in the second century, speaks of this when he says, “The Lord came visibly to his own domain and was sustained by his own creation which he himself sustains in being. By his obedience upon a tree he reversed the disobedience shown because of another tree. The seduction to which the betrothed virgin Eve had miserably fallen victim was remedied by the truth happily announced by the angel to Mary, another betrothed virgin. As Eve, seduced by a [fallen] angel, turned away from God by disobedience to his word, so Mary, receiving the good news from an angel, bore God in her womb in obedience to his word; and as Eve had been led to disobey God, so Mary obeyed him. Thus the Virgin Mary became the advocate of the virgin Eve.” (excerpted from Mary’s Yes, edited by John Rotelle, O.S.A. Servant Publications, Ann Arbor, MI).

The most holy name of Mary also provides us with spiritual strength. As the angel Gabriel announced, and as our Catechism explains, she is full of grace. These graces, however, do not lie dormant within her. The Catechism explains: “The Holy Spirit prepared Mary by His grace. It is through Mary, that the Holy Spirit prepares men and women into communion with Christ.”

The strength of her humility, faith, obedience, and prayer act as the four cornerstones to assist us in modeling our life on hers. This appeals to humble people; and indeed, the first to witness the birth of the Redeemer were St. Joseph and the shepherds.

Mary is an example of  faith, hope, holiness, obedience, love, and prayer. As “the Daughter of the Father, the Mother of the Son, and the Spouse of the Holy Spirit” she assists us in uniting ourselves to her Son. Her quiet strength, like many human mothers down through the centuries, enables her to meet our needs in both body and soul. We are her spiritual children. Let us run to her with all our cares, with all our spiritual and bodily illnesses, with our anxiety, fears, and despair. She is here to not only comfort us, but to strengthen us, through a multitude of graces, so that we may be powerful witnesses of faith in Christ in the spiritual war that is waging all around us.  May the Holy Name of Mary always give us strength to realize that Jesus Christ is our one true Savior and the fount of all mercy.

Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

(“Daughter of the Father …etc” passage is taken from a meditation by Father Emanuel d’Alzon, 19th century founder of the Augustinians of the Assumption, excerpted from his book Mary Our Mother, Our Model, Our Queen, translated by M. Angeline Bouchard from the original French, Trente Jours avec Marie. which received the Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur of the Church). Notes on the sacred images: The first painting is by the 17th century Italian artist Giovanni Salvi (also known as Sassoferrato). The title of the painting is The Virgin at Prayer. It is in the National Gallery of Art in London. The second image is a close-up of the Blessed Mother’s face that was sculpted by Michelangelo in 1499 for his extraordinary sculpture known as the Pieta. Michelangelo was 24 years old at the time he sculpted this masterpiece! It is located in the St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.

The Nativity of Mary – Our Blessed Mother

On September 8th the Church celebrates the feast of the birthday of Mary, our Blessed Mother.

Tradition tells us that Mary was the daughter of Saints Joachim and Anne. She was betrothed to and later married Joseph, a respected Jewish carpenter from Nazareth. Little is known of Mary’s life other than the references to her in the Gospels. She attended the wedding feast at Cana, was present at Jesus’ crucifixion, and was with the Apostles at the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.

St. Andrew of Crete puts this feast day, celebrated since the 5th century, in perspective for us when he says: “[In the great play of salvation] today’s festival, the birth of the Mother of God, is the joyful prelude, while the final act is the union of the Word [of God] with human flesh.  Through Mary’s birth we are led away from slavery and toward the Truth. We are led away from darkness and toward the Light. Therefore, let all creation sing and dance and unite to make a worthy contribution to the celebration of this day. Let there be one common festival for saints in heaven and people on earth. Let everything join in festive celebration, for today, [through the birth of Mary] this created world is raised to the dignity of a holy place for [her Son] who made all things. The creature is newly prepared to be a divine dwelling place for her Creator.”

We give praise to our Blessed Mother today. We celebrate her being the new Temple, the pristine Tabernacle, our Virgin Mother, who gave birth to our Redeemer. Mary, through her life, gave witness to the true meaning of trust and charity.

Father Joseph R. Upton, the chaplain for The Fra Angelico Institute for the Sacred Arts and assistant pastor in my parish, mentioned in a sermon a few years ago that three births are celebrated in the Church’s calendar: John the Baptist, Mary, and Jesus. All three of these people were devout Jews. It  is through them, and their understanding of trust and charity, that we can see that the Jewish people have always been a people who truly love God. Their love expresses a deep sense of trust, because in love we see that their devotion is based on the virtues of faith and hope which expresses itself in word and deed. Fr. Upton went on to say, “Mary is the bridge” that allows not only the Jewish people, but all people, to see that God has fulfilled the promise that He made to their ancestors.

Mary, our Blessed Mother, enables that promise of redemption to be fulfilled through her “Yes” to the invitation to be the spouse of the Holy Spirit, which enabled the birth of her Son, Jesus to occur. Mary’s personal qualities of simplicity, humility, love, faith, and hope combined into a dynamic personality who, as she grew to adulthood, betrothal, and marriage to Joseph, enabled her to exemplify to all generations the meaning of a life that is full of grace.

Scholars remind us that “The angel Gabriel’s greeting to Mary is of great consequence for our understanding of Mary and Marian doctrine. The greeting has been variously translated as “Rejoice highly favored” and “Hail full of grace.” The object of the varied translations is the Greek word kecharitomene which refers to one who has been transformed by God’s grace. The word is used only one other time in the New Testament and that is in the Epistle to the Ephesians where Paul is addressing those who by becoming Christians are transformed by grace and receive the remission of sins. It is clearly significant that Mary is considered to already have been transformed by grace before the birth of Christ.”  So, we see that God intervened and did not allow the stain of original sin to be passed to Mary. She – as the pure vessel – would partake of the redemptive grace of God before the actual Redemption took place. Her “Yes” to God’s request that she become the Mother of the Incarnate God, Jesus, enabled our Redemption to occur. The scholar Origen (AD 185 -254) wrote: “Because the angel greeted Mary with new expressions, I do not, in fact, recall having read in any other place in the Sacred Scriptures these words: Rejoice, O Full of Grace. Neither of these expressions is ever addressed to a man: such a special greeting was reserved only for Mary.” (this quote is from http://www.ewtn.com/library/MARY/MARYINSC.htm 

We must remember that Catholics do not worship Mary. Worship is reserved for God alone. The Latin or Western Rite (Roman Catholics and those Eastern Rite churches in union with Rome), and the Eastern Rites  (Orthodox churches) pay respect and reverence to Mary but never worship her. We pay special reverence to her because, she as the mother of the Redeemer, deserves that respect and honor. We also acknowledge her in a special way because Mary intercedes (pleads for mercy on behalf of the Church) before the throne of God in the same way that a mother would intercede with the father on behalf of her children.

Thank you Blessed Mother for all you have done for us – and – Happy Birthday!

Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved.  The above painting is by Fra Angelico. It is entitled Madonna with the Child and Angels, completed between 1435 and 1436. It is egg tempera on wood and measures approximately 27 inches by 4 feet 6 inches. It is in the Diocesan Museum in Camerino, Italy. Thanks to the Art Renewal Center website for the image: http://www.artrenewal.org/pages/artist.php?artistid=241&page=2
 

The Queenship of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Today is the memorial of the Queenship of Mary.

Through the centuries, sacred icons and images have expressed the Queenship and Coronation of the Holy Theotokos – the Mother of God. The icon The Virgin Salus Populi Romani, a 5th century icon, displayed in the Church of Saint Mary Major in Rome, and seen below, shows the Blessed Mother dressed in typical first century Middle Eastern garb as she holds her Son who gives a blessing. This icon is reputed to

be a copy of one that was painted by St. Luke the evangelist who tradition states knew and spoke to the Blessed Mother.

A 6th century icon of Mary and Jesus displays a coronation theme portraying the Blessed Mother and her Son in Heaven. Mary sits on her throne with Her Son on her lap, surrounded by St. Theodore on the left and St. George on the right, while two angels look up as the hand of the Father gives a blessing. This icon is found in the Monastery of St. Catherine in the Sinai Peninsula.

Iconic images painted (“written”) by orthodox iconographers of both the Latin, Greek, Russian, Coptic, and other Rites agree with images found within our Holy Scriptures. For example, a Gospel passage tells us “… the Lord God will give to Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.” This Scripture explains that the Lord willingly takes the initiative to come forth, with hands extended,  to meet us and share the reign of His kingdom.

In sacred art we visualize this not only in the extension of Christ’s hands on the cross – but also, in the extension of the infant Jesus’ hands, to give us a blessing as He sits in His mother’s lap, or is caressed in her arms, an image that is found not only in the above sacred images but in numerous statues found in Latin Rite churches throughout the world.

The prophet Isaiah also speaks of Christ in regal terms as Emmanuel (God is with us) and the “Prince of Peace.”  We can even get apocalyptic and speak of the Books of Daniel and Revelation which recall the truth that the world will be transformed through the birth of the Redeemer, made possible by Mary.  She is a “a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars… who gave birth to a son, a boy destined to shepherd all the nations with an iron rod. Her child was caught up to God and His throne.”  So we see that Mary enables the incorporation of the reign of God into the world. She is the woman destined to crush the head of the apocalyptic serpent.

St. John of Damascus wrote about this in the 8th century when he says of the Blessed Mother that she “has become the terror of demons, the city of refuge for those who turn to her. [He has her say:] Come to me in faith, O people, and draw as from a river of grace. Come to me in faith, without doubt, and draw from the mighty and certain source of grace.”

Last week, on the solemnity of the Assumption, we recalled Blessed John Paul 2 saying  “…the Assumption of the Mother of Christ in Heaven forms part of [the Lord’s teaching about] His victory over death, the beginning of which is found in the death and resurrection of Christ.”

So in today’s memorial, Mary, the humble daughter of Joachim and Anna and the chosen daughter of our Heavenly Father, is garbed in the majestic robes of a queen. She takes her rightful place next to the throne of her resurrected and ascended Son.

Why? 

Because the Church desires to teach us that Mary is privileged,  beyond all other women and men, to be the first and most significant human being to participate in the glory, triumph, and reign of God. By her very willingness to become the Mother of God, the Theotokos, she agreed to become our spiritual Mother, too.

In this beautiful sacred image by Blessed John of Fiesole, also known as Fra Angelico the great Dominican artist of 15th century Florence, portrays the moment of Our Lady’s Coronation with the Heavenly court surrounding her.

We observe men and women saints that were alive thousands of years after Mary’s Coronation observing the event.

Why did the good Friar do that?

He is expressing the fact that Heaven is within the eternal now of the Trinity, so it follows that all the saints are knowledgeable of the truths of Heaven. If we carefully observe the painting we see that the knowledge of that coronation moment is known by St. Thomas Aquinas. We see him looking out at us (in the lower left corner), noting the truth, goodness, and beauty of God, and the fact that God desires this coronation for His beloved and humble human daughter, the Queen of Heaven.

The Blessed Mother, in her regal beauty, authority, and power, has not left us orphans. She is “the Living Temple of the Holy Spirit, the Inviolate Mountain, the ladder” that joins Heaven and earth. Mary is the “One who Shows the Way”  (as the Greeks would say the Hodigitria) to her Son and to our Heavenly reward.

If we remain faithful and loyal to the teachings of Jesus Christ, as expressed through our Sacred Scriptures and our Church, and act on that faith, then we, too, will reign alongside our Heavenly Mother and give praise and glory to God.     Our Lady, Queen of Heaven, pray for us.

Sources: John Paul 2, L’Osservatore Romano, August 15, 1983; Pope Pius 12th – encyclical Ad Caeli Reginam, October 11, 1954.         Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

The Assumption of Mary

St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans (8:30), sets that stage for this great solemnity: “Those God predestined He likewise called; those He called He also justified; and those He justified He in turn glorified.”

Today we celebrate the solemnity of the Assumption/Dormition of Mary. This is an ancient celebration documented as occurring as early as the 400’s, probably soon after the Council of Ephesus in 431 declared Mary the Theotokos: the Mother of God.

In a homily on the solemnity of the Assumption, Pope John Paul II used  John 14:3 as a Scriptural foundation for understanding the dogma of the Assumption of Mary. In those verses Jesus tells his disciples at the Last Supper, “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and will receive you to myself; that where I am, you may be there also.” Our belief is that Mary’s rising to Heaven is the pledge of the fulfillment of Christ’s promise to His disciples: “…where I am, you will be also.” Mary, as our spiritual Mother, through Christ’s promise beckons us to follow her.

With this celebration comes the renewal of the truth that Mary not only belonged to Christ as His Blessed Mother, but that she was truly raised on high as our Queen of Heaven. Beautiful Mary, is in her simplicity, the true sign that informs the world of the humility, love, and mercy of her Messiah Son.

Today we acknowledge Mary as a Queen, who takes her place in the throne room of God, not to have power over us, but, rather, to intercede for us as the perfect mother and faith-filled disciple. We witness this truth in this exquisite painting by Beato Fra Angelico completed in the year 1430.

In the “fullness of time” after millennia of human history, the Father of Mercies saw in Mary a loving and lovable woman who possessed great courage. She is the person who in her simplicity and purity would be completely open, totally surrendering, and free from the pollution of pride or self-will.  She was the woman who would be the New Eve, the mother of the living, the mother of a new creation.

She is, as the Eastern Rite proclaims, the All Holy One, the Panagia, who as our spiritual mother shows us the way by guiding us to her Son who through His Redemptive Act and Redeeming Grace enables us to be reborn into eternal life. The Divine Office in Evening Prayer I for the Assumption (the second antiphon) reminds us: “Through Eve the gates of heaven were closed to all mankind; through the Virgin Mother they were opened wide again, alleluia.”

It is through our own rebirth, through water and the Spirit, that we are able to bear fruit and imitate Mary in bringing the newborn Christ to others. St. Maximus the Confessor speaks of this when he says “Every soul that believes, conceives and gives birth to the Word of God according to faith. Christ is the fruit, and all of us, are mothers of the Christ.” (from Vladimir Zelinsky’s  “Mary in the Mystery of the Church: The Orthodox Search for Unity” found in Mary CoRedmptrix, Mediatrix, Advocate – Theological Foundations II. M.I. Miravalle, S.T.D., editor).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (paragraph 966) states, “The Immaculate Virgin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up, body and soul, into heavenly glory, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things, so that she might be the more fully conformed to her Son, the Lord of Lords, and the conqueror of sin and death”

This proclaims the wonderful news that the Assumption of Mary is a participation in the act of her Son being raised from the dead, and so is a Sign, a Sign that points to our own resurrection and union with God. The Eastern Rite liturgy says on  this solemnity: “In giving birth you kept your virginity; in your Dormition you did not leave the world, O Mother of God, but were joined to the Source of Life.”

Our Blessed Mother’s words in her beautiful Canticle, and her personal destiny, are inseparably linked to our own – for she is one of us; and by keeping our focus on her Son, we too, through the grace of God, will experience His mercy which lasts from age to age on those who fear Him.

In these very troubled times may Our Lady of the Assumption always keep us close to her heart.

(Additional sources: 1 Corinthians 15: 20-27;  Revelation, Chapters 12 and 19; Lumen Gentium, 59; and Pope Pius XII in his Munificentissimus Deus (November, 1950).  

Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved.

St. Clare – Our Holy Friend and Lover of God

The Church honors today, August 11th, the holy woman, consecrated virgin, founder and Abbess of the religious order known as the Poor Clares, and dear friend of St. Francis of Assisi. We know her by her Anglicized name: Clare.

She was, however, born Chiara Offreduccio in Assisi, Italy on July 16, 1194.

The Italian language has always been especially tuned to convey, through words and sounds, a delicacy and refinement of spirit. Her Italian name, Chiara, gives witness to this observation, since its English equivalent means – clear.

The image above by Simone Martini (1283 – 1344) conveys this quiet asceticism in his lovely fresco of her completed between the years 1312 and 1320 and found in the lower basilica of San Francesco in Assisi (image courtesy of  www.berthemorisot.org/index.htm ).  To the historical and spiritual observer, St. Chiara’s life is very clear in its direction and goal. It is well known that she was influenced by her fellow citizen of Assisi, Francis, yet, an examination of her life shows that she was directed and formed by her profound love for Jesus in Scripture and in His real presence in the Eucharist.

A letter from her to a close friend, Blessed Agnes of Prague, shows the depth of her own mysticism and the clear guidance that directs another onto the correct path: “Happy indeed is she who is granted a place at the divine banquet, for she may cling with her inmost heart to Him whose beauty eternally awes the blessed hosts of heaven; to Him whose love inspires love, whose contemplation, refreshes, who generously satisfies, whose gentleness delights, whose memory shines sweetly as the dawn, to Him whose fragrance revives the dead, and whose glorious vision will bless all the citizens of that heavenly Jerusalem. For He is the splendor of eternal glory, the brightness of eternal light, and the mirror without cloud.”

This great mystic of the Church also led a life of austere poverty, chastity, and obedience, yet, her life, as the Divine Office tells us, was “rich in works of charity and piety.”

St. Chiara, passed on to the heavenly banquet on August 11, 1253.

The following beautiful images are from the excellent website: http://www.sacred-destinations.com  I thank them for the courtesy of providing the images.

The first photo is the church of San Damiano, which St. Francis restored when, after praying before the crucifix within its broken down walls, heard the Lord’s voice saying “Francis, rebuild My Church.”

The second photo is the image of the interior of San Damiano Church. It is this crucifix, painted in a unique Byzantine icon style and which is known as the San Damiano Crucifix, that spoke the words that changed the direction of Francis’ life, and, the life of the Church.

The third photo shows the interior of the room that St. Clare died in on this day 759 years ago. Tradition states that her bed was in the upper right corner of the room.

Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

The Feast of St. Lawrence – Deacon and Martyr

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

Lawrence died in the year 258, four days after four other deacons (their names were Januarius, Vincent, Magnus, and Stephen) and Pope Sixtus II were martyred as a result of celebrating the eucharist (Holy Mass). Their arrest occurred in the cemetery of Callistus. On the same day, by the order of the emperor Valerian, they were beheaded.

There is little historical evidence remaining on St. Lawrence. His Acts had been lost by the time of St. Augustine in the 4th century. The tradition of the Church states that he was a native of northern Spain and was ordained by Pope St. Sixtus around the year 257. The Pope made him responsible for the distribution of the Church’s alms.

Carl Brandon Strehlke mentions (in his contribution to Lawrence Kanter and Pia Palladino’s magnificent collection of essays and images on the life and works of Fra Angelico) that controvery with the story ensues at this point – the date of his martyrdom. Some accounts state that  Lawrence was martyred under the emperor Decius (AD 249 – 251) and others insist that it was under the reign of Valerian (253 – 260). Regardless, the Church’s tradition states that Lawrence was martyred soon after the emperor Valerian issued an edict in early August of 257, requiring all bishops, priests, and deacons to be denied a trial and immediately be put to death. Valerian’s  command was carried out.  Lawrence is purported to have said, as the Pope and the deacons were being led to torture, “Where are you going, Holy Father, without your son? Where, O Bishop, without your archdeacon? Before you never approached the altar of sacrifice without your servant, and now you are going without me?”  Pope St. Sixtus was said to have commented that he would soon follow them.

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

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

The Transfiguration of Christ

Today we celebrate the feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord. This feast has been celebrated since the 5th century.          It was inserted into the general calendar of the Church in 1457 by Pope Callistus III in order to celebrate the defeat of the advancing Moslem army in the Serbian city of Belgrade. Today’s feast was announced in Rome on August 6, 1457, and was placed in the calendar to occur forty days before the feast of the Triumph of the Cross, on September 14.

Let’s reflect for a moment on today’s Gospel account (Mark 9: 2-10). Jesus knew exactly what He was doing when He took Peter, James, and John to the top of Mount Tabor. He knew that His Passion and Crucifixion would be so absolutely terrifying, that when the complete horror of the crucifixion settled in over those three Apostles that they needed to have, in the back of their minds, this moment, this glorious moment, of the Transfiguration.

By remembering its truth, beauty, and power they would understand that Jesus walked to His death under His own free will.  No government, no authority – religious or secular – forced Him to go to the Cross. He went under His own power – a power that was completely obedient to His Father’s will. The Father sent Jesus to call and redeem humanity so that we, under our own power – under our own free will, could choose to enter back into relationship with the Father. After the Redemption occurred, Jesus in turn, sent the Holy Spirit to defend us, from all the various worldly and demonic forces arrayed against us.

The Transfiguration is so important to all of us because at the moment in which Jesus’ glory is manifested the identity of Jesus becomes clear not only for the Apostles but for us, too. When we reflect on this moment we recognize what the Apostles came to understand: that the Crossis not the end of the story. There is something more that lies beyond the Cross – not only for Jesus – but for all who believe in Him and are baptized in the name of His Divine Family.

There is an ancient Church hymn, called the Kontakion of the Transfiguration, which has been sung in Greek for thousands of years, it declares:

“You were transfigured on the mount, and Your disciples beheld Your glory as far as they could bear it O Christ our God, so that when they should see You crucified, they would remember that Your suffering was voluntary, and could declare to all the world that You are truly  the radiant splendor of the Father.”

The glory of our faith is that the Holy Trinity desires  this transfiguration for us, too. If we cooperate with God’s grace, spend time with the Lord, and walk the narrow path of holiness, we too, will be resurrected and experience the power of His transfiguration.

Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved. The icon of the Transfiguration is through the courtesy of Fr. Richard Reiser, St. James Roman Catholic Church Omaha, Nebraska – Copyright © Richard Reiser.

Thank You! Our One Year Anniversary!

We are so very grateful to everyone who has visited this website over the past year. It was on August 1, 2011 that I posted my first essay. By midnight tonight over 13,000 people, from 106 nations, will have visited this site and, hopefully, been spiritually fed by the discussion on issues concerning sacred images and iconography, prayer, and reflections on the Holy Scripture.

May God continue to bless all those who have an interest in sacred art and move them to deepen their prayer life by using sacred art as a focal point in their meditations.

Thank you!

May the Blessed Mother continue to intercede for all of us.

Peace and Victory in Christ!

Deacon Paul and Jackie Iacono

Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence, Rhode Island

Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved. The above image on The Annunciation was painted by the great American painter Henry Ossawa Tanner. It may be seen at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

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

3rd Century Bronze Medallion of Saints Peter and Paul

In response to a valuable comment made about my post – Part 2 – Icons, Icon Painters, and Praying with Sacred Images, I thought everyone would enjoy seeing one of the oldest images in existence of Saints Peter and Paul: a bronze medallion found in an excavation of the cemetery of Saint Domitilla in Rome.

The Domitilla cemetery is fascinating because it is the oldest of the Roman catacombs and, according to one source, still contain bones. The Domitilla catacombs are very well preserved and contain a second century (AD 101 – 200) fresco of the Last Supper.

This image of the 3rd century bronze medallion is provided through the courtesy of Dr. Margherita Guarducci. It is found in her book The Tomb of Peter, which was published in 1960 through Hawthorn Books. The 1911 edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia verifies the authenticity of this bronze medallion and identifies other sources for the likenesses of Saints Peter and Paul. This bronze medallion is  in the Vatican Museum in Rome.

The medallion is unique, not only because of its age, but for its iconography; for it shows us the typical images of Peter and Paul that we know through our Church’s sacred art. St Paul (on the left) is portrayed with bald head and full beard, and St. Peter is portrayed with a full head of hair and a full beard.

The artistry of the medallion maker in crafting this piece is superb, since we can see that Peter has high cheek bones, a steady gaze, and pleasant facial expression. St. Paul also has unique features, with a specific cast to his nose and gaze in his eyes. The Scriptures tell us that St. Paul was afflicted with a number of ailments, and it appears, that the maker of this medallion was aware of that fact. One of the key features that St. Paul projects in this medallion is the steadiness of the gaze, and what appears to be the readiness to enter into debate and preach the word of God to all that would listen to him.

This is a fine image to pray with and meditate on this week, especially owing to the fact that this Friday, June 29th, is the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul. The Depositio Martyrum (dated to the year AD 258) places the solemnity of these two men on that date. They are also the patrons of my Diocese – Providence, Rhode Island, U.S.A.

Saints Peter and Paul, pray for us.

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

Stones that Sing – The Photography of Dennis Aubrey and PJ McKey

A few months ago I discovered the exquisite photography of Dennis Aubrey and PJ McKey. They have a blog here on WordPress called Via Lucis.

Their post of May 10th discusses and shows the beauty of a Romanesque church (Our Lady of the Assumption) located in the Burgundy region of France. Dennis entitles the church as “The Great Survivor.” When you read the fascinating history of this church (a priory church was first built on this site in the 9th century) you see that it is, indeed, a great survivor. For it has survived the onslaughts of man’s barbarity in the name of religion, or in the case of the secularists of the French Revolution, desecration in the name of “The  Citizen.”

Like a magnificent athlete who has taken a punishing series of blows, blocks, and beatings this church still stands tall. Quietly proclaiming to the world that no matter what it does, short of hauling her down in a pile of rubble, it will remain standing giving witness to the glory of God and the faith of the men and women who with their sweat, toil, and treasure built it in the name of love and honor of God.

Even if future generations haul it down and reduce it to a pile of rubble, those stones will continue to sing, will continue to give glory to God – as they should – for the love that went into building the church remains – embracing the stones – caressing the stones like ancient mortar.

Please visit Dennis and PJ’s beautiful site (it contains their magnificent sacred photography). You will be inspired by the artistry of their photography. The link is here: vialucispress.wordpress.com/2012/05/10/anzy-le-duc-the-great-survivor-dennis-aubrey/

Thanks to Dennis Aubrey for allowing me to paste the photo: Église Notre-Dame de l’Assomption, Anzy-le-Duc (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey. Photo Copyright © Dennis Aubrey. All Rights Reserved.

Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

ORO et CREO: PART THREE – A Personal Reflection

This is the third part of a three part series on a Spirit filled idea called Oro et Creo (“I Pray – I Create”). This idea was started by artists Jamie Medeiros and Deacon Tom Lambert. Please check out the first two parts of this series which have already been posted in order to get a full perspective on what they are accomplishing on the parish level.

What is wonderful about what Jamie and Deacon Tom are doing is that they are providing a simple, no anxiety-no pressure structure through which the  Holy Spirit can move the person to unite their artistic and creative impulses to their desire for union and communication with God. This is done in a silent, communal, setting, but it can also be done in an individual setting.

Creativity and prayer go hand-in-hand – it just takes the desire of the individual artist, regardless of the medium, to take the simple step of uniting the creative moment to their spiritual life. How is that done? Simply, it is an affirmation of the will to prepare yourself through short silent prayers, and then to consciously say, “Lord God – I offer this moment of creativity to you, help me to create something which gives You glory;” and  then, you create: poetry, stories, visual art, cosmetic design, fashion design, music, photography – whatever appeals to you.

St. Benedict of Nursia, when he established his community of Benedictine monks at Monte Cassino in 6th century Italy, was concerned that his monks balance their life between work and prayer. He developed his Rule which ordered their day into specific moments of prayer, work, and relaxation. Even in the 21st century we can relate to the significance of this type of structure within our busy day.

The point being that we must be balanced and make time for the important things of our life and not be a slave to the world, materialism, or current fads. St. Paul speaks of this in Colossians 3: 23-24 when he says: “Whatever you do, work at it with your whole being. Do it for the Lord rather than for men, since you know full well you will receive an inheritance from Him as your reward. Be slaves of Christ the Lord.” 

As I perceive it, when we are involved in the Oro et Creo process we have made the decision  to unite ourselves to the Holy Spirit – the Sanctifier – and then, we allow the Holy Spirit to guide us in our creative work. It is through the process of this creative effort that we speak to God and tell Him we love Him.

This process occurs when we are silent, and caught up in the moment of doing our work. It is at these times of intense concentration that we are taken “out of ourselves” (only to come back when we realize that we have been so focused on the creative work that we have forgotten the experience of time).

Our conscious prayerful effort at the beginning of the process expresses to God our love and thanks. From my experience, we don’t have to be consciously involved in constantly praying as we are creating. When your mind reflects on the need to pray – it is then appropriate to say a short prayer – such as “Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner” or, “Holy God, Holy Mighty One, Holy Immortal One have mercy on us,” or, just simply, “Jesus, I love and trust you.”

Jamie and Deacon Tom use the phrase Oro et Creo (I Pray – I Create) which was inspired by the Benedictine motto Ora et Labora (Pray and Work). To this I would add another section of the Benedictine Rule:  ut in omnibus glorificetur Deus, “that in all [things] God may be glorified” (Rule, chapter 57.9) which was also adopted and adapted by St. Ignatius of Loyola in his Jesuit motto: All for the Greater Glory of God. So, in our prayer/creative efforts – our intent – whatever results, should always be our desire to give honor, thanks, love, and glory to God. If we enter into these moments with an open heart and pure soul – it will.

Bravo and thank you, Jamie Medeiros and Deacon Tom Lambert, for your faith, prayer, and creativity! I am sure you have inspired many to continue your ideas in their own settings.

Thanks to ad-orientem.blogspot.com/200 for the icon of St. Benedict.

Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved


ORO et CREO: “I Pray – I Create” – Part One

Soon after an article appeared in our Diocesan newspaper (The Rhode Island Catholic) in June 2011 on the Fra Angelico Institute for the Sacred Arts, I spoke on the phone with a talented artist by the name of Jamie Medeiros. We talked about the mission and goals of the Fra Angelico Institute and then she explained to me the mission of a group that she started at her parish in Tiverton, RI. Her group’s name is Oro et Creo (I Pray – I Create). I was fascinated by her description since it clearly was another example of the Holy Spirit’s continuing witness to get Catholics, and Christians of all denominations, interested in uniting the dual impulse of prayer and the creation of sacred art in all its various forms.

The following interview (the first part of a three part series) with Jamie Medeiros and Deacon Tom Lambert illustrate how their combined efforts and continuing positive influence have opened up the creative and spiritual impulses of many people.

The Lambert/Medeiros model can easily be replicated in your parish – regardless of where you are in the world. As of last week, this website/blog on The Fra Angelico Institute for the Sacred Arts, is read by people in 63 nations and on every continent except Antarctica. As far as I am concerned, these numbers are a clear example of how the Holy Spirit utilizes all resources to touch people’s hearts and move them back into a closer relationship with Him. Regardless of where you live in the world, and whether your parish is Roman Catholic, Greek or Russian Orthodox, Middle Eastern Catholic, or one of the Protestant denominations, the Lambert/Medeiros model of Oro et Creo, which unites personal prayer and the creative impulse within a church setting and in community with other artists, is a powerful tool of evangelization.

The Interview:

1) What inspired you to establish the Oro et Creo community?

Jamie Medeiros (St. Theresa’s Parish Tiverton, Rhode Island):     In Chicago at Our Lady of Mt.Carmel I had befriended one of the deacons [Deacon Tom Lambert] who had picked up art in his retirement.  He asked if I would meet one of the RCIA candidates [Belinda Cook Blakely] who was a student at The Art Institute of Chicago.  All three of us met after Mass one day and began a discussion about this common thread of art and God.  We discussed the fact that there seemed to be a lot of artists in our parish.  We joked, “we should start a group!”  The Deacon didn’t miss a beat.  He said, “We SHOULD start a group.”  We proceeded to discuss what it might “look like” if we started one.  This was just at the beginning of Lent [2008].  We all saw the movement of the Holy Spirit and thought the timing of this discussion was remarkable.  We picked a day, wrote up a blurb for the bulletin and decided to see if anyone would show.  They did.  We named it Oro et Creo after the Benedictine motto Ora et Labora (Pray and Work).  It is a time to pray while creating.  We continue to sit in wonder of the role of it as ministry for its participants.

Deacon Tom Lambert (Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Parish Chicago, Illinois): Oro et Creo started at Our Lady of Mt Carmel Church, Chicago when I introduced Jamie [Medeiros] and Belinda [Cook Blakely], two artists, to each other. They then approached me to start Oro et Creo because they didn’t find much connection between art and God in their work environments. Although both have moved on, Jamie to start an Oro et Creo group in Rhode Island, the group they started [here in Chicago] is still going on. For the translation of Oro et Creo I applied its meaning of ” I pray – I create” which says (to me) out of my prayer comes my creation. It is an invitation, a prayerful desire for one to create not a command to others, which is how I see Benedict’s Ora et Labora applying to his monks. [Deacon Tom and Jaime are using the phrase differently then St. Benedict, since St. Benedict was speaking in the imperative, that is, he was giving a command to his monks: “Pray and Work.” Deacon Tom and Jaime, however, are using Oro et Creo, the Latin is spelled differently because it  applies to an individual who prays and then creates, or creates while they are in a prayerful state – I Pray – I Create].

2) How long has your Oro et Creo sessions been in existence, what Church did it begin in, and is it taking place right now – name and geographical location?

Jamie: Oro et Creo first met during Lent 2008.  We began it at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church in Chicago, Illinois.  They are still meeting weekly on Monday nights.  Here in Tiverton, Rhode Island, Oro et Creo began the summer of 2010, meeting weekly, and now meets once a month on Mondays (7 pm) at St.Theresa’s Church in Tiverton.

Deacon Tom:  We meet weekly at Our Lady of Mt Carmel Parish 708 W  Belmont, Chicago, IL

3) Is the clergy involved in any way? Can people in your area join at any time and who would they contact and when would they show up?

Jamie: Here in Tiverton, our Pastor approved the program and likes to hear updates.  People are welcome to show up.  We meet at St. Theresa’s in Tiverton, RI on the first Monday of every month at 7 pm, unless it is a Faith Formation GIFT week.  People are welcome to email me with questions.

Deacon Tom: I am involved as a participant and [Parish] staff representative. The leader of the group is a layperson who is an artist.

4) How often do you come together to pray and create? Where do you actually meet – in the Church Hall, in the Church, at someone’s home?

Jamie: We currently meet once a month on Monday nights from 7 – 8:30ish pm.  This is open to change, depending on the seasons/ availability.  We meet in the Church.

Deacon Tom: We meet weekly. We start at the parish ministry center where we gather until everyone arrives. Then we have an opening prayer and then go in silence to the church or chapel. We sketch in silence for about an hour or more. People can sit anywhere in the church outside the sanctuary and sketch whatever they choose to do. Some bring pictures with them to sketch. We then go back to the ministry center where people may or may not choose to show the group what they were working on. Then a closing prayer is said. [Italics and boldface are my emphasis – Deacon Paul Iacono].

Part Two of this Interview with Jamie Medeiros and Deacon Tom Lambert will soon follow. In it they provide additional insights into this wonderful model which can easily be applied in your setting. Come on, what are you waiting for?!! Call one of your friends or church members who is creative, approach the parish clergy for permission to use the church for one hour a week, apply their model and get started!

 Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

The Feast of St. Joseph – Universal Patron of the Church

At the birth of Christ, the seven hundred year old messianic prophecies of the prophet Isaiah became an historic reality. On a yearly basis, we celebrate and remember that moment on the Feast day of St. Joseph, the patron of the universal Church; for we see in Joseph not only a loyal husband and foster father of Jesus – our Savior – but also a man of conviction and prayer.

Upon hearing that Mary is pregnant Joseph is filled with pain and anger. Understandably, at first, he is not ready to say “yes” to Mary and her story of divine intercession – there are few men that would.  But through divine intervention and the sending of His angel, God makes another request, for the angel relates God’s message: “Joseph, Joseph, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.”

We call St. Joseph a confident man because – ultimately – he, like Mary, says “Yes” to God. He has confidence because he proclaims his trust in God. With Joseph’s “Yes,” his anger subsides and is replaced with a joyful nurturing spirit that enables him to exert leadership and act as a faith-filled father and loving husband.

Joseph, from that moment, grows in love for his wife and unborn child and through the years, like all fathers, he grows in love and intimacy with Jesus.

An intimacy not only of physical closeness and rapport – but of soul – an intimacy of prayer and meditation that filled his heart and mind with awe; this intimacy and proximity to Jesus meant that he was constantly exposed to the same grace that Jesus gives us in our Eucharistic adoration of Him.

Pope Pius 11th, in his teaching on St. Joseph in March 1928 said, “All Joseph’s sanctity lies precisely in the completely faithful accomplishment of his great and humble mission, so high and so hidden, so splendid and so surrounded with shadows.”

We are truly graced if we realize, like St. Joseph, that we must make ourselves vulnerable to God -– vulnerable to the gifts of God – by exposing our heart, and soul to God’s love – and trusting God – through His Sacramental grace, to turn our hearts, so that we, too, may fulfill the mission – simple or profound – that we are asked to complete in life.

Saint Joseph, pray for us.

Sacred image of St. Joseph and Jesus by Pietro Annigoni. It hangs in the Church of St. Lawrence in Florence, Italy. It was painted in 1963. Thanks to the website of the Oblates of St. Joseph for the painting by Annigoni.

Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

St. Vincent of Saragossa – Martyr – And An Artistic Challenge!

Today, January 23rd, is the Feast Day of Saint Vincent of Saragossa.  St. Vincent was a deacon and served as a minister and trustworthy pastoral assistant of Bishop Valerius, of Saragossa, Spain. He was martyred in the year 304 during the ferocious persecution of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. Saint Vincent is the most famous martyr of Spain, and St. Augustine testifies to this in his sermons that Vincent’s acts of love and loyalty to Jesus Christ, and service to the Catholic faith, were so respected that they were read and discussed in all the churches of North Africa.

Owing to the fact that Bishop Valerius had a speech impediment, Deacon Vincent was given the faculty to do all the preaching in their diocese. When the persecutions resumed, the Roman governor Dacian had Vincent and the bishop dragged in chains to Valencia where they were imprisoned. Bishop Valerius was subsequently banished, but Deacon Vincent, as a result of his preaching, was subjected to many cruel tortures such as the rack, the gridiron, and frequent scourging, all of which ultimately led to his martyrdom.

Legend tells us that even in death his murderers were not satisfied, for they threw his corpse into a field to be devoured by vultures; but, according to eyewitnes- ses, a raven defended his body by successfully fighting off the scavengers. His body was later buried and a chapel built over it.

In Vincent’s story we have the witness of a man who stood up, in Christian love and faith, to the might of a Roman imperial government that did all it could to destroy him in life and in death. They were so outraged by him because Saint Vincent would not renounce his sacred ordination to the diaconate, would not renounce the truth of the Church, and would not renounce Jesus Christ even in the face of unspeakable and savage tortures.

St. Vincent of Saragossa is a man who deserves to be recognized. If we review the images of this early Spanish saint, we see  a number that are sensitive and well-done, but it really is time to produce a new icon, or sacred image, of this great witness to the truth, love, and mercy of Jesus Christ. If you are a sacred artist or iconographer, and are interested in producing an icon or sacred image of St. Vincent, I will happily post it (with your permission of course) on this blog. He is a great model for all Christian young people today and we need an image of him that is contemporary to our age.

Come and join us, and like St. Vincent of Saragossa, have some of your art, or all of it, spread the Good News that the love, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ has healed our broken relationship with God the Father!

Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

Sacred Artists Must Be Empty Vessels

In this morning’s Gospel St. Luke is clear that Jesus is carefully listening to the argument that breaks out among His disciples as to who is the greatest among them. One translation has St. Luke saying, “He perceives the thoughts in their hearts.” 

It would be prudent to say that we are all psychologically and theologically hardwired to look for approval. King David wrote of this in the Psalms when he said:  “You have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with honor and glory.”  David recognized the fact that we are something special in the grand scheme of creation, but Jesus has come to set even the wisdom of King David straight. (Psalm 8 verse 5).

He tells His disciples,  “… for he who is the least among you – is the one who is great.” The disciples must have done a double take when He said this, for it went counter to their understanding of reality. But Jesus uses a child to demonstrate this truth; for  children in ancient times were socially at the bottom of the barrel, they had no rights, and basically were – if a family was lucky enough to have them – equivalent to  domestic staff and servants. Children were expected to be seen and not heard – the watchwords for them were humility, listening, and service. An honorable Jewish child of the first century AD would not be bold enough to assert any supposed rights, or demand anything of their parents. There was no self-seeking here, there was no expectation of a mandatory trophy given to raise self-esteem.

Jesus is telling His disciples to see in the child standing next to Him the model for their own behavior. For they, too, should view themselves as servants; as James would say in a later epistle “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:6).  Jesus explains that we must eliminate from our life everything that blocks our spiritual progress – vanity, self-aggrandizement, power-grabs – and the greatest of all sins – pride. St. Paul tells us very clearly in the 2nd epistle to the Corinthians that the Lord wants us to be empty vessels so that He can fill us up with His love, grace, and power.

We cannot leave this day without mentioning two men who were “empty vessels” for the Lord. They were early martyrs of the Church – Sts. Cosmas and Damian – excellent models for all of us who aspire to be sacred artists. They met their death at the hands of the Emperor Diocletian in the late 3rd century BC.

The above two icons are of the twin brothers Saints Cosmas and Damian. The very top icon was done many centuries ago, and the icon right above these lines is a more contemporary interpretation.  Unfortunately I was not able to locate the names of the artists that “wrote” these two beautiful icons.

Sts. Cosmas and Damian are models for us because they were not interested in making a name for themselves (even though because of their medical skills they were known throughout the Eastern Roman Empire). They were not interested in making money in return for their remedies (they were called the “moneyless ones” since they did not accept money for their services).

The above image is by Fra Angelico. It is his interpretation of Saints Cosmas and Damian miraculously treating the emperor Justinian after he prayed for their help, three hundred years after their death. The leg was healed, and Justinian attributed it to his prayers for their intercession. The icon shows them practicing their skills, following through and using their knowledge (they studied at the famous medical centers in Arabia). As artists (for we can say “the art of medicine”) they confronted all illness head on and relieved suffering, not by just turning to past remedies, but willingly using their common sense and their ability to adapt remedies to new situations. They were “with-it” as the current parlance would say. Yet, they were novel in their approach since they were practical men who “emptied themselves of self,” had a deep love and faith in Jesus, while at the same time, doing all they could to increase their skills for the benefit of their fellow man.

Thus, they apply to our desire to be sacred artists by showing us that we must make the effort, as St. Paul says, to be empty vessels: to allow our own ego to be overwhelmed by the power of the Lord, to confidently go about the process of learning the art form(s) that we are called to concentrate on, keeping our sense of humor as to the rate of our improvement, steadily practicing the art, and prayerfully putting our trust in Jesus to help us be the best artists we can be.

Sts. Cosmas and Damian were committed Christians, and the early Church regarded them with great honor from the moment of their martyrdom. They truly are a symbol of what our Gospel speaks about this morning – for they made it their duty – especially in the manner of their deaths – to empty themselves – and be filled beyond measure with God’s gifts.

Copyright © 2011 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

The Triumph of the Cross and Our Lady of Sorrows by Jed Gibbons

Today we celebrate the feast of the Exaltation – or Triumph – of the Holy Cross.

The early Catholic Church was intensely persecuted during the first 280 years of its life – so the symbol of the Cross – the symbol of public humiliation and excruciating death – was rarely used in our Christian iconography. But this doesn’t mean that the early Christians were reluctant to express their devotion to the Cross. Writing in the year 204, the Christian theologian Tertullian said: “At every going in and out, when we put on our clothes, when we sit at table, in all the ordinary actions of daily life, we trace upon our forehead the sign [of the Cross].”

In the year 313, the Emperor Constantine signed the Edict of Milan, which proclaimed toleration for the Christian faith within the Roman Empire. Constantine’s mother, Helena, made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and with the support of the local bishop – excavated the area known as the site of Golgotha. Tradition states that portions of the true Cross, with a partial nameplate still attached was found, resulting in Constantine ordering that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher be built over the site. The church was dedicated nine years later, with a portion of the Cross placed inside it. So the feast that we celebrate today marks the dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the year 335. That Church was unfortunately destroyed by the Muslims in the year 1009, only to be rebuilt centuries later, with the new occupants – all Christians – vying for control of the site! Unfortunately even among our brother Christian Churches there have been numerous clashes and conflicts over the control of this holy site. It is as if all of us – as guardians of the Church’s holiest site – had not internalized the meaning of the true Cross – the meaning of what happened on that site 2000 years ago – the meaning of the Father’s supreme sacrifice of His Son for the sake of His creation. God’s love was raised up on Golgotha that day and Satan’s venom was forever neutralized, but the sting of Satan’s original bite in the Garden of Eden still remains.

The truth of our Scripture readings tell us that Moses lifted up the bronze serpent, a sign of sin, and the people were healed. Jesus makes an analogy of the serpent with the healing power of the Cross – since it is a sign of our sin and our redemption. When the Father, through the Holy Spirit, lifted up Jesus in the resurrection, the Holy Cross was no longer viewed as a sign of evil and sin – rather it became a sign of Christ’s victory and our salvation.

Our Savior, through the instrument of the Holy Cross, shows us the level of His love for His  creation. The Father shows His love for us by giving us the best He has  – His Son – and His Son shows His obedience and trust in the Father – through His willingness to take upon Himself all sin and become a perfect offering back to the Father on our behalf. The Fra Angelico Institute for the Sacred Arts chaplain, Fr. Joseph Upton, gave a beautiful homily today at morning Mass in which he emphasized that every day, we too raise up Jesus on the Cross. In every Mass, we have re-presented the sacrifice of Jesus for us. We commemorate His act and we thank Him for it in His gift of Himself to us in the Eucharist. We unite ourselves to the Triumph of the Cross through the Mass.

As sacred artists, on a daily basis, we must attempt to imitate this profound love of God in our creation of artistic works, and in our families and community. Our love must be strengthened by the truth of our faith – and by the triumph of the Cross; when we do this we will understand that the crosses that we carry, and the sufferings that we endure, unite us to the Lord, and help us transform our lives into His. Our Blessed Mother is our model for this transformation.

Tomorrow, September 15th, is the memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows. The Invitatory prayer that begins the Office of Readings in the Liturgy of the Hours says, “Let us adore Christ, the Savior of the world, who called his mother to share in his passion.” Those words reminded me of a beautiful illuminated miniature by Jed Gibbons, a very fine artist from Chicago. I met Jed when he was teaching at the St. Michael’s Institute for the Sacred Arts at Enders Island in Mystic, CT. Jed has produced some truly inspirational work (his Stations of the Cross in the chapel on Enders Island are exquisite) and this piece that you see below captures not only the theme of the Triumph of the Cross but the truth of the Church’s teaching that Mary shared in the passion of her  Son. This piece is entitled   Maria, Mater Misericordiae (Mary, Mother of Mercy); it was completed in 2006, and was done in historic earth pigments and 23 karat gold. It measures 6.75 by 9.25 inches. I thank the Foundation for the Sacred Arts website for the image.

Copyright © 2011 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved. Image copyrighted by Jed Gibbons All Rights Reserved

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May she continue to show us the way.

Copyright © 2011 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

Sacred Iconography and Personal Creativity – Do Not be Afraid!

What is iconography?

The Sacred Iconography Guild is one of the twelve Sacred Arts Guilds that is sponsored by the Fra Angelico Institute. As of this post we have six members of this Guild who have expressed interest in learning this particular artistic tradition of the Church. Unfortunately, many people in the 21st century do not know the traditions of the Western (Latin, that is the Roman and affiliated rites of the Church) or the Eastern (Orthodox, that is the Coptic, Greek, Russian, and other Middle Eastern Rites) of Christ’s Church. All of these Rites have beautiful liturgies, the Sacraments – Holy Mysteries, and traditions – of which sacred iconography is one. This Institute hopes to be one more voice – among many – bringing these traditions to light to a new generation of people. So this post hopes to begin the survey of what sacred iconography is and how we can participate in it.

The word icon is Greek for “image.” Specifically, as it is applied in our usage, it refers to a sacred image that has been painted by a trained iconographer in a way that portrays the sacred presence of Jesus Christ, His mother – “the Theotokos,” His angels, and the saints. Icons in both the Latin Rite and Eastern Rite Churches are venerated – never worshipped. They act as sacred windows or doorways that allow us to view the heavenly realm of divinized humanity or the visual representation of Scriptural truth.

Iconography is simply the study of icons, their development through the centuries (the first iconographer is considered to be St. Luke the Evangelist), the techniques and methods used by various “schools” of iconography within specific cultural regions – and within specific national areas. By “school” I mean a collection of iconographers working under a master iconographer that has a specific style through which they portray Our Lord and the sacred people, mysteries, and historic occurrences within the Church’s history.

Sacred icons portray theological reality. So, it is mandatory that a sacred iconographer follows the “canon” of iconography that developed through the centuries. The “canon” consists of the rules that an iconographer must follow in painting, that is, “writing” an icon. I say “writing” because the tradition states that an iconographer must be aware of the great responsibility that he or she has in conveying the “Scriptural truth” within the image itself. In other words, the iconographer must not change Holy Scripture. He or she paints (“writes”) what is in Holy Scripture, or within Church history and Tradition, because as Pope Benedict 16th has said: sacred images have an important role to play in the “catechesis of the people.” So the iconographer cannot be portraying his or her version of Scripture – or Church history – to do so would be as bad as one of the Evangelists changing the words of the Gospel as he writes or prints a new copy because he desires to be creative or “express” himself.

So this brings up the question of the role that an artist’s personal creativity and skill plays in the development and expression of the written icon. I highly recommend that you go to the websites of my teachers (Peter Pearson; Dimitri Andreyev (Prosopon School); Marek Czarnecki (Seraphic Resorations); and Anna Pokrovskaya Gouriev (Izograph School) to examine their galleries and to see the beauty of their work. Examine an icon of our Lord Jesus or our Blessed Mother by Peter, Dimitri (or his father Vladislav), Marek, Anna (or her mother Xenia) and you will see not only the display of creativity of these iconographers, their skills, their color choices, their simplicity and purity, but also, the truth, goodness, and beauty that is the theological truth of their icons. Their icons are 20th and 21st century pieces of sacred art – yet – they are firmly within the “canon” of the Church’s perception of iconography and serve as models for the expression of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.

As our Lord said to His disciples in the boat as they were being tossed about by the sea – “It is I. Do not be afraid.” This applies to us, too, as spiritual travelers, artists, and novice iconographers – the Lord is with us – we have nothing to fear because we have put our trust in Him.

Copyright © 2011 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

The Eternal Now and the Coronation of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Today is the memorial of the Coronation of our Blessed Mother. Sacred icons and images have expressed the Queenship and Coronation of the Holy Theotokos – the Mother of God – for at least 1500 years. The icon The Virgin Salus Populi Romani, a 5th century icon, displayed in the Church of Saint Mary Major in Rome, and seen below, shows the Blessed Mother dressed in typical first century Middle Eastern garb as she holds her Son who gives a blessing. This icon reputed to

be a copy of one that was painted by St. Luke the evangelist who tradition states knew the Blessed Mother and spoke and listened to her .

A 6th century icon of the Blessed Mother and Child displays a coronation theme – in which the Blessed Mother and her Son are in Heaven. Mary sits on her throne with Her Son on her lap, surrounded by St. Theodore on the left and St. George on the right, while two angels look up as the hand of the Father gives a blessing. This icon is found in the Monastery of St. Catherine in the Sinai Peninsula.

Our iconic images painted (“written”) by orthodox iconographers of both the Latin, Greek, Russian, Coptic, and other Rites agree with the ideas found within our Holy Scriptures. For example, today’s Gospel passage tells us “… the Lord God will give to Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.” This Scripture explains that the Lord willingly takes the initiative to come forth – with hands extended – to meet us and share the reign of His kingdom.

In sacred art we visualize this not only in the extension of Christ’s hands on the cross – but also, in the extension of the infant Jesus’ hands, to give us a blessing, as He sits in His mother’s lap – or is caressed in her arms – an image that is found not only in the above icons but in numerous statues found in Latin Rite churches throughout the world.

Our first reading – from Isaiah – also speaks of Christ in regal terms – as Emmanuel (God is with us) – the “Prince of Peace.” And we can even get apocalyptic and speak of the Books of Daniel and Revelation which recall the truth that the world will be transformed through the birth of the Redeemer, made possible by Mary, (“a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars… who gave birth to a son – a boy destined to shepherd all the nations with an iron rod. Her child was caught up to God and His throne”). – This woman, our Blessed Mother, enables the incorporation of the reign of God into the world. She is the  woman destined to crush the head of the apocalyptic serpent.

St. John of Damascus speaks about this in the 8th century when he says of the Blessed Mother that she “has become the terror of demons, the city of refuge for those who turn to her. [He has her say:] Come to me in faith, O people, and draw as from a river of grace. Come to me in faith, without doubt, and draw from the mighty and certain source of grace.”

On the solemnity of the Assumption – we recalled Blessed John Paul 2nd saying “…the Assumption of the Mother of Christ in Heaven forms part of the [Lord’s teaching about] His victory over death – the beginning of which is found in the death and resurrection of Christ.”

So in today’s memorial – Mary, the humble daughter of our Heavenly Father, garbed in the majestic robes of a queen takes her place next to the throne of her resurrected and ascended Son.

Why? 

Because the Church desires to teach us that Mary is privileged – beyond all other women and men – to be the first and most significant human being to participate in the glory, triumph, and reign of God. By her very willingness to become the Mother of God – the Theotokos – she agreed to become our spiritual Mother, too.

In this beautiful sacred image by Blessed John of Fiesole, also known as Fra Angelico, the great Dominican artist of 15th century Florence, portrays the moment of Our Lady’s Coronation – with the Heavenly court surrounding her. Interestingly, you see men and women saints that were alive thousands of years after Mary’s assumption observing the event. Why did the good Friar do that? He is expressing the fact that Heaven is within the eternal now of the Trinity – the knowledge of that coronation moment is known by St. Thomas Aquinas – who looks out at the observer (in the lower left corner) – and notes the truth, goodness, and beauty of God in desiring this for His beloved and humble human daughter – the Queen of Heaven.

The Blessed Mother, in her regal beauty, authority, and power, has not left us orphans – for she is “the Living Temple of the Holy Spirit, the Inviolate Mountain, the ladder” that joins Heaven and earth – the “One who Shows the Way” (Hodigitria) to her Son and to our Heavenly reward.

If we remain faithful and loyal to the teachings of Christ – as expressed through our Sacred Scriptures and our Church – and as the Epistle of St. James teaches – “Act on that faith…” then we, too, will reign alongside our Heavenly Mother as we give praise and glory to God.

Our Lady – Queen of Heaven – pray for us.        Sources: John Paul 2, L’Osservatore Romano, August 15, 1983; Pope Pius 12th – encyclical Ad Caeli Reginam, October 11, 1954.

Copyright © 2011 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

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