Most of us separate our lives into doing and being: we are creatures of comfort at times, and then we expend energy doing chores or work at different times. We live bifurcated lives, even if we’ve heard the admonition to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:16), we work without prayer and pray without working. Then again, some of us have little connection with the spiritual at all, so we miss the mystery and the awe of the dimensions beyond this mundane world. We’re unable to see even the glory and beauty of the creation, since we aren’t connected spirituality to a life beyond this world.
Christ Overcomes the World
The iconographer is more than a painter or a writer: he or she is one who connects this material world with the spiritual world beyond. The icon is a window through which the heavenly and the earthly worlds communicate. It’s like a wormhole, of sorts, in sci-fi language, or a portal passage for direct communication. Of course, we can directly communicate with the Holy Spirit, but not being able to see the Spirit, we can see the icon’s representation of the image of Christ or a saint, and this helps us to focus our thoughts and prayers.
Some say a candle would suffice, or a text from Scripture, and I agree. Yet not everyone is able to live such a spare life, reduced of images, color, and beauty. Minimalism isn’t for everyone! This is why we have zen gardens as well as romantic English gardens. Some of us need architectural modernism and others like quaint country clutter. The icon tradition comes from the ancient church, for Luke was traditionally ascribed to be the first iconographer, as well as one of the first gospel writers. He painted Mary “the God-bearer” and Jesus.
Our art class is moving out of its comfort zone in the painting of icons. We can learn about the spiritual life in the art class every time we meet. In fact, every time we try something new or challenging, we learn about ourselves and the spiritual life. A close inspection of the gospels shows a Jesus who was always challenging the status quo. The only time he was comforting people was when they were dispossessed, marginalized, or disrespected. “Blessed are the poor…” was his first choice, not blessed are the rich or powerful!
When we are weak and powerless, when we struggle and fall short of success, and that will be. Every. Single. Day. In. Art—We are then most able to lean on the one who for our sakes became weak so we can become strong. Then we’ll come back and fail again and remember the times Christ stumbled on the rocky road to the crucifixion. What seemed like a failure to everyone gathered about, and didn’t make logical sense to wisdom seeking people, nevertheless served a higher purpose. By uniting all of our human failures and faults in one person, God could experience all of them in God’s own image, the icon we know as Jesus Christ.
If there’s any reason to attempt a Holy Icon in this modern world, we paint and pray to unite our work and spiritual into one. Usually only the clergy have this privilege, and they can too easily burn out if they do too much and pray too little. Lay people underestimate the amount of prayers necessary for effective work. The older I get, the more prayer time I need. Of course, work takes more out of me now, but I’m a refugee from the dinosaur age. I used to be an energizer bunny back in my fifties, but working thirty hours a week painting and writing is enough for me today.
Any art work, whether a landscape, portrait, or an icon, can be alive or dead, depending on how the artist approaches the work. If we draw the lines, fill in the colors, and never pay attention to the energy of the art itself, we’re just filling up time. If we’re thinking about our grocery list, what to make for dinner, or the errands we have to run, we aren’t on speaking terms with our artwork. On the other hand, if we’re paying attention, sharing in the conversation, listening to what our work is telling us, we can respond to the push and pull of the conversation. Our work will tell us what it needs if we’ll only listen to it. If we trust and listen to the Holy Spirit, we’ll paint a true icon, and the window into heaven will open for all who want to listen.
One of the most difficult struggles in art, sports, faith, or anything else in life is knowing what you want to achieve, but finding yourself lacking the skills to accomplish it. Some people give up right away, since they can’t master it well. Art takes a lifetime to master, so even the best of us will be struggling to get better until our last breath. Perfection is highly overrated! All artists are their own worst critics! At least in faith we have God as our coworker.
In art a beginner can set aside this quandary and say, “Well, I just need more practice and I’ll get there soon enough.” The intermediate practitioner contends with a little more skill, and could push his or her technique over the edge attempting to discover the heart and soul of their expressions as they seek their own way to speak of the beautiful and the true in color and forms.
Sometimes a seasoned artist comes to a growth point. Even one who, perhaps from their past work in a certain style, has some following and financial success, when they come to the daily search for truth and beauty, will discover the old beauty no longer attracts them. So while they may have all the technical ability to continue creating their old works, they find this no longer is their truth and they can’t in good conscience continue to produce in the same vein.
Our Still Life
The search for truth and beauty is like the search for God and our inner truth as artists and people of faith. If we’re only working for fame and gain, maybe we should have listened to those who said, “Don’t quit your day job.” Or thought of Rembrandt and Van Gogh, who found both success and poverty, but at different times. Our inner search for truth and beauty is just as fraught.
Will we take the risk and try something new? This week l brought the class a shade of my former self, no inspirational paintings of old masters, and only a variation on last week’s still life. Afterwards I was traveling up to the doctor‘s poffice for “the cure to end my misery.” After a few days on sinus medications, I can hold two thoughts together again.
To really look at life and look inside oneself is the best way to discover truth and beauty. Some folks don’t want to look inside for fear they’ll see ugly things, long buried secrets, pains, and memories best forgotten. We need to see these, recognize them, and let Jesus take them into his already redeemed life. If we can let these painful parts be transformed by his graceful healing mercy, then we can use his renewing power in our own lives to bring truth and beauty to the life of others.
Some people look out and only see ugliness, decay, and despair. I imagine if they look inside, they also see the same things. They need to remember the nature of all things is not in itself beautiful or ugly, just as they themselves aren’t ugly or beautiful. Beauty is a standard, like a Virtue, which is an ideal characteristic, and it’s beyond anything here on this world. We’ll probably understand Truth and Beauty in the eternal world, when we have the opportunity to participate with God in the fullness of time.
Gail—Day of the Dead image in process
If beauty were only to exist in the eye of each and every beholder, and each one of us could determine our own standards of beauty according to our own experience and criteria, then all the plains would be level and no mountains would exist. Yet, we know this isn’t so, for my icebox door may be decorated with my grandchildren’s crayon drawings, but they wouldn’t be hanging in an art gallery in any creative district anywhere.
Mike—Basket of Veggies against a Yellow Wall
If art isn’t a challenge, if life isn’t a pursuit of excellence, and if we are content to rest at the foot of the mountains, then I really wonder why God created the heights, if not for us to aspire to them? If there’s mountains in this world, why are so many content to climb just the hills, but call them mountains? Most of the struggles we have in life are actually molehills, but we blow them out of proportion and call them mountains! The biggest successes come from the accumulation of many small failures. We’re just training until we hone our muscle memory to a fine edge. This is why we say works can’t save you in faith, but art is all about the work ethic.
DeLee—Work in Progress
Our biggest challenge this week in class was the woven basket. Some of us had never woven anything in youth groups, so experiences I took for granted as a child growing up (weaving situpons and potholders) weren’t in some people’s backgrounds. Learning to look, follow the weave, see the play of light along the wave of the reeds, and the shadows as they dip under the warp bands took a bit of doing. We’re also beginning some Day of the Dead related works. We’ll work in these in October. I was so sick, I failed to photo everyone’s work. I should be in better shape next week!
Joy and Peace, Cornelia
For now we remember, as the apostle Paul sighed,
“For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”
~~ Romans 7:19
And he leaves us with these words of hope,
“We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
~~ Romans 8:28
Leonardo da Vinci said, “There are three classes of people: Those who see. Those who see when they are shown. Those who do not see.” The task of the teacher is to help the student to see more clearly, not just in art, but also in life.
When I was in seminary, I realized the search for beauty was similar to the search for truth, and each generation had its own notions of what was beautiful and true. When I made this connection, a light came on in my mind and I could see what my professors were showing me. Before this, I was stumbling about in a dark room, banging my toes against unseen couches and table legs. I had the sense of the objects, but not the full understanding of them. Once the light came on, I could see these pieces of furniture for what they were–the color, design, embellishments, and placement in the space were easy to define. They were no longer obstacles, but resting points on the way to the next room on an historic journey.
PAINTING FASTER ALL THE TIME
Some of my compatriots struggled because one philosopher would define truth a certain way and his famous student then would describe it differently. These modern day students didn’t have art backgrounds, but thought of truth as what we know only as true today. Perhaps they also didn’t have much of an historic worldview either.
When Leonardo speaks of those categories of people who see, I think first of children, who seem naturally to see. If we give a child some art tools and a jumping off idea, they’ll run with it. Children love the experience of the materials and get excited when they can use their imagination. They feel empowered when they bring an image to life with their own hands.
SUN, MOON, AND SEASHELL
Older teens and adults are more concerned about what other people think of their work, so they often won’t even begin. Other times they start and can’t deal with the disconcert between their conception and execution. Every artist who aspires to do quality work is always unsatisfied with either the concept or execution! As Leonardo once remarked, “I have offended God and mankind because my work didn’t reach the quality it should have.”
I brought seashells to class for our painting experience, but before we began our work, I had the students experience a guided meditation. The seashells were hidden underneath a cloth. This is an opportunity to know the shell personally, rather than to see it as a mere form. This “seeing” involves the inner emotions, which affect the energy and spirit with which we create our art. As the master says, “Where the spirit does not work with the hand there is no art.”
1. Study all the surfaces under the cloth before you begin to put marks on your canvas.
2. Are the edges round, rough, sharp, jagged?
3. Do you recognize this object from experience?.
4. What memories or emotions does it evoke in you?
5. What colors do these experiences bring to mind?
6. Is there a person or place connected with this object?
7. What age were you? Would you want to visit this place again at your present age?
8. Remove the cover and look at the object.
9. Does it look different now from an ordinary object?
10. Does entering into an emotional give and take open your eyes to more of the possibilities of the object?
11. Choose a “pose” for your subject and compose a portrait of its personality.
The creative life and the faith life are not just about following a set of rules, although rules exist in both worlds. These two lives are more about what is good, beautiful, and true, and how we artists as people of faith can be a blessing in the world in which we live. As in art and philosophy, the good, beautiful, and the true may be different in different times and ages, but “one can have no smaller or greater mastery than mastery of oneself.”
“I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you declare to me.’
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” ~~ Job 42:3-4
The life of one who pursues Art and Faith has many overlapping points. One of these is the search for perfection. The French artist Marcel Duchamp quit painting to play chess, saying he couldn’t create a greater work. However, he was still working on one last piece in secret in his studio. Artists are driven toward this ultimate prize, just as people of faith are called to grow towards perfection in faith and love.
The difference between perfectionism and Christian perfection is huge! The first seeks flawlessness in self, others, and in all things. I know people who get up in the middle of the night to rearrange the shoes in their closets. Shoes must not dance! While I do alphabetize my spice rack, I can leave my closet’s contents to party at will while I sleep all night. I learned from experience early on not to concentrate in any one area of my artwork, since all my many teachers drilled this lesson into my head. Overworked areas of wet paint also get muddy, for the colors blend together into a sad grey. Experience is a good teacher.
Christian perfection is a heart so full of love of God and neighbor nothing else exists. By definition, our hearts would be also full of love for our own selves, since we are made in God’s image. This is why in art class we use ABC: attitude, behavior, and consequences. Positive ABC gets praise, and negative ABC gets redirected to a better place. If we can reframe our attitudes, we can change our behaviors, and then we’ll have different consequences. Sometimes we need an attitude adjustment.
Art classes aren’t easy, but neither is the Christian life. We need to face our limitations, and this is humbling. We aren’t strong or powerful, nor have we achieved anything close to perfection in any part of our own life. This doesn’t make us bad people, but it does make us drop the false mask we’ve been wearing in the world. The best art will come from an open heart, or from transparency to God and others. We’re so used to hiding our true self from others, we think we can hide it from God also. Art will reveal our true self, however.
In Philippians 3:12-16, Paul talks about Christian perfection, so I’ll add some notes about the search for artistic perfection. In class we drew the negative or empty spaces of a wooden dowel construction I rigged up for the center of the table. I tossed in an extension cord for good measure.
Drawing the negative space is a new concept. Most of the time we’re outlining the object itself, but not focusing on the empty space. Then we wonder why our object looks cattywumpus. By drawing the emptiness, we end up with the positive figure. This is a backwards thought process. We’re so trained to look at the object, we forget the empty spaces are a design element also. Drawing the negative space helps us to find the true object in its actual location in three dimensions and translate this into a two dimensional space. This is a complex form of thinking, which is why age 9 or the ability to write in cursive has been the usual cutoff age for formal art training.
MIKE, negative image & DUFY, GATE
Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal—by this Paul means Christian perfection, or having the full love of God and neighbor within our hearts. We artists will work all our lifetimes to achieve perfection. If we’re truly growing as artists, rather than just repeating variations on a theme, our style will change. Monet once destroyed multiple Waterlily canvases right before an exhibition, having deemed them inadequate for the show. We artists are our greatest critic. The day we’re satisfied is the day we begin to repeat ourselves.
GAIL, negative image & DUFY, Room with Window
but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own—of course, the Holy Spirit empowers this spiritual quest for complete love, or we’d never achieve this goal alone. I believe all persons have a creative spirit within them. If we’re made in the image of God, who is the creator and is creating all things new again, we must share this attribute in part. Moreover, I think of it as a spiritual gift, for we enter into the mystery of God when we let go of our ego’s organizational skills and allow a greater hand to move our own as we create.
Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own—the mark of a spiritually mature person is recognizing how far from the perfection of God all of creation will always be. Yet God can refine and renew any imperfection in our spiritual and physical lives. The consequences of our acts will stay with us, however.
At the end of a studio session, I sometimes tell myself, “I’ve learned all I can from this one. It’s time to go onto the next piece and do better.” I don’t expect a masterpiece every time. I do expect to learn from my mistakes. I own my mistakes! I’ll keep the work around for several months. If it doesn’t fall apart, I let it out to show. If it doesn’t sell in three years, I destroy it and move on. I can’t stay attached to it, although I once did. Now I see my work as an opportunity to share the beauty and joy of God’s inspiration with others. I’d be selfish to hoard it all to myself.
but this one thing I do—Paul stays focused on the ultimate prize, not just on the easy gains. “We have stress enough in our daily world, so why can’t we just come and be comfortable in our sanctuary or in our art class?”
If we were hot house tomatoes being prepared for the salsa factory, this might be an acceptable choice, but we’re human beings who’ll be tested and tried in the world beyond the security of our sacred spaces and quiet studios. We need controlled challenges, just beyond our reach, to strengthen us for the days ahead. Even the most famous artists will struggle with success, so having a goal beyond this world is important. The rest of us will struggle with failure and rejection, so we need to learn resilience and fortitude, and the strength of power available to us from on high.
forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead—most of us carry baggage from our earlier days when we made poor choices and did dumb stuff. If we don’t have several suitcases, we at least have a closet full of T-shirts from Been There Done That Land. In art, we eventually will make enough work to break out of our old patterns, or we can enter into a studio teaching environment and accelerate the process. The trained teacher gives positive criticism and guidance, just as we can give the keys to a novice driver with a licensed driver in the car. We could let the novice driver out on their own, but a cow pasture would be a safer choice for this unsupervised driving experience than a city street.
I press on toward the goal for the prize of the “heavenly” call of God in Christ Jesus.—the Greek word is “upward” call, or “higher” call. This call is more important than any other in our lives. If our only goal is to be a good person, but not loving person, we need a higher goal! Why are we satisfied with less when God is so much more of everything?
Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind;—just as our challenge in faith is to always grow in grace and love, so our goal in life is to always grow and learn. What we fail to use will atrophy and die. If we don’t love from the depths of God’s inpouring and abundant love, our own ability to love will wither and die. Burnout is a spiritual condition first, then it becomes a physical problem. The ancient icon painters prayed as they “wrote” the images of Christ. If we offer up our time in the studio as a prayer to God, we will better connect to God’s deep well of hope and compassion, which can recreate our lives and the world.
and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you.—I happen to be a slow learner, but better a slow learner than one who never learns at all. Some of us need repeated lessons before the scales drop from our eyes, but once we see clearly, we’re zealous to convert the rest of the world. Once the flame of love burns brightly, it wants to spread and replicate itself. One light wants to set the other coals aflame. Still not everyone wants to set themselves on fire! They’re perfectly willing to watch someone else burn brightly and bask in their glow.
Price’s Law is a good example in real life. Price’s law describes unequal distribution of productivity in most domains of creativity. The square root of the number of people in a domain do 50% of the work. In a group of 100, 10 do 50% of the work and 90 do the other 50%. This seems to hold true in business and in volunteer groups. Some Elijahs love to work, but don’t know how to replicate their Elishas. They rob the future Elishas of the blessings of service.
In art everyone has to do their own work, and some have difficulty if the work doesn’t look as good as their neighbor’s efforts. Since everyone begins at a different point, each person improves from that beginning. Each has to be considered as an individual. No one is compared to anyone else, even in a graded system. Art is the best class of all, for if you work the whole class, turn in all your work on time, and meet the criteria of the project, you get an A. There is a “works righteousness” in the studio, even if we’re saved by grace in faith.
Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.—I find many folks want to quote this verse only, but not the whole of the Philippians text. They use it as an excuse to stand still without reflecting on their faith, which they inherited from their ancestors. Worse, they don’t read the Bible with a heart or mind open to the fresh winds of the Holy Spirit. Then they wonder why joy and peace are merely limited gifts in their lives. We prosper, not by material wealth, but in our relationships with one another and with God.
In art, we’d rather copy our teacher’s example and match it to the best of our ability, instead of coming up with solutions unique and personal to our own spirit. Thinking uses energy, but it also builds resourcefulness and new cognitive pathways, as well as increasing confidence.
The former is the standard teaching technique in most departments of education, but it has nothing to do with engaging creativity. Instead it assumes a single right answer, but the history of art is replete with multitudes of many answers and solutions to the questions of the moment. When we ask, “What is beauty, truth, and good in art,” we answer, “Across the years and with different artists in different cultures, it varies.”
With this in mind, as artists and people of faith, we can hold certain truths across all the years, artists, and cultures, but other truths may be variable. Certainly overworking the person and the painting hold true everywhere. Many of us hunger for approval from human sources, and work ourselves sick trying to please too many masters.
In art school I had several master teachers. One day I was drawing in an empty classroom. The department head came by and asked, “Who are you working for, me or Mr. Sitton?”
“I’m drawing,” was my noncommittal answer.
He returned a short while later to ask the same question and I gave the same answer. Not long after that, he popped his head into the door, pointed his pipe at me, and asked again, “Who are you working for, me or Mr. Sitton?”
By this time I was irritated to no end. I’d been polite twice, but this third time was too much! I snapped around on the stool and snarled, “ I’m working for myself, thank you! Now quit bothering me so I can draw in peace!”
He laughed as if I’d finally passed some rite of passage. “That’s what I wanted to hear you say the first time!” Some art lessons aren’t given in a class, and they aren’t about design and color, but about your calling and your purpose.
Who are you working for in this world: the praises of ordinary people, or the eternal voice of the master, who paints the dawn and sunset from a palette of glorious colors?
Flowers please us because of their colors and forms, but also because of their fleeting beauty. While the class was painting, I threw some colors on an old canvas. It is a sketch, since never got to the dark accents of the petals. The paint was wet, so I would have had mud, not two distinct colors!
In our weekly adult painting class at church, we talked about Van Gogh’s sunflowers, Gauguin’s friendship with him, and how other artists have approached the subject of flowers. Not painting every petal or detail, but capturing the energy and emotion of the flowers is more important.
This requires a leap of faith! Of course, if we aren’t sure of how to mix a color, or how to draw a shape or make a form, a student is loathe to move off a safe path. Van Gogh had this struggle also. His early paintings were dark and lacking the energy of his late works.
Still Life with Earthenware, Bottle, and Clogs
Van Gogh, Sunflowers
Unfortunately some of Van Gogh’s most iconic floral artworks in the Van Gogh Museum, painted in 1888 and 1889, are now facing the test of time.
Vincent Van Gogh painted his iconic Sunflowers in vibrant yellows and golds, but after 130 years, his bright lemon-yellow hues have begun to wilt into a brown muddle. A new X-ray study confirms what researchers and art lovers have long suspected: Van Gogh’s paints are fading over time. In 2011, Sarah Zielinski at Smithsonian.com reported that chemists were looking into how the old colors were holding up. They found exposure to UV light—both from sunlight and the halogen lamps used to illuminate paintings in some museum galleries—had led to oxidation of some paint pigments, causing them to change color.
A 2016 study looked deeper into the matter to find one of the bright yellow paints Van Gogh liked, a mix between yellow lead chromate and white lead sulfate, was particularly unstable. Under UV light, the unstable chromate changed states and the sulfates began to clump together, dulling the color. Unfortunately, the process is not currently preventable. Currently, the darkening of the paint and the wilting of the sunflowers is not visible to the naked eye.
As the book of James (1:11) reminds us about impermanence:
“For the sun rises with its scorching heat
and withers the field;
its flower falls, and its beauty perishes.”
In class, we talked about light permanence and pigment choice. If we want to make works of art for posterity, we should choose pigments able to stand up to the test of time. I choose lightfastness I when I work. Likewise, if we are going to be in business or relationships, we want to use the highest ethical principles so we can have long lasting interactions and high quality products. Cutting corners with people or resources will always come home to roost eventually.
The rest of the verse in James continues,
“It is the same way with the rich;
in the midst of a busy life,
they will wither away.”
Of course, if we put God first in our lives, rather than our own priorities, we will pay attention to the “first things,” and fading away like a sunflower will be the least of our worries.
Joy and Peace,
To read the whole discussion on paint discoloration and how museums are conserving art works to prevent further damage from light read:
How to do it as an artist or any other professional.
Or lollygagger in the workplace.
I personally like #8—Why don’t you ever paint landscapes in normal colors?
I get this question all the time. How do we know our greens and blues of today are “normal?” We live in creation after the fall, not in God’s original creation, as God’s hand first formed it and God’s mind first imagined it. What if all the rainbow of colors was God’s Plan A for the earth?
Of course, I get a blank stare from almost everyone, since most aren’t used to thinking about the created order and our relationship to it. Even fewer think of the fall, or what that means, for this world is all they know.
If they press me on it, I tell them, “I like colors and the emotional joy they express. And I’m not fond of wide swaths of green.”
They nod. I nod. They walk away. They probably haven’t quit talking about me. A voice comes into my head, “These are not the patrons you seek. Move along now. The Force will be with you.”
We hear that same word from the Apostle Paul, spoken long ago to the people in Galatia:
“Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” (Galatians 1:10)
At some point in time, we each have to hear the inner voice and make the choice to take the well trod path or the path less travelled. Each one has its own consequences, both for ill and for good. If we make fame or prosperity into a god, we might start churning out well pleasing pieces for our market, but our creative inspiration might begin to suffer, to the detriment of our souls. This can lead to various self medicating behaviors, none of which are good. It also leads to depression or anxiety, as 1, 3, 7, and 10 incite these conditions.
We can develop the good qualities needed for our futures. Independence is a character trait of leaders. An artist spends a good amount of solitary work inside the studio, and faces rejection for many years. Cold calling for Insurance might be the only worse occupation for rejection. I’ve done both.
My old teachers used to egg me on when I was studying in art school. “Who are you working for, me or the other class?” I’d be bothered, but I’d answer, “I’m working in my sketchbook.”
About the third time he passed by to interrupt my work, I’d had enough of his gruff. “I’m working for myself–go away and leave me alone!”
“That’s what I was waiting to hear you say,” he smiled and stuck his pipe back in his mouth as he strode off. I didn’t see him anymore except when I was in class with him.
Doing art in solitude is preferable to cold calling because the rejection is at the end of the process and you have beautiful work to appreciate, whereas with cold calling, all you get is a list of numbers crossed out and the hope 3% of the people will give you a reason to call back. In all this we remember,
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14:27)
Most of us try to put our best foot forward every day. If we have the means, we want to wear nice clothes for work and put on our “game face.” In private, we might “let it all hang out” and put on our sloppy clothes, but only if we’re staying inside. This is why the pajamas at Walmart memes persist as the walk of shame from sea to shining sea.
We like our art “pretty” also. Indeed, if it doesn’t match our current decorating theme, we don’t buy it. We want our art to fade into the wall and not interact with us. If this is our attitude, we aren’t candidates for an icon in our space. The icon is meant to open up a conversation with the viewer and with the Holy Spirit. The icon opens a window into the world beyond this reality, into eternity, in which the Holy Trinity and the communion of saints live forever. While the image itself isn’t Holy, what it represents is Holy. Therefore the icon is venerated, but not worshipped. Only God is worshipped.
Because most of us like our images beautiful, we prefer gold and silver over fading and flaking. We also like polished and pleasant more than brutal and broken. This is why most of us like Christmas more than Good Friday, even though both are necessary to understand at-one-ment and atonement.
The oldest icons often show the ravages of age. Centuries of use, with smoking candle soot and oils from many hands, have worn their surfaces raw. Many of us also show the scars of Time, but we also are the image of God, just as Christ is the living image of God. We are like the ancient icons, worn and weathered. If we were given an ancient holy icon, damaged by circumstances or desecrated by human hands, we would treat it with tenderness, reverence, and compassion. We wouldn’t pay attention to the damaged parts, or to the tragedy of the act of damage, but we’d focus on what is left of its beauty, not what was lost.
Only those who are rapidly aging may be able to understand this concept, or those who’ve suffered. Yet, the Man of Sorrows icon exists for those who know life isn’t always a bowl of cherries and even the best people will suffer. The suffering servant contradicts the promises of prosperity gospel, but the icon reminds us we aren’t alone when hard times strike.
The Virgin Hodegetria and the Man of Sorrows
This double-sided icon in the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, D. C., depicts two of the most influential images in Byzantine art. On the front, the Virgin Hodegetria (“she who points the way”) gestures toward the Christ child as the path to salvation.
The image derives from a venerated model, which was legendary. Saint Luke was the purported artist who painted the original from life in Jerusalem and others brought it to Constantinople in the fifth century. Pilgrims flocked to the Monastery of the Hodegon to revere the original icon, which was paraded weekly through the streets of the capital. Widely copied, it’s one of the most common types of images of the Virgin.
On the other side is the icon of Christ after the Crucifixion, laid out for burial with his arms at his sides. This is the earliest known panel painting of the Man of Sorrows, a name taken from an Old Testament description of the Messiah: “He is despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53:3).”
Called Akra Tapaneiosis (Ultimate Humiliation) in the Greek Orthodox Church, the subject originated in Byzantium in the 11th century in response to liturgical changes and became widespread in the medieval West. This icon dates from the last quarter of the 12th century.
The Kastoria icon imbues the traditional Virgin Hodegetria with heightened emotion found also in hymns and sermons, especially after Iconoclasm. Her sorrowful expression and furrowed brow suggest that she foresees her son’s death. On Mary’s grief at the Crucifixion, the ninth-century bishop George of Nicomedia wrote,“Who will enumerate the arrows that penetrated her heart? Who will recount in words her pains that are beyond words?” His sermon served as the lesson on Good Friday when this icon was displayed during the church service commemorating Christ’s Crucifixion.
I can’t express to you how glad I am to be with people who understand the scriptures which underpin my art. Others appreciate the art itself, but not the faith walk behind it. Y’all get both.
Thank you again. As an extrovert, your affection and affirmation encourages me in my journey and in my spiritual practices. I would do my work anyway, but like everyone, I enjoy the sharing of our lives and our ministries across the years. This makes our annual conference a means of grace for me. I hope it does the same for you.
THE MOMENT BEFORE
I’m glad to report I’ve made two new patrons of the arts today. These paintings will go to new homes to bless those spaces and provide an island of peace or a place of spiritual focus for those who come into their presence. Also a former patron showed up to take home the silver PIETA.
The purpose of the icon is to open a window into the holy, so we can see the face of Christ more clearly and know the presence of God more nearly. If my art can do this for folks, then it is also a modern icon. Thank you for being part of ARTANDICON, my friends. I’ll be back at the arena Wednesday morning until noonish.
“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” ~~ Revelation 22:1-2
I have never visited a more beautiful city than Venice, Italy, with her
The river of God, flowing from the throne of God, with the tree of life bearing fruits in every month & leaves for the healing of the nations.
ancient mansions on the canals, her grand piazza opening up to the lovely Basilica of San Marco’s domes, and her delightful bridges, museums, and churches. Most tourists who visit here love to feed the pigeons, while I think they are a public nuisance. Then these birds take flight heavenward and I’m inclined to think of angels’ wings and brushes of glory.
With all these earthly visual delights, my eye still is drawn heavenward to the sky, for the clouds and the atmospheric haze of Venice give this city a unique ambience. If a painter were to lay the colors of the South Italian sky upon the watery bogscape of Venice, the discord would be marked immediately. At dawn and twilight especially, travelers don’t need a GPS to recognize the location or even a town sign to mark their arrival, for the sky alone says, “Welcome to Venice, weary traveler! Rest your soul!”
Most of us are used to living on a city lot with trees and grass that is bounded by a concrete walkway, a grass “neutral ground,” and a street that separates us from a mirror image of our own property across that same road. Venetians live on canals in multistory buildings that double as homes and warehouses. The lower floors were for work, for the cargo hauling gondolas easily accessed these, while the upper floors were for the family retreat, since they were more private. Everything in Venice moves by some form of floating contraption, since the city was built on marshy land in the middle of a lagoon between several small islands.
Because there aren’t any motorcars, there is a different feeling to the city. On the larger canals, the big boats ferry people on the tourist routes and smaller motorboats act as taxis. The classic gondola with the human powered oarsman is a premium priced experience, much like a carriage ride in downtown Hot Springs or Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Travelling to the nooks and crannies of this jeweled city is by foot over one of the many bridges and side paths, so it is a sightseer’s paradise.
This slower travel allows a visitor to feel the rhythm of the place, to smell the air, to note the patina on the marble facings of the homes, the worn indentations on the entry steps of the ancient homes, and the variety of colors in the handmade bricks. Walking down the narrow corridor between the homes doesn’t prepare the visitor for the sudden opening into a larger space and the overwhelming, all enveloping softness of lush rose, moist yellow, and puffy crème that make up the clouds of a Venetian sky. Perhaps someone else sees only a cerulean blue sky and a titanium white cloud, but I know what I see. I visited this beautiful city only once, some forty years ago, and I still remember images from those blessed days.
As I think about this crystal clear memory from my past, I wonder how we see our own world today and how we envision the world that is to come. Many of us have a very negative view of this world: the problems, the people, and the pains are all overwhelming. We have divided our world into an “us vs. them” place: rich or poor, black or white, Republican or Democrat, Developed world or Emerging world, Christian or Muslim, and the list of dualisms goes on and on. Even in the Bible, folks were divided, until Paul set them straight, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).
We aren’t meant to separate ourselves from one another but to find a way to come closer to each other. “If only we were all Christians,” you say, “and everyone belonged to MY church/denomination.” I think that what Paul also means by “one in Christ Jesus” is that all human beings share the image of God, no matter what church they belong to, and no matter what God they call upon. No matter how different they look from you and me, they still hold the divine image and imprint within them. If we are to truly live out our call to be “the living image of God in the world,” just as Jesus Christ was the living image of God in the flesh as the Incarnated Son of God, then we have to take that incarnation in our lives and the recreation of this world seriously.
In the Celtic Tradition, heaven and earth are only three feet apart. The “thin places” where we feel the presence of God are even closer. What if God intended all creation to be a “thin place?” The Garden of Eden seemed to be such a spot, for Adam and Eve not only lived and cared for the land here, but they had daily walks with the LORD in the cool of the evening breezes (Genesis 2-3). Unfortunately, our spiritual forbears decided that equality with God was more desirable than companionship with God, so they lost their daily privilege of the presence (Gen 3:22-24). This is called “The Fall.”
Ever since this Fall, all of human kind has attempted to recover the intimate relationship with God and nature that we once had in the Garden. Today some focus only on their spiritual lives and separate their souls from their flesh. Both Christian and New Age groups will do this: we deny our body sleep, good nutrition, or healthy exercise. We also see it when a proponent of some “spiritual doctrine” proclaims that the body is unimportant, so that it can be treated either well or ill, or can be used by the cult leader for “higher purposes.” Or we claim that since our bodies don’t matter, we can use them for any purpose we want, for only our soul matters.
Since God created us with both a body and a soul (Gen 2:7), both must be valued by God. Moreover if God sent his Son into the womb of a teenage Virgin, so that he might be born fully human (both body and soul) and fully divine (still the Son, still part of the Holy Trinity), then God distinctly values the human body, both female and male. God sent his Son in human form to the earth, not just to redeem humanity, but to set all creation free (Rom 8:21).
When we spend time in a thin place, most often we are isolated and silent. Most of us need that time away from the hustle and bustle of life to settle our minds so we can hear or feel the presence of God. We need a “Garden of Eden” that is our place to meet God daily until we are able to meet him in the midst of the fallen world in which we live. How can we learn to feel the presence of God while we are within the “maddening crowd?”
I practice times of “tuning out” or letting my mind drift. Some call this daydreaming or a failure to stay on task. Creative people are task slaves until their idea has fully formed well enough to get them excited about working and then you can’t tear them away from their fever until they drop from exhaustion or realize they are about to overwork their piece. We know our own work habits, and it usually isn’t on anyone else’s time clock. The creative idea is their master, not the schedule, the calendar, or some outside influence.
I will be in the car at a red light and hear a voice in my inner mind prompting me to look up and photograph the sky. I do this for no particular reason, other than I feel impelled. It’s not an actual voice of a person; it’s more of an intuitive feeling that now is the time to take this photo. Perhaps I’m just bored, or I have better peripheral vision, or I need something to occupy my time so I don’t go silly waiting at the back of this long line. I think of these moments as “intersections of heaven and earth,” for these are windows in which our everyday world opens up into a world in which God is present and touches our world and our space and our time.
The painting which graces the headline is from a photo of the street outside of my condominium, beyond the small creek, looking over into the wooded lot beyond. The old asphalt road has become the River of Life, bright as crystal. There are many trees there and the golden sky tells us that we are in the presence of the glory of God. I go in and out of this gate every day, into a world in which God is ever creating and recreating. I have a much better attitude toward all the ugliness I see out there when I know it is passing away before my very eyes.
“They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.” ~~ Genesis 3:8
None of us have ever grown up in the Garden of Eden: we grew up in our families of origin. Our parents are generations away from Adam and Eve, but the shame and guilt of these primal ancestors still operate in our family histories today. My own family operated on a shame culture: the honor of the family’s name and our place in society was very important. Often we children were punished in a group: as the oldest, I should have known better and prevented my two brothers from being trouble makers; the boys were punished because one started the fight and the other finished it, or he came back to tattle.
“Wait till your Father gets home!” was a promise of a second round of punishments, which was always meted out from oldest to youngest. I was glad to be the oldest at this time, for I wouldn’t have enjoyed anticipating my turn: I was relieved to get it over with. I was trained early not to get into trouble, or to hide my duplicity well. My brothers were slower to learn.
In our family, guilt didn’t operate as in the criminal justice system, in that the individual was held accountable for his own actions. My parents figured all of us had a hand in the pie of corporate corruption and our behavior, either inside or outside the home, brought dishonor to the family name. “No child of ours is going outside dressed like that! Go change your clothes!” This meant, “what will others think of us if you go out looking like a tramp, or in rags, or mismatched, or like a hippy, or without makeup, or (heaven forbid) wearing white after Labor Day?” Boys brought honor to the family by working after school because they had to learn how to earn a living, but girls who worked an afternoon job brought shame: “people will think your father can’t earn enough money to take care of this family.”
Some of us learn from classes, others from experience. and still others of us learn from stories. Our ancestors were great storytellers. The sum of human nature they could wrap up in just a few sentences: “Once upon a time, the Lord God walked with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden each evening when the cool breezes broke the day’s heat.” We don’t know the form or aspect of the Lord, but we know he was present daily and intimate with his whole creation. This must have been a time of joy and wonder, and a privilege to look forward to at the end of the day.
Yet the man and the woman wanted more, “to be like God knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:5). Deciding to become wise, they ate of the tree and their eyes were opened: “they knew that they were naked and they sewed fig leaves together and made loin cloths for themselves” (Gen 3:7). Biblical writers do have a sense of humor, for if these first people were truly “wise” they wouldn’t have chosen fig leaves for their garments, since figs give off an itchy sap. They may have “hid their nakedness,” but they were also “scratching their nakedness” at the same time.
When the Lord God came for his evening walk, they hid themselves. Do they feel guilt or shame? Our modern, individualist point of view says they feel guilt, but the Bible is written from an ancient Middle Eastern Shame & Honor Culture. They feel shame for breaking ties with the Lord God and not listening to his words, but to the words of his creation (the snake, Gen 3:1-5). Their nakedness is a symbol of their new vulnerability before God: before they were free to be themselves, but now they hide behind inadequate clothing and behind the trees of the garden. They are afraid to reveal their wrongdoing out of the shame they feel. They have dishonored the one who gave them life. Their consequence is to lose their former intimacy with God and be banished from the garden, but God puts protective clothing on them.
Even today, God asks his people, “Where are you?” and we think we can hide behind our false fronts: our happy faces, our spiritual posts on Facebook, our meticulously groomed bodies, our 100% attendance ribbon at religious events, and our other outward evidence of our faith lives. Or we might be hiding in our “caves/homes” hoping that God won’t see that our once well-constructed lives are falling apart like some Bangladeshi garment factory. God is all knowing, however (Psm 147:5), so there is no place we can hide. We can try to coverup our shameful past or our guilty present from God, but to no avail. These things are not important to the God who knows all that we are and all that we can be. Accepting responsibility and returning to a relationship is what God wants from us.
One thing Adam and Eve failed to do was take personal responsibility for their deeds. Adam blamed it on God: “you gave me the Woman & she gave me the fruit,” while Eve blamed it on the Snake: “he talked me into it” (Gen 3:12-13). There must be some terrible and overwhelming experience in the discovery of our true selves, for we have had it hidden under our parents’ expectations, our society’s expectations, our religions’ expectations, and our community’s expectations. When we begin to strip these extraneous layers off to reveal the true self and the child of God, we find the individual who used to walk freely with the Lord God in the garden when the evening winds were blowing.
For some of us, our secret pasts bring us shame and dishonor. We need to remember that guilt is for something that we have done wrong, and we can atone for. We can pay a penalty for it, make amends, and make it right where it was once wrong, or we can do a right act in replacement for a past wrong. Time we heal the pain of guilt. We can confess the guilt and receive release from its stain. This is the hope of justice, or righteousness in Christ.
For shame and dishonor, we need to understand that these are deeper issues: feeling that we will not measure up no matter how hard we try, that we will never be good enough, and our suffering will not ever end. We who hide behind our frozen smiles and our itchy fig leaves need to stand under the flooding shower of pure grace and hear the words from the Lord God: “You are my Son, You are my Daughter! With you I am well-pleased!” (Mark 1:11)
There are many great artists’ works of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Google these images. Notice how the artists handle the nudity over the years and how the body image changes. Think about your own body image.
Do you have shame thoughts when you observe your own body? Listen to the words you hear in your mind.
Ladies—Are you trying to be a size 0 runway model when your body frame is really a 16—and is that a healthy goal? Is this a goal of society or your own goal?
Men—does your trainer want you to look like a magazine photo or do you just want to be healthier? Do you want to workout 8 hours a day or 1 hour daily? Is focusing on an ideal body image healthy, or is focusing on your whole life a better choice?