Hello Fellow Iconophiles:
Understanding Icons Part I: Theory and Practice,
This month I am bringing the first of a two part lecture by Sister Petra Clare, an experienced Iconographer, retreat leader, and Orthodox nun currently living in a monastery in Greece. Sr. Petra has a teaching website where she offers on line classes and tutoring for Iconographers. There is much background and practical information on her site, which requires a fee to access.
When thinking about Icons, there are so many levels of appreciation and engagement to consider. We’ve talked about several of these in past blogs- Icons as Lectio Divina, Icons for contemplation, prayer, etc., and now we delve deeper into what theory brings to full development in the Icon. The following paragraphs are taken directly from Sr. Petra’s EastXWest online Icon Course website, with her permission:
Monastic and patristic tradition, both east and west, call the process of understanding Scripture theoria. The Greek word theoria (*&(“+,) means ‘intelligent contemplation, paying close attention, looking at.’ It could mean looking interiorly, with ‘the eyes of the heart’ or looking exteriorly, with the physical eye. The term is always used by the ancient Greeks to refer to the act of experiencing or observing and then comprehending through interior consciousness. Our word ‘theory’ is derived from it,but has degraded over time, now meaning little more than a hypothesis used to justify a set of actions.
Cultivating theoria is central to the role of the iconographer. The divine vision is the spark which makes them iconographers. It is the foundation of their vocation. It enables them to shape content and artistic form, generating the visual prototypes which are the counterpart of the scriptural and liturgical canons. Without theoria, the icon would be a purely human product, a ‘painting by numbers.’
First Principles: Theoria – Inspired Vision.
In the Biblical sense, theoria is itself part of holy tradition, for both Jews and Christians. In the Bible we meet patriarchs, apostles and prophets who receive insight into divine truth.
Breck reminds us that the ‘inspired vision of divine truth, as revealed in the person of Jesus Christ, enabled the early Church Fathers to perceive a depth of meaning in the Biblical writings which is of the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit.”
The link between theoria and the arts is made in Exodus:
‘Be sure that you make everything according to the pattern you were shown on the mountain; said the Lord to Moses (Exodus 25:40). Shortly afterwards God designates a craftsman ‘I have called by name Bezalel (B’tzal’el)’ and fills him with the Holy Spirit to design the artwork (Exodus 31: 1-11). God tells Moses that the design and craft skills are a direct gift from him. The craftsmen are singled out as those whom God has filled with ‘wisdom of heart’ or ‘instructed them with
wisdom’ (Exodus 35:35). He has given them a combination of combination of skill and intelligence (Exodus 36:1) and ‘stirred their hearts’ i.e. called them, to design and make craftwork (Exodus 36:2). He also calls Besalel and Ooliab to pass on their skills – and their spirit – by teaching (Exodus 35:34). Teaching is a gift of the Spirit, as it is later in 1 Corinthians 12:28. the gifts God gives to Moses’ craftsmen clearly depend on theoria to function.
Each time you work on an icon – daily if you are a full time iconographer – pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit. You need this charism to develop your witness through icons.
We will confine our study of the relationship between Scripture and icon, to this context, ratherthan getting bogged down with modern textual criticism, which deals with other issues, outside the range of this course. We take as our starting point the text ‘all Scripture is inspired by
God.’ (Timothy II: 3:26). Breck describes this as synergy – a co-operative effort between the Holy Spirit and the human instrument ‘who receives divine revelation and translates it into gospel proclamation.’ This is the mindset the iconographer needs.
Take a moment to meditate how you, as an iconographer, ‘receive divine revelation and translate it into gospel proclamation?’ How long do you put aside to meditate on Scripture or the life of a Saint, before beginning to paint? Do you frequently renew your spiritual contact with the mystery while you are painting – stopping for a little meditation? What supportive routines have you developed to retain an inner contact with the person or mystery you are painting during the hours at the easel?Having a good book about a saint or doctrine at hand during teabreak, watching a film about their life or surfing the net about their period of history in free time can all help. These nurture the process and make the icon ‘come alive’ in our hands. In short, do we ‘proclaim,’ out of our inner contact with the mystery, or merely copy?
All of the information above comes from the EastXWest online course: b1a Old Testament Principles. (Editor’s note: “Breck” refers to Scripture in Tradition, John Breck, SVS Press 2001 ISBN 1-800-204-2665.)
Thank you for reading, and becoming part of the American Association of Iconographers.
Christine Simoneau Hales
Email for membership information