Even in Catholic circles, icons suffer from insufficient understanding. These images are often regarded as a mere style of art from Eastern Orthodox churches. What they are, however, are glimpses into eternity with roots in antiquity.
The word “icon” comes from the Greek word eikon, which means “image.” The artist (referred to as an iconographer) is said to “write” an icon because it is intended to be visual Scripture. The icon is most often a painting, but it can also be carved, cast in metal or done as a mosaic. It usually portrays Jesus, an angel or a saint.
According to iconographer Marek Czarnecki, “It’s a vision of reality that uses art to open the window to heaven.” His own journey into iconography began in 1990, when his father promised a parish priest at St. Stanislaus Church in Bristol, Conn., that his son would paint the famous Our Lady of Czestochowa image. This ancient Polish icon is mentioned in records dating back to the 1300s.
Although Czarnecki was not interested in religion at the time, he honored his father’s wishes. Seeing people pray in front of the image filled him with awe — and inspired him to devote his work to icons and revisit his own faith. Now, he specializes in iconography at his studio in Connecticut (SeraphicRestorations.com). It was his icon of Jesus representing the priesthood that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops used as their symbol for the Year for Priests in 2009-2010.
“I don’t sign my work because an icon must be transparent; the artist should not get in the way,” he said. Part of the artist’s transparency is accessing the spiritual through prayer and fasting during the creative process, he explained, because the images are considered to be sacred objects. Some are even believed to be miraculous, such as the Our Lady of Czestochowa icon.
Icons use a language all their own to reveal a deeper meaning. The invisible spiritual dimension is conveyed through symbols. Jesus always has a cross in his halo. Mary has three stars on her garments to show she was a virgin before, during and after the birth of Christ. A profile image means those depicted have not reached salvation yet, such as Judas in the Last Supper or a shepherd in the Nativity. Saints, on the other hand, face forward, as do images of Jesus, because we will see him face to face in heaven. Icons of Christ and other holy images remind the viewers to reflect on the lives and virtues of those depicted.
Nick Markell of Hugo, Minn., who has been an iconographer for 20 years, explained, “Signs and symbols were especially important in the early Church, when most people could not read.” For a time, however, religious art was questioned. “There was a moment in the Church when images were questioned as idolatry,” said Markell. “The second Council of Nicaea (787) established that they were a means by which God’s grace comes into our life.”
In Pope John Paul II’s 1999 “Letter to Artists,” the late Holy Father explained that decision: “The decisive argument to which the bishops appealed in order to settle the controversy was the mystery of the Incarnation: If the Son of God had come into the world of visible realities — his humanity building a bridge between the visible and the invisible — then, by analogy, a representation of the mystery could be used, within the logic of signs, as a sensory evocation of the mystery. The icon is venerated not for its own sake, but points beyond to the subject which it represents.”
Iconography became a distinct art so it would not be confused with idolatry. “Icon is to art what Bible is to literature. It depicts the same truth in a visual way,” explained Markell.
Although icons are rooted in Church history, when the East and West parted, icons went East. The West kept religious art but not icons, and, during the ’70s, even that was often removed from churches. In The Spirit of the Liturgy, Pope Benedict XVI stated that it was a misunderstanding of Vatican II to remove art: “Images of beauty, in which the mystery of the invisible God becomes visible, are an essential part of Christian worship.” He referred to icons as normative in the Eastern and Orthodox churches and said they should also become normative in the West. In line with Benedict’s desire, Markell stated that the West is developing an interest in icons.
In February of this year, an icon of the Holy Family commissioned to Markell (NicholasMarkell.com) was unveiled in the gathering space at Spirit of Life Catholic Church in Mandan, N.D.
Father Chad Gion, the pastor, set the area around the icon up as a shrine with kneelers and candles. “It offers people respite from the things of this world, as they look upon the Holy Family, he said. “Just like reading the Bible can be a personal experience, praying with an icon can be the exact same thing.”
Markell has been commissioned to write another larger icon of the crucifix, which will hang over the church altar.
Father Gion said, “When I made my interest known, people came forward with donations. There is a desire in the hearts of people for beauty in their churches.”
According to both Markell and Czarnecki, much of the growing interest in icons is from the laity.
Kim Heilman of Bismarck, N.D., attributes her love of icons to art history classes at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn. “If you are studying art history, you are studying the Church,” she said. “I was not a practicing Catholic back then, but I was hooked on art, and, through it, I became hooked on the Church.”
When Kim and her husband, Shawn, planned a Sacred Heart enthronement ceremony in their home, they turned to art. “Shawn and I wanted something really beautiful, so we commissioned an iconic image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus,” she said, choosing Czarnecki to write their icon.
“That is where our family prays every night,” she said. “When I look at the image, it helps to lift me out of my world of day-to-day responsibilities and focus on Christ.”
Patti Maguire Armstrong writes from Bismark, North Dakota.