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Some English-speakers will say that an icon is “written” or that one “writes” an icon. The verbiage has been adopted from the Russian fine arts vocabulary and adapted to English usage. Other English-speakers strongly object to the verbiage. This article, published in the Orthodox Arts Journal, attempts to survey the positive and negative implications of the usage.

See full article HERE.

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Inscribing the halo on the icon of St. Anthony

Excerpts from the article “Is “Write” Wrong?: A Discussion of Iconology Lingo”.

“Saying that one ‘writes’ an icon can be, and sometimes is, ‘affected jargon’ – a kind of NEON Orthodox-speak of the cognoscenti who insist upon the verbiage as the only proper way to refer to the process and the product.”

“At the same time, those who police the verbiage to exclude the use of ‘write, writing, written’ in English can be equally totalitarian to the point of correcting Russians.”

See full article HERE.

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Ksenia Pokrovsky fell asleep in the Lord on Sunday, July 7, 2013. Her long-time student and assistant instructor Marek Czarnecki composed this tender tribute to her. May her Memory be Eternal!

After a long weekend of iconography lessons with Ksenia Pokrovsky, my inner monologue had a Russian accent. It’s the same this week after her funeral. I’m trying to remember the sound of her voice. Not just what she said, but how she said it.  She was self-conscious of her English. I reassured her, “Don’t worry, you are always clear.” Besides, no one who lives here is without an accent, that’s the music of American English.

Thinking about her as a teacher, I wanted to write about an ongoing conversation we had between us.  It started many years ago, and continued for more than a decade. It’s connected with a greater dilemma – what to do now that she’s gone?  I never imagined it would be so hard.

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Marek Czarnecki with his teacher Ksenia Pokrovsky

I bought my first book on Russian icons while I was in art school, many years before studying iconography.  Even then, the contemporary icons by Mother Juliana and Father Zenon were my favorites. Ksenia was showing me a folder of her drawings when a simple pencil drawing of a hand fell out. “Ah, Marek, this is one of Mother Juliana’s drawings, she was teaching me about hands”.  When she told me Mother Juliana was one of her teachers, and Zenon one of her friends, I wanted to fall off my chair. Thank you, God. This was more than I could have ever asked you for.

Many iconography students ask where they can find the “canons” or rubrics of iconography.  I repeat what my teacher told me, “mostly inside old icons, there are some manuals of rules, church council teachings, pattern books, in churches and museums, and in the writings of the saints.” The best place, if you are lucky enough, is to have a living canon in front of you, in the life and example of your teacher.  It’s not in any book, or any one icon, but synthesized in the reality of a human being. Ksenia was my canon.

I loved how she put together all the pieces of iconography and life. “The icon connects us to reality” was one of the most important things she taught me. When we were studying hands, or hair, she would pull out a scrap book full of her “photo-pictures”- hands and hair cut out of fashion magazines, advertising flyers, wig catalogues, the Boston Globe.  “Let us look at our reality” she would repeat, “now we will open it up, inside the vision of the icon”.  She looked at students’ icons the way an English teacher would correct an essay. First she checked for content, then grammar, and lastly, graceful expression.  The highest compliment Ksenia could pay anyone about their finished icon was a calm “yes, fine, that’s just the way it’s supposed to be.” When someone asked her about the “secrets” of iconography, she looked bewildered. “What do you mean? The icon must be open,” she said.  “The expression on the faces must look open. The meaning should be direct and open. Otherwise, how will it penetrate our minds and sink into our hearts?”  I had never heard anyone talk about icons like this. Open, yes, of course. Icons must be open…

She knew what authority she could claim, but also had enough self-awareness to know where she lacked understanding.  “We can’t be perfect; we need to be good enough. The problem is most people are not good enough.”  When I told her she was the best iconographer alive, “no,” she replied (firmly, modestly, honestly) “there are many living iconographers much better than me”, citing Father Zenon as the prime example. “I’m the only iconographer you’ve known. There are some things I understand very well. Those things I want to be able to leave somewhere, so it’s not lost.”  Provocatively, she added, “I want my students to jump over me”.

My exact reply to her was “That’s impossible!”, and I added, “you must be high, lady!” She answered even more provocatively, “then I don’t want to teach you”.

Maybe she said this, because I said she was high?  Thinking about this now, I know she was high, but not the way I jokingly meant at the time. She was talented and smarter and wiser above and beyond anyone I had ever met.  When I admitted that I could never live up to her standards, she said “Then promise me you will be a good place keeper. Otherwise, we will go backwards together.” I’ve never seen her happier than when she met another iconographer whose work she admired, or when a student’s work was successful. She beamed.

I read her this passage from “The Joy Luck Club”, about parents and children: “We’re like stairs, we go up or down, but we are all going in the same direction.”  We talked about the playground game of leap frog. She explained how all the generations of iconographers that lived before us are lining up like that human chain, interceding and pushing us forward with their momentum.  Like those invisible witnesses, she wanted to build a good foundation in a new country that lacked roots or foundations, where “iconoclast” was high praise. She wanted to give criteria that was stable, simple, direct and authentically Orthodox. She knew that is was thankless and invisible work but it’s what was needed here. “Just don’t fall backwards, and don’t take me with you if you do.”

We didn’t build the “staircase” of iconography.  Generations of anonymous icongraphers and saints paved it with their real human lives.  It’s their selfless gift to us. It transcends us individually and will be there after we are long gone. Ksenia’s provocative challenge was please leave this path cleaner, more clearly lit and sturdier than you found it. Make it smoother and easier to travel for the next person, so they can go higher than your limitations (“…what took me thirty years to learn, I teach you now in a week”).  She knew she had a responsibility to something bigger than herself – to God, of course, to her students yes, and, looking back over her shoulder, to the expectations of her teachers.  If you don’t fall backwards, prepare to let someone crawl over your back, and stand on your shoulders.  Iconography is a tradition without a ceiling. Like all spiritual work, it’s hubris to imagine it can be realized in one lifetime.

Today, I doubt Ksenia would put out such a challenge, “jump over me”. With time, she became very discouraged about the lack of understanding of iconography, a lack of awe for its integrity.  Few advanced its depth or quality.  Especially worrisome were the ambitious commercial websites of iconographers who had studied with her once or twice (it’s one thing for you to claim your teacher; it’s another matter for your teacher to claim you).  She was happy that students worked independently, but at the same time, deeply saddened that what she saw was regressive. She astutely observed “this is the exploitation of the icon,” for personal profit of one kind or another.  If we think of iconography as a language, she was like a great author reading a newspaper full of misspelled words and garbled sentences.

Recently, a 22 year-old student complained to me “I’m too old to start; I wish I had begun earlier”. The bell in my mind rang “good potential here!”  He’s right. It can be overwhelming, but it shouldn’t be paralyzing – this is why we pray “Lord have mercy on me” while we work, over and over.  No one is worthy, and no one will get it all done. At a workshop, a very discouraged student was crying after her first frustrating, clumsy icon. Ksenia very patiently explained “It’s only your first icon. It’s like the alphabet, A-Z.  You just started on “A”. She pointed at me and said, “Marek is starting ‘B’, Anna is on “C”, I’m on ‘D'” she said, “but no one gets to ‘Z’”.

Right now, I am wondering whether we will be good place-keepers, or weak links.  “We put ourselves in the hands of God as a tool, but our work makes us sharp tools. Maybe then he can use us.” She smiled when saying things like this, because she knew how simple her directive sounded, but how hard it was to put into real practice.  “It’s so hard to become invisible, to be completely transparent! It takes years of hard work”.
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Spasiba Bolshoi, Ksenia. We will work with hope in our hearts that we won’t be perfect, but good enough.

News that Ksenia Mikhailovna Pokrovskaya had fallen asleep in the Lord on Sunday, July 7, 2013 was a profound shock. Though she had chronic hypertension, she had not been ill. She was tired, yes, for many years, but still actively sharing her wisdom and knowledge with clarity and generosity.  For both her family and friends and for those who only knew her by reputation, a light has gone out of the world. The universal response of those closest to her and of her many students is that of having suddenly become orphans.

Ksenia Pokrovsky: May her memory be eternal!

Ksenia Pokrovsky: May her memory be eternal!

Ksenia’s funeral on Wednesday evening, July 10 at St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Salem, MA was followed by the all-night chanting of the psalter. When morning came she was carried from the church to St. Tikhon of Zadonsk Monastery in northeastern Pennsylvania to be buried beside her son Dmitri († 2001). Keeping the Russian custom, the mourners themselves closed the grave with shovels and hands full of earth. The labor helped to lighten their burden of grief.

The main elements of Ksenia’s biography (see Wikipedia) are well known. She was born in Kirghizstan in 1942 during World War II when many Muscovites were evacuated because the Nazis were less than 100 miles from the city. Ksenia’s heritage flowed from many streams, including Tartar and Jewish ancestors, as well as Russian, Polish and Bulgarian. She described her mother as “a romantic communist.” It was her paternal great aunt Katya who taught her what a Christian is and cultivated in Ksenia a love of art.

Ksenia met her future  husband, Lev Alexeyevich Pokrovsky, while they were students at Moscow University. They were married in 1960 and lived together for 53 years. Lev became a teaching professor and researcher of theoretical physics while Ksenia pursued biophysics. As she completed her studies and worked in the field, Ksenia realized she was more interested in the laboratory of metaphysics than in gathering data in the halls of science. The Pokrovskys were a part of Fr. Alexander Men’s parish in the village of Novaya Derevnya located a short distance from Moscow. When Ksenia told her dilemma to Fr. Alexander, he was forthright, “Alright then, you will be an iconographer!”

Her life’s work as an iconographer reflected a scientific mind that constantly investigated every field of knowledge from chemistry and geology to psychology and history, to philosophy and theology.

After Fr. Alexander was murdered in September of 1990, the family with the exception of one son immigrated to the United States in June of 1991. Together Lev and Ksenia reared four sons: Yevgeny, Dmitry, Nikolay and Ilya; and a daughter Anna.

Beyond the facts of her life there are stories, a bottomless repository of stories that would fill many books. Her family, friends and students will be telling these stories for the rest of their lives. Besides being one of the finest iconographers of contemporary times, Ksenia Pokrovsky was one of the great personalities of the 20th and 21st centuries. Everyone who met her recognized this instantly. For all her great knowledge, she remained simple and approachable. She was very clear about the vocation of the iconographer, and she was keen to separate it from the sometimes ego-satisfying aura of the artist.  “An iconographer can never have ambition,” she would say.

Her long-time student Marek Czarnecki tells this story which illustrates Ksenia’s goal as an icon painter.

“I once told Ksenia that I thought she was the best iconographer alive. ‘No’, she said (modestly and honestly) ‘there are many living iconographers much better than me’, citing Zinon as an example.  She did know, however, where she had authority. ‘I understand some things well, and I want to be able to leave what I do know somewhere, so it is not lost.’  She said she wanted her students to “jump over” her. ‘That’s impossible, I said, ‘you are too high to jump over.’ Playfully but emphatically she answered, ‘then I don’t want to teach you.’”

As an iconographer her influence is immeasurable: a hero and pioneer to many generations of icon painters in Russia; a consummate teacher of the sacred art and a peerless example of the profession to hundreds in the West. Truly the light of her accomplishments continue to shine forth in the world and will only grow more bright as future generations come to know her.

Synaxis Of All Saints Who Have Shone Forth In North America

Synaxis Of All Saints Who Have Shone Forth In North America

Ksenia Pokrovsky was the author of many new icons. Her “Synaxis Of All Saints Who Have Shone Forth In North America” has become famous as the prototype for iconographers to follow. The icon is owned by the Archdiocese of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) and is housed in OCA headquarters in Syosset, New York. It was commissioned by Metropolitan Theodosius after Ksenia arrived in America. It is fitting that Ksenia fell asleep on the Feast of the Saints of North America, Sunday, July 7, 2013. The icon appeared on the OCA website that Sunday. For us it was an unforeseen synaxis of events, though surely appointed by God since before the foundation of the world.

Perhaps it was inevitable. The technology has been in place for decades. It was only a matter of time before the sacred art of the icon became an inexpensive do-it-yourself room makeover.  For those of us who support sacred arts through training iconographers and encouraging high quality work crafted from noble materials for our churches and homes, the creation and dissemination of icon wallpaper is a cause for mourning.

Fresco of angel in St. Sophia Cathedral, Vologda

We recently received an advert email for “Priests and Wardens” that touted the benefits of a process for manufacturing “images that go on your church walls like wallpaper. MUCH cheaper than real frescoes!”

We were even warned “there is an ‘imposter’ out there using cheaper materials, so be careful!”

Imagine, an “imposter” of the “MUCH cheaper than real.” Really?

There is a story told about Henry Ford that comes to mind. You remember the businessman from Detroit who made it affordable for just about everyone to own an automobile.  After the inventor of assembly-line production amassed so much wealth he didn’t know what to do with it, his financial advisors suggested he invest in fine art. But the acquisitive Ford was taken aback by the sticker price on the art pieces brought before him. So, he ordered photographs to be taken of the art and the paper copies placed in fancy frames to hang throughout his mansion[s]. The idea caught on and the art reproduction business was launched. Once again Ford had succeeded in finding a way to make something of value accessible to the masses. Now, everyone can own a Rembrandt that is “MUCH cheaper than real” because it isn’t.

Ford’s ingenuity worked well for auto assembly and we are thankful for it, but aping his thrift in artificial art production (whether high-end imposter or low) is a tragedy for iconography. Ironically, no one has ever argued that the artificial imitation of fine art works is real. That argument seems to be reserved for the sacred rather than the secular.

We were further told, “This method of displaying beautiful iconography has been blessed by Bishops and supported by priests all over the world.”  Of this there is no doubt. But let us consider the inspiration for and the consequences of such blessings.

The argument for the artificial, with only a few laymen to oppose it, rests upon defunding the artist and capitalizing on his or her work, made easy because icons are rarely copyrighted.  This was Ford’s inspiration. Although he could easily afford a Cézanne, Ford placed a higher value on a paltry imitation because it served the purpose of providing decorations without paying big bucks for the real thing. While this is hardly the reasoning of bishops, priests and parish councils trying to adorn temples out of their penury, the effect is the same.

Since costly items of infrastructure cannot be substituted with photographs of furnaces, plumbing and electrical systems just because the parish can’t afford them, the “blessing” seems to indicate that the more essential elements of Orthodox worship can be illusory. The implication is that icons are merely decorative accessories like, well – wallpaper. A similar mentality reigns for individuals who shell out $1500 to $3000 on a widescreen plasma TV without batting an eye, but are only willing to spend twenty bucks on a photograph of the Sinai Christ glued to a piece of particleboard.

Fresco by Dionisy in Ferpontov Monastery

As our email advertiser educates us: Images are representations. The medium used does not play a role in the validity of the object/person being represented.

Thanks, Henry!

Of course Orthodoxy does not [officially] consider icons as decoration.  But this does not mean that Orthodoxy, which takes its very appellation from the victory over iconoclasm, is immune to iconoclasm manifest in new forms.

Consider the words of renowned Russian iconographer Archimandrite Zinon:

“In speaking about the icon, one could say that today it does not occupy its rightful place in the divine service, nor is there a proper attitude towards iconography. It has long ceased to be regarded as “theology in color”; people don’t even suspect that it is capable of conveying the teaching of the Church just like the word, and that it can likewise give false witness instead of witnessing to the Truth. The icon has become a mere illustration of the celebrated event, and for this reason it doesn’t matter what form it takes, because nowadays even photographs are venerated as icons.”

“A mere illustration of the celebrated event” sounds a lot like our email advertiser of wallpaper bargains.

And then there are the weeping paper icons so invincibly offered as proof that “themedium used does not play a role. We can talk all day long about the meaning of dripping photographic paper, and bishops, priests and monks do, regardless of what is at stake. In this strange twist of anti-materialistic logic the lesson gleaned seems not to be miraculous intervention but that we can replace the holy icons with a soulless materialism that merely illustrates what an icon is.

In photographic illustrations of icons, real gold becomes an RGB algorithm as do the other noble metals and semi-precious stones of the iconographer’s palette. The image is pixilated but the icon is absent. The prayerful dialogue between God and the human hand, between the bounty of the created world and its divine source are annihilated in the toxic vapors of print production.

Romantic, are we? Or are we simply defending the integrity of the icon against its falsification? Mounted photographs of icons may have a place in Orthodoxy, something akin to sturdy teaching tools for Church School children or illustrations for events, but in no way should they be permanently incorporated into our worship services.

As a succinct articulation of a profound objection to the faux-fresco industry and its like, we re-post here excerpts from an interview presented in a 2010 Hexaemeron Newsletter. The full article on Liturgical Renewal printed in Orthodox America explains among other things why “colored photograph is unacceptable for use in church” as are other forms of imitation such as artificial flowers. It is regrettable that the remarks below may be treated as obsolete fetishes of fanatics rather than guiding principles. This is obviously because our priorities have become more aligned with Henry Ford’s than we could ever have imagined. Under communism the icon was threatened with violence; under capitalism with banality. God help us!

This discussion occurred in 1990 between Archimandrite Victor, rector of St. Euphrosyne of Polotsk Church in Karsava, Latvia and Archimandrite Zinon, who was then serving as an iconographer of the Pskov-Caves Monastery. It speaks directly to the misleading mixing of terms in the statement “the medium used does not play a role in the validity of the object/person being represented.”  The self-deception imbedded in this bold claim is that it confuses the “validity of the immutable and transcendent prototype (person) with how the prototype is “represented.Attend closely to why the materials used to represent divine presence DO play a role in every image that serves as an encounter between God and man, be it the vestments of the clergy or the flowers we bring to express our love for our Savior’s accomplishments upon the Cross.

Fr. Zinon: In the Moscow Patriarchate Journal, 1989, No. 10, there is an article by L. A. Ouspensky about colors in icons. It explains very simply and convincingly why a colored photograph is unacceptable for use in church: it only imitates color; it has no color of its own. For this reason it cannot serve as a substitute for a painted icon. An icon must witness to the Truth, and here we introduce something false, artificial; this cannot be.

Fr. Victor: This is the same as having artificial flowers in church. Patriarch Alexis I asked that they not be brought into church, because there is no truth in them.

Fr. Zinon: Even earlier, Metropolitan Philaret (Drozdov) of Moscow said that imitation gems and imitation metals should not be used in church not because they are not costly but because they contain falsehood. Gold was always costly; where it was unattainable, ordinary but natural materials were used. For example, the traditional background for icons has always been gold leaf (or silver). In poor churches, especially in northern Russia, all backgrounds were painted with light colors. To be more precise, “background” is not a Russian word; iconographers call it “light”.

Fr. Victor: Because God is light.

Fr. Zinon: And lives in unapproachable light.

Fr. Victor: One can say that nowadays we see a decline in religious understanding; the dogma of icon veneration has been forgotten, supplanted with the veneration of artificiality. And this is not simply forgetfulness, but rather a rupture with the living Tradition of the Church, a scornful attitude towards the Holy Fathers and to the decrees of the Ecumenical and Local Councils. One must restore the veneration of icons in its genuine significance.

Fr. Zinon: This problem must be resolved at the Synod level; it should be a matter for the whole Church. Today churches are being returned to us, monasteries. They all require iconographers, but so far there isn’t a proper school for iconographers. I know many young people, talented and eager to study, but the means for this are lacking. Some are tied to families and can’t travel far, others are free but have nowhere to study. Our hierarchs have made efforts to increase the number of clergy: diocesan schools are opening, there are courses for readers, seminaries. But I have yet to hear of any school, even a small one, for iconographers. And this despite the fact that almost every week someone comes to me with a request to paint an iconostasis or fresco a church. Here is further evidence that the icon has been eliminated from the divine services; it is no longer given due attention. What is sold in church kiosks, the mass reproductions produced in the shops of the Moscow Patriarchate, do not comply with the requirements applied to church art.

In the Synodal period there appeared many depictions, which can plainly be called mockeries, parodies of icons. Last time I gave you to read some letters by Bishop Ignaty Brianchaninov. In one of them he writes that he saw not icons, but caricatures of icons. At best these could be called well-executed paintings, but by no means icons. This was written in the last century, when churches were filled with this sort of art and the Orthodox icon was branded as “Old-Believer” or barbaric art. (The well-known historian, Karamzin, seeing the ancient frescoes in Novgorod’s St. Sophia Cathedral, called them “barbarian”.)

Fr. Victor: L. A. Ouspensky, in his book, The Theology of the Orthodox Icon, accurately observes that in the iconoclast period the Church fought on behalf of the icon, while in our time of troubles the icon is battling for the Church.

Magi fresco, St. Sophia Cathedral -Vologda

As a non-profit organization dedicated to the sacred art of the icon, we see the other side with a clarity that transcends competition for market share among wallpaper imposters. Our students sacrifice not only thousands of dollars in pocket layout to study the theological and aesthetic goals of the ancient tradition that have been organically transmitted from the first icons painted on the walls of martyrs tombs, but they also offer up hundreds of hours of time away from their families and their employment to prepare themselves to serve God’s Holy Church with hard acquired skills and knowledge of temple adornment.

The reality from the other side is that even the best-trained iconographers are often passed over for “MUCH cheaper” amateurs, or they are asked by priests and bishops to donate their work. Many, many gladly do so out of willingness to serve, but at the expense of the tradition that should support them.  All this haggling over not wanting to remunerate real iconographers at the rate of legal minimum wage is destroying the future of iconography everywhere.  If, as our e-mailer suggests, priests and wardens turn to the “cheaper than real” catalog for adorning their temples, there will no longer be a need for icon painters. And just as every office and hospital wall is mounted with an artificial Degas or Cassatt, so will every temple have a cheap photograph of the Rublev Trinity smoothed large on drywall surfaces “like wallpaper.”

This glimpse into the realities of practicing iconographers is portrayed here in mere economic terms as a flip side of the Ford mentality troubling our parishes, but the greater issue of artificiality is as Fr. Zinon says, “a matter for the whole Church” to resolve.

Mary Lowell

Anna (Pokrovsky) Gouriev had the rare advantage of growing up in the household of one of the world’s most prominent icon painters, Ksenia (Xenia) Mikhailovna Pokrovskaya, her mother. And so Anna learned the art of icon writing in the gradual and natural way that daughters learn to cook by watching their mothers.

“I never planned to be an iconographer” says Anna, “it wasn’t a decision; it is just my life.”

Anna does not advertize her “life.” People find their way to her by seeking treasure. It’s hard to explain. You look over hundreds of same subject icons by as many iconographers and find one so full of grace your heart stops.

Anna had many years of training in the seriousness of icon writing before taking up the brush. From earliest childhood days in Moscow, Anna was surrounded by the steady coming and going of artists, theologians and intellectuals who were in one way or another involved in the clandestine operations of her mother’s network of secret iconographers. Describing those days, Anna considered the “real world” to be what was going in her parents’ flat. “When we came home from school” (there were five children born to Lev and Ksenia Pokrovsky), “and closed the door behind us, the fantasy ended.” Outside that door “we could never talk about what our mother did; we had to pretend we were a part of that strange outside world where everything that really mattered to us was forbidden.” During Soviet times creating new icons was a crime on same order as trafficking in firearms, narcotics and pornography.

Sought after as experts in icon restoration, the entire Pokrovsky family worked illicitly in various capacities to repair hundreds of icons brought to them from all over the Soviet Union. It was an education by discovery to uncover layer by layer the nearly lost technique and palette of generations of iconographers that preceded them. In her book “Hidden and Triumphant: The Underground Struggle to Save Russian Iconography”, Irina Yazikova traces the history of icon writing from the catacombs of First Century Rome to the bonfires of communism that consumed millions of icons in 20th century Russia.

Included in the organic chain of heroes who saved iconography is Mother Juliana (Maria Sokolova) and many courageous men and women, among them Anna’s mother.  Ksenia and her associates established Izograph Society in the 1970s and 80s, which became an underground fellowship of iconographers and iconologists who prepared the way for the “New Spring”, as Ksenia calls it, the great renaissance of icon-writing and restoration of churches currently enjoyed in Russia. At the first open celebration in Moscow of works produced by members of the Izograph Society in 1989, Anna exhibited her icons.

Ironically, the Pokrovsky family left Russia in January of 1991 just as the first signs of rebirth of iconography were becoming publicly visible. It was politically and culturally a volatile time, and for the Pokrovskys a time of great personal grief because their beloved spiritual father and friend, Fr. Alexander Men, had been brutally murdered in September of 1990.

St. Mary Magdalen Orthodox Church

News followed Ksenia’s arrival in the U.S. Articles in the Boston Globe and the patronage of the Metropolitan of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) and that of many priests who knew of her reputation in Russia led to her establishing a studio in Sharon, MA. While assisting her mother with grand scale projects for churches, such as St. Andrew Orthodox Church in Lexington, Ky., individual orders for icons started coming Anna’s way nearly two decades ago.  Ksenia and Anna continue to work as a mother-daughter team adorning the interiors of churches like the ongoing project for St. Mary Magdalene Orthodox Church in Manhattan. Other large commissions like the one for Holy Annunciation in Maynard, MA, keep Anna busy.

Anna also shares responsibilities for teaching courses in iconography with her mother and Marek Czarnecki, who has received world-wide recognition for his beautiful panels under Ksenia’s tutelage. While Ksenia often refers to Marek as her mouthpiece because his uncommon gift for articulating difficult concepts and imparting Ksenia’s teaching with great accuracy, no one complains that Anna’s method of teaching is practically wordless.

Watching this taciturn instructor demonstrate the glories of her brush and correct the stray passages of her students is the same way that Anna came to inherit a share of the mantle passed from her mother. If Anna never consciously chose to be an iconographer,  her work reveals the nature of gifts bestowed when there is no ambition to gain them for ones self, only years and years of practicing the life that is hers by both blessing and toil.

Mary Kathryn Lowell

Laser technology used to analyze fresco art in the catacombs of Rome has made possible the recent discoveries of the earliest known icons of the apostles Peter, Paul, John and Andrew. Our interest in these discoveries was high when the news broke during our workshop at St. Tikhon Orthodox Theological Seminary the week of June 19-26, 2011. The prototypes we offer as instructive examples and make available for students to render during our courses bear an identifiable resemblance to the catacomb provenance, which dates from the second half of the fourth century.

One of the emphases in our teaching of icon writing is that we can depend upon the share of images from the Early Church as a record of physiognomy of certain prominent persons in the gospels and epistles of the New Testament. Our conservative approach to making icons is more than nostalgia for the past; it is historical honesty.  In this regard, artists who adopt the semblance of icons to make cultural statements without interest in the authenticity of their subjects abuse the very nature of icons as witnesses of real events and real persons.

When the Church moved upstairs, so to speak, after it gained legal status with the signing of the Edict of Milan 313 AD, churches erected throughout the Roman Empire, including the Levant, Asia Minor and Egypt were packed with scenes from Christ’s life. Old Testament prophetic and typological foreshadowings of the incarnation of the Messiah were woven into the icon schema.

Throughout the middle ages and reaching into our own times, scenes like the three youths in the fiery furnace (Daniel 3) depicted in the catacombs of Priscilla in Rome were repeated in churches in Russia and Eastern Europe where it is typical to also find the hospitality of Abraham, Jacob’s ladder and many other expressions of  Old Testament archetypes.

Three Hebrew children in the flames Priscilla catacombs-Rome

Yet, the organic bridge between Jewish and Christian iconography is barely explored. The part that illustrative painting played  in the adornment of Jewish synagogues is evidenced by a huge store of examples going back to the Talmudic period that have recently been excavated in Northern Israel. Similarly, excavations of a synagogue (erected circa 245 AD) in the city of Dura-Europos in Syria reveal a worship space filled with depictions of major figures from sacred history such as Moses, Elias (Elijah)and David, as well as lessons from Ezekiel and Daniel. These panels, stylistically influenced by Hellenic and Roman models of mythical heroes, celebrate the encounter of real persons with the presence of God. Clearly, the Christian Church inherited this tradition of artistically populating Her places of worship with images that describe past events as eternally present. In fact, the oldest known Christian paintings are probably those of a house church also found in Dura-Europos.

The objective of both Jewish and Christian art was instructive but also experiential. The Jewish Dura-Europos  murals of the infant Moses rescued from the river, his encounter with the burning bush and the Exodus more than reminded the community of its origins; they built faith and reliance on God for its survival. Beyond this, the text of these images proclaimed the promised appearance of another “Deliverer”, an archetype of Moses who would usher in an everlasting and imperishable kingdom. The same subjects in Christian iconography identify this Deliverer as Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah of Israel.

Moses and the burning bush Dura-Europos Synagogue-Syria

Moses parting the Red Sea, Dura-Europos Synagogue-Syria

The painting of Samuel anointing David as King of Judea also had a messianic dimension for Jews of the Diaspora. Prophesy concerning the youngest son of Jesse, the shepherd poet, encouraged hope for restoration and salvation.

“Now therefore so shalt thou say unto my servant David, Thus saith the LORD of hosts, I took thee from the sheepcote, from following the sheep, to be ruler over my people, over Israel. And I was with thee whithersoever thou wentest, and have cut off all thine enemies out of thy sight, and have made thee a great name, like unto the name of the great men that are in the earth …  And when thy days be fulfilled, and thou shalt sleep with thy fathers, I will set up thy seed after thee, which shall proceed out of thy bowels, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build an house for my name, and I will stablish the throne of his kingdom for ever (2 Samuel 7: 8-13).”

Samuel anointing David, Dura-Europos Synagogue-Syria

In response to Peter’s sermon at Pentecost (Acts 2: 40), three thousand Jews embraced Jesus as their Messiah, the Christ (The Anointed One), the fulfillment of the promise.

“Men and brethren, let me freely speak unto you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his sepulchre is with us unto this day. Therefore being a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him, that of the fruit of his loins, according to the flesh, he would raise up Christ to sit on his throne; He seeing this before spake of the resurrection of Christ, that his soul was not left in hell, neither his flesh did see corruption. This Jesus hath God raised up, whereof we all are witnesses (Acts 2: 29-33).”

These first Christians were soon expelled from the temple in Jerusalem and their synagogues as traitors and heretics.

The mural of Ezekiel’s vision of the tombs opened and the dry bones infleshed with life again depicts the general resurrection at the last judgment. The text of the valley of dry bones (Ezekiel 37) is read annually in Orthodox Christian churches everywhere during the early hours after midnight on Pascha (Easter) morning. The reading is treated as a prophesy of Christ’s decent to Hades to free Adam (mankind) from the prison of death.

Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of the dry bones Dura-Europos Synagogue-Syria

Orthodox Christians churches have more in common with the interiors of third century Jewish synagogues than with most Christian denominational places of worship today, which are mostly devoid of images. Jewish retreat from depicting the human form seems quite rapid, however, after the first few centuries of Christianity. While depictions of animals, cherubim and scenes of nature continued minimally, Jewish iconoclasm for representing persons may have been related to the enthusiasm of the Early Church for artistically proclaiming the revelation of the Word become Flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. Whether reactionary to Christian iconography or a development within Judaism toward pure symbolism and decorative script along the lines of Islam, there was a span of several centuries when the imagery of salvation was common to both Jewish and Christian places of worship.

The murals of Dura-Europos synagogue would be at home in any Orthodox Christian church.

Mary Kathryn Lowell

Sources:

Catacomb yields early Christian icons of apostles

The significance of the Dura-Europos synagogue

Synagogue architecture and interior design

SIX DAYS OF CREATION 2012 SCHEDULE

Something beautiful happened in Maggie Valley, North Carolina last week, September 11-17, 2011, and not just in the upper reaches of the Appalachian Mountains where leaves are beginning to turn gold ocher, burnt sienna and venetian red (pigments familiar to the iconographer’s palette).  During the last session of the Six Days of Creation for this year, 19 students gathered at Living Waters Catholic Reflection Center in Maggie Valley from 11 U.S.  states, Brazil and New Zealand to learn the ancient technique of icon making in the egg-tempera medium.

As usual, our students were a mix of first timers and veterans of Hexaemeron’s Six Days of Creation courses, now in our ninth year of offering the highest quality of instruction available on the North American continent in terms of thoroughness, aesthetic honesty and faithfulness to the tradition. This is not a self-assessment (boastful effusion), but the report of many of the hundreds of students who are grateful to have found the treasure of Ksenia Pokrovsky’s teaching.

True to our motto, “Iconography is Hard Work”, lessons began after sun’s first light at 7:30 A.M. for Morning Prayer and breakfast, and continued until artificial light was switched off in the workshop studio between 8:00 and 9:00 P.M. each day (and on the last day, near midnight).  If you are searching for a workshop that advertises lessons in iconography and are shopping for a bargain, nothing can compare with having access to Team Pokrovsky with Ksenia, her daughter Anna Gouriev and Marek Czarnecki for 10 to 12 hours a day.

Now, I am boasting, but not exaggerating.  Ask anyone who has “survived” Hexaemeron’s icon boot camp where three expert instructors mother every step of the progress students make toward birthing a sacred face on a humble wood board. Ask Fr. Stuart Sellar who traveled 8,500 miles from New Zealand or Dr. Gilberto Safra who has made the 4,600 mile air-trek from Sao Paulo, not once but four times.

Icon boot camp with Hexaemeron is not all hard work; it generates a temporary community that evolves lasting family like relationships among persons who desire to enter into the tradition of the art of the icon. Part of that evolution takes place in the light-hearted comradely enjoyed after work hours in the hospitality room.  For the fifth year in a row, one of our long-time students, Fr. Alexander (Sasha) Lisnichuk, treated us on Thursday night to a concert of traditional Brazilian ballads and Brazilian inspired rhythms of his own, which he plays on his seven-string violão (acoustic guitar). Next year we hope to enjoy some of Fr. Alexander’s music played on the cavaquinho, a four-string ukulele-like instrument brought to Brazil by Portuguese explorers in the 16th century. Dr.  Safra, another member of our Hexaemeron family, presented Fr. Alexander with the beautiful little cavaquinho made in his home country.

Conversation around the hospitality tables sometimes turned philosophical. Discussions about the primitive state of iconography in America sparked many questions and concerns about how the serious student can significantly progress without structures of apprenticeship in place, such as exist under ecclesiastical guidance in Russia, and other predominately Orthodox countries. Even in our seminaries, training in the sacred art of the icon is not included except sporadically and on a very low level.

In such an underdeveloped environment, churches often yield to one of two options: importing iconographers from Russia and Greece or hiring an amateur practitioner.  We have seen many times that clergy sponsor parishioners to go through our icon boot camp in order to use them gratis as resident iconographers.

The reason given for this is that congregations cannot afford the work of professional iconographers and therefore turn to artists within their midst who will “gift” the services of adorning.  This is often the case with mission churches that may not be able to even provide a permanent space for worship. It is troubling, however, that achieving permanency sometimes means priorities favor providing corporeal comfort over spiritual essentials for Orthodox worship. Hence, the proliferation of laminated photographs substituted for icons or iconesque folk-art taking the place of works aesthetically and theologically appropriate. This mentality is so pervasive that it threatens the livelihood of accomplished iconographers and lowers expectations for and recognition of what the icon is. All of which only serves to keep iconography in the primitive state that we see it now.

Our seasoned students understand this catastrophe and genuinely desire to become equipped to meet the needs of their churches for sacred adornment. The quality work they produced in Maggie Valley is a testament to their talent and sobriety of purpose.

Again, as with the workshop held in the remote setting of St. Tikhon Orthodox Theological Seminary, June 19-25, 2011, the fundamental question of Hexaemeron’s mission is raised.  We have never claimed that the workshop model is capable of graduating iconographers. In fact, we have stated such in all our literature and in our classes. We return from a glorious six days, surrounded by the natural beauty of mountain streams and forests, happy to have reconnected with long-time friends and to have made new ones. Yet again, we are aware that we must find a way to help them become fully literate in the language of iconography in which they have invested themselves to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ by means of line and color.

Again, we turn to the Holy Trinity and ask for divine direction on how to establish a permanent shelter for the thorough training of iconographers.  Again, we find ourselves evaluating our mission after wandering these last ten years, pitching our tent where we may to spend six days providing lessons that can hardly be apprehended in six years of close apprenticeship with a master teacher like Ksenia Pokrovsky.  In a completely unforeseen way, we have become a  part of the Izograph Society of Iconographers that Ksenia and her fellow pioneers founded in Russia  in the 1980’s when making icons was a crime on par with trafficking in firearms, pornography and narcotics. Under Ksenia’s uncompromising guidance, we are helping to recover icon writing, not as an indigenous art of America, but as an organic link to the ancient tradition of iconography, a rescuing and resurrection of sublime models upon which to base what comes after us in gratitude for what we have received.

On these shores we are pioneering works of beauty for which an aesthetically and spiritually starved culture desperately yearns, though perhaps unaware. Our students’ work reminds us that God provides beautiful things in the wilderness that may someday change the world. Iconography is hard work, but Our Lord’s burden is easy and His yoke is light.

And, as Dostoevsky has famously said, “Beauty shall save the world.”

Mary Kathryn Lowell

“There is no doubt in my mind that Six Days of Creation is the best icon workshop in the country and, with the help of our Lord, we will be able to improve and expand for the benefit of all involved.”     V. Rev. D. Alexander Atty, D. Min., Dean of St. Tikhon Orthodox Theological Seminary

The Six Days of Creation icon-painting course concluded its fifth year in residence at St. Tikhon on June 25, 2011. Hexaemeron wishes to thank Fr. Alexander Atty, Matushka Olga, Fr. Nilus and the rest of the staff for a wonderful week in the Poconos at South Canaan, Pennsylvania. We are especially grateful for the cooking skills of seminarian Alexis Baldwin who was able to make us enjoy abstaining from “flesh foods” during the Apostles Fast this year (is that a sin?).

It is always a blessing for us to hold this course at St. Tikhon. It feels appropriate bringing students from all over North America there to learn the ancient art of icon painting. Many American saints walked the grounds of St. Tikhon Monastery and Seminary: Saints Tikhon of Moscow,  Nicholai of Zicha, Raphael of Brooklyn, and  Alexis Toth.  I like to believe that these holy persons are praying for us in our mission to provide a traditional Orthodox approach to the icon. At St. Tikhon, our students are able to take part in the daily schedule of Vespers, Vigil, Holy Hours, and Divine Liturgy services in St. Tikhon Monastery church. These services become the prayerful foundation for the temporary community formed by our coming together as students of the icon. The services also provide the context for realizing the meaning and purpose of the icon.  We are thankful to Fr. Nicodemus who annually leads our students on a tour explaining the history of the icons in the monastery church and the collection in the icon museum.

Our students created some amazing panel icons this year. Besides having first-time students, we have many dedicated friends who come back every year to learn from Master Iconographer Ksenia Pokrovsky. Ksenia has been restoring old icons and painting new icons, and teaching iconography for 50 years, first in Russia and now in America. Her store of knowledge and experience is a treasure that seems bottomless. Some of the work produced by students who have been participating in the Six Days of Creation at various locations over the years is breathtaking for its beauty and its spiritual grace.

Marek Czarnecki, who shares in many aspects in guiding our courses, has worked with Ksenia Pokrovsky for more than 12 years.  He has become well known as an iconographer and teacher. The value he adds to the overall success of our program is immeasurable. Ksenia’s daughter, Anna Pokrovsky-Gouirev, is also one of our teachers. Anna has been working alongside her mother for many years on commissions for Orthodox churches. Her icons are deeply moving, and her quiet teaching style communicates that depth of achievement.

This year, more than ever, we desire to begin establishing a fixed residence for our school in order to train iconographers toward certification. We see the great need for authentic training on the one hand, and on the other, the great desire for such a program.  The traveling crash-course workshop model in this country has turned iconology education into a roadside market for spiritual tourists and bargain shoppers. Students who come to us are weary of this largely ineffective method. And so are we.

Hexaemeron Inc, Non Profit Organization

Mary Kathryn Lowell

One of the sweetest men we have ever known, Fr. Seraphim Scheidler, reposed in Our Lord, January 17, 2011. He had struggled with a weak heart condition for many years. We first met him in 2003 at our inaugural icon-painting workshop in Lexington, KY. Father became a regular at the Six Days of Creation workshops, sponsored by Hexaemeron non-profit organization, and led by Ksenia Pokrovsky.

Fr. Seraphim loved the Orthodox mission in Indonesia, which he visited twice in an official capacity. In fact, he was ordained to the sub-diaconate at Holy Apostle Thomas Orthodox Church in Jakarta, February 23, 2006,  and was initially assigned to work with Fr. Daniel Byantoro, founder of the Indonesian Orthodox Church.  Fr. Seraphim’s poor heart-health held him back from realizing his desire to serve in Indonesia along side Fr. Daniel.

Truly, an un-self-conscience servant of love, Fr. Seraphim’s  focus was always on the person before him. What a shining light of kindness he was, he is, even more brightly now! Fr. Seraphim was (and is) loved by everyone who has been blessed to know him. We at Hexameron are honored to be among this blessed company. We will greatly miss him.

Memory Eternal, our dear Father and friend!

Read more about Fr. Seraphim Scheidler’s life:

http://journeytoorthodoxy.com/2010/07/18/the-story-of-fr-seraphim-scheidler/#axzz1BKwjYNll

 

 

Fr. Seraphim and Marek Czarnecki taking a break from icon painting, June 2005, St. Andrew Orthodox Church, Lexington, KY