Icons and Liturgy
October 19, 2009
In 1998 I was privileged to study iconography and fresco with Fr. Egon Sendler, an Eastern rite Jesuit priest residing in France and author of The Icon: Image of the Invisible. Fr. Sendler met with my colleague, Mary Katsilometes, and me, leaving us with ideas to ponder. He urged us, as Catholic iconographers, to refrain from copying the Orthodox or Eastern rite Catholics in their use of icons, while he encouraged us to be respectful of the tradition of iconography. He urged us to think about the nature of our Roman rite liturgy, the design of our worship spaces, the needs that arise from the liturgy and the liturgical space, how icons might fit in or around that space, and finally, the liturgical or devotional character of the icon.
A triptych written through my hand for St. Matthew parish in Hillsboro is a good example that touches on the above concerns. First, the icon was to be three separate pieces. On the left, Our Lady of Solitude gazes toward the central panel, which shows many aspects of God’s kingdom and the centrality of Christ in the life of the parish. On the right, St. Matthew gazes at Christ. The mission statement from the parish begins with the following: “St. Matthew Parish is a Catholic community centered in Jesus Christ, our Priest, Prophet, and King.” In the icon, Christ is shown just above the center of the triptych. All the geometry of the design radiates from Christ. Christ raises his hand in blessing, in his priestly role. He holds the Gospel, with the words “Follow Me” in English and Spanish. The Gospel and Scripture reveal in image the proclamation of the Word made flesh. Christ is a king, seated on a rainbow in the midst of a mandorla, which represents the intersection of two opposites, in this case human and divine, heaven and earth. Near Christ is a bowl of water and a towel, symbols of the washing of feet, revealing Christ as a servant king.
At the bottom of the icon is the earthly realm. People are shown doing corporal works of mercy, including burying the dead and visiting the imprisoned. Also shown are the teaching of the Word, and Eucharistic Adoration. Baptism is shown at bottom center. Other sacraments shown are Anointing of the Sick, Eucharist (Communion), Sacrament of Penance, Matrimony, and bringing the Eucharist to the sick. The wide stream of water is the water of Baptism, in which we end our former life and from which new life in Christ flows.
Christ is surrounded by 27 saints chosen by groups and individuals in the parish to represent certain ministries or peoples. The Administrative Council chose St. Thomas More to be their patron in their work; the Pastoral Council chose an unfinished icon representing each of us on the way to holiness, held by St. Luke, patron of iconographers; St. Catherine of Alexandria is the patron of students, and was chosen by the Adult Education board; the parish school chose St. Elizabeth Ann Seton; the Religious Education board chose Ven. Antonietta Meo, who died at age six from a type of cancer in her leg. These are just a few of the saints chosen. You may find more about the icon here.
Above Christ and the saints are stylized buildings of the parish. In the band across the top, angels are shown with musical instruments, candles, bread and wine, and incense. They participate in the unceasing heavenly liturgy, which we join as we celebrate our earthly liturgy. The hand of God comes out of a mandorla at the top center. Below God’s hand is the dove of the Holy Spirit in another mandorla, out of which rays proceed toward Christ and the entire community. Thus the image is Trinitarian.
Some say the goal of the icon and the goal of written theology are to lead others to the mystical experience of God. (Vrame, Anton, The Educating Icon, Holy Cross Orthodox Press, Brookline, MA, 1999, p. 90) Icons allow the viewer to experience the holiness of a life centered in Jesus Christ. They allow communion with the mystery of Christ present in and beyond matter. They point to the liturgy, communion with God through Jesus Christ, as the source and summit of our faith. All of creation was transformed by the Incarnation, and so the landscape, the vegetation, the people—all turn their gaze toward Christ, or toward us, to invite us into communion with this mystery. Icons attempt to portray this orientation. They are anagogic, lifting the viewer to a higher realm. The St. Matthew Triptych in its permanent place requires us to physically lift our eyes to gaze on this mystery of Christ present in the actions of the St. Matthew community.
Hidden in the clamor of sound of today’s world is the clamor for silence, stillness, quiet and contemplation. The icon is a focal point of silence that centers our gaze upon the Incarnation, and in turn, the Incarnate One gazes upon us. Icons present to us the communion of saints whose lives reveal holiness and who walk with us in our daily lives. Because we are made in God’s image and likeness, we, too, are called to holiness.
The cooperation of many—the iconographer, the priests and community, and above all, the Holy Spirit— was essential. As a result, it was clear that God’s kingdom was made visible through the building up of the St. Matthew Community.
We formed the icon, which in turn forms, teaches and transforms us with the transfiguring light of Christ. We form the liturgy which has been faithfully handed down to us, and in doing so we are formed, informed and transfigured by the saving love of Christ.
Kathy Sievers is a private instructor of iconography in Hillsboro, OR.
Photos by Kathy Sievers.