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Opening Windows to the Divine

Eastern Europe’s women religious rediscover the power of the icon.

by Marlene Weisenbeck, F.S.P.A.

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A sacred art form dating to the sixth century is helping today’s Eastern European women religious revive their Christian faith.

Last August, women of the Byzantine and Roman Catholic traditions participated in “A Renaissance of Iconography for East European Institutes of Consecrated Life,” a program held at St. Athanasius Byzantine Catholic Seminary in Nyiregháza, Hungary. Although primarily organized for members of religious congregations, ten laypersons participated and seven countries were represented: Hungary, Italy, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Ukraine and the United States.

The iconography project was born out of a 1995 meeting at a session of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in the United States. The conference is known for its support of Eastern European congregations of women religious.

Thanks to the United States Catholic Conference and numerous other agencies and institutions, including CNEWA, the iconography project took place under the directorship of Sister Barbara Jean Milhalchick, O.S.B.M., Vicar General for the Sisters of St. Basil the Great, Sister Lucianne Siers, O.P., of the United States Catholic Conferences Office to Aid the Church in Central and Eastern Europe and Sister Marlene Weisenbeck, F.S.P.A., Chancellor and Director of the Office of Consecrated Life for the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin.

In the last three decades, interest in Eastern Christian icons – devotional panels in the Byzantine tradition depicting Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary or the saints – has surged, particularly in the West.

In the Eastern Christian tradition, the icon (Greek for “image” or “portrait”) is the visible image of the divine. The iconographer, who creates these objects, is instrumental in realizing this spiritual process, which is akin to spiritual writing – hence, the Eastern Christians devotion to the icon.

Icons occupy a central position in the devotional life of Byzantine Christians, both Catholic and Orthodox. During half a century of state-sponsored religious oppression behind the Iron Curtain, these powerful symbols of the ancien régime were confiscated, many destroyed. Reconstructing icons and their spirituality is one of many factors in reviving religious life in Eastern Europe.

The creation of an icon is painstaking work. Unlike most painting techniques, the “writing” of an icon begins with a base coat of the darkest colors in the design. All development of values, or shades of color, is built up from dark to light.

There is a theological reason for this technique: as God created light from darkness, so too the iconographer reveals the subjects spiritual light from darkness. After all areas of the design are covered in a base color, the garments in the image are painted, first in medium and then in lighter shades.

Next the hands and faces are painted, also building from dark to light. Facial features are painted, and the icon is completed as haloes and the images details are gilded with 23-karat gold leaf. A non-corroding mineral, gold leaf represents the eternal light of God. Lastly, an inscription identifying the subject is added. This is a vital step in the process. The icon should not be signed; the iconographer is viewed as only an instrument of the Holy Spirit. The artist is guided by the Spirit, and a window to heaven is revealed.

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Tags: Eastern Europe Icons Women Religious in Europe