Why (on earth) Icons?

When I tell people that, in retirement, my focus will be grandbabies and icons, the reactions are fun to watch.  Grandbabies?  People really get that!  But icons?  Polite puzzlement is a frequent response.

Guardian Angel Icon
Guardian Angel Icon

The very first time I recall seeing an icon was when my Sunday school class in Houston visited an Eastern Orthodox worship service.  I remember sitting in the front row, and seeing this huge screen of icons—lots and lots of icons.  There were images of Jesus, various scenes in Jesus’ life (including lots of Mary with a child-sized Jesus on her lap), and saints and prophets (many of whom I did not recognize).  And gold—lots and lots of gold.  Frankly, they left me cold.

My love affair with icons began with Church History in seminary.  First, I learned that very early on, people in the Eastern Orthodox Church (centered in Constantinople, rather than in Rome) began making these stylized images of Jesus, and of Mary holding a baby Jesus.  Then, in the 8th century, as Islam arose and grew, a major controversy emerged amongst Christians:  were these images idols—prohibited by the Ten Commandments?  Or were they permissible ways to connect with the living God?  Icons were destroyed.  Some Councils of the church ruled for icons—others against.  Finally, in the 11th century, the matter was settled.  If Jesus really became human, and if an image can be made of a human, then icons were permitted.  If we truly believe in the incarnation:  God taking human flesh, then veneration of icons is not idolatry.  This answer to the debate opened my heart to icons.

Another step came when I took early Church history.  I had always been puzzled (and perhaps a bit repulsed by) the Catholic and Orthodox veneration of Mary.  I grew up in neighborhoods where the Catholic families had these statues of Mary (draped in blue) in their yards.  But then, in seminary, I learned that early Christians very quickly began praying to Mary to intercede for them with Jesus.  In their culture, an ordinary person would never approach a “King” (as in Christ the King) directly.  You would go through an intermediary.  And Mary quickly became a way ordinary people connected to Jesus.  Images of Mary with Jesus are called “Theotokos” in the Eastern Orthodox church:  meaning “bearer of God.”  I, too, yearned to become a “bearer of God!”  My childhood prejudice fell away, and I fell in love with icons.

I am an “adult onset” artist.  Nobody ever praised my drawings as a child.  As a teenager, I was into math and science.  But, emerging from graduate school, I began to really enjoy going to art museums.  In Houston, friends took me to art openings.  I signed my young children up for “Parent/Child” art classes at the Museum of Fine Arts.  We would go to the museum, look at African masks, and then make our own paper mache mask.  All the other parents were really focused on helping their kids with their projects.  I, on the other hand, fell in love with the art making.  My poor kids were on their own!  That delightful experience led to taking adult art classes for several years.

When I was admitted to Wesley Theological Seminary, I discovered their studio arts program.  The studio became my “second home” at Wesley.  After my first semester, I happened to visit the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, and saw my first Ethiopian icons.  Icons are different from other art in that the images are typically very flat (no 3-D perspective!).  They are intended to be “windows to the divine” rather than something made for aesthetic enjoyment.  Most icons are made for community worship, and are an essential part of the liturgy.  Ethiopian icons have become my favorites because I love the African influence on the tradition (Jesus has corn-rows!) and the vivid primary colors.  Also, in Ethiopia, icons are believed to have healing properties, and that speaks to me.  I bought a book at the museum, and made my very first healing icon the next day!

Icon: Samuel of Waldebba
Icon: Samuel of Waldebba

At first, I used really nice ink marker pens to make what I call “icon sketches,” which take several hours to make (see the image).  Usually, I refer to an original Ethiopian icon in making my own, using the original as a visual guide.  In 2008, my beloved lay leader at Arlington Temple died suddenly, and I went out the next day and bought paper to begin my first cut paper icon.  Making an icon of Mary, the “Bearer of God,” was a way to process my grief at her sudden death.  The cut paper images take a lot longer than the sketches.  There is no drawing on these icons:  everything is created using paper.  (See Samuel of Waldebba images). 

Depending on the size and complexity, these icons can take several months to do.  I am drawn to the paper and paper cutting, because it reminds me of my mother, and the way she would cut fabric on the dining room table for the clothes she made for us.  There is something of my mother’s love in the process of creating.

For me, making (or “writing” which is the term historically used) icons is a form of spiritual contemplation.  Working on the icon sketches during long meetings is a way I fend off my impatience, and am able to stay focused on the conversation.  When writing an icon about my two favorite Ethiopian saints (Samuel of Waldebba, and Abune Gabre Menfes Kiddish), I reflect on what made them holy, and how I can conform my own will to Christ’s.  It’s a little bit like imagining yourself in the presence of the “communion of saints.” 

Going forward, I hope that by creating icons, and sharing them, other people will connect with the living God in a more powerful way.  After an art camp last summer on my renewal leave, I am experimenting with adding layers and dimensions to my cut paper icons.  Madeline L’Engle wrote:

We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it. 

That is my prayer.  Cathy

Books and Resources on Icons

For icons in general:

  • Sacred Doorways, Linette Martin
  • Praying with Icons, Jim Forest
  • Behold the Beauty:  Praying with Icons, Henri Nouwen

For Ethiopian icons:

  • Art That Heals:  The Image as Medicine in Ethiopia, Jacques Mercier.