Sunday, October 30, 2011


Our Lady of Częstochowa
I love icons: I have a diptych in my study carrel at school, and a Russian nicopeia in my bedroom. I've often wanted to write icons, especially when I am reading about a favorite saint. However,  I'm woefully ignorant, so I am reading about iconography on my weekend off. (I had an exam last Friday and won't have another one for two weeks!)

I found rich quotes from the Catholic Encyclopedia and an insightful interview with iconographer Marek Czarnecki. I was most impressed with two points: the powerful, subtle way icons teach and the remarkable mentality of iconcographers.

First point: icons are designed to teach through every detail. Czarnecki had this to say:
We can compare an icon to a carefully constructed poem. Indeed, this is why we call it icon ‘writing’ instead of ‘painting.’ Every ‘word’ or element of it fits very concisely and precisely to contribute to the overall meaning and integrity of the whole.
He called iconography an "eternal language," providing a way to depict the Church's saints until the end of time. "Iconography is called, rightly so, a liturgical art. Just like a priest has a rite for saying Mass, so we also have our guidelines...the consensus and example of tradition." He also informed me about the importance of icons in our human lives:
In the eighth century, an ecumenical council was convened. At that time, St. John of Damascus determined that icons were not an ‘option,’ but rather a necessity in explaining the Incarnation of Christ. To not have icons would be a denial of the Incarnation itself.
It reminds me of the importance of the beauty of architecture, which I realized when TAC dedicated the Chapel my sophomore year. It was designed to be a church that teaches, so that the marbles used and the positions of the materials impressed on TACers truths of the faith. In the same way, shapes and colors on the wood of an icon impress us with truths. I've seen that the richest lessons are the ones I learn gradually and gently, unfolding day by day. The icons in my life do this.

The second point that I find remarkable is the attitude of the writer toward the icon. Czarnecki commented:
The icon is a window, not a picture. It is first and foremost a sacramental, then a work of art....Our job as iconographers is to be mediums through which that manifestation can happen, and then disappear.

Iconography is not a personal art; it is a transpersonal art. It is about expressing the cumulative consciousness of the Church, not our own personal opinions or theories. It is dangerous to project our own words into the mouths of the saints, who were completely capable of speaking for themselves—or our own ideas about God onto him.
And the Catholic Encyclopedia notes about the pre-Renaissance period (possibly my favorite period in art):
Few things are more striking in considering this period than the singleness of aim and devotion to duty which characterized these artists and led them to have no desire to perpetuate their own names, but simply to carry out to the best of their abilities, the allotted task for the glory of God and His Church. Partly, of course, the reason was that the dignity of personal labour was not fully realized, but the reason for this anonymity lies mainly in the facts already stated, that the work was religious work that the aim was a religious aim, and that the identity of the person did not matter, so long as the Church was properly served by her faithful.
This devotion is breathtaking, isn't it? I wish I could be animated by that same spirit of humility. Being an iconographer is like being a spiritual mother: it is bringing Christ into the world, and disappearing. Now I really want to write icons!

Catholic Encylcopedia: Christian Iconography
Catholic Encylcopedia: Ecclesiastical Art
St. Anthony Messenger: Iconographer Marek Czarnecki
St. Anthony Messenger: Understanding How Icons Are Written: Questions and Answers With Marek Czarnecki

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