The Icon: Brightly Shining Darkness
December 12, 2007
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It was Ordinary Time.
To be exact, it was the twenty-fourth week, and I was sitting in a pew at St. Philip Neri church, the Paulist parish in Portland Oregon. The church itself, designed by world renowned architect Pietro Belluschi in 1950, is a basilica-style church that, in 1999, had gone through a renovation restoring the interior to the spare modernist vision that Belluschi had in mind when he first designed the building. After the renovation, with few exceptions, the interior was singularly devoid of images. On one side of the sanctuary was, and remains, an altar where Mary’s pure white statue is located. As so often happens in churches, a marble panel surrounded the figure that was topped with the words, “St. Joseph, pray for us.” This, obviously, had been a space honoring St. Joseph, whose statue had been moved to some other location. As an iconographer, I often found my imagination fixed on the desire to unify this space, to have images that could be integrated into the liturgy, and to provide a space where icons could be venerated. And, in that moment, ordinary time was transformed into time that was anything but ordinary.
Yet, what a dilemma I found myself in! Although statues are not considered to be icons themselves, they are used by many in the Roman Rite Church for private devotions. In the Catholic Catechism I read that devotions among the faithful “should be so drawn up that they harmonize with the liturgical seasons, accord with the sacred liturgy, are in someway derived from it and lead people to it.” Is it not possible then that icons, whose primary function is liturgical, could be integrated within a devotional space? The possibility that this side-altar could become a place where the liturgical images of the East could unite with the devotional images of the West seemed something to pursue.
Defined in Greek, the word icon means image. The theology of the Incarnation, bedrock of the icon, was, for one thousand years, the art of the undivided church and essential to the experience of Christians. It was the Second Council of Nicea in 787 that declared the icon to be on par with the written work of God. And so, icons are described as “written,” not “painted." They are a living encounter with God, theology in color and form. Other icons of Mary the Mother of God, the Saints, Prophets, etc., are based on the prototype image of Jesus, Son of God, Son of Man, fully human, fully divine. Icons are not the personal meditations of individual artists, nor are they art, as they derive their inspiration from scripture and Holy tradition.
St. Philip Neri is a community devoted to evangelization through hospitality and reconciliation. It is a graciously welcoming parish. It is not surprising then that the first four of eight icons that I chose to write would be of the authors of the gospels: Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. To integrate these icons into the liturgical life of the community seemed a simple process. At the beginning of each liturgical year, on the first Sunday of Advent, the visual word of God could be brought in with the written word of God. The icon would be placed on the front of the ambo, where the gospel is proclaimed, and remain during Ordinary Time. When the gospel of St. John would be read, the icon of St. John would be there to be read as well. Icons of the Evangelists, the Eucharistic Banquet, and others would become integrated into the liturgy intentionally, not as an afterthought or as a lovely decoration.
The icon is unique in that it is drawn and painted using a canon of aesthetics that has been passed down from the early Church. And, as I began this project at the beginning of the year of St. Luke, let me begin with his icon to illustrate a few of these aesthetic elements. This image, handed down through the centuries, is in iconographic terms the recognizable image of St. Luke. His face is in three-quarter view. All faces in icons are depicted either this way or frontally. Faces that are in profile refer to those who are unaware or who have rejected God. Colors in icons are to be understood symbolically. For example, Luke’s outer cloak is scarlet, the color of humanity, blood, the burning love of the Holy Spirit. The tunic of his undergarment is blue, the color of divinity, and suggests the divine humility of silence. He is writing in a book the opening words of the Gospel, “In as much as many….” As his gospel stresses the faith of Mary, ministry to the poor, and, of course, the Risen Lord, it points us to Christ immanent in the midst of the world.
St. Matthew is shown in icons as an old man with grey hair and a grey beard. His outer garment is green, the color often used for the prophets and for new life. St. Matthew is shown in an interior space. The architecture and cloth that depict this are intentionally non-rational and push toward the foreground. Unlike Western art, icons are not three dimensional images. Rather, they are intentionally two dimensional and make use of inverse perspective. This form of perspective turns the natural world inside out and makes the point of view both multiple and outside of the picture plane. The point of view is the viewer. The purpose of the icon is to slow us down, to help us realize that we are in relationship with God. It invites us to “Be still and Know that I am God” in what has been called a “Sacrament of Presence.” This great Evangelist, like Mary, challenges us to “make disciples of all nations.”
In the icon of St. Mark we see a middle aged man with brown hair, a beard, blue cloak, and green tunic. Just as the written word of God is venerated, so, too, icons are venerated. Veneration is honoring the person or persons depicted through the image. The veneration passes to the one being honored, thus to the first person honored in the icon – Jesus Christ, who became matter. St. John of Damascus wrote, “I do not worship matter but the one who created matter, who, for my sake, became matter and who through matter has brought about my salvation.” Icons are not worshiped, as only God is worshiped! Nor are images of Mary and the Saints venerated in isolation. It is because we venerate her Son, God Incarnate, that we venerate His mother.
St. John, in his icon, is shown in the desert – always a place of potential encounter with God. He is shown as an old man with a long white beard and hair, as he outlived all the other Apostles. St. Prochorus is believed to be the nephew of St. Stephen and companion and scribe of St. John. He is shown leaning over the book that he holds on his knees and writing the opening words of the gospel of St. John, “In the beginning was the Word.” The garments on both figures are highlighted in a non-rational way in which the figures appear to be lit from within by a light that is not from an outside source but rather from the pure source of light that indicates communion with God in a sanctified world. Through the use of inverse perspective, the mountains of the desert defy the laws of nature and act like the energy of God which rises up and pours out beyond any boundaries to engage the viewer with God's love for all of creation. Succinctly put, the gospel of St. John challenges and directs us to love one another as Jesus loves us. And it is interesting to note that St. John was famous for giving the same short sermon throughout his long life: “Brothers and Sisters, love one another.”
“Greater love than this …” is at the heart of the diptych of the Man of Sorrows and the Mother of God of Sorrows. These icons, used in the Church of the East on the day of Holy Saturday, are, at St. Philip Neri’s church, placed on the ambo throughout the season of Lent. Christ, “the icon of the invisible God, the first born of all creation” (Col 1:15), is here shown with his divine majesty veiled. The tortured figures of Jesus that we are accustomed to in Western art are not found in icons. His image here is encompassed in gold that reflects another world. Gold in icons is not used as a color but rather is seen to participate in the “energies” – the divine light – of God. In gold, both dark and light join together in brilliantly shining darkness. The gift that the Son offers to the Father in the Holy Spirit is a world of mercy wrapped in mercy and live-giving generosity. It is a love of total and infinite patience. The cross and halo surrounding the head of Christ, too, are bathed in the light from the gold of the background. Halos in icons are always circular, flat, and frontal – part of the geometric and proportional underpinning of the image. Only in the halo of Jesus do we find the Greek letters that are the abbreviation for “I AM.” In the shallow background, over his shoulders, are the letters for Ieosus Christos – Jesus Christ.
The Greek letters for the Theotokos, the title that was given to Mary at the council of Nicea, are written on her icon. It means Mother of God or God Bearer, as she truly is the mother of the eternal Son of God made man. The composition in the icon of the suffering Theotokos is simple, balanced, and calm. Mary, the perfect disciple, is the living icon of Jesus Himself. It was she who was the first to say “Yes,” when she agreed to bear the Word into the world, she who is the first of the Evangelists, she who stands now in solidarity with Him in death. She is a powerful witness to all who suffer and to her ability to surrender to the present moment in which she finds the will of God. Her face expresses grief contained.
Grief redeemed is found in the diptych icons of the Eucharistic Banquet. These icons show that the Last Supper and the heavenly liturgy are not two separate events. A Monk of the Eastern Church wrote, ”It is with the eternal and heavenly Eucharist that our earthly liturgies put us in touch…, the sacrifice of the upper room, the sacrifice on the cross, the celestial sacrifice, the Eucharistic sacrifice of the Church are all one and the same sacrifice. There is only one liturgy.” In this liturgy, Christ assembles the whole world, the cosmos, created by God with love. In the new and eternal covenant, Chronos time becomes Kairos time where all human history is remembered – past, present, and future – forever present in the memory of God. In this icon, Christ consecrates the bread and the wine under the baldacchino. St. Peter, in the left panel, is clothed in the warm yellow color that is symbolic of truth. He is receiving the bread from Christ. In the panel on the right is St. Paul with a balding head, clothed in deep red purple, symbol of authority, and receiving the wine from Christ. They, along with the apostles alongside them, represent the Church – the Mystical Body of Christ.
In this Mystical Body of Christ, the Heavenly Liturgy all believers are united. And the space that had been problematic is now united. The icons, in frames that allow for the fluid use of images within the liturgical calendar of the year, as well as the image of Mary, bring together both the East and the West, the iconographic, liturgical and devotional. They reside together in Kairos time, where time ceases to exist and where all of time is present in the moment. Here, in time extraordinary, God spills out toward the viewer to gaze upon us with infinite love that invites us to become the likeness of God.
In Jesus’ message to “Love one another” and to be in communion with each other in Him, we, too, find that ordinary time is transfigured into time extraordinary. In the unifying power of the icons around the statue of Mary, both the devotional and the Incarnate are brought together, and I am reminded that it is the Theotokos, Mother of God, who is the bridge between heaven and earth. Mary, Mother of God, invites us into collaboration with the writers of the Gospels to evangelize the world, to stand in solidarity with those who suffer, and in communion as the Mystical Body of Christ in the Eucharist. We ask Mary and all of the cloud of witnesses in the Communion of Saints through the Incarnate God to pray for us.
Mary Katsilometes, Anastasis: Studio of Iconography, is an icon writer in Portland, Oregon. She teaches icon writing at a yearly institute sponsored by the Iconographic Arts Institute, Portland, Oregon.
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