Sunday, November 29, 2015
One of the commissioned icons, Saint Edmund was undoubtedly an icon I would never have done on my own. I would never have even known who Saint Edmund was if not for the person who commissioned it. She and I are long-time friends and keep in touch with each other on Facebook. So one day I noticed that she was pining over an icon of Saint Edmund that she wanted for her son. I told her I could just do the icon for her so she could have a hand-made copy of it. And so here we are.
My friend had told me that she wanted the icon as close to an exact duplicate as I could manage, which I've done, more or less. It's going to be a challenging icon to inscribe and paint and that's got me excited. Fortunately I'm writing the icon of a saint known for his endurance and hope, so there's that going for me.
Saint Edmund has a number of legends around him, but the one that seems most popular is that he was the king of East Anglia, a pre-Norman kingdom in England. Once the Normans came in and conquered everything (including East Anglia) they commanded King Edmund to renounce his Christian faith if he wanted to live. Saint Edmund refused. This man, who had just lost everything to the Normans refused to give up his Christian faith. His kingdom was demolished, a lot of his people were dead on his watch, and Saint Edmund refused to despair of salvation even still. That's courage, people! That is what we should be going for. The Normans then shot him full of arrows and, when that didn't kill him, cut off his head and threw it away. Christians looking for his body heard a wolf howling "Here! Here!" and found the wolf was cradling Saint Edmund's head. The wolf let them take it away for honorable burial. Even in death God watches out for His own.
God determines His own by seeing what and who they embrace when they've lost everything. The tests that come reveal to the self where they are actually at and what they need to work on. Some of us, though, pass the test and God takes us Home. Saint Edmund was one of those holy ones.
Saturday, November 21, 2015
One of my first experiences with Eastern Christianity was being greeted by the Platytera, staring through the royal doors. I found out later that this icon is supposed to be behind the tabernacle in every Eastern Church in the world. There's a good reason for that: this is the icon par excellance of what every Christian is supposed to be like.
Mary's arms are extended into the orans, the default stance of prayer in all Christianity. Christ's arms are open in welcome and blessing. The attitude of a Christian should perfectly reflect this icon: we should all be in a state of constant prayer and welcoming love to all who come across us, giving them Christ, the only One Who can take away their burdens.
The orans stance communicates openess and vulnerablity. It's a stance I have a hard time understanding with God, Whom I often find myself confusing with the world and chance, which is so often cruel. How can one be open and accepting when life can feel so meaningless at times? At the end of the day what inside of us can drive back the darkness? Mary's solution is to let God fill the emptiness until all that's left is light. Our hearts are dark and empty unless God fills them with Himself, giving us meaning that many of us don't even know we needed until we found it.
This icon is that of a Christian fully in theosis, in synch with God. When others look at us they should see Christ first, living and shining within us. Anything less than Christ will not fix our broken hearts. Nothing less will do. Become this icon and the whole world will be changed.
Sunday, November 15, 2015
As I learned more about theology I ran across the concept of God as the "never-changing ever-new", and realized that God is not a static being. He is constantly active without changing (thus taking time out of the equation). God is Love, The process of God loving us can be likened to dropping a huge boulder in a pond: it's only done once, but the reverberations are felt in the lake for all time. God made a decision, which all the saints joined in and which the events in our time are intertwined with. This never-changing ever-new act of love has permeated all of our existence.
Icons are the pictoral representation of that boulder hitting the lake of creation. When you look at an icon you are not seeing an image that's static, you're seeing an action that transcends time and space so profoundly that you can't track it. Similar to something moving so fast that we can only see after-images, icons show a reality that only appears static because one choice has been made, thus affecting us forever. Each and every moment when I look at an icon I see the eternal choice of Love incarnated in that moment. The next moment is an entirely new revelation because I changed from the previous moment, but God did not. We constantly reach out or back away from the Divine Offer as God breaks into our souls, enlivening them by His presence. Each moment is a new overture of love from the Lover. The only reason why it looks different to us is because we changed in that split second of perceiving the offer of love from Love Himself.
How does this affect icons? Well, I think movement should be shown more greatly than it is in most icons. The icon does not just show the subject but also the viewer: that's what the border is, it's the world, your soul, embracing the divine. That's why some icons break border: it's to represent the movement of the divine into our world. Icons sometimes show cloaks flapping in an imaginary breeze. That's supposed to represent the breath of the Spirit Himself, Who goes where He wills. Icons are about theophany, the theosis that happens to all peoples and nature. That is not a static reality, just a reality that only needs to utter one Word for all time.
Icons are supposed to show the Kingdom of Heaven. This place is not a static one, but one living in a singular Word who offers a singular sacrifice of Love to the Father. Never changing, ever new, icons depict this reality by breaking borders (thus making the moment present to us) and by showing a wind blowing through to represent the Spirit as it enlivens the offering. These are not pretty pictures to stare at, but a representation of a reality that needs to be encountered, grappled with, and accepted. The Kingdom of Heaven is amongst you: how will you respond to it?
Sunday, November 8, 2015
Iconography is a special form of prayer where the iconographer prays by painting. It is a form of sacrifice on the part of the iconographer as he strives to be with God in prayer and produces the icon as his offering to God. It's a special relationship that's hard to describe. By being in contact with the Uncreated Light you attempt to create what you've experienced: Light. I've found, as I've written icons, that each stage relates to a different Person of the Trinity. The Father seems to be involved with the creation of the board and initial color, the Son seems to be involved with the drawing, gold leaf, and inscriptions, and the Spirit is involved with highlighting. While this isn't a perfect analogy (what Trinitarian image is?), I find it makes sense on a practical level.
I find myself thinking of the Father a lot as I actually prepare the board, which comes from birchwood ply that I buy and prep myself. As I gesso, sand, and put the underlying color (either a yellow ochre or a burnt orange) on board after board I've come to realize that the process is a tribute to God the Father. Without the Father reality would not exist and yet He is The Hidden One, the One from Whom the Son is begotten and the Spirit proceeds. He is the source of all things and yet is the least known of the Trinity. And so the board reminds me of the Father, the One Who made all things and yet His creations have the least idea about.
The drawing reminds me of God the Son; the Word, the Idea, the Logos. Jesus is the One by Whom we know the Father, the One by Whom we come to know the Father by. The drawing gives itself the board something to portray. The analogy breaks down a bit here: the board is pointless without the drawing, and the drawing can survive without the board. It has it's own surface already; the paper it was originally conceived on. But, as I work on transfering the drawing and etching it into the board, I realize that it's not the drawing that's the Word, but the etching upon the board. The board and the etching are of the same substance. The etching is the expression of the board, much as the Logos is the expression of the Father.
Painting is the easiest part of this whole process, relatively speaking. It's the most glamorous, that's for sure, the part that's the most noticeable. The painting enhances and shows the drawing in it's complete light. It's a complete revelation and shows everything in it's own light. But the thing is that paint does not make an icon complete. it only reveals the im/perfections of your drawing and board. And that's what the Holy Spirit does for us: He reveals the Trinity in His perfection And the paint on the board does the same thing: it reveals everything. Every last divet and imperfection of the board, every poorly done fold, it all comes to light. But the paint also reveals the things I did right. The Spirit enlivens and supports.
When I get done with the icon I hold it up and see the Trinity: the unapproachable Father, the Idea known as the Son, and the Breath that is Spirit, all bonded together. Sure, my icon isn't of a single substance, but it is a single presentation which, while not perfect, does in some way light up the darkness. The icon is one unit now, with differing parts that interrelate to make a single object. It is, in one sense, it's own Trinity.
And so, as I paint on the board with the inscribed drawing on it, I realize that all the imperfections of my offering will be revealed to everyone who looks at it. I didn't make a perfect image of the Trinity, because not only is the icon not a real analogy to God but it's not even done all that well to begin with. But, as my friend Martinez says, God is immeasurable but man must try to measure anyway. I don't mind that my six month son, Micah, can't stand yet. In fact, I find it adorable that he wants to stand so much that he's willing to fall into my arms over and over again as he fails! I love him all the more for trying. Isn't that even moreso from God, Who isn't limited by a short temper and infestimal point of view?
Thursday, November 5, 2015
What are icons?
Icons are an essential part of the Christian faith, the pictoral confirmation that Christ did indeed become man and come among us. Icons are an aid in prayer, Church approved safe images to use on the incredibly joyful but difficult path of prayer. Icons are windows into heaven, allowing us to glimpse into the next world, giving us hope that we can get there by showing us just the tiniest glimpse of what awaits us in heaven. Icons are doors to heaven, they allow prayers to go up to God and miracles to come down to us so we can remember the truth: God is with us!
But to some of us icons are a part of a difficult process where we grapple with something that we cannot understand but can only put in color and line. They are a process of the groaning without words as we try to express to God what is true, good and beautiful. To some of us icons are a process.
Those people are known as iconographers. We see beauty and truth and try to replicate it in our admiration for it. But it's a struggle to do this, since we're all sinners, in need of mercy, and so to produce beauty one must put sin to death.
I try as hard I can to be an iconographer. Let's see where it takes me.