By Christine Simoneau Hales
While I was in my second year of grad school at the College of New Rochelle, New York, my husband was busy photographing and writing his book Monastic Gardens (2000). Tagging along on photo shoots to monasteries, churches, and convents in the UK and France, I received my first introduction to icons.
Completely absorbed in my own artistic and educational pursuits, I was a bit nonplussed the day we visited a convent in France, when a joyful nun named St. John de la Croix enthusiastically recommended that, since I was an artist, I needed to meet their resident iconographer, Sister Myriam. To be polite, I agreed to meet with her the next day . . . and that was the beginning of an ever-evolving lifelong passion that continues to this day.
What transpired during that four-hour meeting with Sr. Myriam was what I can only recognize now, in hindsight, as an encounter with the Holy Spirit. Through the gentle nun’s explanation of icons—what they are and are not—I received a revelation so enlightening that my search for what went into making good art was over. I knew I had found something of great value—to me as an artist and seeker of God.
Having graduated from a renowned Boston art school in the 1970’s “anything goes” era, I got the message that traditional or classical art training was deemed irrelevant to the postmodern, conceptual art world. Yet, I came of age as an artist with a deep hunger for the principles of classical painting, so I was ripe for an exegesis on egg tempera and a godly perspective on art-making with icons. Iconography was so foreign to me at first, though, that I considered it exotic—something to be explored, appreciated, and practiced if possible, but not as a replacement for my contemporary painting practice. Little did I know that learning the spiritual discipline of icon writing (as it is usually called) would allow me to paint and pray—two of my most significant daily activities—simultaneously.
The word icon comes from the Greek word for image, but in the world of iconography, they are so much more than that. Icons are intended to be sacred, holy pictures—telling scriptural stories; depicting holy people, such as saints; or conveying a sense of the sacred by dint of the prayers and intentions of the iconographer.
Traveling through Russia and Belarus in 2006 with twenty-two other iconographers, I toured many ancient churches and viewed many icon reproductions—some draped with chains and jewelry—all given in testimony to the healings received through prayers with that icon. Stories abound, as well, to the efficacy of icons used on the front line of battles to bring victory and peace. Both cases give testimony to the healing benefits of art and prayer; regardless of the quality of the materials (in the case of these inexpensive paper reproductions), the icons served to convey God’s promises, presence, and healing.
In many denominations, icons are used liturgically, placed strategically in the church sanctuaries to aid meditation and prayer. In Albany, where I teach an ongoing ecumenical icon writing course, one evening we placed icons in a local Presbyterian church as part of an organ concert and invited the public in to experience meditation through music and icons. It was a way for us to introduce the Byzantine practice of experiencing God through various senses to an audience who’d had little previous exposure to that practice. People were engaged and appreciative, expressing how it enhanced their own life of faith, regardless of denominational differences.
In the first six centuries of Christianity, icons derived from the Greco-Roman style of painting, most readily seen in the Egyptian mummy funeral portraits: simple facial features, large, soulful eyes, and a minimum of detail or realism, yet still bearing a likeness to the person.
In the later Byzantine era (c. 700-1300) the painting style maintained a flat pictorial space with the deployment of sacred geometry for composition and the emergence of a stronger, more sophisticated color matrix. Still, naturalism was intentionally not a part of the esthetic, and a more symbolic use of scale and imagery prevailed.
The turning point of the Renaissance initiated a long period of what we call “decadence” in iconography, as seen in modern icons in Russia, Greece, and Europe. A key feature of this era is that the pictorial space is now dominated by a Renaissance perspective, the colors becoming more artificial, and the figures and faces becoming more naturalistic and realistic. This shift was significant because the pictorial space ceased to be symbolic, pointing to God’s heavenly reality; it took on more earthly, realistic characteristics.
A likely explanation for this shift is the advent of the Age of Reason, sometimes called the Age of Humanism. This was a major shift from a culture that looked first to God as the ultimate authority and provider of all things. Now the focus was on man as the authority and inventor, provider of his own destiny, not reliant on the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
In the early centuries of iconography, the proportions of the human figure were roughly six heads (the length of the head being the unit of measurement); by the eighteenth century, bodies were as long as eleven heads! Clearly, man was dominating the picture plane, and God’s presence became less significant visually.
Today, Modern Greek, English, and Baltic iconographers grapple with how to make icons and icon writing more visually relevant while still upholding the traditions of the Church. There are no written rules for what makes an icon a good one. However, the traditions of icon-writing have been handed down through the centuries by iconographers and their students, thus keeping the Christian faith alive in visual form for continued generations to use for inspiration and worship.
My particular interest is in the formation of an American Iconography. We study with Greek, Russian, and English iconographers who bring their traditions to us and then we, as American iconographers, can translate those teachings in order to speak to an American population that embraces ecumenism. As a contemporary American artist, I look to the American Abstract expressionists, who were instrumental in moving the locus of painting from Europe to New York, and realize that, although there was spiritual content in many of their paintings, it usually wasn’t specifically Christian. As an American iconographer, I am excited to see others coming alongside me as we reinvest in this sacred art form which depicts explicitly Christian people and themes and provides inspiration and a tool for devotion. To aid this effort, I have started a blog, the American Association of Iconographers, to encourage and serve as a resource and community builder for others on this journey.
Christine Simoneau Hales is a contemporary artist (christinehales.com) as well as a Master iconographer. She teaches icon writing to both experienced artists and those who have no previous experience. She is the founder of the American Association of Iconographers and also a member of the British Association of Iconographers, London, UK. Her commissioned icons are on display in many churches and private collections around the USA. Please visit the “Classes and Retreats” page for more information on class dates and locations.