By reason of its long history and the dynamic concepts that controlled it, the images of women in Christian iconography are few and varied.
Beginning with Byzantine Sacred Art in the early centuries of the Christian era, iconography portrays the human soul on earth as described in the bible, the images illustrate our journey towards eternal truth. Figures from the Old Testament (e.g., Abraham Sarah and the holy Trinity), episodes from the life Jesus (e.g., the Raising of Lazarus, the Last Supper, the Washing of Feet, the Doubting Thomas), scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary (e.g., the Hodegitria, the Domition, the Visitation), scenes from the lives of the saints (e.g., St. Francis, St. Jerome in the Wilderness, Mary Magdelena), all reveal the same purpose; to articulate and repeat in many forms how the mind and heart experience the fundamental dogmas of Sacred Christian Iconography. The question I have is, “is there more to portray, more to contemplate, and more to be revealed in our modern day?”
This sacred art could be said to be above all a kind of sacred writing/painting whose system of characters, i.e., the iconography, had to be learned by every artist. It was governed also by a kind of sacred mathematics, in which position, grouping, symmetry, and number were of extraordinary importance and were themselves an integral part of the iconography. These guidelines were developed as the church institution developed along with the mystic writings of great saints.
Iconography is meant to be a window to open us to a deeper presence and understanding of the divine. Some examples are: the dove, which figures the Holy Spirit; the fish is a symbol of Christ, a dark hole in the mountain is as symbol of ignorance; and the bowl or pitcher of water signifies purity, each color and the numbers of windows all contain significance. In Christian sacred art, the vehicle of spiritual meaning exists in large degree within the forms and language of image; they must continue to grow and include more images to represent all of humankind’s contemporary efforts to answer why are we here?
Regretfully, women were generally absent from the images depicted in the icons and from the creation of them. While we cannot change the history of the icon tradition, its narrow window of experience, understanding, and vision can become immensely broader with the addition of an array of perspectives. Today the minds and hearts of women are emerging from a long tradition of silence and there is much which is changing within this great tradition of iconography. Many women have been inspired and called to write icons. I am one of those women.
Perhaps it is time for women to write
new icons from their own perspective.
Women are the mothers, sisters, and daughters in the communities who have been watching, listening, and speaking among themselves, sharing their insight, wisdom, and mystical knowledge for years. Their voices are of great importance and necessary for bringing into balance a male-dominated global landscape and history. In many countries around the world, female voices have not been heard in iconography. I want to encourage the female hand and heart to create new icons for liturgy and prayer and I pray their iconic messages and insights will foster a more spiritually integrated world.
Iconographers outside of the orthodox Chruch
Like me, many contemporary icon painters are women outside the Orthodox Church who live and work in the secular middle ground, not limited by the doctrine. As a result, what was once considered to be unchangeable and constant is being explored. Because of newly discovered texts and the contemporary phrasing of old theology, we can re-examine who we are in God. Female as well as male icon painters are living through a renaissance, experiencing a revival of ideas and perspectives concerning the divine.
It is not a heresy to be a rebellious icon painter, to be enthusiastically exploring the visual doctrines and canons held by the icon tradition. Many new ideas As a woman, I believe the storytelling in iconography has the potential to reflect a more contemporary vision of the world. I persistently seek ways to offer new expressions and meaning to Christ’s message. Women who are preserving this ancient tradition must cultivate and bring forth not just mere “painted” copies of the past, but spiritual insights for the future. I hope our feminine perspective will advance the growth of both men and women towards becoming walking icons of God.