Sunday, January 31, 2016

Crucifixion Underdrawing

The Crucifixion has always been listed as one of God's most loving actions towards us. Most of us think it's because He took our sins upon ourselves and offered them to the Father as a pure victim, which is partially true. However, the truth is a bit more complicated than that. When one loves someone they wish to become like the beloved; identification is a part of love. God loves us perfectly, there is nothing that in us that He can't love. That means that, in His desire to love us, God desired to become like us in our fallen nature.

Think about that for just a moment: God loves us, therefore He wants to become identified with us. He wants to be like us. So He came down, allowed Himself to be unjustly accused, mocked, stripped, beaten, drag His own instrument of death up a hill while being jeered at with His loved ones either watchinhg helplessly or running for the hills, be publicly humiliated, and slowly suffocate to death.

That is God's definition of the human condition. Let that sink in.

One of the things that is so horrible about crucifixion is the fact that the victim is naked. While you are slowly suffocating under the weight of your own body you are completely exposed to the elements and cruelness of humanity. Your body is jeered at as you struggle to stay alive, knowing that you're going to die from either the humiliation taking away your will to live or from getting tired. Nakedness is actually a crucial part of the experience.

That's why Christ is nude in this Crucifixion underdrawing. It is a total identification with you, the viewer: He too is exposed, humiliated, and dying a slow and torturous death from a lack of air and love. There is a part of our souls that's always on a cross. Naked, confused, alone, and in unimaginable pain, this part of our soul begs for one thing, just one thing: to be seen. We hide this part of ourselves so well we don't realize that it's suffocating and cold, exposed to everything negative inside us while we dine within, like the rich man and Lazarus. But the mystery of the Cross is that Christ doesn't want the rich man, He wants Lazarus. But we crucified Lazarus, and left him outside so we could dine on the richness of others' praises and the indulgence of our desires. Lazarus can't feed on any of these things, and so he hangs upon our cross, defeated and alone.

It is for Lazarus that Jesus has come.

Knowing that we all desire to be renewed, Christ did the only thing a lover can do for the beloved: He became like them. He shares our burden, climbing upon the cross and exposing Himself in the most humiliating way possible so that we may finally be whole. Because, since He became like us, we can now become like Him and finally come down off the cross. We can now redeem that rich fool that rules our lives and is unaware of the great danger he puts the whole of his personhood in for ignoring his Lazarus.

But first we must let the rich man be stripped of all the filthy riches of gluttony, lust, and vainglory that stick to his hidden sores and, finding Christ is just like us, convince the rich man to ascend the cross and die along with Christ. The rich man must become Lazarus in order to be saved, and Christ is the prime example of what we must allow ourselves to become for the good of our souls. We must let ourselves admit that we are naked, abandoned, and dying. Nothing of our filthy blood-soaked riches and finery can remain. Not a single stitch of ill-gotten clothing can be left. We must become like Christ.

That is why Christ is naked.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

What is Tradition in Iconography?

This desperate clinging to tradition has earned iconography a bad rep amongst the rest of the artistic community. Us iconograhers are seen as stifling our personal views and clinging to a past that has no power to save. Not that I'm saying we need to earn the respect of secular artists; I'll take them more seriously once they stop idolizing brown squares and selling them for millions of dollars. But they do have a point. Why do we stay away from the obviously artistic sides of iconography and stay as mere copiers of what came before? The answer's a bit complicated and has everything to do with happened to us as an artistic community. It all started with the most profound and beautiful icon ever made: Rublev's Trinity.

The Hospitality of Abraham was a common piece in the iconographic world. It was the only time that the Holy Trinity was allowed to be painted, so it shows up a bit in iconographic history. Normally the icon shows Abraham and Sarah serving the three angels, who in Eastern thought are the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The scene's also got a bit more of a wide shot to it as well. Rublev cut all that out and just focused on the three angels, creating an entirely new icon. He felt something tug at him and created an icon that is so profound that not only has the Russian Church said that no other Trinity prototype shall ever be made but it's even been listed as proof for the existence of God! Rublev did not stick to iconographic tradition, but instead went with his gut and made an icon that spoke to him. His dialogue with God wound up on the board and we now have the most beautiful icon ever made. And it was an inspiration for others to try their hand at making icons that show Tradition but aren't straightjacketed by the past.

And then Peter the Great showed up, along with a period of Latinization. While I have the utmost respect for my Latin brethren there's a lot to be said for not crossing the streams; streams were crossed here, majorly. Latin and French were imported wholesale, and "icons" of God the Father (a theological impossibility!) became prominent. The Russian Church tried to stop the stream of Westernizations, particularly in their art, but they were so disconnected from the Fathers that they could only slap wrists, to no great avail. Icons were bastardized, becoming "Italianized" and looking like pretty European pictures with no spiritual depth. The next few centuries were ones of great decadence and straying from the heights achieved by Rublev and his master, Theophan the Greek. It wasn't until closer to the 20th century that iconography began to return to it's patristic roots.

When it's laid out like that it's very easy to understand why people are so for just copying the models of old: we've only just come out of a period of decadence. But going the opposite way doesn't help anything. The early icons worked because the iconographers were people of prayer who wrote/painted according to Tradition and their  personal experience of God. If the room to personal innovation in respect for Tradition is removed then all that will be left is a lifeless art, devoid of any spiritual value. Copying is not enough. We must strive to express God as we see Him in Tradition.

St. Mary of Egypt, by the hand of George Kordis
Take this icon of Saint Mary of Egypt by Greek master George Kordis as an example. This is obviously not a copy of any pre-existing icon, but a new work. And yet who can honestly tell me that this isn't an icon? It's very much recognizable, just different. The colors are done in an entirely unique way, and the body language is expressive and reverent.  It's a beautiful and dynamic piece that inspires prayer. As a piece of art it achieves it's end: the inflaming of the heart with love for God. It shows the life of the Church.

Sticking to iconographic tradition slavishly will not make a work more of the Spirit, that's being a Pharisee at it's finest. Traditions are not to be a straightjacket for the human spirit, but a fence alongside the edge of a cliff, keeping us safe so we can play on the playground that's inside the fence. Tradition is not a coffin, but a cast for broken bones and hearts. Growth to wholeness, to holiness, is not optional. The cast doesn't mend the bone. It just makes sure the bone grows right.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Earthen Vessels and the Essentials of Christian Prayer

The faith is vanishing. Like it or not church attendance has decreased and those who claim a religion who also claim to be devout has decreased even faster. This isn't something to be disputed, there's plenty of polls to back that claim up, not  to mention that if you think otherwise you've probably been living under a rock. Why? Why has everything been going downhill for us as Christians? There are plenty of reasons that people cite: overall education has been at an all-time low, we're perceived as judgmental pricks, not to mention the uprising of secularism as a major cultural force.

But all of those are just symptoms. They're not the problem.

The problem is that we're not obeying the commandments. God told us that, if we followed Him, He would favor us with the signs, the unavoidable signs, that we are the Orthodox Faith.  You see any mass signs of our favor with God like in the old days? Me neither. We're clearly not following the commandments.

God gave us three commandments: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. He also gave a third commandment, a commandment reiterated throughout the New Testament: pray always. Always, always, always, pray! Love of God and neighbor and constant prayer, that's Christianity. How many of us are doing any of these three, really? Especially the last one, prayer, the mother of all virtues as the Fathers of our Catholic Orthodox faith call it. But how are we supposed to do this?

That's where Gabriel Bunge's book, Earthen Vessels, comes in. Father Gabriel Bunge is a Russian Orthodox monk (former Benedictine monk, for all you Catholics who are wary) wrote this excellent guide to prayer based upon the monks from Egypt  such as Anthony the Great and their disciples such as  Basil the Great, Evagrius, Origen, John Cassian, and Benedict. Bunge outlines the basics of what these monks, the ones who perfected our prayer tradition, did to attain such holiness.

Bunge first starts by outlining when the ideal times for prayer are.  The monks of Egypt had three times (and Bunge makes it very clear these are not just for monks). Morning, evening/before bed, and during the night. These three times were considered a kickstart and sustainer for the rest of the prayer throughout the day. Bunge makes it clear that the prayer during the middle of the night needs to be done by everyone, although at different intensities for each person. Prayers are to surround basic aspects of human life, particularly eating and bathing. Fr. Bunge and the Fathers recommend an icon corner in a quiet place in the house, filled with icons, a Bible, a rosary, etc, and to always go to this place when you do your morning, evening, and night prayers.

While prayer may be about the mind talking with God the body must be involved as well, since we are incarnated souls. Bunge explains that all Christians, from the earliest times, prayed facing East. This was done for a number of reasons: the sun, source of all physical life on this earth, rises in the east and so we purposely associate the rising of the sun with the Second Coming of Christ, Eden was "in the East" and so we face our old home, hoping to get their some day, and Christ is said to come again from the East. Whatever reason sticks with you all Christians are to pray facing East. Lifting up your eyes while praying is something that the Fathers also did, imitating the psalms literally. This includes lifting up your hands in prayer in the orans stance. Bunge also covers the basic postures of prayer: standing (the default), kneeling (supplication, extreme sorrow), and sitting (to learn, to listen). He also covers bows, making the sign of the cross, and metanies (which, in the West, are genuflections).

Bunge then moves on to specify the three different "stages" of prayer: psalmody, prayer, and contemplation. Psalmody consists of reading the psalms aloud, using them as a springboard for prayer, raising your mind to God. Bunge comments that, while there's differing opinions on whether or not you should vocalize your prayer, you should not openly vocalize your prayers to God, since the demons are waiting in the wings to attack should they know what you're saying.  In the case of psalmody Bunge recommends going through the entirey all the psalms, curses and imprecations included (which the Fatheres interpreted as curses against demons, not against men). Don't pick and choose at God's word, there's a time and place for all of it, curses and imprecations included! Contemplation is God actually showing up and being with you, which is only possible after you've worked through psalmody and prayer and getting rid of the passions so you can see Him. The goal is to receive God in all His glory and love. after all. That's the entire point of a prayer rule.

There's a lot more to the book, which you can find here on Amazon. I highly recommend it; this book changed my life in a powerful way and I can't recommend it highly enough for those of you who want a bit more of a map to walking with the Lord. Psalmody, prayer, and contemplation is something to strive for and Fr. Bunge provides a good road map for us all.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Prep Work

Iconography used to be a very impromptu affair for me.  I would find some source icons on the internet, make a drawing taking bits from all the icons that I liked (generally making up the folds as I went along) and generally imitating their color schemes, even though I did very little prep work to get them. Generally I relied on putting my emotions into my work to carry it over any technical deficiencies. And, for the first nine years, that was enough for me. The icons were beautiful in their own way and moved people to prayer. But, after the last year where I produced four icons, I realized that I needed to do more than just fly by the seat of my pants. I wanted something that was balancced, grounded, while still retaining the things about the style I've slowly developed over the years.

The first thing I've started doing is actually using my iconography manuals. I've gotten several of the patternbooks and occasionally used them if I couldn't find anything on the internet that I liked. But it finally hit me why I had these books in the first place: the lack of color allows me to focus on the actual lines that I need to draw.The books exist becuase there's a time for colors but there's a time for lines. Without the lines color can't be shaped and used properly to direct the mind back inward to the Inner Kingdom. So, it's time to start looking at those much more attentively.

Not that there isn't a place for colors. If anything that means that I need to plan it even more carefully. And by plan it carefully I mean work out the colors and leave them there for me to see, annotating what colors I used and  how I used them. I now have a dedicated board for the express purpose of putting down colors to see how they interact with each other.  I then leave the colors on the board so I can actually see what I'm working off of.

I'm sure there's more prep I can do, but for the moment this is what I've got. I'm not a very prep-oriented person, but it's best to work everything out before putting it on the board. While the actual experience of being at the board is worth being excited over it's best to be ready for it. It helps develop my patience and that's never a bad thing.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Plans for the Next Year

I'm trying something a bit different this year. I'll be doing six commissions and six icons for myself, using the money from the commissions to pay for my own iconographic projects.

These are the commissions (so far):
  1. Saint Edmund
  2. Saint Michael
  3. The Beloved Disciple
  4. Our Lady of Hope (?)
  5. More Spacious than the Heavens
  6. Tender Kissing between Jesus and Joseph (?)
Question marks indicate that the deal hasn't been closed yet but seems sure.

Personal projects;
  1. Christ the Teacher
  2. The Crucifixion
  3. Outdoor cross
  4. Saint Micheal
  5. Tender Kissing
  6.  The Mystical Supper (18x24)

Monday, December 21, 2015

Holiness and Nature

The other day I was assigned to a detail that took me way out into the boonies of the military base where I am stationed. It wasn't a very glamorous detail. It had me near the big wigs of my installation, which meant I really had to be extra careful about how I presented myself. So that day was a bit more stressful than a normal day at my job is. At the end of the detail they released my buddy and I to walk around and look at the scenery, which is mostly untouched on military bases so that way training can happen in wild areas. This is sort of what I was staring at (scenery changed so as to protect national security and all that, I'm sure the COMSEC people would appreciate it)

I love being out in nature. While I'm no great outdoorsman I find the solitude and peace of nature to be refreshing. As I stared out, into the great plains, I took out my prayer rope and began praying the Jesus Prayer. As I did so it occurred to me how perfectly everything was organized. The grass held down the soil, which fed the grass. The sky let down rain on the soil and the soil returned the water back up to the sky. This great cycle worked, without fail, day in and day out without the slightest bit of help from man. If anything we depend on this order and harmony to work without even realizing it and certainly aren't as thankful as we could be that the whole world works the way it does. Either way, I was struck by the sheer order and creativity of creation. Without doing anything but being itself it was good.

I continued to look and pondered how somebody could look at something this beautiful and not see God in it. Systems left to themselves decay and die and yet here this stood, unchanging in it's ways. In my mind that suggested someone who tended it and cared for it, because I've never experience a system that just worked on it's own without help. The very existence of the plains as they are suggest a God. Peace, which is perfect order and harmony, is a sign of God. The plains radiated peace. They radiated God.

My thoughts continued to wander and it occurred to me that I had felt this sort of radiance before, this incredible stillness that was out here. I had met it in holy men and women. For anyone who hasn't met this sort of person before there's a stillness to a person who's holy. They can be laughing, talking, crying, it doesn't matter, they radiates an otherness. They are not like us because they're more human than we are. They are so like us they are other. Looking at this beauty of the plains I realized that they were radiating the same peace and contentment as the holy men and women I had met. God shone out of them both.

But then the moment arrived when I felt my own soul in relation to this calm and peace and realized I was very far from it. I was not at peace, I was not in harmony, there was no great order to my soul like there was out here in the plains or the holy men and women I'd met. I was a profound mess, profoundly fallen in a way that I'd never felt before. It wasn't that I felt judged or even guilty. Sin has very little to do with guilt, I knew that at in that moment. I simply wasn't in sync with God and everything He had made. At that moment the Jesus Prayer made sense in a way that I'd never experience before.

"Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner."

I wasn't condemned, I was simply someone out of touch and asking to be put back into good and working order. I simply wanted to fit and found that, while I didn't right then and there, I could if I wanted to. Y'know, with a lot of time and practice surrendering. As I stood there, praying in the breeze and watching the grass sway, I realized I wanted nothing more than to be like that prairie. I wanted to be in complete working order. I wanted to be in communion with God, who was radiating in that prairie so strongly that I could barely see anything else. God is in everything, even myself.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

And then came the day where I found myself praying before an icon and I realized that icons emanated something similar to being out in nature. Man, in his prayer to God, is used by God to make something that others can find that peace and harmony in. As iconographers we are called to spread the Gospel by making something that, without any other explanation, shows Christ. By prayer we offer ourselves through the board and leave something behind that others can use to find their way as well. And, even if it has flaws, Christ shines through it anyway. We become witnesses of the Resurrection by allowing the peace that comes from being in contact with God to emanate from a piece of board.

Lord Jesus Christ, Song of God, haver mercy on me, a sinnner.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Saint Michael Underdrawing

As most Eastern Christians worth their salt know, there's a certain iconography store that's only slightly on the heretical side of things. What's a little heresy now and again, right? We all know who they are and we'll keep it that way for the moment. Suffice it to say none of us buy from them, I'm hoping.

I'll confess to really liking their St. Michael the Archangel icon.

The whole St. Michael stabbing the dragon in the throat really appeals to my inner nerd, so when this comissioner asked for an icon of St. Michael I couldn't help myself, but suggested something similar to that heretical writer's icon. After all, there's nothing in his concepts that are overtly heretical, and as a good Christian it's my job to steal back from the pagans, right?


As I started on this underdrawing, I realized that a very important spiritual truth about St. Michael doesn't come up terribly often: the argument over Moses's body chronicled by Jude. In it, St. Michael is about to take up Moses's body to heaven when Satan comes to claim the body. St. Michael's response was "The Lord rebuke you!". The archangel of the heavenly hosts, the most macho being in the whole universe, did not overcome Satan by his own strength, but by invoking God against Satan and just being the channel that God acted through. As Christians it is our God-given vocation to combat the demonic. Most of the world has forgotten about Satan's existence, and we need to be on our game now more than ever. But in order to defeat Satan we must surrender to God first. This is why I changed the icon the way I did. Satan is no longer a dragon, but a black serpent without form and detail and life and all the things that you'd expect of something good. Satan has lost his form. Michael, instead of holding a shield, is holding a scroll that says "The Lord rebuke you, Satan!" The hand that clasps the spear is blessed by God from the glory of the Lord, creating a dynamic and wholesome scene. It's not anything I've ever found in my search through the iconographic tradition, but it comes from Tradition itself. And that's what an icon should do: put Tradition in full color.