As I wrote in the last few entries, those of us in initial formation took an iconography class. We learned about the history and meaning of icons during the first week and in the second week, we got to "write" icons under the guidance and direction of our professor, Sister Mariella.
Sister Mariella is no stranger to iconography. She prayed and wrote two San Damiano Crucifixes. One is in St. Rita's Chapel. The San Damiano Crucifix is an icon that Franciscans hold dear. St. Francis received his call to rebuild the Church when he was praying before the crucifix in San Damiano. When he heard this call, he thought he had to rebuild the physical structure of the church. He realized later that his call was to rebuild the Catholic Church. For Franciscans, this crucifix is a reminder of our call and commitment to God.
This summer, S. Mariella took on the challenge of teaching us. We learned that icons are sacred images. These images are the Bible of the Illiterate: the Word is for hearing and the Icon is for sight. They are called "Gates to Heaven" or "Windows to the Eternal." Icons are rooted in the incarnation and they represent humanity and divinity. Their simplicity, flatness, unreal colors, and different facial structures can be difficult for some Westerners to appreciate at first, but this "different" artistic language emphasizes that the figures being represented in the icon are beyond the physical world. In other words, they are spiritual.
Icons were controversial for a time. In the eighth century, there was an Iconoclastic movement that was anti-icons. The two major arguments of Iconoclasm were the prohibition against fashioning images, and the presumption that it was idol worship. (Exodus 20:4- " You shall not make for yourself an idol.) However, these misconceptions were overcome as St. John Damascene, St. Athenasius, St. Cyril of Alexandra, Empress Theodora, and others corrected the false notions. In 843, Theodora restored the devotion to the images. They once again became a way for people to pray, as people understood that icons are not being worshiped.
We also learned that we "write" icons. I kept having to correct myself for saying "paint." When we look at an icon, we "read" them. When we write them, the darkest colors usually go first, for a gradual movement to light, to represent the our interior movements from dark to light. The whole process is a prayer. One cannot write an icon without praying.
I am just fascinated that the icons don't smell, because we made the paint with egg yoke! That's how iconographers make the paint.
Here are our icons in front of the San Damiano Cross in St. Rita's Chapel:
I was able to pray with the Good Shepherd icon last weekend, which was very enriching! My icon was of St. Monica (far left), and it helped me to feel more connected with her and her story.
Right now, we are applying the varnish to the icons. It's really helping to bring out the colors!