A recent dialogue with an inquirer on the subject of what we teach:

Hi Mary,

Can you tell me what role the spirituality of writing icons plays in the class as opposed to the technical/artistic components?

Dear Inquirer,

I’m not sure how to respond to your question exactly because learning the discipline of icon writing is itself a spiritual discipline, one which is thoroughly integrated with the “technical and artistic elements.” Thus, we call it “sacred art” not simply because the subject of icons is sacred persons and events in the lives of sacred persons, but also because the doing of it, the act of representing sacred persons, is a sacred practice. We do not separate spirit from matter and assign different values or explanations to each as if it were a secret or Gnostic language accessible to only the initiate.

For this reason we make every effort to choose venues that provide the proper context for the practice of sacred art, that is, the prayers of the Church. Our favorite sites are monasteries and seminaries where we have access to the full cycle of prayers within the Church. This is not possible at every site, in which case we call upon a local priest to offer morning prayers before we begin our day of work.

I refer you to one of our teachers, Marek Czarnecki, if my answer has been insufficient or you prefer a more learned response.

Hope this helps, God Bless,

Mary Lowell

Dear Inquirer,

Thank you for your thoughtful question, which Mary forwarded onto me.  She is right when she says that we teach an integrated way of working. Iconography is not a style of painting, as many people think, it is a vision of reality: what the world looks like when transfigured by the light of Christ. Acquiring that vision is the hardest part of learning iconography. After that, I would say that everything is a just problem of technique by which I mean, finding the adequate way of expressing that integration of spirit and matter. Each part of the process of icon writing has a spiritual justification for its doing and nothing is just for the sake of art or technique, these are tools for the iconographer, but not the goal.

There is a reason why iconography has been preserved and nurtured in Eastern Orthodoxy. The Orthodox Church created a climate for the icon and She has never let go of it. And so we must learn from Eastern Orthodox Christian spirituality what the icon is. Connected with the act of painting an icon, we teach a fundamental theology of images: how to justify making sacred images; what the definition and purpose of an icon is, and how the icon is used in our lives. We also teach the simple practices of prayer that accompanies the making of an icon. First, is the direct, familiar prayer to the face of the saint whose image you are making, and second, is the repetition of the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy on Me a Sinner.”  We teach that each movement of the brush is a silent repetition of that prayer.

Ksenia and Anna are Orthodox, I am Roman Catholic, and thankfully we have students across all denominations and confessions. I find that when we are studying the early period of Christianity that defined iconography, that it was a deeply ecumenical and expansive time, and it created a broad, common platform of understanding for all of us.

As Mary said, we also try to work at sites that have a routine of prayer that we may enter into that ongoing prayer. While we do talk much about theology, neither Ksenia,  Anna nor I take the role of a spiritual leader, often when I have had sincere spiritual questions that were unrelated to iconography, Ksenia would say to me, “Marek, for this you must ask your spiritual father.”  Having said this, I would not be the person I am without Ksenia’s spiritual example and advice, but this is something acquired personally, not something taught as part of our curriculum. Still, every iconography school carries the charism of its teacher, and I would say that our school is imprinted with Ksenia’s sensibilities, those of common sense, practicality, historical authenticity, theological orthodoxy, scientific inquiry, open heartiness, good humor, and the discipline of hard work.

I hope this helps, if you have some more specific questions or concerns, please feel free to write and ask.

Best Wishes,

Marek Czarnecki