Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Comtemplative Arts

Header photograph - Main Altar, chapel of Mt. St. Alphonsus Retreat Center, Esopus, New York

The Holy Face

Image Not Made by Hands

Icon Writing Retreat/Workshop

In its intensity and its demands for personal discipline and dedication traditional iconography is a metaphor of the spiritual journey. I never expected to return home so elated and so tired after six eight hour days in the icon studio.

I was among four rank beginners in a group of fifteen, many of whom had returned time and time again for this experience of immersion in icon writing taught by Sandra June Hofstead.

It was a great delight to find that the icon chosen for me was that of the Holy Face, an image of Jesus. What better subject on which to concentrate and meditate for the week! St. Therese of Lisieux had as the predicate of her religious name "of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face." There are photographs of her holding this image and these days some icons have been painted in which she holds the icon in her hands. The "image not made by hands" is part of ancient Byzantine tradition and is spoken of in liturgical prayer as "the image presented to King Abgar of Edesa." Jim Forest, in his wonderful book Praying with Icons, explains further: "According to legend, the first icon was made when King Abgar of Osroene, dying of leprosy, sent a message begging Jesus to visit him in Edesa and cure him. Hurrying toward Jerusalem and his crucifixion, Christ instead sent a healing gift. He pressed his face against linen cloth, making the square of fabric bear his image. The miraculous icon remained in Edesa until the tenth century, when it was brought to Constantinople. Then, after the city was sacked by the Crusaders in 1204, it disappeared altogether."

In the western Church this depiction of the face of Christ on cloth is connected to the story of Veronica (which, by the way, means 'true image') who offered her veil to Jesus to wipe away the blood and sweat on his face as he carried the cross to Golgotha.

My effort at reproducing this holy icon appears here. It was painted in egg tempera on gesso applied to an icon board made of poplar wood. It is gilded in gold leaf. When it is oiled in another month it will appear to have taken on a new life of its own. It has been blessed only with incense and awaits a full blessing with holy water and oil of chrism once the finish has dried.

Icons have been described as doors to the sacred, windows opening to the mystery of the Incarnation, and revelation of Transfiguration. They are works of tradition, silent images that teach theological truths without attention to more modern artistic techniques and, above all, both the fruit of prayer and the invitation to prayer.

The moment of the process which was most moving for me was the step in which one has to bring themouth very close to the surface of the icon without touching it. Then a deep breath is taken and breathed heavily on to the icon, the same way you do when cleaning eyeglasses. This act of breathing hot, moist breath onto the icon places just the right amount of moisture on the surface of clay and glue mixture that has been painted onto the places that will receive the tissue paper thin gold leaf. It must be done over and over again because you can apply only about a square inch or so of gold at a time. As I breathed on the halo of Christ's image it felt as if I were breathing life into Him, bringing Him alive. I remembered the priest forcefully breathing the words "Hoc est enim corpus meum," (This is my Body) over the elements of bread and wine in the Latin Mass. And I connected with the charism at the heart of my own contemplative life, the call to be a "living memory" of Jesus Christ, to be His life in this world.

Here is the link for Sandra Hofstead at St. Elijah Icon Studio:

1 comment:

Br. Bernard Delcourt, OHC said...

What a beautiful example of incarnational prayer. The ruah, the pneuma being instilled by one of God's creatures into an image (an incarnation?) of the Creator.

OK, three strikes and I'm out. I'll stop posting comments for tonight ;-)