It has been said that a monastery is a place where our hearts are gradually being transformed into the likeness of God. St. Benedict tells us that every aspect of life in the monastery is sacred and so whether we are at work on the farm or garden, caring for a sick sister, cooking or cleaning, or welcoming a guest, or even writing an icon, God’s divine grace is at work within us.
A few years ago, I was offered the opportunity to learn the art of iconography. The icon I chose was a simple image of Mary standing before the throne of Christ in glory. The image is known as “Our Lady of supplication”. The position of the Virgin’s hands express her deep adoration. Her head is bowed in humility and her eyes gaze tenderly at the infinite mystery of God. During the time of writing this icon, our community was praying for our brothers and sisters of Syria, and in particular for the two Orthodox Archbishops of Aleppo who had been abducted. Both were friends of our community. I was conscious of Mary standing with us all before the throne of God pleading for our suffering brothers and sisters.
Icons give us a glimpse of the invisible. They are meant to take us into that inner space of prayer, leading us closer to the heart of God. The writing of an icon demands a certain discipline and respect for the spiritual tradition. The forms, symbols and pigments used are not dependent on the artist’s preference but are handed down from generation to generation in obedience to the spiritual tradition. The icon seeks to express eternal truth, portrayed in the life of Our Lord or holy men and women.
St Benedict speaks of patience as the heart of humility. In iconography, we begin to see that everything has its own time and pattern. We have to wait and to give the elements their right place. The egg yolk has a lifespan, and the pigments each mix in a unique way. The “bole” which provides the base for the application of the gold leaf on the icon, needs to be delicately mixed, and the moisture in the air determines on how quickly it will be ready for gilding. We discover how to give ourselves over to the unhurried pace of the iconographic components.
Whilst it is important for the iconographer to adhere to the spiritual tradition and to work within the range of techniques which have been established over the centuries, it is also important to recognize that the artist is never copying a particular image. The intensity of colour, the distinctive calligraphic lines, the choice of symbols and gestures, cannot help but express one’s personal insights which flow from a life of prayer, and makes each icon unique.
The opening words of St. Benedict’s Rule speak of the importance of listening. He tells us to listen with the ears of the heart. At Minster, we have an extended time for Lectio each day. This is an important tool for monastic conversion. Over the past years whilst discovering the art of iconography I am also beginning to understand the importance of “visual” lectio. It is often only after patient, prayerful gazing that I begin to see. It often speaks more to the inner senses. Perhaps we need to discover how to gaze with the eyes of the heart. This is something we try to share with our Oblates. On an oblate’s retreat some years ago, my teacher, Amanda De Pulford led a day on iconography. This was very well received and opened to us all a new appreciation for the beauty of iconography.
In writing about the beauty of the icon Vladimir Lossky says “the beauty of the visible world lies not in the transitory splendour of its present state, but in the very meaning of its existence, in its coming transfiguration laid down in it is a possibility to be raised by man. In other words, beauty is holiness and its radiance is the participation of the creature in Divine beauty”
Sr. Aelred Erwin OSB