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Three Continents, Three Women, One Calling

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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In the past 20 years, there has been a revival of interest in icons – devotional panels from the Eastern Christian tradition depicting Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary and the saints. Interestingly, this revival is not limited to the Eastern Christian world. Art collectors and theologians, believers and non-believers, Christians and non-Christians have all recognized the simple grace and spiritual power of these portrayals of the sacred.

This renewal of interest in the icon (Greek for image, portrait) is not limited to classical examples from the medieval Balkan, Byzantine, Ethiopian and Russian empires. Modern icons have been commissioned for new churches and private collections in North America and Western Europe, as well as for the restored churches in the post-Communist nations of Eastern Europe and Russia.

On three continents, Africa, Asia and North America, three women – an artist, a Benedictine nun and a former Soviet biophysicist – faithfully render these images according to the guidelines and canons set by the fathers of the Eastern churches. Yet, each iconographer fashions her icons in a different manner, reflecting the rich traditions of these churches.

ADDIS ABABA – Mrs. Barbara Goshu is a Polish national reared and educated in the medieval city of Krakow. She studied graphic arts, painting and sculpture at Krakow University’s Academy of Fine Arts, one of Europe’s oldest and most prestigious institutes of higher learning.

During her university studies, Barbara was drawn to the mystery of Russian and Greek iconography. As a part of her training, she restored some of these classic masterpieces, bringing to life the lustrous hues that for centuries had remained buried beneath layers of encrusted soot.

It was in Krakow that Barbara met Ato Worku Goshu, a promising young Ethiopian painter who had been sent to study at the academy by the Ethiopian Ministry of Education of the Emperor Haile Selassie (1930-36; 1941-74). Barbara and Worku studied together, married and moved to Ethiopia in 1967.

As a child, Barbara listened to the tales of her grandfather, who as a military officer traveled throughout the globe recording his adventures. The young Barbara was particularly taken with the colorful stories of Ethiopia, the land of the Queen of Sheba. Now she was married to a son of that country.

Barbara responded passionately to the richness of Ethiopian civilization, immersing herself in the study of its art, culture and history. Once again the icon – this time in its Ethiopian form – fascinated the young artist. She began to create icons as an outlet for her talent and as a method of understanding her new home:

“Painters of icons are the ‘grandfathers’ of history and religion,” she asserted during a recent discussion with the Director of our Addis Ababa office. Brother Vincent Pelletier, F.S.C. “They are the preservers of the culture of humanity and their work is to be approached with reverence and awe.”

Barbara carefully renders her images of the sacred in the traditional Ethiopian manner. The faces are never drawn in profile. In depictions of the sacred, the eyes, the windows of the soul, are given greater emphasis.

The compositions are geometric and flat; Barbara’s palette ranges from bright reds and yellows to rich hues of chestnut and blue. Yet there is a stillness to her work:

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Tags: Eastern Christianity Art Icons Women (rights/issues) Revival/restoration