An Interview with Iconographer and Adjunct DSPT Professor, Fr. Brendan McAnerney, OP
Fr. Brendan will be teaching two courses for DSPT Summer Session. Click here for more information.
Fr. Brendan: Most of the people to whom I speak are Roman Catholics. They come from a tradition that encounters icons with increasing frequency, but they don't really know about the theology and the tradition of the holy icons. They want to know where holy icons come from and how the Eastern churches understand and appreciate them.
DSPT: Where do icons come from?
Fr. Brendan: Formal iconography, as we now think of it, had its real beginnings in the Eastern churches, certainly in Constantinople among other centers of Christianity. Holy iconography matured and was codified in a way that was never really explored by the Western churches. In the East, iconography grew up as a systemic part of the faith, and as it developed, was theologized through disputation and because it had to be defended against heretical attack in the 8th and 9th centuries, became an integral part of the faith of the East. The Eastern Church does not regard icons as merely decorative, or as a part of liturgical or personal spiritual life that may be or may not be incorporated. Icons are a necessary component in Eastern Christianity, like Sacred Scripture. Iconography is regarded as a sacred craft in the East, one that cannot be divorced from the spiritual and liturgical lives of Eastern Christians.
DSPT: What do icons mean?
Fr. Brendan: Iconography, through the guidance of the worshipping community, its theologians, and its councils, has, over the centuries, developed an alphabet - a grammar that is profound. It's easily taught and easily read, but it speaks profoundly… on many levels.
Icons are understood to be the vicarious presence of the one depicted. An icon is a proxy, if you will, or a mimesis, of the individual. It is not just a picture of a holy individual (Christ, the Mother of God, any of the saints#, but the vicarious presence of the one depicted, the transfigured, transformed human being who now enjoys the life of the Trinity. For the Eastern Christians to approach an icon, is not simply to approach a work of art about the saint or God himself, it is to approach that individual who is present through the similarity of image. This is why we treat icons with reverence… why we incense them, pray and sing before them, bow before them… because they don't simply represent - in the Western sense- the individuals, they are the vicarious presence of those individuals.
DSPT: Are icons an Eastern or Western tradition?
Fr. Brendan: Holy icons are not just the patrimony of the Eastern churches, they belong to the Universal Church of Jesus Christ, of which the West is an integral part. Painted images have been used and venerated in the West since the beginnings of Christianity.
One can see the artistic bedrock of iconography in the Hellenistic tradition that permeated what would become the Christian East. One example is paintings that come from a location in Egypt now called Al-Fayoum, the Fayum portraits. They are Hellenistic portraits attached to Egyptian mummies. They were painted in a style brought to Egypt by Alexander the Great about 300 BC. That style, tradition, is certainly one of the ancestors of iconography.
Christians typically met and celebrated the Eucharist on the tombs of the martyrs. After the persecutions ended with the edict of Milan #313 AD# the tradition of celebrating the Eucharist on the tombs of the martyrs was carried into the liturgical traditions of both the Eastern and the Western churches by having a martyr-saint relic in an altar-stone. Contiguous with the tradition of holy relics in the East was the tradition of holy images, another way of maintaining a continuity between the worshiping community and the Communion of Saints in the Church Triumphant, an icon being the vicarious presence of the one depicted.
DSPT: What is the spiritual meaning behind the icons?
Fr. Brendan: Icons, by their presence in a space sanctify that space. This is why most Orthodox and Eastern Catholic homes, have a corner or dedicated place where family icons are hung. The principal or patronal icon may be hung in a corner so that it can look over the entire room. In Russian it is called the “red corner,” because the word for red in Russian is the same as the word for beautiful, so it's the beautiful corner, the spiritual heart of the house. That doesn't mean other icons aren't present in other places - in the bedroom, in the kitchen where one may find an icon of St. Euphrosynos, patron saint of cooks, etc.
DSPT: I have heard people refer to “reverse perspective” describing icons. What does that mean?
Fr. Brendan: In the West we have all grown up with the influence of Italian Renaissance… and so looking at a painting or photograph we anticipate a perspective that has a vanishing point in the distance. We allow the painting to draw the viewer in… so we can imagine what it would be like to walk down that country road or what it would be like to sit next to the Virgin with her Divine Child as she sits on the bench in an Italian Renaissance painting. It is very different with an icon where the “orientation point,” rather than a “vanishing point,” is the viewer… creating what is called “reverse perspective.”
An icon functions as a point of contact between the material and glorified worlds… a permeable membrane where the material and spiritual meet and sometimes cross over. It attempts to show the viewer more than “natural time,” but “transfigured” space and time. In addition, the depicted individual - whether it is Christ God, the Mother of God or one of the saints - is not simply inviting one to come into that pictorial space, but is eagerly trying to come out of that space to meet the viewer. This represents God's initiative in establishing a relationship with a person.
This is not a passive but an active posture by God or the saints, where the one depicted, through the use of “reverse perspective,” eagerly seeks to meet the viewer in the space between the icon and the individual. Some of the old icons, painted on wooden boards that retained natural growth rings, #instead of planed, flat boards that we have today) were curved outward, towards the viewer, convex never concave. The shape of the board and “reverse perspective,” and other parts of the iconographic grammar attempt to convey the eagerness of God and His saints to be in communion with the viewer.
DSPT: So a good icon actually interacts in a metaphysical way with the viewer?
Fr. Brendan: Any “good” icon moves a viewer towards prayer. If an icon doesn't do that, and doesn't do that with regularity, then it's probably not a very good icon. This doesn't mean that a good icon needs to be complicated or of high artistic quality. In the Eastern tradition there are many “wonder-working” icons, i.e. icons that have levitated, been the occasion for cures, have wept tears, run with perfumed oil, any number of other wonders. Many of them are not artistically beautiful icons. The lesson, I suppose, is that in His providence God often chooses the lowly as instruments or occasions of particular graces… an encouragement to us all.
DSPT: Why do some use the term, “icon writing”, instead of “icon painting”?
Fr. Brendan: The term “icon writing” begins with the Greek verb graphein, “to write.” Some iconographers see the term as a significant linguistic link to the writing of Sacred Scripture, understanding holy iconography as an extension of that “writing.” However, when we speak of the “graphic arts” today we mean drawing and painting, so some iconographers fine the term “to write an icon” needlessly esoteric. In addition, holy iconography is not limited to images constructed on surfaces with paint. Icons can be woven, stitched, carved, molded and cast, making the term “writing” unnecessarily restrictive.
DSPT: How did you become interested in icon writing?
Fr. Brendan: I don't remember not being interested in icons. I painted my first icon for my grandmother when I was 12 years old—I'm sure it was “primitive.” Then I studied art, art history, and entered the Dominican Order. As a novice I was asked to paint an icon that in the west is called Our Lady of Perpetual Help, in the East the Theotokos of the Passion, for a Filipino community in Ketchikan, Alaska. When I was serving at the Newman Center in Eugene, Oregon we needed an image of Christ the King, so I painted what I thought was an icon. Finally, my sister battled cancer for a number of years, and I prayed to St. Peregrine, the Latin patron for people with cancer. Thanks to God, she was cured, and has been cancer-free for over 20 years now. When I was assigned to Blessed Sacrament Parish in Seattle, I wanted to do something to thank St. Peregrine, so we established a novena to him. For the novena I painted what I imagined was an icon of St. Peregrine. I really didn't know what I was doing… so went looking for formal instruction. I was fortunate to find the Antiochian Orthodox in Ligonier, Pennsylvania who were willing to teach a Roman Catholic priest. Then I studied with Vladislav Andrejev, a Russian iconographer, and have since studied with other people in the Byzantine Greek tradition of Photis Kontoglou.
DSPT: Who can write icons?
Fr. Brendan: Anyone who is called to encounter the Incarnate God in a tradition that has a particular grammar and parameters… anyone who respects the venerable and holy tradition of iconography. It is not for the “artist” who wishes to express him or her “self,” but one who wishes to serve. No previous artistic experience is necessary. That statement often intimidates people, and I can understand why… but God is not interested in how beautiful a finished icon is. Rather, He is interested in the intention of the iconographer. If the intention is not “ego-centric” but “theo-centric” the resulting icon will be “beautiful.” That's why I am a teacher, to guide people in their iconography. People often have more facility with painting than they think they do. But even if an individual has little graphic ability… if one prayerfully follows the instruction, all will be well. I have never had anyone in a class who did not produce a credible icon, and virtually everyone loves the icon he or she creates.
DSPT: Who have you taught?
Fr. Brendan: I have taught principally Roman Catholics, but I've also taught Protestants and others of “non-specific affiliation.” One of my biggest supporters has been Church of the Ascension, Episcopal in Knoxville, Tennessee. I've been going there to teach every year for over 10 or 12 years… I've lost count. On their own they formed the East Tennessee Iconographers Guild. They get together once a month to pray and paint together and encourage one another… an edifying group.