Marek Czarnecki has been writing icons for 15 years, a job that is much more akin to a vocation and includes daily intense prayer and fasting, which in Czarnecki’s case meant giving up meat entirely once he became an iconographer. The Connecticut-based artist, a Roman Catholic who has studied for 10 years with a Russian Orthodox iconographer, talked to Our Sunday Visitor about the significance of icons in a Christian life of prayer. 

Our Sunday Visitor: How does iconography relate to art, to theology, to prayer? 

Marek Czarnecki: People think that iconography is a style of religious art, and it’s not. It’s a whole vision of reality, but we use art as a tool to describe that real-ity. … We say icon writing instead of icon painting because what we are making isn’t just a picture but a theological text. That theological text can in no way disagree with what is the written text or what stands in holy tradition. It’s not my job to figure those things out. The Church has already decided those things. My job is just to articulate them. 

OSV: When you get ready to write an icon, do you have to prepare in a spiritual way? 

Czarnecki: I’ve been doing this for so long it’s just an integral part of my life. I teach, and as a group we start with a prayer of consecration and a mission statement about our work. Then, while we work, we pray. That’s just as important as any preparation you do before you start working. It’s that very simple Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” You just repeat it over and over, and it’s like a wheel that turns in your head. What it does while you’re working is that it forces you to focus on what you’re doing. It’s a real prayer, so while you’re praying it, you’re connecting yourself with God. It acts like a metronome while you’re working, too. It gives your mind something to hold on to, and it paces you while you work so that you don’t rush through your work, you connect it with your breathing, you connect it with every brush stroke. Eventually it just doesn’t stop. It’s like your heartbeat. 

Another way we pray while we work is to pray in a very familiar way to the person whose image we’re making. It’s just a very intimate conversation, speaking to the person, to the saint, or putting yourself into the holy event that you’re depicting so there’s no separation between yourself and the person in the work. You’re not making a thing. You’re making a place where the presence of that person has to come through. 

OSV: With icons, there are certain images that would be considered classic, but you’ve also done images of St. Maria Goretti and St. Faustina Kowalska and others. Is iconography something that can be both classical and contemporary? 

Czarnecki: It has to be both. I think one of the primary functions of the Church is to work as a treasure keeper, and the treasures of the Church are the lives of the saints. The prototypes that were created for the lives of the saints, even ancient ones, have some historical truth to them, and that’s why we don’t have permission to change them. … Those old prototypes, some of them go back to the catacombs. The icon of the nursing Virgin is the oldest image we have of the Virgin Mary historically, and we still make that icon almost exactly like that fresco. There’s a deepness to those prototypes that we can’t even begin to approach. … Even if you’re going to write “new” icons, you have to have a grounding and a foundation in that traditional language. There’s no way you can create new icons without immersing yourself in all of that. 

OSV: It seems like there is a lot going on in icons that many of us are not aware of. Is that true? 

Czarnecki: When you look at an icon, the meaning of it should be absolutely open. There shouldn’t be anything hidden in an icon. There shouldn’t be anything esoteric in an icon. There shouldn’t be anything so complicated in an icon that you can’t immediately start praying with it. It’s like the Gospels. You don’t need a degree in philosophy or theology to open up the Gospels and read them and understand them. The icon has to be exactly the same. … People think icons are some very complicated symbolic map, and they’re not. They express the reality of a person’s life. Iconographers only use signs and symbols when the language of naturalism is inadequate to express a spiritual truth. … 

It’s forbidden to make an icon of God the Father because the First Person of the Trinity is inexpressible. Like when Jews write up the Torah, they leave an empty space, and that’s absolutely correct. We have no adequate expression of God the Father, even though our churches are filled with them. In order to express that Jesus is divine, we can only make an image of his physical presence. To show that he’s divine we have to use signs and symbols because there is no adequate way to express his divinity. So we start with a halo, we put a three-barred cross in his halo, and the Greek characters that in English look like WON, which is an abbreviation for “I am Who am.” By putting in those characters, we demonstrate what Christ himself said, which is, “I and the Father are One.” But there’s no way that I can figure out how to paint that so we have to lapse into the use of semantic symbols, but it should be minimal, and it should only be used when you can’t express something in a very straightforward way. 

OSV: For Westerners, icons can sometimes seem foreign, even off-putting. What’s behind that and how can we get past it?

Czarnecki: When the schism [between the Eastern and Western Churches] happened, it was such a profound thing, like a divorce. The Western Church moved toward more incarnational theology. The Eastern Church developed into more mystical theology. And the art in both churches reflects that theology. Both are correct. … Western art was much more naturalistic because it talked about the immanence of God in the world. Orthodox iconography just kept developing internally to show the transcendence of God in the world. 

There are a couple of things that make the artistic language of the icon a little bit different than Western art, and one is the idea of space. When we make a naturalistic painting of a landscape, for example, an artist uses what’s called one-point perspective. You have a horizon line and all space recedes as it gets to the horizon line and things become smaller. In the icon, the idea is that we are looking through a window into that space of eternity. Since we’re looking into an eternal space, there can’t be a horizon. There can’t be an end. We use what’s called inverse, or reverse, perspective so that all things continually open up in front of us. … The other thing that’s different is the way the iconographer uses light. In a naturalis-tic painting, you always have some definite light source. In the icon, the light has to look like it comes from inside the figure and from many different points outside it. In an icon, you’ll never have cast shadows because a shadow means that there’s some light source. 

OSV: If icons are looking into eternity, where does Western religious art look? 

Czarnecki: If you think of St. Francis of Assisi and that radical act of making the first Nativity scene, what he was doing was starting the process of the humanization of Catholic art. … When he made that Nativity scene and people were able to walk into a setting where they felt themselves participating in that space and God was participating in their space by having an infant in the crib or statues, it was an articulation of God coming out into our space, and that’s an articulation of immanence. 

It’s also a reflection of the very strong social mission of the Catholic Church. We aren’t afraid to get our feet dirty. I think of Dorothy Day. We put ourselves out into the world, go out into the world and find God.  

Orthodoxy is inverted. It’s not better or worse; it’s just a different vision. In Orthodoxy, the approach is usually to leave the world, go find some high mountain, some dense forest, some dry desert and go into God’s space. That’s also the vision of the icon — to go into God’s space — whereas statues articulate God coming out into our space. Both ways are correct, but that schism created what I call a psychosis, two halves of the same picture. 

Mary DeTurris Poust writes from New York.

On the web

To learn more about Marek Czarnecki’s icons, visit his website at

Buyer Beware (sidebar)

Monastery Icons, a popular catalog company that sells traditional-looking icons as well as more modern and unusual icons, has come under fire from critics on the Internet over the years for being connected to a New Age organization. The company is operated by Sacred Arts Foundation, which states that it is a “nonprofit foundation created to strengthen faith and encourage Christian devotion in churches, schools and individuals through a ministry of traditional Christian art.” However, it is difficult to find official information on the company. An e-mail went unanswered and, other than the 800-number for ordering icons, there is no contact name or number listed on printed or online materials.

The Orthodox Church does not recognize the icons produced by this company as authentic, nor does it consider the monks who produce them Orthodox, according to iconographers familiar with the company but unwilling to go on record.

Even some Catholics who are aware of rumors that the company funnels its money to a New Age group connected to a Hindu ashram admit that they continue to order from Monastery Icons because it is so difficult to find icons of Western saints. The Orthodox Church will not allow icons to be painted of saints recognized after the schism.

A quick perusal of Monastery Icon’s Christmas catalog does raise some red flags for even those with a minimal understanding of authentic icons. For example, there is an icon of the Holy Trinity that would never be created by an authentic iconographer since the tradition forbids images of God the Father.