ART AND SPIRITUALITY OF THE ICON
Iconography is an ancient form of sacred writing depicting holy images of Christ, the Virgin Mary and the saints which originated in Church in the Eastern Roman Empire.
Although abolished and suppressed by Rome during the first millennium, the sacred craft was eventually restored by a later Roman emperor and thrived within the Greek, Russian and Egyptian Orthodox Churches.
In May 1995, Pope John Paul II issued a mandate for Roman Catholics saying the exploration of all the traditions of the Eastern Catholic Churches was essential to the nourishment of all Catholics and a process to unity within the Catholic churches.
Dominican Priest Father Brendan McAnerney remembers painting his first icon when he was 12 years old.
He had painted it for his grandmother. And, although he says it "wasn't very good," his grandmother loved it.
"Oh, well," he says fondly, "she was my grandmother Â— of course, she loved it."
Before he joined the church, Fr. Brendan modestly says he was "an artist in the broader sense of the word." His biography, however, reveals the deep influence of art on his life before becoming a Dominican priest.
After earning an undergraduate degree in art history from Boston University, Fr. Brendan pursued his graduate studies while working for an art gallery in New York City. He also directed a gallery and, in San Francisco, started his own business as an art dealer.
After entering the Western Dominican Province, Fr. Brendan pursued graduate studies there, earning a masters in theology and the arts.
Although he had painted that first icon as a child, after studying the sacred craft with a Russian Master, among other iconographers, Fr. Brendan focused his artistic talents on iconography.
"When you enter a religious life," he says, "God begins to use the skills and history you have in a new way."
Although Fr. Brendan is currently serving at the St. George Melkite-Greek Catholic Church in Sacramento, he also directs the DominICON Ministry to "enhance and expand the appreciation of icons."
Fr. Brendan lectures all over the country on the "artistic, spiritual, and theological tradition of holy icons." His public lectures culminate in a workshop where he guides no more than 20 participants in the process of painting an icon.
He talks of "iconographic grammar" and the "vocabulary" of the art form. He says the way an icon is painted "speaks" to the viewer in a symbolic way.
"For example, if you see an icon where the Christ is holding up two fingers," he explains, "the painting of those two fingers represent something."
The two fingers, Fr. Brendan says, speak to both the divinity and the humanity of Christ Jesus.
"Every detail in an icon has a meaning," he says. "Part of my job when I come (to teach the workshop) is to introduce Western Christians to the vocabulary of the painting so that it is no longer strange, but speaks to them."
Fr. Brendan says iconography is form of prayer that is foreign to most Western Christians.
"It is not an artistic technique so much as it is a spiritual journey," he says.
The process does not require artistic ability as much as it requires some dexterity and a willingness to follow instruction, he adds.
In fact, Fr. Brendan says some times too much artistic training can be a hindrance to letting go and allowing the Holy Spirit to guide the process of iconography.
"When you pray in front on an icon you have painted Â— a rational inspiration of God Â— it is a profound experience," he says, "as you realize you have been an instrument of God's Grace."
Â— Mardi Ford