Windows into heaven

Religious icons are praised as a pathway to prayer, a window to heaven, a door to eternity. Yet, for many Westerners, icons can be discomforting. The perspective, facial features and penetrating stares often feel foreign to worshippers who have spent their spiritual lives surrounded by statues of smiling saints. 

The icon represents something “other,” and yet its power to attract believers and bring people to God is obvious in the growing interest in and understanding of an art form that is more focused on teaching theology than painting pictures. 

Quest for authenticity 

“People are looking for something with more authority or authenticity. The baby boomers thought they could find it in their own contemporary culture. We know that doesn’t work, so we have to go further back into the past,” Frederica Mathewes-Green, author of “The Open Door: Entering the Sanctuary of Icons and Prayer” (Paraclete Press, $16.95), told Our Sunday Visitor. She says there’s growing interest in icons and compares it with the shift in interest from movies like “Godspell” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” in the 1970s to the popularity of “The Passion of the Christ” in more recent years. 

“People are saying, ‘Give me something ancient that I know hasn’t been concocted by some advertising genius in the last 10 years.’ They’re trying to get back to the original faith,” said Mathewes-Green. “They are looking for authenticity, and they are finding it in the world that made the icons and in the spirituality of icon Christianity. How far they’ll go with it I don’t know. Will they stay with it when it starts to cross them and they realize they have to live a certain kind of life?” 

Iconography originated in the earliest days of the Christian Church. In fact, iconographers say that it was St. Luke who painted the first icon, an image of the Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child. Icons are said to be “written” instead of painted because they are like a theological text, exact representations of teachings of the faith, not an artist’s interpretation of a teaching. They are a staple of the Eastern-rite Church, which is why the most typical — or classic images — are those that predate the schism of 1054. 

Icons’ power 

Mathewes-Green said that when she became an Orthodox Christian, she first felt that icons were chilly and stern, and she didn’t understand what other people meant when they talked about the beauty and power of icons. Then one day she was in a museum and saw a processional icon of the Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child on one side. When she walked around to view the other side of the icon, she saw an image of Christ on the cross called “Great Humility.” 

“Something happened to me. I felt like I was glued to the spot. I just had to stay there, and I had to keep looking at it very, very slowly. The power of the icon held me there. I drank in every detail of it, moving across the battered surface of this ancient icon,” she recalled. “Somehow I learned how to speak the language of icons, or how to hear it or how to understand the language of the icons with that very profound immersion in that one single icon that seemed to have so much to say.” 

Mathewes-Green said that there’s something else that helps her understand and appreciate icons: An awareness of her own sinfulness and a gratitude toward the God for the “greatness and heaviness” of his offering of his own Son.  

“Icons are not just artwork, and they’re not just there to remind you of something. But in a mysterious way they make a connection for you. The usual phrase is that icons are ‘windows into heaven,’ and that is the role they’re supposed to fill. So if you look at an icon that way, you would gaze at it with love and with a sense that it’s drawing your awareness through the icon and to the presence of Christ,” she told OSV. 

‘Holy Spirit encounter’ 

Christine Simoneau Hales, a New York-based iconographer, discovered the power of icons by accident, or, as she would say, through the work of the Holy Spirit. 

Fifteen years ago, she was traveling around Europe with her photographer husband, Mick Hales, for work on his book “Monastic Gardens.” When they were visiting Notre Dame des Gardes Abbey in St.-George Des Gardes, France, the Cistercian sisters there insisted she meet Sister Miriam, the iconographer in their community. 

“She and I had an amazing meeting. I really believe that was a Holy Spirit encounter because it just changed my whole life. I left there a changed person,” Hales said. 

When she returned to graduate school in the United States, where she was working on her degree in art therapy, she talked her adviser into letting her do an independent study with a Russian iconographer. She studied for several years with different iconographers until she was ready to go out on her own. 

Hales explains that every icon she writes takes between 30 and 50 hours. Just preparing the wood can take a week, and includes coating it with rabbit-skin glue, drying and curing it, coating it with linen and soaking it in glue. Then “gesso” is applied — 11 to 14 coats with sanding in between each one. The painting is done in the Byzantine tradition with egg tempera, natural pigments and 23 karat gold leaf. 

“There’s nothing fast about this. You can’t just toss off an icon. It’s serious art,” says Hales, who teaches iconography to adults and teens. 

Spiritual dimension

One class even included a group of retired Holy Cross Brothers, whose spirituality, she said, brought a whole new dimension to the sessions. 

Hales sees herself more as a “scribe” than an artist, passing on the truths of the faith without embellishment or interpretation. She compares praying with an icon with reading the Bible. An icon should be like Scripture, direct and with no changes.  

On the other hand, more typical religious art would be more like a commentary on the Bible, beautiful and inspiring, perhaps, but not an exact transmission of teaching. In addition to keeping their own opinions out of their work, iconographers also must live a particular kind of spiritual lifestyle, one that includes prayer and fasting and observing the traditions of the Church.  

“I pray before, during and after, but that’s part of it. That’s the joy of it, really, to be able to work with your art materials, to pray, to be in communion with the saint that you’re praying with. It’s really quite a privilege to be in that place, to do that,” Hales told OSV. “God in his mercy has given me a way to do what we are all called to do, go out and share the Gospel.” 

Mary DeTurris Poust, author of “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Catholic Catechism” (Alpha, $14.95), writes from New York.

How To Read An Icon (sidebar)

Have you ever looked at an icon and found it unsettling? There’s a reason for that. Here’s a quick exercise to help demonstrate what makes icons so different from other types of religious art. Frederica Mathewes-Green, in her book “The Open Door: Entering the Sanctuary of Icons and Prayer” (Paraclete Press, $16.95), tells readers to look at the image of the Christ Pantocrator icon from St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai, Egypt, the oldest known icon of Christ. First use paper or an index card to cover the left side of Christ’s face. Look at the right side. What do you see? A penetrating stare, the look of someone who knows more about you than you’d care to imagine, maybe even the slightest hint of a smile. Does it make you feel just a little uncomfortable? Now cover the right side and look at the left. Do you notice the difference? On this side, Christ’s face is peaceful and serene, patient and compassionate, beckoning viewers to lay their burdens down. 

“You keep returning to look at the eyes. You kind of can’t make sense out of it. Most paintings have a resting place, usually at the eyes, but not in this icon,” Mathewes-Green said, explaining that the iconographer was trying to show two truths, the “surgical” aspect of Christ knowing our sinfulness and everything about us and the patient, listening side of Christ. 

In her book, Mathewes-Green explains that the Christ of Sinai icon is a “universal favorite” among Orthodox Christians. “I don’t know of another icon that is as complex and searching as the Christ of Sinai. ... Perhaps you see why I say that this is a different kind of message than you receive from a Renaissance painting. People who get acclimated to icons begin to see classic Western religious paintings as accomplished and beautiful, but noisy,” she writes.

On the web (sidebar)

To learn more about Christine Simoneau Hales’ icons and her icon classes, visit her website at www.christinehales.com