Reading images: Icons convey spiritual message

Father Mark Dean traveled from Illinois to serve for two weeks as a guest priest at Soldotna’s Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic church. On Feb. 21, he taught a seminar at the church on a skill he had picked up on another trip as a visiting priest — he had previously spent nine years in Sweden, where he learned to paint icons in the Byzantine style of the Eastern Christian Church.

 

After eastern and western Christianity split in late Roman times, western religious art followed a path that would lead to the vivid, three-dimensional-seeming painting of the Renaissance, while eastern art gave rise to icons, a word from Greek, meaning “image.” These were flat, stylized depictions of Biblical events, or frontal portraits of Biblical figures and saints, that were more symbolic than naturalistic. According to Father Thomas Andrew, Archpriest of Kenai’s Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Church, the practice of image-making is as old as Genesis.

“When God created man, he said, ‘Let us make him in our image and likeness,’” Andrew said, referring to Genesis 1:26-27. “So everyone we see, no matter who they are or what they are, they’re made in the image and likeness of God. They’re icons. Walking, living, talking icons.”

Although icons originated in Eastern Christianity, they also play a role in the Catholic church, where Dean said their theological significance is related to the incarnation of Jesus.

“There are other great religions — the Muslim religion being one of them — that forbid the depiction of God in any kind of form,” Dean said. “The Christian Church has said, ‘But God has taken on human form, in Jesus Christ. So he has given us a human face. And just as we can depict humans in portraiture and art, so can we depict the word made flesh and the word made visible through Christ. So Christ is the icon par excellence, the image of God made visible. He’s the first subject matter of icons, and after that those who have been illumined by the light of Christ, the saints.”

Dean started practicing iconography in Europe.

“I got involved with icons back in the early ‘90s, when I was assigned to a parish we had in Luleå, in the North of Sweden,” Dean said. “... In Sweden, the number of Catholics up there was just under 2 percent of the general population, so you can imagine that the life of a priest is at a slower pace. I lived out in the woods — in fact, it looked a lot like these woods around here. ... With more time on my hands, there was more time to pursue interests and develop hobbies.”

Dean said the Swedish mission’s interest in iconography came from the region’s history.

“(The other priests) were there many years before I got there, and they were wondering how to meet and engage with the people in that area, most of whom were not Catholic,” Dean said. “It was (a senior priest) who had the idea of looking to the history and background of the Scandinavians, and saw there was a big influence coming not from the west but from the east. And when you look east, of course, you see Russia and the Orthodox Church. Also, the Swedes were great at having study circles, where they get together and study a book or whatever. He thought, ‘There’s an awful lot of verbiage going on, we love to read and discuss, but is there something more visual?’ And he thought icons lent themselves well to that.”

Dean learned to paint icons with egg tempera pigments, sealing the colors after they had dried with varnish or linseed oil. He said that before taking up iconography, he had no experience as an artist — which was an advantage.

“The old brother who was one of my teachers once made the comment that artists are the hardest ones to train, because they already have an idea of how to do art,” Dean said. “In working on a face, they’d want to do it this way, but you don’t do it this way.”

Some iconographers reject the idea that their practice is art, preferring to translate the name of their craft literally: not as “icon painting,” but “icon writing.” Dean said he has no preferred verb for what iconographers do, but he did see similarities between icon-making and writing.

“If you were to write out the Gospels, there’s a concern to stay close to what the text actually says, and you don’t add your own little insights and flourishes,” Dean said. “There’s a similarity between the Gospels and the text of iconography. Just as we wouldn’t add to or change what’s written in the Gospel, so we wouldn’t add to or change what’s depicted in the icons. There is that concern to stay true to what’s been handed on.”

Dean said most of his icons have reproduced traditional images of Mary and Jesus. Although he doesn’t innovate in his icons, he said he finds personal meaning in traditional features.

“When my brother died, I did an icon — it was very traditional, of the Madonna and Child, and to it I added the text ‘He’s held tender and beloved in his mothers’ eyes,’” Dean said. “That’s a text that refers to Solomon. Of course, I adopted it as being a reference to my brother. But I added the text within the frame, not within the icon. That’s where things might get added in.”

Dean said he’s painted icons infrequently since leaving Sweden, and when he speaks about the craft now, he more often describes how to look at icons than how to create them. On Feb. 21, Dean led a seminar at Our Lady of Perpetual Help for congregation members interested in learning just that. Dean used an image hanging in the Soldotna church’s sanctuary: a wooden relief carving of an icon not found in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the church’s namesake, Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Dean said it demonstrates the story-telling symbolism of iconography.

The icon depicts Mary holding the child Jesus. Its story is that as a child, Jesus had a vision of his future death: in the icon, angels hover over Mary’s shoulders carrying a cross and the spear that would impale Jesus during his crucifixion. Frightened by the portents of his death, Jesus ran to his mother’s arms — loosening one of his sandals, which in the icon hangs from his foot.

Perpetual Help member Meg Zerbinos said she spent time praying with the Our Lady of Perpetual Help icon before she attended Dean’s iconography seminar. She said the story it communicated connected her religion to her life.

“When I sit with that icon, it tells me a story about her motherhood, what she went through as a mother,” Zerbinos said. “I have sons. So it’s probably more meaningful for me — when she’s holding her son, I know what that feels like. When my sons are hurt or are suffering, I certainly feel that. So sitting with that particular icon tells me a lot about suffering in the world, and how she was able to manage to live with and deal with the suffering of her son.”

Zerbinos said she had also gained religious insight from the icon.

“Whenever there is an icon with Mary and Jesus in it, you’ll find that her hands always point to Jesus,” Zerbinos said. “... She doesn’t point to herself, like ‘look at me.’ She points to her son. In that icon, she doesn’t hold Jesus close, like if I was holding one of my sons. She’s holding him like she’s offering him to you.”

Stylistically, Dean said the Lady of Perpetual Help icon demonstrates some of iconography’s non-realist features. The folds and creases in Mary’s clothes are traced with gold paint that stands out against the darker blue of her mantel — reversing the way folded cloth appears in real vision, where folds are defined by shadow rather than light. Dean said this is because in real vision all light sources are external, while in the symbolic world of icons, holy figures are lit by divine light from within them.

Kenai’s Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Church, like many eastern churches, has an entire wall between its nave and sanctuary — called an iconostasis — dedicated to icons. The Holy Assumption church has 25 — a central group consisting of Mary, Christ, the Gospel writers, and a Last Supper painting, flanked by saints and a series depicting Biblical and traditional stories. Throughout the sanctuary are other saint images.

Due to a twist of history, the iconostasis images at Holy Assumption are not in the Eastern Church’s ancient Byzantine style, but in the more recent, naturalistic Renaissance style of the west. The switch, part of a church reform that separated the Russian Old Believers from the Russian Orthodox Church, was made by an imperial decree in 1721, meant to bring Russia closer to Europe.

“This type of iconography was brought over from the western European countries by (Russian Emperor) Peter the Great,” Andrew said. “... He saw his own country not caught up with the western European countries — they were kind of like stuck in the Middle Ages. So what he did was brought back a civilization from the Western European countries.”

In addition to adopting the Western painting style, Andrew said modern mainstream Russian Orthodox icons tend to eschew non-realist symbols — for example, the Sacred Heart found over the chest of many Catholic Christ images. He said that because the symbol lacks a foundation in scripture or reality, it would be considered an idol in the Eastern tradition, where acceptable symbols include text, halos indicating holiness, and a hand-gesture indicating that the icon’s subject had been a clergy member.

Behind the Renaissance-styled iconostasis, Holy Assumption’s altar houses a collection of Byzantine icons, depicting the Biblical stories that inspired the twelve feast days of the Church year. These are brought out and rotated through the sanctuary one at a time throughout the year, indicating the present feast.

Andrew said that in Orthodox history, icons had a didactic, storytelling purpose.

“In the early church, the only people who knew how to read and write were the clergy,” Andrew said. “... An icon like this was a teaching tool.” He referred to a Byzantine-style icon illustrating the event his church was named for: Mary being carried to heaven by Jesus at her death. He pointed out that in addition to showing the story, the icon also had less obvious didactic features: a group of figures arranged in the shape of a cross.

Although Perpetual Help congregation member Barbara O’Lena is modern and literate, she said she came to Dean’s iconography seminar also seeking to experience religion in visual, rather than verbal or literary, terms.

“When you look at words on a page, you have to sit with just the words,” O’Lena said. “They’re very concrete — they’re just words. Whereas when you look at a picture, you can interpret it in any way, and look at in any direction. It’s like reading a book versus looking out a picture window, or looking at nature versus reading a story about nature. My kids love books with pictures in them, because it’s different than looking at just the words.”

Dean’s seminar was called “Visio Divina: Listening to what we see.” He said “visio divina” was a Latin term that meant prayer with images, a contrast to “lectio divina,” a word-centered ritual.

“Lectio divina is a method of prayer in which we use a text, usually from scripture,” Dean said. “And it’s sort of repeating the text, meditating on it, being attentive to what catches us in the text. Out of that might come some kind of response or prayer, and in the end just a moment of being quiet in the presence of God. Visio Divino is a method similar to that, but instead it uses an image, such as an icon.”

O’Lena said she planned to continue studying iconography, visiting local icons as well as those at the Holy Spirit Catholic retreat center in Anchorage. She said her ability to interpret them would grow in the future.

“It’s always interesting because you know there’s something there, but if you don’t know how to read them, you don’t know what that something is,” O’Lena said. “I think there’s much more than what (Father Dean) told us in that couple hours. I’m just reading the back cover of a book, basically, instead of what’s inside. There’s so much more that could possibly be there.”

 

Reach Ben Boettger at ben.boettger@peninsulaclarion.com.

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