ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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

Three Continents, Three Women, One Calling

Three women iconographers from Ethiopia, Jerusalem and Boston discuss their philosophy and work in resurrecting sacred art.

In the past 20 years, there has been a revival of interest in icons – devotional panels from the Eastern Christian tradition depicting Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary and the saints. Interestingly, this revival is not limited to the Eastern Christian world. Art collectors and theologians, believers and non-believers, Christians and non-Christians have all recognized the simple grace and spiritual power of these portrayals of the sacred.

This renewal of interest in the icon (Greek for image, portrait) is not limited to classical examples from the medieval Balkan, Byzantine, Ethiopian and Russian empires. Modern icons have been commissioned for new churches and private collections in North America and Western Europe, as well as for the restored churches in the post-Communist nations of Eastern Europe and Russia.

On three continents, Africa, Asia and North America, three women – an artist, a Benedictine nun and a former Soviet biophysicist – faithfully render these images according to the guidelines and canons set by the fathers of the Eastern churches. Yet, each iconographer fashions her icons in a different manner, reflecting the rich traditions of these churches.

ADDIS ABABA – Mrs. Barbara Goshu is a Polish national reared and educated in the medieval city of Krakow. She studied graphic arts, painting and sculpture at Krakow University’s Academy of Fine Arts, one of Europe’s oldest and most prestigious institutes of higher learning.

During her university studies, Barbara was drawn to the mystery of Russian and Greek iconography. As a part of her training, she restored some of these classic masterpieces, bringing to life the lustrous hues that for centuries had remained buried beneath layers of encrusted soot.

It was in Krakow that Barbara met Ato Worku Goshu, a promising young Ethiopian painter who had been sent to study at the academy by the Ethiopian Ministry of Education of the Emperor Haile Selassie (1930-36; 1941-74). Barbara and Worku studied together, married and moved to Ethiopia in 1967.

As a child, Barbara listened to the tales of her grandfather, who as a military officer traveled throughout the globe recording his adventures. The young Barbara was particularly taken with the colorful stories of Ethiopia, the land of the Queen of Sheba. Now she was married to a son of that country.

Barbara responded passionately to the richness of Ethiopian civilization, immersing herself in the study of its art, culture and history. Once again the icon – this time in its Ethiopian form – fascinated the young artist. She began to create icons as an outlet for her talent and as a method of understanding her new home:

“Painters of icons are the ‘grandfathers’ of history and religion,” she asserted during a recent discussion with the Director of our Addis Ababa office. Brother Vincent Pelletier, F.S.C. “They are the preservers of the culture of humanity and their work is to be approached with reverence and awe.”

Barbara carefully renders her images of the sacred in the traditional Ethiopian manner. The faces are never drawn in profile. In depictions of the sacred, the eyes, the windows of the soul, are given greater emphasis.

The compositions are geometric and flat; Barbara’s palette ranges from bright reds and yellows to rich hues of chestnut and blue. Yet there is a stillness to her work:

“Because Barbara has responsibilities as a wife and mother,” Brother Vincent reported, “she paints late at night when all is still and quiet.”

To continue this important tradition and vocation, this Polish-Ethiopian iconographer readily shares her insights and talents with others.

“Ethiopia has faithfully tended the flame of Christ’s love in this part of the world,” Barbara said. “Ethiopian church art is one of the vehicles preserving and transmitting this treasure.”

JERUSALEM – On the Mount of Olives, in a Benedictine convent housing a community of elderly nuns, Sister Marie-Paul labors lovingly over her Byzantine-inspired icons.

“No one has ever seen God,” the Egyptian-born nun, daughter of a Palestinian father and an Italian mother, explained during a recent conversation with the Rev. Denis Madden, our Associate Secretary General. “God has no shape, measure, color or volume. But to reveal himself, God gave us an image, an icon that has shape, color, measure and volume. That divine image is the human being. Thus, for the fathers of the church, the icon is the visible of the invisible.”

The convent faces Jerusalem and the “face of Jerusalem” enlivens this community much as an icon enlivens one who sits before it. Looking upon an icon brings us into the presence of the One who is resurrected and transfigured; the One who invites us to communion. The Word is poured into us and we into the Word through the eyes of the depicted:

“We transmit and receive light through our eyes,” said Sister Marie-Paul. “When we are before an icon all we have to do is look.”

The iconographer is instrumental in this complex spiritual process. In the Eastern Christian tradition, the icon, the revelation of the divine is of equal importance as the revealed Word of God. Therefore, the making of an icon is a form of “spiritual writing.” Before writing an icon, Sister Marie-Paul must prepare herself through prayer and fasting.

When she first began to fast, she weakened. Unable to muster up the strength to write an icon, Sister Marie-Paul “struck a deal with God.” She promised to offer all she had within her if God would give her the strength to work. She began to experience the blessing of the icon, she recounted, as if in answer to her prayer. Now, filled with peace, she never seems to tire. And while her work may seem a solitary exercise, more fitting for a recluse, Sister Marie-Paul never feels separated from her community, who join her in prayer and fasting.

To construct her icon, Sister Marie-Paul follows the techniques established by the monastic iconographers of the distant past. First, Sister Marie-Paul chooses a suitable wood panel. The icon will be rectangular in shape, a symbol of the earth’s four cardinal points, for it is on earth where God is manifest. The board is then covered with a skin of cloth, usually canvas, which is glued to the panel surface: “Your hands have formed me and fashioned me…. With skin and flesh you clothed me, with bones and sinews knit me together.” (Job 10:8,11).

As with all Byzantine icons, Sister Marie-Paul utilizes much gold leaf for the background of each icon. This natural mineral, which does not corrode, symbolizes the eternal light of God.

After the subject has been drawn, Sister Marie-Paul constructs her image, first with dark pigments. “This technique – beginning in darkness – helps us to understand the realism of revelation,” she said, “God does not destroy darkness, but transfigures it, filling the void with light, his presence.” Each layer of pigment is lighter in tone than the previous one. Washes of white, which are applied to the areas around the eyes in particular, will be the final outburst.

“When one is with Sister Marie-Paul,” wrote Father Denis, “one recognizes easily the teacher in her that makes one aware of the living mystery of the icon revelation. So assured is she that the human person is the true icon, with Jesus Christ as the model, she says scripture and revelation are not on paper or wood, but recorded in our flesh. Should all the bibles of the world burn, the Word would remain.”

BOSTON – In Somerville, a Boston suburb, a former biophysicist from Moscow paints stunning images of the divine, inspired by the spirituality of the land she left behind.

Mrs. Ksenia Pokrovsky is widely credited with reviving the writing of traditional Russian icons, perhaps the most refined expression of the icon form. The formation of the Balkan and Byzantine icon ceased with the Ottoman Turks’ destruction of the Balkan and Byzantine empires. The development of an Ethiopian form was restricted by constant warfare. But the Russian icon emerged in all its sophistication, enhanced by the good fortunes of tsar and church.

“Icons always depict the spiritual climate in society, the lives of our spiritual leaders,” the artist said. “The old icons embody the experience of the greatest saints.”

The paradigm icons are those created by the sainted monk Andrei Rublev, a 15th-century iconographer who created such masterpieces as the Holy Trinity for the monastery church of the Holy Trinity – St. Sergius, near Moscow; or his icon of Jesus Christ for the cathedral in Zvenigorod.

Rublev’s lyrical icons serve as the models for Ksenia’s work. Rublev used native Russian minerals – ground cinnabar, clay, gold, lapis lazuli and various ores, all mixed with egg tempera – for his distinctive palette. Ksenia studied his method while working with friends in Moscow’s Andrei Ruhlev Museum. Today, she uses the same materials, although many are quite expensive.

Ksenia was encouraged to write icons by another sainted cleric, the Rev. Alexander Men. Father Alexander, a well-known spiritual director, pastor and historian of the Russian Orthodox Church, was hacked to death in 1994 near his Moscow home. The murder, which Sortie attribute to anti-Semitic thugs (Father Alexander was of Jewish descent) or perhaps the KGB, has not been solved.

Father Alexander, whom Ksenia calls her “spiritual father,” recognized her potential after she completed the biophysics program at Moscow University in the mid-60s. “Father Alexander,” she revealed, “believed that in 20 years or so, there would be a tremendous need for icons.”

“I began to paint slowly,” she recounted recently. “I have five children! I would push one in a carriage and speak to another while painting.”

The young iconographer studied under Marina Sokolova, a holy woman who fashioned icons during the worst years of Stalin’s rule. Marina’s father, an Orthodox priest, was shot by the Bolsheviks in 1936.

The Communists nearly succeeded in eradicating the Christian faith. Today, however, there is a tremendous need for icons, those indispensable objects of prayer. But Ksenia does not make icons for the churches of her homeland. Because of her association with Father Alexander and others in his circle (such as the Rev. Alexander Borisov of Sts. Cosmas and Damian Church in Moscow), Ksenia had to leave Russia, settling near Boston. “It was very difficult for us to stay,” she said. Yet she has left behind several fine students, iconographers who may look back on a continuous, unbroken line of dedicated, faithful icon artisans.

To many critics, the icon – Balkan, Byzantine, Ethiopian or Russian – is an unsuccessful effort to reproduce real events and persons. The features are much too ascetic and attenuated, they say, the perspective is off and the color, unnatural.

Realism, however, is not the goal of the iconographer, who follows the principles of icon painting decreed by the Eastern Church. According to Leonid Ouspensky, the noted Orthodox theologian and iconographer, naturalism, the realm of the secular, must not be mixed with the divine, as with the paintings of Renaissance Italy:

“[Then] the link with Tradition is broken. Church art becomes secularized under the influence of the nascent secular realistic art.”

Icons are theology in color.

Michael J.L. La Civita is the Editor of Catholic Near East. Father Denis Madden and Brother Vincent Pelletier also contributed to this article.

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