An early post on icons – hopefully part of a short series…
Years ago when I was studying in an Anglican seminary (mid-70’s), I had the beginnings of my interest in icons. I owned a couple, and read what little was available on the topic in English at that time (believe it or not there was a time when not many books were available in English on the topic of Orthodox Christianity). One day, in prayer, I had an overwhelming urge to paint an icon. It was as though I had seen an image in my peripheral vision. It stayed there for a while – and I felt a compulsion to paint. I knew nothing about painting and even less about painting icons.
Sometime that week I went out and bought art supplies. I mounted a large canvass on the inside of the front door of our apartment (the only flat surface we really had). And I began to paint.
In between studying and eating, I would paint. I would paint and repaint. It was almost like an obsession. I came to a place one day when I thought I might show my work to someone else.
One of my best friends at the time was a seminarian and an artist. I brought him in and asked what he thought. He began to laugh (not that the painting was that bad).
“Did you use any model?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “I didn’t think you were supposed to use models in painting icons.”
“Well,” he started, “there’s something many artists know about painting without models. It’s that you tend to paint yourself. Your icon of Christ looks just like you. Can you see it?”
I never could see it, but an important point was made. I learned years later that icons are not painted without models – but that the model is always another icon. They are painted according to Tradition.
But I also learned something about myself and human nature. We like to make icons, but our favorite image of God is the one we see in the mirror.
An old friend, a veteran of many years in Alcoholics Anonymous once told me, “All you need to know about God, is that you’re not Him.” I don’t agree that it’s all we need to know – but it’s certainly among the first things we need to know.
That ignorance, the God whom I don’t know, is the surface upon which the True Icon can be painted. I only know God as Christ has made Him known to me. He is the icon of the invisible God (Col. 1:15).
What I painted years ago, was a false image, not only of myself, but of God. As the years go by, I see more clearly that I look nothing like Him. May God have mercy.
I found the following quote from Thomas Merton in an article by Met. Kallistos Ware. It spoke to me of the place of the True Icon and seemed worth adding to this post:
At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our mind or the brutalities of our will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. It is, so to speak, His name written in us. As our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, as our son-ship, it is like a pure diamond blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody. And if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely. I have no program for this seeing; it is only given. But the Gate of Heaven is everywhere.
From Merton’s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander
Photo: Under a tree by the Trinity River in Zion National Park.
Fr…if you still have that 1st painting of the icon around, take a picture of it and post it on this site. Blessings
I’m fascinated. Indeed, we do seem to paint God in our own image.
I enjoyed the movie about St. Francis, “Brother Son, Sister Moon.” In the first part of the movie, the famous director (forget which one) focuses a few times on the icon of Christ atop the alter of the militaristic town in which St. Francis grew up. The icon depicted Christ as a warrior.
When St. Francis started a brotherhood for the poor atop the ruins of an abandoned church, the icon showed Christ as a weeping pauper.
When St. Francis is summoned by the Pope at the end of the movie, the icon at St. Peters shows Christ as royalty.
As someone who has recently taken up the practice of writing icons, I am more than aware that the true icon we ought to keep in mind while painting is Christ. But you are correct that many times what makes its way to the board is an image of ourself as well and that is a rather humbling thought.
When I sit down to write an icon, I know that the paint will reveal my own journey, my own spiritual life and all the sins and flaws of who I am at that particular moment. But in doing so, I can see what still needs to be surrendered to the Lord.
Thanks for the post.
very good. gosh by todays standards in all these mega churches and t.v. ministeries, a person going or watching these ministers one would think “they are the way” wake up call people!! mary
Splendid article, Fr. Stephen.
I’m looking at a copy of the icon of The Transfiguration of Christ by the hand of Photios Kontoglu (Orthodox Study Bible p. 1314-5) and one really does see one’s own spiritual life reflected in the faces and colours.
Christ is Risen!