ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Opening Windows to the Divine

Eastern Catholic religious sisters discover the power of the icon.

A sacred art form dating to the sixth century is helping today’s Eastern European women religious revive their Christian faith.

Last August, women of the Byzantine and Roman Catholic traditions participated in “A Renaissance of Iconography for East European Institutes of Consecrated Life,” a program held at St. Athanasius Byzantine Catholic Seminary in Nyiregháza, Hungary. Although primarily organized for members of religious congregations, ten laypersons participated and seven countries were represented: Hungary, Italy, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Ukraine and the United States.

The iconography project was born out of a 1995 meeting at a session of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in the United States. The conference is known for its support of Eastern European congregations of women religious.

Thanks to the United States Catholic Conference and numerous other agencies and institutions, including CNEWA, the iconography project took place under the directorship of Sister Barbara Jean Milhalchick, O.S.B.M., Vicar General for the Sisters of St. Basil the Great, Sister Lucianne Siers, O.P., of the United States Catholic Conferences Office to Aid the Church in Central and Eastern Europe and Sister Marlene Weisenbeck, F.S.P.A., Chancellor and Director of the Office of Consecrated Life for the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin.

In the last three decades, interest in Eastern Christian icons – devotional panels in the Byzantine tradition depicting Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary or the saints – has surged, particularly in the West.

In the Eastern Christian tradition, the icon (Greek for “image” or “portrait”) is the visible image of the divine. The iconographer, who creates these objects, is instrumental in realizing this spiritual process, which is akin to spiritual writing – hence, the Eastern Christians devotion to the icon.

Icons occupy a central position in the devotional life of Byzantine Christians, both Catholic and Orthodox. During half a century of state-sponsored religious oppression behind the Iron Curtain, these powerful symbols of the ancien régime were confiscated, many destroyed. Reconstructing icons and their spirituality is one of many factors in reviving religious life in Eastern Europe.

The creation of an icon is painstaking work. Unlike most painting techniques, the “writing” of an icon begins with a base coat of the darkest colors in the design. All development of values, or shades of color, is built up from dark to light.

There is a theological reason for this technique: as God created light from darkness, so too the iconographer reveals the subjects spiritual light from darkness. After all areas of the design are covered in a base color, the garments in the image are painted, first in medium and then in lighter shades.

Next the hands and faces are painted, also building from dark to light. Facial features are painted, and the icon is completed as haloes and the images details are gilded with 23-karat gold leaf. A non-corroding mineral, gold leaf represents the eternal light of God. Lastly, an inscription identifying the subject is added. This is a vital step in the process. The icon should not be signed; the iconographer is viewed as only an instrument of the Holy Spirit. The artist is guided by the Spirit, and a window to heaven is revealed.

At the program, 36 participants were instructed in the technique of writing icons. They also heard daily lectures about the history, spirituality and essential elements of the inner meaning of icons. Each participant studied the rules of icon painting and was introduced to the churchs long tradition of iconography, examining the disciplines and traditions of the ecumenical councils and codes of canon law from both the Eastern and Western traditions.

Each day included the celebration of the Divine Liturgy in Ukrainian and English and a meditation focused on an icon of Christ or the Virgin Mary. This meditation provided the context for the ancient tradition that invites the iconographer to pray, fast and focus on the subject to be revealed. At the end of the two-week program, each participant had completed the writing of an icon of Our Lady of Korsun, one of the icons depicting mother and child in an intimate, loving embrace.

The instructor for this project was master iconographer Philip Zimmerman of St. John of Damascus Sacred Art Academy in Ligonier, Pennsylvania. Mr. Zimmerman has written numerous icons, taught hundreds of students and completed 22 commissions for iconostases (screens of icons that divide the sanctuary from the nave in Byzantine churches).

Mr. Zimmermans goal was to give students confidence in their ability to write an icon, to make it an enjoyable experience and to impart the knowledge, discipline and skills needed for this sacred work. It was vital that the students who participated be technically adept and spiritually mature in order to experience this sacred form. Students had to be aware of their responsibility to be a minister and witness to the faith before embarking on such a project.

One portion of the project included a visit to the city of Presov in eastern Slovakia. There, the group visited a monastery of the Sisters of St. Basil the Great and heard a lecture by iconographer Sister Celine Marchericyz, O.S.B.M. Participants in the iconography program traveled to the Bardeiov Museum for an icon exhibit, and visited three wooden chapels in the villages of Trochany, Jedlinka and Svidnik. The icons in these chapels, created by local craftsmen in a naive manner, are now part of the rich historical and cultural mosaic of Slovakia.

One challenge encountered during the project was the negotiation of seven languages by the group members and their instructors. In order to maintain communication, three interpreters were used.

In spite of this, however, “the medium of sacred art provided a universal language” one participant said. The universal power of the icon and its prayer role could be felt as the Jesus Prayer was sung and recited simultaneously in various languages:

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

The icons completed by the students were blessed in a concluding liturgical ceremony celebrated by Bishop Szilárd Keresztes, Byzantine Catholic Bishop of Hajdúdorog, Hungary. As each icon, a work of art in itself, was carefully placed on the altar, the Bishop challenged the group:

“The work of a true iconographer must begin within the heart of the person. The person must first be transformed into an icon of Christ and then his or her work will in turn present the beauty of the transfigured Christ to others.”

In light of the iconography program religious sisters in Eastern Europe hope for a continued collaboration with members of American religious congregations and their sponsored institutions. Follow-up instruction for beginning iconographers and training for new iconographers are desired so members of the Eastern Catholic churches can access and grow in their tradition of faith.

As a result of this project, the Sisters of St. Basil the Great, who once flourished throughout Eastern Europe, hope to furnish their own monastery chapels with icons, use their knowledge of iconography in their ministry and deepen their personal spirituality through this sacred art.

Sister Weisenbeck is the Project Director of the Renaissance of Iconography program.

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