During this time of pandemic it’s good to think about Icons of healing and restoration. There are many that come to mind, but Saint Raphael seems particularly appropriate as he is the patron saint not only of travelers, but also of physicians, nurses, and medical workers. For this reason, I am offering an online icon painting class in September where we will write an Icon of Archangel Raphael. His feast day is September 29, and is celebrated along with Saints Michael and Archangel Gabriel.
The story of Archangel Raphael is beautifully told in the book of Tobit in the Apocrypha. Raphael means God heals. In the book of Enoch he is believed to have healed the earth when it was defiled by the sins of fallen angels. In John 5: 1-4, the Gospel speaks of the pool at Bethesda where many sick people gathered, awaiting the movement of the waters. “An angel of the Lord descended at certain times into the pond and the water was moved. And he that went down first into the water was made whole of whatsoever infirmity he was under.” Because of the healing powers associated with Raphael, he is considered to be the angel in that Scriptural story.
In the book of Tobit, Raphael appears in the form of a man who will accompany Tobias on a journey. To the recently blinded Tobit (Tobias’ father) Raphael says, “Take courage, the time is near for God to heal you. Take Courage” Tobit 5:10.
During the journey, Raphael heals Sarah of the demons that plagued her so that she could safely marry Tobias. Tobit is also healed of his blindness by Raphael. When Raphael finally reveals his identity as an angel of God the two men were afraid and fell down, but Raphael said to them ” Do not be afraid, peace be with you. Bless God forevermore…I was not acting by my own will but by the will of God. Bless Him each and every day and sing His praises….. They kept blessing God and singing His praises and they acknowledged God for these marvelous deeds of His, when an angel of the Lord had appeared to them.” Tobit 12:16
In this story and also in the meaning of the name Raphael, credit is given to God who heals, and it is to God that the angels and the saints point and direct our worship and attention.
Raphael is thought to guard travelers on their journeys and is sometimes depicted with a staff and also holding fish which relates to the healing of Tobit’s blindness with fish gall as directed by Raphael. In Europe Raphael is known as the protector of sailors and is shown in a relief on the Doge’s palace in Venice with a scroll saying “Keep the Gulf quiet.”
Raphael is sometimes thought of being one of the three angels who visited Sarah and Abraham. He, along with Archangels Michael and Gabriel were sent to fulfill God’s will concerning Sodom, Sarah and Abraham.
Flannery O’Connor is believed to have said the Saint Raphael prayer at the beginning of each day:
“O Raphael, lead us toward those we are waiting for, those who are waiting for us; Raphael, Angel of happy meeting, lead us by the hand toward those we are looking for. May all our movements be guided by Your light and transfigured with your joy.” Amen
During these difficult times of pandemic, let us pray often for those afflicted and for all those doctors, nurses and medical workers who are at the front lines of this battle. And we pray also for the speedy discovery of a vaccine cure, in Jesus name, Amen.
This month I wanted to write about the idea of an American School of Iconographers. Not a brick and mortar school, but a school in the Benedictine sense of a community of people who share values, beliefs, and common goals. A school of people who desire to learn from and support each other in the goal of painting Icons would , ideally, be comprised of diversity as well as commonality.
One of the tenets in the Iconographer’s Rules that we all learn when starting to write Icons is “Never forget the joy of spreading icons throughout the world.” Although Icon painting is often a solitary process, joining together in classes can help combat the undesirable effects of isolation and promote growth and learning.
Recently, during the stay at- home -order due to the corona virus, several online Icon classes have sprung up, and I suspect that we will see a lot more of these in the future. Will these replace the onsite icon classes taught by iconographers at colleges and monasteries? No. Live, in-person classes provide an opportunity for feedback, practice, and personal remedial direction, and that works hand in hand with on line classes at other times during the year. The on line classes provide an ongoing way to practice drawing and painting that make the in person classes a valuable source of individual instruction.
Writing Icons is no simple task, as most of you have discovered. Initially, a novice Iconographer is encouraged to copy Icons from before the sixteenth century. This usually involves tracing the Icon, then transferring the image to a board and painting. However, after a few years of this kind of practice, one can move on to learning to draw iconographically. Drawing icons freehand, and learning the basics of sacred geometry composition are tasks for intermediate level iconographers. Color theory comes next, along with practice, practice, practice. It’s good to practice on watercolor paper, do studies, learn how to draw garments, and hands. Then, drawing the face, understanding dynamic symmetry and theology of icons are tasks for advanced Icon classes.
There’s always so much to learn and it’s exciting to have such rich subject matter to explore. When you add all this to the joy of growing closer to God through prayer, contemplation, and icon writing you have an absorbing and life giving practice.
Being an active member of a Church and faith community is essential to writing icons also. Since God, theology and art are so intertwined in this process, it is important to have a spiritual director with whom to ponder and question how God wants to use this art form through your work. Iconographers need to have an active prayer life and understand how Icons are used in contemplation and liturgy.
The American Association of Iconographers is a free association of Iconographers who share a common desire to be supportive to each other and grow in faith and icon writing. We have a Face Book Group ( just search for American Association of Iconographers on Face Book) which you can join. Anyone who is a member can post their ideas, questions, useful links, etc. Because it is an Ecumenical group, we practice acceptance of both Orthodox and non Orthodox Iconography. We usually don’t publicize or promote individual Iconographers’ classes, but instructional video links are acceptable for posting.
It Takes Time to Develop
There have been many developments and changes to the world, as well as to the world of Iconography over the last twenty years. Similarly, it will take time to develop characteristics, attributes, and a standard for excellence in this field.
It will be helpful to see visual examples and hear of other Iconographers’ experiences in their locations regarding community, learning, creating a standard for quality and relevance. Perhaps in the future we could have a virtual conference or series of meetings to discuss these topics. Also, writing blogs for this group can be a way to share experience and perspective.
So far, the guiding principles are: The creation of a spiritually healthy, ecumenical, support group that promotes the practice of Icon sharing, learning, and promoting the love of Icons that can provide direction and possibly regulate a set of guidelines for future Iconographers.
Please feel free to use the contact form below with suggestions, ideas, and possible submissions for blog posts.
May God continue to bless you in all that you say and do,
In the creation of Icons today, I find it particularly helpful to keep looking to the past in order to understand the nuances and dynamics of Icon making through the centuries. Medieval Russian Icons and their development is particularly applicable to this task. The following is excerpted from the book, A History of Icon Painting, and this chapter was written by Angelina Smirnova; Moscow, 2005.
Early Russian Christianity
Since the adoption by Russia of Christianity in 988, Christian art was able to develop and flourish. Particularly in the metropolitan areas like Moscow and Kiev, the foundation was laid for Christianity and its art to spread through Russia, Belarus, and the Ukraine. While in these early centuries Icons were favored by Monks and used as devotional images in chapels, churches and monasteries. They were very important inRussian Orthodoxy.
The first Russian icons were heavily influenced by Byzantine culture which formed the basis of knowledge concerning the canons and painting traditions of icons.
Wealthy princes and czars commissioned spacious churches that required large painted images, resulting in clearer silhouettes and pronounced rhythm and contours that could give a compositional unity.
The themes of overcoming suffering and the hope of salvation dominated the subject matter of these icons which laid the foundation for Andrei Rublev’s painting in the fifteenth century.
“The saints on Russian icons are often endowed with a particularly forceful expressiveness in which Christian spirituality clearly demonstrates the power of saints over the cosmic forces of nature. The images on Russian icons are more open and direct compared with the refined intellectualism of Byzantine art, which drew more strongly on the Hellenistic tradition and was more remote from the sphere of everyday emotions.”
The second half of the eleventh century Russian princes built churches to establish their governments and required monumental icons to adorn them. Most of the themes repeated Byzantine icons but there were some original ones depicting the Russian saints, e.g. Boris and Gleb.
The Comnenian style, characterized by more muted expressions, light transparent colors, and the addition of a blue/azure color, developed in twelfth century Russia. By the thirteenth century, after the devastating effects of the Tartar-Mongol hordes, icons began to show expressions of strength, resolve, spiritual integrity and power.
A Russian style of icon painting was becoming clearly evident by the thirteenth century. In comparison with Byzantine art there was now a flatter picture plane and composition, rich color, and a more open yet inward expression on the figures. There were local exceptions, such as Novgorod, which retained a simplicity combined with vibrant colors.
As Moscow became the political and cultural center of Russia in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, a clearly defined style emerged. Fifteenth century Russian icons represent the ideal heavenly world and God’s grace, in contrast to the fourteenth century icons which showed believers the steps to overcoming obstacles to spiritual development. Now, ideal harmony was the theme of icons and that is perfectly expressed in Andrei Rublev’s Holy Trinity icon. Rublev’s icons exemplify Byzantine classicism and seem to combine aspects of earlier styles of Russian icon painting in a mystical and beautiful way. Later, Dionysius would elongate figures and open out towards the viewer, compositional elements and figures. (For more on Dionysius see earlier post on this blog site.)
The Paleologue period of Byzantine iconography, 1261-1453 continued to influence Russian Icons of the sixteenth century, but there was also more of a theological-didactic narrative to these icons. A western influence began to be seen in the modeling of the faces and forms and a more naturalistic rendering of space.
I hope this brief history encapsulation is helpful to
iconographers of the twenty-first century who seek to maintain the canons of Iconography and also create religious art that relates to and inspires Christians today.
A good source of images can be found in some of the digital libraries that are now being made public:
It has always fascinated me that the more I study, write, and paint Icons, the more I discover further nuances and distinctions between styles and methods of icon painting. In reading Viktor Lazarev’s article “General Observations on Russian Iconography” in his book “The Russian Icons, from its Origins to the Sixteenth Century”, Lazarev delineates many distinctions between Byzantine and Russian Iconography.
For example, in the tenth century, Byzantine artistic influences began to be seen in Russian art, specifically icons. The cities of Pskov and Novgorod were the most affected, partly due to their form of government that allowed for more artistic freedom. By the time of Andrei Rublev, a distinct school of Russian Iconography could be recognized.
Rus appropriated the Byzantine iconographic types such as the Mother of God, portrayals of Gospel scenes, and similar Old Testament compositions. But in Russia, the faces become more gentle and open, colors became more intense, and highlights smaller and more intense which are sometimes barely perceptible. So, in this way, Russian iconography can be said to transform Byzantine iconography in a way that it is less severe and more open to nuances of content and expression.
Later, the creation of original prototype independent of Byzantium emerged in Russian icons. Some examples of this are the Synaxis of the Mother of God, and the Virgin of Mercy. These changes reflected the every day need for peasant life to be in communion with saints and angels. Protection for their flocks, houses, trades, and health became the subjects and content of numerous versions of Mary, local saints, and the angels.
Russians considered iconography to be the most perfect of all arts. “The art of the icon was invented by God’s very self, who adorns the sky and the stars and the earth with flowers because of their beauty. Icons were shown the utmost respect.” (V. Lazarev, p.23). They were bearers of moral authority and bearers of spiritual grace and holiness. Today icons are endlessly attractive precisely because of this moral purity that appears in icons through the fifteenth century, but begins to disappear with the sixteenth century.
Making efforts to understand distinctions between different styles of iconography, one begins to develop a real understanding of the essential elements of iconography and a to cultivate a desire to bring forward these distinctions to iconography today.
Have you ever wondered about the symbolic nature of Icons? It is the very source of their power as Holy images that convey the many faceted religion of Christianity. One dictionary definition of “symbolic language” reads: ” a specialized language dependent on the use of symbols for communication and created for the purpose of achieving greater exactitude…”
Symbols allow us to bring our spiritual awareness out of the church and into our secular world. Communion with God through the Icon is achieved through a symbolic language where gestures, clothing, and style of drawing are precise and fixed. There are only a few gestures that Christ’s right hand will take, and the drawing of the faces and human form fall within a canon of proportion and scale that relates to the theme and subject matter.
C.S. Lewis, when asked to write another book for his adult audience replied that he now preferred to write in symbols and metaphors for a younger audience (The Chronicles of Narnia), in order to intrigue readers with Christianity unawares. Similarly, Icons can bring the presence of God to people’s hearts whether or not they are Christians at all.
Icons are based on a Greek notion of proportion and symmetry applied to facial features and bodies. Even color has great significance for understanding the mysteries of our faith. The light emanating from an Icon must be indicative of the uncreated light of God’s Presence and the divine light of grace. Through contemplation on these symbolic images, Icons, we can pray for the Holy Spirit to help us become more like Christ in our everyday lives.
The very nature of Icon writing is that, following the principles of ancient art, we seek to make a sign which will convey religious meaning specific to the subject matter of that particular Icon.
Ancient Egyptian design is at the heart of the Icon. You can see this in the Fayum portraits, and also in the flat linear depictions of people and religious symbols found in the pyramids. These influences combined with early Greek flexibility of line and brushstroke form the basis of all early Iconographic composition.
Today, as we Iconographers research, ready, and study to be able to encompass the path to writing authentic Icons that speak to God’s people today, we must still look to the ancients in order to fully grasp the complexity of those seemingly simple designs and processes.
Below are some links to resources to inspire and resource your Icon writing in the new decade! Wishing you all a blessed and joyous New Year!
Teaching Icon classes as I do in monasteries, churches and art centers, the question that always arises at the end of class: How can I continue with Icon painting? Practice is what I always say. For that reason, this month’s blog for the American Association of Iconographers is a collection of information and links to help with further studies.
Ideally, someone who is learning to write Icons will choose a style or a teacher which whom to study. But even with that, one can only realistically take one or two workshops per year. What to do in the meantime? Here are my suggestions:
Using sketch paper and pencil, draw as much as possible. Copy Icons from books, prints, or the internet. Drawing is the number one art skill needed in Icon writing, as it is in all painting. Learning to think on paper is a valuable skill. A book that I recommend to beginners is: Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. You can copy Icons in some of her exercises and you will be surprised at how quickly your drawing will improve.
Sketch of Icon
Tonal sketch of Icon
Icon to be copied
Use watercolor paper and the four basic color of Icon writing: red ochre, black, white and yellow ochre. Make color and tonal studies of Icons on water color paper. Again, this simple practice will yield large results.
Icon Retreats and Workshops
For those who choose to study with me, here is a link to upcoming classes. My teaching method is always evolving and inspired by my prayer life. I particularly enjoy helping students who have had some experience writing Icons and now want to create their own Icon (still copied from before the Renaissance). If you do sign up for one of my classes and wish to do this, please email me well before the class date so that we can prepare you for getting the most out of the retreat.
Resources for viewing Iconographic Imagery
Kolomenskaya Versta is a site selling Icon books and materials. It is based in Russia and they regularly post free images to copy as well as links to all kinds of Iconographic information. Also known as Russian Modern Orthodox Icon, here is a link to their FB page.
This month I am recommending two articles that have been published in an on-line journal- The Orthodox Arts Journal– as elements contributing to good training for Iconographers. As I go around the country teaching an “Introduction to Icon Writing Class”, I am aware of how little knowledge people in general have about Icon painting. It is impossible to gain enough knowledge of this art from a few classes to be able to make truly authentic Icons. I recommend two things: look at as much art and as many Icons as you possibly can. Books, online resources, museums, all of these will help your painting to become mature as you practice what you see. The second thing I recommend is to read as much as you can about the history as well as the technique of Icon writing. Both of these activities go hand in hand with taking workshops and practicing at home.
Two Articles for Iconographers in Training.
The first article is written by English Iconographer Aidan Hart and it is entitled, ” The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting,: A Chinese Painting Manual Offers Inspiration to Iconographers.” This article contains quotes from the Chinese manual as well as comments by Aidan Hart as to their usefulness for Iconographers. It is quite a beautiful and clear article that speaks to some of the nuances of Icon painting. Here is a quote from that article. The italics are quotes from the manual, and the regular text is Aidan Hart’s commentary:
“You must learn first to observe the rules faithfully; afterwards, modify them according to your intelligence and capacity. The end of all method is to seem to have no method. (17)
When we learn a second language, we consciously study its rules of grammar and learn its norms. But as we gain knowledge and confidence, we find our own voice. Iconography should be the same.
I have heard it said by some Orthodox thinkers that iconography is not art. I disagree. The icon is indeed more than art because it is part of the liturgy and exists for more than aesthetic delectation. But it is at least art. Although the icon’s sacred purpose means that its aesthetic categories are more extensive than those of secular art, it should nonetheless include them. The same universal colour theories and composition principles apply.”
One more quote:
“If you aim to dispense with method, learn method. If you aim at facility, work hard. If you aim for simplicity, master complexity.(19)
Hard work is the only path to the authentic abstraction. In the years that I have taught iconography I have found that drapery is the most common stumbling block for learners. Prolonged and analytical study is required to understand the drapery that the icon tradition abstracts. Drapery’s complexity needs to be mastered in order to make sense of its simplification, otherwise it becomes irrational, not supra-rational. Lines need to be understood as horizons of forms and not strings hanging in space.
The Second article is written by Anton Daineko “The Living Icon”, also published in the Orthodox Arts Journal. In this article, Anton grapples with the issue of what is the criterion used to make authentic Icons? This is not a simple or easy question to answer. He cites examples of Iconographers from the past such as Andrei Rublev, Hilandar and Panselinos in order to visually show the necessary qualities of good Icons.
In this article, he also speaks about the importance of the Iconographer’s direct experience, through prayer, with God.
Commenting on copying in iconography, Father Igor, a priest from Minsk and himself an icon painter, noted that “There are no icon copies; each icon is a REVELATION”. Naturally, this raises questions: is it even possible to define such a delicate matter as REVELATION, and what aspects should be included under the resultant definition?
It cannot be answered in a few simple words. With some icons, everything is easy: one look at the Redeemer from the Zvenigorod deesis tier, and you feel that it really is a REVELATION. But with most icons, the matter is far more complicated.
“It would be appropriate here to recall the words in the epigraph to this article, the Apostle Peter’s reply to Our Lord’s question “Who do you say that I Am?” – “YOU ARE THE CHRIST, THE SON OF THE LIVING GOD“.
Perhaps this line holds the key to understanding much about the Church, including the canonical texts: in those texts, the early Christians saw an image of the LIVING GOD, crucified and raised from the dead. And that is what is most precious in the Church. It is precisely the PRESENCE of the Living God that sets the Christian Church apart from other religions and other communities. And it is precisely this PRESENCE that we can observe in scripture as well as virtually everything else in church life. The icon is no exception in this regard.
The iconic image consists of many simple elements: strokes, stripes, and smudges, while the different colors are obtained by various combinations of minerals and egg yolk. Taken separately, none of these elements carry any artistic – let alone spiritual – meaning in and of themselves. But when these elements come together in a particular combination, a miracle occurs: the strokes, the stripes, and the smudges cease to exist, and we see the Face of the Living God looking directly at us. It is as much of a miracle as the image of the Living God emanating from the simple words of the Gospels’ narrative.”
I suggest again, reading the entire article in order to fully understand the nuances and also to see more examples of the Icons mentioned in the article. We are so blessed today to have great contemporary Iconographer who are sharing their wisdom and experience to those who are eager to learn.
Enjoy, as we come to the official close of summer, and may God bless all of your Icon writing with His Presence.
“The Lord will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your Glory.” Isaiah 60:19
The summer stretches out before us with plenty of opportunity for good reading. This past month I have been reading Francoise Gilot’s “Life with Picasso”. While I am surely not a fan of Picasso’s, I believe that the creative output of that era has many important facets worth gleaning for art practice today. You may be surprised, as I was, with the following quote of Picasso’s, as related by Gilot in the book:
” You have to go all the way back to the Greeks and the Egyptians. Today we are in the unfortunate position of having no order or canon whereby all artistic production ism submitted to rules. They- the Greeks, the Romans, the Egyptians – did. Their canon was inescapable because beauty, so-called, was, by definition, contained in those rules. But as soon as art had lost all link with tradition, and the kind of liberation that came in with Impressionism permitted every painter to do what he wanted to do, painting was finished. When they decided it was a painters sensations and emotions that mattered, and every man could recreate painting as he understood it from any basis whatever, then there was no more painting; there were only individuals….what the artist gains in the way of liberty he loses in the way of order, and when you’re no longer able to attach yourself to an order, basically that’s very bad.”
The Value of Order in Icon Writing
Surprising as this quote is coming from Picasso, it underscores what we as Iconographers have been blessed to experience, i.e., the order and beauty of Icons brings with it a sense of peace and fulfillment that can be found in no other form of art. If you’ve read my book, Eyes of Fire, you know that I have made the correlation between contemporary art making and Icons. The reason for this is that Icon writing is a living art form for today. While we seek to incorporate the canons of Iconography into our work today, we also need to allow God to speak to our hearts as we work. We need this practice of praying and painting in order for the Icons we create today to be authentic to our time.
Icon Writing Retreats
Order was very apparent in the recent Icon writing retreat at Holy Cross, an Episcopal Benedictine Monastery in West Park, NY. Here we were able to participate in the Monk’s reciting of the daily hours: Morning prayer at 7AM, Breakfast at 7:45, Eucharist at 9AM, then Icon writing until Diurnum at noon. After lunch we had more Icon writing until Vespers at 5, then supper, and at 8pm, Compline. Great Silence was observed from 8PM until 8AM. We were able to fit these intervals of prayer and silence in between Icon writing sessions and experience the refreshment this practice gives. Painting and praying all through each day, being part of a living community of praying people allows us to experience the lift and support needed to practice the spiritual discipline of Icon writing.
In a community of Iconographers, people share their experience, knowledge and good ideas! Iconography, like almost any worthwhile activity, benefits from cultivating a sense of community amongst practitioners, admirers, patrons, and students.
We all love and participate in the larger community of Christ’s Church – worldwide. Within this context, there is astonishing variety of practice and interpretation amongst Iconographers. Some of this is culturally determined, and some of the variety comes from different approaches to the Traditions of the Church.
Tolerance is the buzz word of today. Since Icon writers (painters) need to avoid egotism and reactionism in order to be authentic Iconographers, it naturally follows that the love of Christ extends to each person, regardless of their “style” of painting Icons.
Icon writers are humble servants who are able to keep their eyes on God’s purpose with sacred and Holy images, inviting creativity to partner with prayer to create images that inspire the viewer to a closer relationship with God.
Today, while there is a hint of interest in the renewal of sacred art, there is a need for education and training for sacred artists. I think it would be useful to create a place on the RESOURCE page on this blog, that lists credentialed degree programs of sacred art that will be helpful for future Iconographers. Please email me with suggestions or links that might be included. In this way, we can work together to insure the future and quality of sacred art development.
SUMMER OF 2020
This summer my goal for my own Icon writing is to approach the drawing of Icons from a more creative place. Reading Aidan Hart’s book “Beauty, Spirit, Matter, Icons in the Modern World”, I found this quote from Paul Evdokimov “ …the icon painters’ community needs to rediscover the creative power of the ancient iconographers and find an exit from the static immobility of the “copyists” art.
I still love copying from the great master Iconographers, and so I am using them as my models, just as the secular artist uses nature as her model. I am also studying from books like George Kordis’ “Icons as Communion” book the concept of rhythm, movement and dynamic flow in Byzantine Iconography. It’s not an easy task!! But I am getting help from Sister Petra Clare’s tutoring in her online course for Iconographers. She has created a closed Facebook Group where she posts exercise and examples, and we post our sketches and drawings for her comments. So, it’s an online community and we are learning together- it’s a lot of good creative fun! Her website is: eastxwest Online Studies, and she might have room for one or two more students.
The first is September 26-28 at St. Patrick’s Church, Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, and the second is October 24-26 at Saints Peter and Paul Church in Bradenton, Florida. Please email me if you’d like me to save a space for you.
That’s all the news for June, 2019.
May God bless your Eyes, Mind, and hearts, and hands, that all that you say, do or think will be honorable and pleasing to Him!
This month of May, we celebrate Mary, Mother of God, with our prayers and special Icons. This month, Mary Jane Miller, a member of the American Association of Iconographers, has written an article expressing her views of Mary and how perceptions of Mary have changed through the centuries. Here at AAI we are open to informative articles about Iconography from our members, and will publish them from time to time. Email email@example.com for more information if you are interested in writing or publishing an article about Icons that would benefit the Icon writing community.
Mary Icons: a New Contemporary Trinity by Mary Jane Miller
There are three classic prototypes of Mary Icons. Their collective messages point towards a new contemporary trinity of interconnections. As our society has changed, the concept of Mary and her message brings to light provocative and meaningful perspectives on loving. It has been through contemplating her image, and painting icons of her that I have come to realize a deeper mystical message. Her popular iconography may have the keys to how we are to care for creation and one another in the world.
Mary looks directly at the viewer, beckoning us towards poised stillness and constant prayer with palms extended outward in total surrender to what she receives. She contains the Creator of the Universe in her womb.
Mary Icons of the Theotokos
Mary is portrayed as the feminine energy which tenderly nurtures Jesus to become a teacher, rabbi, master and lord. She is the icon which reminds us to love one another, to love life, and to love creation.
Mary Icons of the Hodegitria
Mary becomes a mystical location, she is the challis that holds the “Way” in her lap. She offers us an example of one who can show us what is necessary to give ourselves to God and one another. We like Mary are called to release to the world what we most love and cherish.
The image of Mary has mutated many times throughout centuries of iconography. From the mother of creation Diva, to a Mother of God gazing into the unknown, to a weeping, anguished mother of Jesus she has changed as our society changes. The Renaissance painters in the 16th century changed her image into a more human mother, one of pain or of joy. Mary’s identity has given rise to many doctrinal wars, decrees and debates but her image is more than cult, idol, mystery or divine. She is a fountain of motherhood image, triggering great reflection and contemplation, and she has triggered a wonderful epiphany in me.
Mary Icons Defined Through History
Theologians of the Middle Ages deliberated in detail the Forever Virgin condition of Mary. They had to answer how it could be that Christ was born to someone as common as one of us? Since ‘ Christ is All man and All God ‘ , His mother would have to be, in some way, all divine. The Roman Catholic Church fashioned the idea of the Immaculate Conception. The concept of Mary being miraculously conceived was declared doctrine in 1854. It was a theological creation which became dogma at considerable expense to women. It made her more perfect and exhausted than any women’s capacity to achieve. Ironically, Mary was lifted to the highest place among men, yet somehow, though she was seemingly divine, she had no voice and no ability to act in any other way but constant surrender.
Nearly 100 years later another detail of her divinity needed clarification. Since Mary was immaculately conceived then where would her divine body go at her death? The Orthodox Church specifically teaches that Mary died a natural death, that her soul was received by Christ upon her death, and that her body was resurrected. On the third day after her ‘ repose ‘ her body was taken up into heaven. It was decided Mary did not die but rather “slept”. This statement became an Article of Faith in 1950. The Roman Catholic institution needed an example of undefiled sexuality, perfected womanhood with divine meekness and they found it in the Virgin Mary, from beginning to end.
We are now living in 2019. Where is Mary’s message and identity now? Has it changed or will the theologians of this age allow a change?
I have painted many images of Mary and I believe she continues to send messages to us today. The wisdom that women have learned through years of service and observation have undoubtedly helped shape society. I believe one critical message we have yet to understand is that humanity does not own anything, we have been lousy stewards of creation. In actuality we share our common energy and common space on the planet. Mary is the queen of teaching us to love. Over time, I have become increasingly aware of all that we have been given. How have we nurtured it? Will we one day be able to Give It Back to the world? Mary gave away the very thing she loved the most. It takes enormous selfless love to do such a thing.
I find it ironic that Christian mystics, mostly men, have spoken and expanded the spiritual understanding of God for nearly two thousand years. In doing so, they have controlled and shaped our society. Mary has not spoken, making our understanding of her elusive. Mary is a woman who, by her human act, gave birth to the most transcendent truth which is love, a love completed in offering. This is by far the very thing the world needs for its healing.
The next three icons illustrate a new teaching and trinity: to receive, nurture and release. The interconnection between these three states of being are precisely the clue we have to discover a new future. It is found in the value of being loved and loving another with no ownership. The idea is not only Christian, it teaches a new attitude towards creation. It is obvious to everyone how much humans are creating. It is obvious how much we love what we create. Will we come to a time when we have the wisdom to give away to the world what we have created? Nothing is truly ours, it never has been. It is all the potential of Love that has been given by God that makes any of this make sense.
Mary Jane Miller
Author Bio. Mary Jane Miller is a self-taught Byzantine style iconographer with over 28 years of experience. For the first 15 years she produced unique and unorthodox collections of sacred art and continues to have them exhibited in Museums and churches in both the United States and Mexico. Miller writes luxuriously, blending historical content, and personal insights to arrive at contemporary conclusions about faith. The author of 4 self-published books include Icon Painting Revealed, The Mary Collection, In light of Women and The Stations. Miller has been published online and in publications such as Divine Temple Russian Orthodox Journal, Faith and Forum Magazine, Liturgy Today and Profiles of Catholicism. She teaches 4 courses annually, 5 day immersion workshops throughout the US and Mexico. website: www.sanmiguelicons.com and http://sacrediconretreat.com/
Thank you so much, Mary Jane, for your thoughts and images of Mary. Next month, the blog will be on the topic of Light and Color in the Icon.