Magazine article The Christian Century

Iconography Classes Draw Non-Orthodox in Search of Spiritual Images

Magazine article The Christian Century

Iconography Classes Draw Non-Orthodox in Search of Spiritual Images

Article excerpt

For Lara Neri, painting icons is a kind of prayer.

"It's probably the most intense prayer that I do," said Neri, a Byzantine Catholic from Dallas, referring to the dozens of hours she spent in a class at St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

The rise of such classes is a sign of growing interest in iconography, with short-term courses offered by experts.

Some students at St. Sophia said the process helps them become more patient, while others said it motivates them to concentrate on the needs of others.

Neri prayed for friends whom she had e-mailed in advance to ask if they had requests.

"While I'm painting, I'm praying to commit them and their needs to the heart of Mary and Jesus," she said.

Theodoros Papadopoulos, who traveled from Greece to teach the class, recounted in the first day's lesson the history and meaning of iconography.

"The Byzantine Orthodox iconography is not just an 'art,' it's a sacred art," he said. "It is not 'painting,' it's theology. It is not 'artistic expression,' it is expectation of salvation."

David Morgan, a religion scholar and art historian at Duke University, said the iconography tradition, which dates to the early centuries of Christianity, is designed to be distinct from more naturalistic art, which became more common in the Renaissance period.

The flatness of the image, its stillness, the large eyes of its figures and the often symmetrical style are all intentional ways of distinguishing between the ordinary world and a heavenly realm.

"The two-dimensional image denies three-dimensional presence," he said. "It says the spirit is not about three dimensions. It's about a reality that is revealed in the image, revealed in the holy scriptures, revealed in the sacrament, and it's something that one needs to recognize as very special."

The artistic process taught in iconography classes is bathed in prayer, both individual and corporate.

Before his history lesson, Papadopoulos began the workshop with an iconographer's prayer. It was printed on a sheet for the students to read together before picking up their paintbrushes to "write" an image of the Christ child embracing his mother.

"Lord Jesus Christ, God of all, enlighten us, imbue the soul, the heart, the intellect of Your servant," they prayed, standing before easels in a bright, window-filled room steps away from the sanctuary of St. Sophia.

Those involved say the growth in interest--from people of diverse traditions--has been building over the last couple of decades. Hundreds of intensive classes, costing several hundred dollars, are held across the country.

Lynette Hull, an iconographer with the Prosopon School of Iconology, estimated that the school's six-day intensive course has had more than 5,000 students in the past 25 years. Hull, a Presbyterian convert to Orthodoxy, thinks icons are attractive to people in an age that is image-driven.

"Every person sees hundreds of images a day, and the icon is beginning to speak to people in a way that it hasn't before," Hull said. …

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