Sunday, October 4, 2009

Ikon Writer

Recently I saw the above ikon ('scuze me, I like the k, it looks more Greek) at the local Catholic high school ( I'm not used to seeing ikons with English on them; plus, it's a Western (Roman) Catholic school, and who are those guys impersonating the Trinity? Who painted (wrote) it? The school Chaplain ( told me it was someone I already knew, a member of our parish, married to one of my brother Knights (of Columbus). Wow, who knew we had an ikon painter (writer!) in our parish? How cool is that?

So last month on her Facebook a reference to an ikon seminar led to a series of posts, not about ikons per se, but ikon-writing, i.e., from the writer's standpoint, not the viewer's. I liked the content, and what follows is an edited version of Q&A that ran over a week or so:

Why are those three people in the ikon the Trinity?

"Icon of the Holy Trinity, Andrei Rublev, prototype. (Sometimes called Old Testament Trinity) This is based on the Biblical account of the hospitality of Abraham from Gen. 18. Since the beginning of the Church, this passage has been interpreted as a theophany of the Holy Trinity. In the passage the three "men" (three separate and unique persons) act as one, in perfect relationship with each other and united in one perfect will and
voice. Rublev greatly simplified the prototypes before him, focusing on the persons of the Trinity rather that the action of the event itself. Those icons that focus on the event itself are usually titled, "The Hospitality of Abraham," and often contain both Abraham and Sarah, sometimes a servant, and other details of the event itself like serving bowls."

Can you comment on icon-writing, not in general terms, but personally?

"Icon writing is a contemplative process in and of itself, but I also join it to Carmelite spirituality: Praying the Offices, Lectio, Sacraments, trying to be aware of God in all I do. Specific to iconography, I pray the "iconographer's prayer" before I start; bless my work and myself with the sign of the cross; during the process of writing the icon I try to stay focused on those who need my prayers, esp. the individual for whom the icon is intended; pray to God to guide me in the decisions related to the icon, re: colors, design, etc.; and last but not least, I try to connect with the subject itself."

How do you make this connection?

"I learn as much as possible about the saint or subject if I am not familiar with them, meditate upon the subject and his/her life and how it applies to my life. I pray through the icon while writing it. All this is done during the day, in silence or with appropriate sacred music or religious programming, in solitude (very Carmelite). In addition, because I deal with so much physical pain, I try to join that to my work and offer all to God. Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity once described herself as a "Praise of Glory." I hope God sees what I do and who I am as a "Praise of Beauty," referring to God as the One who is Perfect Beauty and Truth."

Speaking of Beauty, how do icons differ from stained glass images and statues?

"There is more of a theological difference in Orthodox thought than in Catholic, in my opinion. In Catholicism, the distinctions are a little more blurred due to the influence of various art movements to express faith and belief. So let me address this from a somewhat more Orthodox viewpoint.

"Icons are not decorative art or representational art, although they do utilize symbols and symbolic meaning. An iconographer's task is not to create something new, but to carry on the tradition that has come before, using prototypes that have been passed down from generation to generation. When one looks at an icon, one sees the icon that has come before it, and the one before that, and the one that has come before that and so on, until one sees *through* the icon to the the original individual, or saint, or scene. So as one "looks through" an icon, one is connected to the subject in a real and powerful way as a living entity. It is comparable to the Word of God in Orthodox thought. That is why iconographers are said to *write* icons. They are proclaiming Salvation History, but instead of using words, they use color and line and visual composition.

"In Western art, one doesn't have this kind of developed theology or the canons which guide iconography. That is why, if one looks at a traditional icon in Orthodoxy--no matter the media--it will generally look the same, whether it is written 1000 yrs ago or today.
One is not to impose one's personal interpretation upon the work. In stained glass and sculpture, the individual artist does original, interpretive work. These disciplines certainly may draw from iconography, but are never considered icons themselves."

BTW, Madame Ikonographer and her husband share their conversion story here:

Converts have all the fun.