Icon: The Communion of Saints (The Relos), by Sr Mary Burke (Seraphim Icon Group).
Based on an image of The Last Judgment. Photograph: Susan Southall
On Thursday the 15th of November, Dr Olga Buttigieg gave a paper on icons at the Celebration of Icons Night at the Carmelite Library. The evening was part of the exhibition held through November in the Library by the Seraphim Icon Group. The facilitator of the evening, Philip Harvey, gave these introductory words of welcome.
The Carmelite Centre and the Carmelite Library are very supportive of the icon scene in Melbourne and the numerous iconographers, many gathered here this evening, who work on their icons, whether on their own, or together in groups of two or more, or even in established icon schools. Here in Middle Park we have put on seasons of talks and presentations about icons. In the past, just as during this November, the Library has been a space where iconographers can come and work, and this will continue to be so. In fact, that’s an invitation to the iconographers.
We are delighted and honoured that the show next door is now assembled for all to enjoy, but more especially to reverence and reflect upon in your own private devotion. The group itself is the brainchild of Pam Whitely, who wanted to paint with other experienced iconographers. It is a contemplative and ecumenical group started in May 2016. The four founding members were Pam Whitely, Gladys Low, Margaret Gibson, and Sr Mary Burke. Later members to join were Michael Lee and Olga Buttigieg and we will be hearing Olga’s own views on icons shortly.
It was Margaret Gibson who, confronted with the idea of mounting an icon exhibition, invented the marvellous name, the Seraphim Icon Group. Unfortunately, Margaret herself cannot be here this evening due to ill health. Sr Mary Burke also cannot be with us as she is away in Bethlehem in the Holy Land doing a master class in iconography.
The purpose of the Group is to share their skills, knowledge, pigments and the 'tools of trade' of iconographers. It means they can bulk buy to save costs. Sessions are once a month - 10am -3pm – at the Carmelite Monastery in Kew. It was the Mother Superior of the house who offered St Cecilia's Room for them to paint in, and I have been asked by the Group to give thanks publicly to Mother Ellen-Marie Quinn for her hospitality in this regard.
We all bring our own understanding to bear when viewing or writing icons. After our talk this evening there will be plenty of opportunity to share our own ideas and experience, and to spend time with the icons. But now, before we hear from Olga, I wish to read the words of founding members of the Seraphim Icon Group. Their views, simply expressed, give their own meaning to the work at hand.
Pam Whitely has written that “Iconography is only possible because
of the Incarnation. The iconographer hopes to engage the viewer so
that they remember the saint portrayed, and that as they contemplate
the image they are drawn closer to the Divine.”
Gladys Low has written that, for her, “Painting an icon always
reminds me of forgiveness. It is hard to make mistakes when
painting an icon - it is very forgiving as the succeeding
layers of pigment and egg tempera will eventually illumine the
icon. Forgiveness is not always easy as it has many complex
layers and many seasons. Yet it is the first word uttered from
the Cross. When we forgive once or manyfold, we exercise this
Sister Mary Burke offers these words about icons: “I am strong on the idea of how icons function as a means of establishing relationships. They want to engage with the viewer and invite you into communion. That is why the face and especially the eyes are so important; the relationship is two-way. The fruit of this relationship is the transformation of the viewer, not unlike the working of the Eucharist! In the East, icons are strongly linked with the liturgy, so they are basically liturgical art which extends itself into people's homes and other places of prayer. They aren't meant as adornment pieces like some Western art is meant to be.”
Michael Lee is guided by the writing of Tradition. He quotes St. John of Damascus in ‘On the Divine Images’: "In former times God, who is without form or body, could never be depicted. But now when God is seen in the flesh conversing with men, I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter; I worship the Creator of matter who became matter for my sake, who willed to take His abode in matter; who worked out my salvation through matter."
John of Damascus was highly influential in the construction of arguments for icons at the Seventh Ecumenical Council of AD 787, which were passed down as teaching: "Icons are a tradition useful in many respects, but especially in this, that the Incarnation of the Word of God is shown forth as real and not merely fantastic." Words we have heard expressed just now by Pam Whitely.
Michael connects with the words of Vladimir Lossky in his essential work ‘The Meaning of Icons’, page 22: "The iconographic tradition also receives its full meaning and its intimate coherence with other documents of the faith (Scripture, dogmas, liturgy) in the Tradition of the Holy Spirit. Just as much as dogmatic definitions, it has been possible for the icons of Christ to be allied with the Holy Scriptures, to receive the same veneration, since iconography sets forth in colours what the word announces in written letters"
And lastly, Michael refers to Heinrich Denzinger: "We prescribe the veneration of the holy icon of Our Lord Jesus Christ in rendering to it the same honour as to the Books of the Holy Gospels. For just as by the letters of these latter we all come to salvation, so by the action of the colours in images, all - learned as well as ignorant - equally find their profit in what is within reach of all. In effect, just as the word is set forth by letters, painting sets forth and represents the same things by colours" [Denzinger, No 337 ed.26.]