Icons Open the Window to Heaven

A Catholic Icon: Our Lday of Perpetual Help.

by PATTI MAGUIRE ARMSTRONG
From National Catholic Register

Even in Catholic circles, icons suffer from insufficient understanding. These images are often regarded as a mere style of art from Eastern Orthodox churches. What they are, however, are glimpses into eternity with roots in antiquity.

The word “icon” comes from the Greek word eikon, which means “image.” The artist (referred to as an iconographer) is said to “write” an icon because it is intended to be visual Scripture. The icon is most often a painting, but it can also be carved, cast in metal or done as a mosaic. It usually portrays Jesus, an angel or a saint.

According to iconographer Marek Czarnecki, “It’s a vision of reality that uses art to open the window to heaven.” His own journey into iconography began in 1990, when his father promised a parish priest at St. Stanislaus Church in Bristol, Conn., that his son would paint the famous Our Lady of Czestochowa image. This ancient Polish icon is mentioned in records dating back to the 1300s.

Although Czarnecki was not interested in religion at the time, he honored his father’s wishes. Seeing people pray in front of the image filled him with awe — and inspired him to devote his work to icons and revisit his own faith. Now, he specializes in iconography at his studio in Connecticut (SeraphicRestorations.com). It was his icon of Jesus representing the priesthood that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops used as their symbol for the Year for Priests in 2009-2010.

“I don’t sign my work because an icon must be transparent; the artist should not get in the way,” he said. Part of the artist’s transparency is accessing the spiritual through prayer and fasting during the creative process, he explained, because the images are considered to be sacred objects. Some are even believed to be miraculous, such as the Our Lady of Czestochowa icon.

Icons use a language all their own to reveal a deeper meaning. The invisible spiritual dimension is conveyed through symbols. Jesus always has a cross in his halo. Mary has three stars on her garments to show she was a virgin before, during and after the birth of Christ. A profile image means those depicted have not reached salvation yet, such as Judas in the Last Supper or a shepherd in the Nativity. Saints, on the other hand, face forward, as do images of Jesus, because we will see him face to face in heaven. Icons of Christ and other holy images remind the viewers to reflect on the lives and virtues of those depicted.

Nick Markell of Hugo, Minn., who has been an iconographer for 20 years, explained, “Signs and symbols were especially important in the early Church, when most people could not read.” For a time, however, religious art was questioned. “There was a moment in the Church when images were questioned as idolatry,” said Markell. “The second Council of Nicaea (787) established that they were a means by which God’s grace comes into our life.”

In Pope John Paul II’s 1999 “Letter to Artists,” the late Holy Father explained that decision: “The decisive argument to which the bishops appealed in order to settle the controversy was the mystery of the Incarnation: If the Son of God had come into the world of visible realities — his humanity building a bridge between the visible and the invisible — then, by analogy, a representation of the mystery could be used, within the logic of signs, as a sensory evocation of the mystery. The icon is venerated not for its own sake, but points beyond to the subject which it represents.”

Iconography became a distinct art so it would not be confused with idolatry. “Icon is to art what Bible is to literature. It depicts the same truth in a visual way,” explained Markell.

Although icons are rooted in Church history, when the East and West parted, icons went East. The West kept religious art but not icons, and, during the ’70s, even that was often removed from churches. In The Spirit of the Liturgy, Pope Benedict XVI stated that it was a misunderstanding of Vatican II to remove art: “Images of beauty, in which the mystery of the invisible God becomes visible, are an essential part of Christian worship.” He referred to icons as normative in the Eastern and Orthodox churches and said they should also become normative in the West. In line with Benedict’s desire, Markell stated that the West is developing an interest in icons.

In February of this year, an icon of the Holy Family commissioned to Markell (NicholasMarkell.com) was unveiled in the gathering space at Spirit of Life Catholic Church in Mandan, N.D.

Father Chad Gion, the pastor, set the area around the icon up as a shrine with kneelers and candles. “It offers people respite from the things of this world, as they look upon the Holy Family, he said. “Just like reading the Bible can be a personal experience, praying with an icon can be the exact same thing.”

Markell has been commissioned to write another larger icon of the crucifix, which will hang over the church altar.

Father Gion said, “When I made my interest known, people came forward with donations. There is a desire in the hearts of people for beauty in their churches.”

According to both Markell and Czarnecki, much of the growing interest in icons is from the laity.

Kim Heilman of Bismarck, N.D., attributes her love of icons to art history classes at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn. “If you are studying art history, you are studying the Church,” she said. “I was not a practicing Catholic back then, but I was hooked on art, and, through it, I became hooked on the Church.”

When Kim and her husband, Shawn, planned a Sacred Heart enthronement ceremony in their home, they turned to art. “Shawn and I wanted something really beautiful, so we commissioned an iconic image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus,” she said, choosing Czarnecki to write their icon.

“That is where our family prays every night,” she said. “When I look at the image, it helps to lift me out of my world of day-to-day responsibilities and focus on Christ.”

Patti Maguire Armstrong writes from Bismark, North Dakota.

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22 Responses to Icons Open the Window to Heaven

  1. Wall Eyed Mr Whippy says:

    Slightly off the interesting points made here – I remember as a 15 year old being interrogated by workmates about why Catholics worshipped images. I could never refute this in a way that satisfied them. I was the local idolater to them.

    Like

  2. pablo says:

    I asked a little old lady Abuelita who those were in the pictures she had all around her home and all the walls, the crucifix being the center of them, she replied,

    “Those are our relatives”

    I always tell heretics that lesson I learned fifty-five years ago.

    *

    Like

  3. toadspittle says:

    .

    Very nicely put, Lieutenantissimo Pablo!

    As you, no doubt rightly, point out to the ungodly swarm of unrepentant heretics (with whom you seem to spend an inordinate ammount of time, by the way) – we are all just one great, big, unhappy family, really – aren’t we?

    Toad trusts the little Granny also included a few pictorial versions of the other Great Apes in her “relatives” gallery.
    Or possibly, team photos of the Brooklyn Dodgers, from 1945 -1958?

    Anyway, to use an old cliche, it’s – “a lesson to us all,” indeed!

    (Toad once applied for a job as a heretic, but he failed the written section.)

    Like

  4. golden chersonnese says:

    I see Mr Czarnecki has a luvvly blogg:

    http://www.seraphicrestorations.com/gallery/

    Like

  5. pablo says:

    Mr. Toadspittle,

    May I suggest you try applying for a agnostic position?

    Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!

    Yes, I am surrounded by heretics, homosexuals, lesbians, so on and so forth.

    It is called America.

    My greatest prayer is the Holy Mother allow me to go back to Mexico City that I may work for the Descalsed Carmelites and the Cardinal of Mexico.

    Please include my petition in your prayers.

    And don’t ridicule the rank Holy Mother Church assigns to those that are Confirmed.

    *

    Like

  6. pablo says:

    Thank you on behalf of the Prisoners in the State of Arizona…

    I was looking for Traditional pictures.

    They have been begging for some.

    May God grant you and the man with the site with additional graces.

    Ave Maria, purissima!

    *

    Like

  7. golden chersonnese says:

    Thank you, Pablo, and Mr Czarnecki.

    I see there are icons of Latin saints and holy images too, like this one:

    God land His Mother love the prisoners of Arizona.

    Like

  8. pablo says:

    I met a woman in Denver once; she was recording the sermons of the Padres to send them to prisoners.

    She would also mail devotions to them, and little catechisms.

    I discovered that one prisoner would take the audio and devotions from a couple of the prisoners that were receiving them. He told them he was taking their stuff just to show them who was boss (he took them after they had listened and read the devotions).

    He was a hired killer for the Mexican Mafia.

    Listening to the sermons, and having venerated an image of Saint Therese, he repented.

    God Bless women.

    Just as the Holy Mother was the Ark containing God, women are the arks containing our deposits of Faith.

    God bless you Senora for providing this link.

    And please pray for those women that labor in the vineyard of our Divine Master.

    (Yes, that was the picture I had made for sure to send to them).

    I will send the Dedication of our Homes to the Sacred and Immaculate Heart to them since the prison is their ‘Home’.

    *

    Like

  9. annem040359 says:

    It could very well end up that the Christians in the west will preserved this very special holy and blessed art.

    Like

  10. Wall Eyed Mr Whippy says:

    Pabby, I think you might find that Toad is “homosexual, heretic and lesbian” and probably a bearded Freemason too. Depends what mood he’s in, the old devil.

    Be careful tho’……

    Just an idea here…if you included a file and copies of prison keys concealed in those ikons, I’m sure the prisoners will lift up their hands in thanks.

    Like

  11. annem040359 says:

    This week of prayer for Christian unity is the best start to take an interest in Eastern Christian icons.

    Like

  12. annem040359 says:

    Here are two sites that I enjoy going to view wonderful icons:

    http://www.pallasweb.com/ikons

    http://www.nb.net/~pearson/

    Enjoy! :)=^..^=

    Like

  13. teresa says:

    Thanks Anne, they are very beautiful.

    Like

  14. golden chersonnese says:

    Anne, what interesting sites.

    And I found this linked to the second one:

    http://abbeyofthearts.com/about/monk-manifesto/comment-page-16/#comments

    We can all be monks!

    It all looks quite orthodox, the site being run by a Benedictine oblate:

    http://abbeyofthearts.com/about/about-christine/

    Like

  15. annem040359 says:

    First of all, thank-you for the wonderful websites references, also speaking about Marek Czarnecki, like him, I live in Connecticut, USA, and I am looking at making contact with him about learning more about Eastern Christian icons, what he does, and even to in time to learn under him. Plus the Abby of Hearts has from what I have taken a look on, an online course as well. Bookmarked all of the above sites. God Bless. :)=^..^=

    Like

  16. annem040359 says:

    Your welcome Teresa! :)=^..^=

    Like

  17. Jerry says:

    Yes, I am surrounded by heretics, homosexuals, lesbians, so on and so forth.

    I’m surrounded by two cats, a coffee cup, and several books. Your office sounds much more interesting Pablo! Have you given them all chairs?

    Like

  18. Wall Eyed Mr Whippy says:

    You mean like Professors have ‘chairs’?. lol Yes, Pablo sounds like he is having an interesting time.

    That office of your sounds just right, Jerry……two cats is a good number, and very conducive to the atmosphere of contemplation…; but they do have the habit of sleeping on top of any paper being written on. It’s hard to shift them too. Rattling the Brekkie box does the trick.

    Like

  19. Jerry says:

    two cats is a good number, and very conducive to the atmosphere of contemplation

    Well Peter just sleeps, but Jennie thinks typing on the keyboard is an invitation to climb on to it! — If you don’t know why I gave them those names, read iJennie by Paul Gallico, it’s a treat 🙂

    Like

  20. Wall Eyed Mr Whippy says:

    Yes and some cats write a more coherent post than I by this method. I fear I am afflictedby Keyboard Tourette’s Syndrome on occasion.

    I may have infected poor old Pablo.

    I
    hope
    not.

    Like

  21. pablo says:

    You underestimate my stupidity, Mr. Whippy,

    I can lie in a snake pit and not get bit.

    The snakes do get offended, however.

    God grants the grace of ignorance to those he really loves; it is difficult to the point of almost being impossible to infect or kill them.

    Men with cats?

    Really?

    Really?

    *

    Like

  22. Jerry says:

    Men with cats?

    Really?

    Really?

    Yes Pablo, men with cats. I’m a hetero-sexual married man, and I happen to like cats. Problem?

    Like

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