Iconography students have extraordinary encounters with God. Recently, my icon painting group worked on the image of the Doubting Thomas. One student had just buried his beloved life partner because of a long bought with cancer. As St. Thomas reaches out to be affirmed by the risen Lord, Jeff recalled his yearning to see his friend again, to be by his side. As Thomas reaches out for validation of Christ’s continued existence, Jeff realized he is not alone. He recognized an additional dimension found in death. Painting that icon image gave him peace and reassurance to move into a new relationship with his beloved. Authentic, unpredictable, and intimate experiences of iconography are many.
Theologians and iconographers alike appreciated how God speaks to us through a thousand brush strokes and the quiet time required for painting them.
The holy spirit calls us to be servants, observers, and witness through this amazing practice. I am pretty sure most iconographers feel a sense of mystery as they delve into this discipline. Doubt is unavoidable as we question who gives the desire to paint and what are we trying to accomplish? The paradox is an unavoidable; we do not work alone and something drives us we cannot see.
St Luke is the Icon for experiencing Iconography
This beautiful classic icon portrays three levels of reality which iconographers are aware of simultaneously; the physical, historical, and spiritual dimensions. Each one moves in and out of our cognizance as we paint and pray.
St Luke is seated painting or writing an icon on a physical wooden panel. The miraculous apparition of Mary and Christ represents the historical event of the past. He captures what he sees in the vision, it’s deeper meaning and significance with paint and brush. St Luke receives spiritual inspiration from the angel to identify the apparition. What is unseen with the eye is revealed in the heart and mind of St Luke. Intuitive awareness is not of this world, yet this awareness of spiritual presence sustains us.
Image of St Luke
In this portrayal St Luke changes the historical appearance of Mary slightly between what he sees and imagines. St Luke is not painting exactly what he sees. This is an interesting and significant alteration. The virgin Mary appears as the Hodegetria, a Greek title for Mary, meaning “Mary who shows us the Way.” She is offering Christ to the world. However, what St Luke actually paints is Mary the Theotokos. The Greek word identifies Mary as the binding force of love that keeps the universe together. Their faces tenderly touch in an intimate embrace.
When I painted this icon, I imagined another another version of Mary
It is the Panagia, in Greek, referring to the initial commencement of Christ energy revealed in the womb of Mother Mary. Luke receives the fullness of Mary into his being. He sees a historical vision of Mary, and through image translates the revelations meaning. The concept is not part of the icon; the idea is a message that came into my mind as another dimension of St. Luke’s commitment to God and image. As Iconographers we translate revelation into image. Mary receiving Jesus in the womb happened in one instant. The significance of the event becomes full in Jesus Christ.
The language of iconography is magnificent, and I believe transforms the heart and the hand of every iconographer. I am not the only contemporary iconographer who accidentally or unconsciously changes ancient image. St Luke is portrayed here doing just that 1,500 years ago. If Iconography is to continue as a prayer form and practice it will be altered. St Luke’s inspiration to modify the appearance of Mary happened because of his capacity to pray and seek wisdom.
Iconography must continue to change and evolve as illustrated in the narrative icon of St Luke. The icon explains how this happens, in order and significance. We have history to guide us, the holy spirit to inspire us and our own hand to give light to the unseen.
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