Celtic Christianity and Icons

Book of Kills, Madonna and Child

Recently, while teaching an online Icon writing class, I shared some prayers and quotations I have long cherished from Esther De Waal’s excellent book, “Seeking God, The Way of Saint Benedict.”  Afterwards, I started reading again her book, “The Celtic Way of Prayer” which inspired me to compare and contemplate Byzantine culture and Icons with Celtic Spirituality and Celtic icons.

The Celtic Way of Prayer

She explains that the Celtic way of prayer is a way of praying that embraces all of ourselves, allowing us to pray not only with words, but with our hearts, feelings, and body.   A lot of Celtic prayer is poetry, reaching out to God using symbols and images, and imagination either verbally or mentally or physically in some other way.  Here, I was thinking of how we pray while writing icons, and how writing icons allows us to pray also with our whole selves.  In this sense, writing icons becomes a journey that we take with Christ, allowing Him to guide and show us our true selves in Him.

The Four Evangelists, Book of Kills

Praying/writing/painting icons involves our hands and our minds, and our very breath becomes a prayer as we work. Celtic Christianity originates from a time when the separation of the Eastern and Western churches had not yet been thought of.  Back in the ancient, early days of Christendom, the Book of Kells was a visual testimony to the Celtic Christian faith in rich symbols, colors, shapes and patterns in much the same way that icons were in the eastern countries.  These images touch a deep part of our being with their intricacies, woven imageries and words proclaiming the Gospel in all its mystery and beauty.

Book of Kells

Monasteries were home to both the Book of Kells and ancient Eastern icons, making clear to us that there need be no separation between praying, living and working. Writing icons is a process of uniting our thoughts, hands and breath in prayer and praise to God, allowing our worship of God to flow into the art work.  Clearly, the Book of Kells is just a different way of expressing visually the same process as icon writing.

Book of Kills

Continual prayer and work become our Opus Dei, and we are blessed to experience a monastic grace as we work on icons.  However, the Celtic way is to celebrate this rhythm of prayer and work in ordinary life, removing the dichotomy of holy vs secular life.  As the ancient Celts were largely outside the purview of the Roman Empire, they were free to develop a very strong connection with nature, sun, sky, water, land, fire as elemental forces in their Christian spirituality.  In part, due to this deep connection with nature, they early Celtic have a universal, primal tone in their prayers and worship.  The Celtic connection between God, man, nature, animals, birds, and other wild creatures allows for a holistic world view that permeates our senses in ways that are beyond our ability to rationally understand. 

In this way, the mystical communion of saints enter into our world, through our remembrance of them in song, prayer, and art, helping us to maintain our understanding of our place in time, and our significance in God’s eternal plan. We become aware that  everything we engage and encounter is relational, and we exist in the same relational way with God.

The Byzantine culture and worship is well known for its ability to involve us through all of our senses in the beautiful churches that have multitudes of icons, music, and incense.  Similarly Celtic spirituality uses our perception of nature to engage our senses as we worship.

“O Father! O Son! O Spirit Holy! Be the Triune with us day and night, On the machair plain or on the mountain ridge, Be the Triune with us and His arm around our head, Be the Triune with us and His arm around our head”. From “The Celtic Way of Prayer, Esther DeWaal.

As this is the American Association of Iconographers, and thus, a culture made up of a myriad of nationalities, it’s interesting to contemplate the Irish, or Celtic form of Icon writing as well as the more well known forms of Byzantine, Greek, etc.

Book of Kells

I hope this has been thought provoking and please do keep all iconographers lifted in prayer as we continue the important work of understanding and creating icons for our time.

Some Useful Links:

Betsy Porter hosts an online meeting for iconographers one Sunday afternoon a month, covering topics interesting and informative for iconographers: NEW ONLINE ZOOM CLASSES, Sunday October 17, November 14, and December 12, 2021, 2 to 3 PM Pacific time. We will look at each other’s work and discuss iconography. No charge, but donations to the church are always welcome. For a link, contact me at 510-517-5360 Betsy Porter, betsyhartporter@yahoo.com

Dorothy Alexander hosts an icon writing workshop in Santa Barbara, California. It’s a drop in workshop where you can bring your own icons to work on and enjoy fellowship, usually once a month. Email: dotalexander@westmont.edu

A lovely new book about Andrey Rublev, “Andrey Rublev, The Artist and His World”, by Robin Milner-Gulland not only gives a detailed picture of the world Rublev created in, but is also beautifully illustrated with color prints. The result is one of the most detailed and innovative books on the subject that I’ve seen. I highly recommend it to all interested in understanding more about Rublev and the importance of his work artistically and spiritually.

May God continue to bless the work of your hands,


Christine Hales

New Christian Icons

Published by

Michael Hales

Michael- Mick-Hales is a chaplain in South West Florida as well as a world class photographer. His photography website is: mickhales.com where you will see many of his beautiful photos of gardens and architecture.

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