Iconography: Made in His Likeness

A 2013 Course in Review

Considering all the media and the multiplicity of creative means of expressing yourself artistically, why would someone study Iconography? Whereas most art-forms encourage the artist to be creative, iconography does just the opposite. The iconographer strives to reproduce with exactness the icon he is copying. Just as ancient scribes painstakingly strove to copy the Sacred Scriptures without any variation from the original, so also does the iconographer. Why then do people find this work compelling? Is it attractive simply because it has stood the test of time, or has it stood the test of time because it is attractive? In other words, is this just another form of folk art, or is there a greater attraction here?

This year, in the Living Water College Iconography Program, Made in His Likeness, not only did students learn how to paint an icon of the glorious St. Michael the Archangel, but, through daily readings and seminars, the students entered into a discussion of beauty itself and what it is that makes the icon so attractive. In spite of an initial impression that icons seem stark and unrealistic, all came to see the profound beauty revealed in the symbolism of these classic images. After the first seminar session the students were hooked. They began to eagerly look forward to pausing for 2 hours each day and discussing profound ideas central to our humanity.

They wrestled with whether or not beauty is simply something nice or if it is much greater; something we cannot live without. They examined the relationship between beauty and worship, reflecting on the differences they have experienced praying in a sparse modern church as compared to one with beautiful ancient architecture, images and statues. They pondered the daily struggle we all face being attracted to the beauty of the created thing or person we behold more than to the beauty of the One who created it. They read the thoughts of St. Augustine, who spoke of the potential distraction caused by beauty, especially when we desire to have “fair forms” satisfy us completely. This caution led to a discussion on the sincere motivation of ancient iconoclasts, who endeavoured to clear the early church of images, and the iconoclasts of post-Vatican II, bent on simplifying and modernizing the decoration of Catholic churches. Study of the works of St. John Damascene, who eloquently challenged the iconoclasm of the 8th century, provided brilliant perspective on the need for beauty in our churches today. The students shared some of the insights they had gleaned from St. John: “Through beauty, the invisible is made visible;” “The sensible points to the insensible;” “An image is always an imperfect representation.”

Day after day, the students posed rich ideas and grew closer to an understanding of the place of the icon in the worship of God. Discussions and readings likely provided more questions than answers, but the answers they did arrive at were very rewarding. Ultimately, their ideas were borne out in their practise, painstakingly copying Holy Scripture as it is represented by the image, daily more clearly gazing back at them. They thought deeply and seriously, they carefully fashioned a true representation of the classic icon of St. Michael, and they bent their will to God through the whole process, daily taking their work and their thoughts to their community and private prayer and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and daily bringing back to class the rich fruit of the growth in faith these 2 weeks provided.

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