In the summer of 1987, after Dean DeVeau presented me to Bishop Vogel for confirmation, I headed off to the University of Heidelberg to begin my graduate studies. While there, for several months, I worshipped with the rest of the Anglican chaplaincy in borrowed facilities, a Ruthenian Catholic church hung floor to ceiling with icons. For a boy from the Ozarks, they were a shock to the system. Idolatrous, I thought, and ugly to boot. Odd, foreign and just weird, they didn’t look like I thought holy images ought to. Until one morning when the scales fell from my eyes and I saw them on their own terms, saw that it wasn’t about me seeing the icons. It was the icons who were watching me—the saints who aren’t dead at all, but alive and well in God’s more immediate presence, looking through these windows of the soul at me.
About the year 400 a prominent theologian, Basil the Great of Caesarea in central Turkey, said something quite stunning. “The honor shown the image (in Greek, “to the icon”) passes over to the archetype.” For a leader of a religion which had sprung from the font of Judaism to say this must have seemed truly odd, seeing as how Judaism has such an ambivalent attitude toward sacred imagery. Especially when one considers that for nearly 300 years the only sacred images Christians regularly saw would have been the idols of the persecuting pagan majority. Oh, there are hints here and there of Christian images--Tertullian talks about a chalice with a good shepherd engraving, and there’s an enigmatic statue in Athens’ Byzantine Museum which looks for all the world like Orpheus charming the beasts, but is inscribed to the honor of Christ saving savage souls. But they are hints, and must have been anomalies for the first 300 years.
Probably social history explains the importation
of images in Christian worship. For 300 years Christians worshipped in
only two places—living rooms and cemeteries. And the latter were the only
truly safe places, with prayers and eucharist in catacombs tolerated by
the Romans who were profoundly concerned that the dead stay happy, even
if they were kept that way by otherwise illegal rituals. So the early Church,
once it crawled out of the catacombs and into its new basilicas when Constantine
gave it legal protection, brought with it the bones of the holy dead—relics—and
the accustomed funeral portraits and death masks which adorned those catacombs.
It just didn’t feel right not to have them there—our own time with our
churches constructed like theaters and coffee houses attests how firmly
we are attached to what we unthinkingly consider normal, It can’t be coincidental
that icons rise to popularity fastest in Egypt, home of those spectacularly
beautiful mummy portraits from Fayyum. And so the churches were adorned,
first by popular piety and eventually by official ecclesiastical policy,
with portraits of the saints and stories of Scripture, painted and mosaicked.
But not sculpted—that was too close for comfort to the world of paganism.
In 787 the empress Irene was in trouble. Winner of a beauty contest with the prize of an imperial spouse, she was fervently but secretly devoted to the icons. Her young son one day told daddy, whose policy was thoroughly iconoclast, that momma had a chest full of dolls which she kissed before going to bed. Furious, the emperor began talking about divorce or maybe even execution. Luckily for Irene, she had a flexible conscience and some tough friends. Miraculously, the monkish chroniclers record, her healthy young husband died without warning--cursed by God, the pious said, for stealing jewels from a votive crown which had once adorned, you guessed it, an icon!-- and she ascended the throne, welcoming back the icons. The second council of Nicaea affirmed that St John of Damascus, who lived safely under Islamic rule, had been right in his spirited theological defense of the images—if Christ was truly human, then he must be truly paintable. And if He was also truly divine, then that same image must somehow also accurately portray His divinity. If the saints were truly still alive in the glory of God, then painting them was no more controversial than portraying the emperor’s bust on a coin. Not coincidentally, Irene was fond of quoting John of Damascus…
After a few more decades of policy twists and turns, icons were fully reinstated, with lavish imperial encouragement. A second empress regent installed a huge mosaic of the Madonna, holding the incarnate Bread of heaven on her altar-lap, over the altar of Hagia Sophia. And strangely, Byzantine armies began to turn the tide against the Arabs at just the same time. Coincidence? You be the judge…but contemporaries had no doubt that God had revealed His preference for beauty over austerity. Church walls and ceilings sprouted acres of exuberant images, now fully welcomed, and from closets and hidey holes the faithful brought the little icons they’d hidden for a century and hung them up on the high screens which stand between the faithful and the altar in an Orthodox church. You can’t see the altar and the holy deeds being done there—but looking out from that holy of holies are rows of what appear to be windows, glowing with gold and filled with the faces of the faithful who are alive and in divine glory. The windows of the altar area are filled with the unchanging and ever-glorious witnesses of the heavenly choir, joining you and me in the ecstasy of worship.
With the spread of this new art come some evolutions of the form. Now painted not just on flat walls but also on vaults and domes, the figures begin to twist, not standing straight, but turning on the axle of the spine—just as they turned in the vaults of the churches. Looking up from the floor, the images would look squat and unimpressive if they were done in natural dimensions, due to foreshortening. The painters of walls and ceilings recreated the same twists and turns on the flat wood of private icons. So the saints now appear to stand on the earth but are curiously elongated, as if sanctity were pulling them heavenward, like warm taffy. And above all, the eyes change. In early icons everyone was face forward, looking at the viewer. But in the new scheme, everyone watches Christ the Ruler of All in the dome, or Christ the Word Incarnate held on the lap of the Virgin over the altar. It is only He, and she, who look at you and me. The mystery of divine love holds us all and always in its relentless, gentle, heartbroken, beautiful gaze. Everyone else gazes in adoration on the Lord.
Those eyes are the clue to the whole appeal of icons. A few years ago I was fortunate to spend a day with one of the great modern practitioners of traditional iconography, Father Pefkis. In his workshop outside the hanging monasteries of Meteora, he has set up a very modern workshop. Everyone fasts and prays, as one ought, when painting—but for better efficiency, today the apprentice may paint only hands, praying as she does so for healing of those whose hands are cramped with arthritis, for reconciliation between those whose hands are clenched with anger or blessing on those whose hands are open in generosity. Tomorrow, she might be painting only angel wings or inscriptions. That way, everyone paints everything hundreds of times each year, getting very good at every detail—but also moving faster than one person alone could work. Father Pefkis, however, saves one detail for himself. He and he alone paints the eyes. It is the eyes which are the window of these blessed souls—and the eyes which illuminate the icons, windows of the heavenly reality into our mundane shadow world.
Tonight we see those eyes, looking at the
Christ enthroned, or looking out at us from paintings traditional and contemporary.
Obvious or half-hidden, those eyes are meant to symbolize the mystery of
the divine love that holds us ever in its terrible and beautiful gaze.
One could talk at length about icons, but how much better it is to be held
in that gaze with which Ludmila has so beautifully gifted us. Like Gustav
Klimt a century ago, fired by the splendors of Ravenna’s icons, she takes
this ancient art, the window into heaven, and places us firmly in the center
of its vision. What, I wonder, will that divine love see when it looks
upon us? Will the eyes of never-ending love look upon us and see beauty?
Ludmila Pawlowska brings the whole world
into her art. Using wax, pigment, found objects, masonry, ceramic fragments,
wood, glass, burlap and a myriad of other materials, she creates an inclusive
metaphor for faith: it is both vast and intimate, profoundly personal and
yet universally recognizable as a source of humanity and truth.
The scale of her work is dazzling: she
can make monumental sculpture and intimate paintings. The work is
bold and passionate, demanding attention. It beckons to the viewer, and
allows a confrontation with the self, and with mortality. Often, the beauty
of color on the surface is intentionally marred; gouged and scraped, to
express life’s vicissitudes. The scarring on the surface is a form of flawlessness,
because it creates a unique beauty evocative of nature and expressive of
pain, and transcendence. Grace exists in these harsh marks because in their
intensity and immediacy they tell us our truth: that though our outer selves
can be scratched and etched by experience, we remain noble and resonant,
with a unique life force that cannot be touched by pain. Ludmila Pawlowska
often embeds fragments of mirror and gold leaf into the work, so that we
can see ourselves reflected within her complex, communicative fields of
color and texture.
Often, beautifully rendered human eyes
stare out from lush fields of paint. The eyes are painted with precision
and technical excellence, and contrast with paint that clots, drips, swirls
and stains. Sometimes, it appears that the paint is liquid flesh—gorgeous
and sensual. At other times, the paint seems tormented, bloody and sacrificial.
Always, the eyes stare out, and can be interpreted simultaneously as eternal
or trapped. These works of art cannot be read in only one way. Their meanings
change and vary, much as moods float through us, or weather transforms
Recurrent images, such as the house, the
flesh, the eye, the text, the stitch that binds a wound, and the bullet
that creates one, poetically address the subject of belief, but do so in
a manner that allows viewers from all faith traditions to be moved. The
house can stand for home, love and security, and also for the peace of
eternity. The eye can represent the self, trapped in mortality, or the
self-transcended, surrendered to God. The text can discuss all our pointless
words, or our heartfelt prayers, or the loving and subversive words of
Jesus. The stitch that binds a wound could be an act of kindness
or the resurrection. The bullet can represent the violence that recurs;
it appears, endlessly, in our complex world, or the crucifixion. In this
way, the work is utterly contemporary. To see it, juxtaposed against the
historic beauty of Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral’s architecture, is
to witness an affirmation that the themes of faith, and of mortality, are
eternally felt, experienced and re-experienced by generations after generations
The art critic, Dave Hickey, defines a
masterpiece as a work of visual art that is eternally relevant. Please
enjoy these masterpieces, and allow them to guide you towards your truest
and best self.
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