Icons roundup

As a caveat, I am a Protestant, and while I do have a profound respect and appreciation for icons, my theology of images, including my definition of sacred art, is not the same as the Orthodox Church’s—even though elements of it are influenced by the Orthodox position. All the same, I believe it’s important for Christians of all denominations to understand the significance of icons and what differentiates them from noniconic religious images. Those lines are being blurred a bit by the new schools of iconography coming out of western Ukraine and Poland, which honor tradition even as they push it forward into the contemporary era. Here are a few icon-related videos, articles, and weblinks that I’ve gathered over the past several months.

LECTURES:

>> “The Meaning of Icons” by Fr. Maximos Constas, November 13, 2019, Notre Dame Seminary: Father Maximos Constas, professor of patristics and Orthodox spirituality at Hellenic College Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, explains the significance of icons in the Orthodox Church, with special attention to their aesthetic features and theological meaning, which is informed by the church’s Christology and cosmology. He answers such questions as, Why do the figures in icons look bored and unnatural? And, Doesn’t the Second Commandment forbid representations of Christ? He does not address icon veneration or details of the making process.

Constas spends the first fifteen minutes juxtaposing Eastern and Western approaches to religious images, discussing how the Renaissance values of humanism and naturalism came to prevail in the West. The Orthodox, he says, see this as the “secularization” or “carnalization” of sacred art—in its commitment to depicting observable realities, Western art from the Renaissance onward typically lacks overt signs of transcendence.

Constas also discusses the dogmatization of sacred images in the East. Icons are never simply works of art or pedagogical tools, he says. “They were understood to be visual artistic expressions of the church’s theology. And in the same way that church doctrines could not be changed, neither could the image in which the doctrines were embodied.”

Here are some notes I took on the talk, including some transcriptions:

  • An icon can be a panel painting, a fresco, a mosaic, a relief carving, an enameled plaque, a manuscript illumination, etc. “What ultimately defines an icon has nothing to do with artistic medium or style but rather depends on how the image is used and, most importantly, what it is believed to be. And every icon is a means of spiritual encounter and dialogue. It offers us the possibility of such an encounter because it shares in the holiness of the sacred figure whose likeness it bears.”
  • An icon is not a work of art but a work of witness that makes use of art.
  • “Icons are not simply portraits but manifestations of human persons in their new heavenly condition. They are images of the spiritual character of human beings reborn, as it were, in the womb of eternity.”
  • “The icon has the ability to evoke within me the memory of the forgotten depth of my own being. It enables me to see my true face. It orients me toward my destiny in God. And this vision, this remembrance, this knowledge fills me with unspeakable joy and profound consolation.”
  • We not only can but must make images of Christ; “to deny the icon is to deny the reality of the Incarnation.”
  • “All created things are intrinsically good, and all, therefore, have spirit-bearing potentialities. And to this essential goodness and beauty of the material world, the icon bears joyful witness. In the icon, we see matter restored to harmony and so fulfilling its true vocation, which is to reflect and transmit the divine glory. The icon, then, safeguards not only the authenticity of Christ’s physical body, but also the true value of creation in its unfallen state as created by God. Inherent in the very fact of the icon is an optimistic, affirmative vision of the material creation. As spirit-bearing matter, the icon has what we would call eschatological significance—it anticipates the final transfiguration of the cosmos at the last day, when the created world will be delivered from its present bondage to corruption, to quote St. Paul, and will enter into the glorious liberty of the children of God.”
  • Icons as:
    • windows, doors, thresholds into heaven (spiritual places of passage)
    • mirrors, a reflection of their living source
    • tracks or traces
  • 32:40: Portrayal of figures in icons
    • Alteration of the natural symmetries and proportions of the body, including the features of the face (eyes and ears enlarged; nose elongated; mouth small and closed)
    • Full frontality—wholeness, completion, perfection; makes the icon dialogical and relational
    • Serene, controlled facial expression
  • No shadows cast; illumined from within

>> “Rajaton hengellinen kuva: Kärsimyksen ja ylösnousemuksen kuvat” (Boundless Spiritual Image: Images of Suffering and Resurrection) by Ari Luomajoki, March 26, 2021, Kuopio Cathedral, Kuopio, Finland: I don’t speak Finnish, but I share this seventy-minute video for the visuals (and of course for any Finnish speakers!) and to show how contemporary icons are spreading west. In August 2016 under the leadership of Pastor Ari Luomajoki, the Lutheran Monastic Community of Enonkoski in Ihamaniemi, Finland, organized its first international icon workshop (read more here, and follow @LutheranIcon on Facebook), which attracted iconographers from Poland and Ukraine, as well as a few domestic artists. It was reprised in 2017 (I mentioned this second workshop here). Icons that came out of these workshops have been exhibited several times in Finland, and have facilitated relationships that have led to new exhibitions—such as Kärsimyksen ja ylösnousemuksen kuvat (Images of Suffering and Resurrection) at Kuopio Cathedral, which ran March 26–April 11, 2021. Follow the boldface link to see a taping of the opening, which includes opening comments, a tour, and a lecture.  

Movchan, Danylo_Descent from the Cross
Danylo Movchan (Ukrainian, 1979–), Descent from the Cross, 2021. Watercolor on paper, 33 × 38 cm.

Mindewicz, Basia_Entombment of Christ
Basia Mindewicz (Polish, 1978–), Lamentation, 2016. Acrylic on wood, 26 × 20 cm.

In the first sixteen minutes of the video, Pastor Olli Viitaniemi, one of the main organizers of the exhibition (with Pastor Salla Tyrväinen), shows screen captures from the website he built connected to the exhibition, https://sielunkuvat.net/. At around 16:24 he gives a tour of the exhibition around the church sanctuary.

At 32:48 Luomajoki—who is a Lutheran pastor in Kouvola, Finland, and has a master’s degree in art history—starts his half-hour lecture. He introduces Międzynarodowe Warsztaty Ikonopisów w Nowicy (International Iconography Workshop in Nowica) in Poland and Lviv National Academy of Arts and the Iconart gallery in Ukraine, two centers of contemporary Eastern iconography that inspired the icons project at the Enonkoski monastery in Finland. At 47:41 Luomajoki does side-by-side image comparisons to show similarities and differences across time. At 50:41 he discusses the use of images in early Lutheranism. He goes on to show some examples of religious art in Finland in the past century (including a really compelling Crucifixion painting by Helene Schjerfbeck and crucifix by Paavo Halonen!). He closes by spotlighting Hidden Life in Nazareth by Ivanka Demchuk and a Nativity by Arsen Bereza, participants in the workshop.

Luomajoki is a wonderful photographer of art. Follow him on Instagram @ari.luomajoki.

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INTERVIEW with contemporary iconographer Khrystyna Kvyk, by Kevin Antlitz: OK, Patheos blog posts are painful to read because of all the obtrusive ads, which is why I rarely link to them. But I’m making an exception for this one, where American Anglican pastor Kevin Antlitz interviews Ukrainian Greek Catholic iconographer Khrystyna Kvyk, who earned a master’s degree in sacral art in 2020. She discusses her process of painting icons, what makes an icon an icon, timelessness and transfiguration, the relationship between tradition and innovation, the idea of divine light as reflected in two of her icons, and more. I really love her work and was delighted to hear some of her own words about it.

Kvyk, Krystyna_I Am the Light of the World
Khrystyna Kvyk (Ukrainian, 1994–), I Am the Light of the World, 2021. Acrylic on gessoed wood, diameter 35 cm.

Kvyk, Khrystyna_Pentecost
Khrystyna Kvyk (Ukrainian, 1994–), Pentecost, 2021. Acrylic on gessoed wood, 45 × 45 cm.

This is the final installment of a three-part series by Antlitz. Part 1 answers, What Are Icons?, and part 2 is about “Praying Through Icons.”

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NEW CHURCH COMMISSION: Wall paintings at Iglesia de San Nicolás by Ivanka Demchuk and Arsen Bereza: Ukrainian artists Ivanka Demchuk and Arsen Bereza—a married couple!—have completed a monumental painting on the east wall of the Catholic church of Saint Nicholas in Granada. It was deeply influenced by Byzantine iconography, in which they’ve both been trained, but also contains some modern abstract and geometric elements.

The church building is from the sixteenth century and recently underwent extensive renovations, finally reopening to the public in April, which is when Demchuk and Bereza’s mural was unveiled. It portrays the Anastasis, the Eastern Orthodox image of Christ’s resurrection, which shows him breaking down the doors of hell to release its captives. In the video (which is in Ukrainian with Spanish subtitles), Demchuk describes how they painted two mandorlas behind him: the almond-shaped one symbolizing his divine light, and a round one symbolizing the cosmos.

Appearing alongside this focal point is a portrait of the church’s namesake, Saint Nicholas, with eight scenes from his life—including my favorite, where he tosses three bags of gold through the window of an impoverished family’s home. (The legend of Santa Claus—Claus being a shortened form of “Nicholas”—evolved from this story of anonymous gift giving.)

Demchuk, Ivanka_Anastasis (in situ)
Iglesia de San Nicolás, Granada, Spain, 2022, with east end mural by Ivanka Demchuk and Arsen Bereza

Demchuk, Ivanka_Resurrection
Ivanka Demchuk (Ukrainian, 1990–), Resurrection, 2018. Mixed media on wood. Design for the Church of St. Nicholas, Granada, Spain.

Demchuk, Ivanka_St. Nicholas with Scenes from His Life
Ivanka Demchuk (Ukrainian, 1990–), Saint Nicholas with Scenes from His Life, 2018. Mixed media on wood. Design for the Church of St. Nicholas, Granada, Spain.

See more photos of the project on Demchuk’s Facebook page.

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BLOG POST: “The Meaning of Melchizedek in Icons” by David Coomler: Though he’s not religious, David Coomler is an expert on Christian icons and often consults on them. On his blog he unpacks the iconography of standard types but also more unusual ones, like You Are a Priest Forever After the Order of Melchizedek, inspired by Hebrews 7. This rare type is meant to show that Jesus is both the offering and the offerer. The variation pictured below shows, I think, three representations of Christ: as crucified seraph (still quite puzzling to me, but Coomler points out that the Greek of Isaiah 9:6 refers to the Messiah as the “Messenger of Great Counsel”), Holy Wisdom (aka Sophia), and high priest—hence the man in bishops’ garb in the back. Wild!

Icon with Jesus High Priest

“Gloria in Profundis” by G. K. Chesterton

Movchan, Danylo_Nativity2
Danylo Movchan (Ukrainian, 1979–), Nativity, 2015. Egg tempera and gilding on board, 32 × 24 cm.

There has fallen on earth for a token
A god too great for the sky.
He has burst out of all things and broken
The bounds of eternity:
Into time and the terminal land
He has strayed like a thief or a lover,
For the wine of the world brims over,
Its splendor is spilt on the sand.

Who is proud when the heavens are humble,
Who mounts if the mountains fall,
If the fixed stars topple and tumble
And a deluge of love drowns all—
Who rears up his head for a crown,
Who holds up his will for a warrant,
Who strives with the starry torrent,
When all that is good goes down?

For in dread of such falling and failing
The fallen angels fell
Inverted in insolence, scaling
The hanging mountain of hell:
But unmeasured of plummet and rod
Too deep for their sight to scan,
Outrushing the fall of man
Is the height of the fall of God.

Glory to God in the Lowest
The spout of the stars in spate—
Where the thunderbolt thinks to be slowest
And the lightning fears to be late:
As men dive for a sunken gem
Pursuing, we hunt and hound it,
The fallen star that has found it
In the cavern of Bethlehem.

“Gloria in Profundis” (Latin for “Glory in the Depths”) by G. K. Chesterton is the fifth poem in the Ariel Poems series of pamphlets, published by Faber and Gwyer for the Christmas gift market from 1927 to 1931. It was reprinted in the posthumous Chesterton compilation The Spirit of Christmas: Stories, Poems, Essays (Dodd, Mead, 1985).

Contemporary icons of the Baptism of Christ

Today, January 6, is the feast of Epiphany (“manifestation,” “revelation,” “shining forth”)—also referred to as Theophany (“revelation of God”), or the Feast of Lights. While the Western church commemorates the visit of the Magi on this day, focusing on God’s revelation to the world through the birth of Christ, the Eastern church commemorates Jesus’s baptism, focusing on the Father and Spirit’s affirmation of the Son’s divinity at the beginning of his public ministry. Matthew 3:13–17 gives us the account:

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

Below is a selection of contemporary Theophany icons from Ukraine, Russia, Poland, Greece, and Romania. All but one of them bear a semicircle at the top, which signifies the “opening of the heavens” and the voice of God reaching down; in Ioan and Camelia Popa’s, God’s hand is even visible. (Representation of the Father is forbidden by tradition, though a hand is generally acceptable because the Bible itself uses anthropomorphic expressions like “God’s hand” and “God’s mighty arm.”) A dove descends from this aperture, a literalization of the Gospel writers’ simile.

On the shores of the Jordan stand one or more angels at the service of their Lord. Their hands are covered by their own cloaks as a sign of reverence—or in some representations, they hold garments to drape over Christ when he emerges from the water. (Early icons of Jesus’s baptism show him completely naked, emphasizing his self-emptying; now, however, it’s more common to see him in a loincloth.)

In Lyuba Yatskiv’s and the Popas’ icons—the most traditional of this bunch—there is an allegorical figure in the river by Christ’s feet, pouring out water from a jug. This man is a personification of the Jordan River, which miraculously dried up, temporarily, to allow the ancient Israelites to cross over into the Promised Land (Joshua 3:15–17). Some icons, though none pictured here, include a second allegorical figure, (Red) Sea, who is turning away, parting (see Psalm 114:3).

In George Kordis’s icon, instead of Jordan at Christ’s feet, there’s a serpent being crushed, a reference to Psalm 74:13: “You divided the sea by your might; you broke the heads of the sea monsters on the waters.” Visually, this recalls the Eastern church’s Resurrection icon, which depicts Christ breaking down the doors of hell, flattening Satan.

Back to Yatskiv and Popa. In these two there is an axe lying next to a tree, alluding to the sermon by John the Baptist that immediately preceded this episode, in which he proclaimed, “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:10).

Epiphany calls us to worshipfully behold the shining forth of Jesus as messiah and as the second person of the Trinity. To orient yourself to the Orthodox celebration of today’s feast, here are two liturgical hymns, the Troparion and the Kontakion, that will be sung congregationally:

When Thou, O Lord, wast baptized in the Jordan, worship of the Trinity wast made manifest; for the voice of the Father bore witness to Thee, calling Thee His beloved Son. And the Spirit in the form of a dove confirmed the truth of His word. O Christ our God, Who hath appeared and enlightened the world, glory to Thee.

. . .

On this day Thou hast appeared unto the whole world, and Thy light, O Sovereign Lord, is signed on us who sing Thy praise and chant with knowledge: Thou hast now come, Thou hast appeared, O Thou Light unappproachable.

They offer a perfect lens through which to view the following icons.

Baptism of Christ by Jerzy Nowosielski
Jerzy Nowosielski (Polish, 1923–2011), The Baptism of Jesus Christ in the Jordan, 1964. Oil on canvas, 100 × 80 cm.

Baptism of Christ by Greta Leśko
Greta Leśko (Polish, 1979–), Baptism of Christ. Oil on board, 40 × 30 cm. Private collection.

Baptism of Christ by Greta Lesko
Greta Leśko (Polish, 1979–), Baptism of Christ, 2014. Oil on board, 40 × 40 cm.

Baptism of Christ by Greta Lesko
Two-sided processional cross and ripidions by Greta Leśko (Polish, 1979–), 2011. Mixed media on wood. Cross: 90 cm tall (without shaft); ripidions: 13 cm diameter. Church of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross in Górowo Iławeckie, Warmian-Masurian Voivodeship, Poland. (See reverse)

Baptism of Christ by Lyuba Yatskiv
Icon by Lyuba Yatskiv (Ukrainian, 1977–)

Baptism of Christ by Ulyana Tomkeyvch
Icon by Ulyana Tomkevych (Ukrainian, 1981–)

Baptism of Christ by Ivanka Demchuk
Ivanka Demchuk (Ukrainian, 1990–), Baptism of Christ, 2015. Mixed media on canvas and wood, 30 × 40 cm.

Continue reading “Contemporary icons of the Baptism of Christ”