I’ve been thinking about icons a lot lately, for a number of reasons:
One is that icons and iconography play a big part in my novel-in-progress, so the writing has stirred back up my love and respect for this spiritual art form. I haven’t written (iconographer’s term for painting an icon) an icon in over a year, having made a decision to “retire” from doing commissioned work and teaching workshops in order to have more time for writing essays, and hopefully books.
But then when I put together my application for the 2011 Seaside Escape to Create Residency, I included icon lectures, demonstrations, and even abbreviated workshops as part of my community service proposal. (Each artist, writer and musician who receives the one-month residency does a community service related to her work while she’s there.) The reason I did this, I think, is because of the role that iconography plays in the novel that I would be writing while I’m at Seaside for that month, "Cherry Bomb: A Triptych." It seemed a natural tie-in, and I hope I will be given the opportunity to carry through with my proposal.
And then today a friend came over and we were visiting and at one point she asked me how long it took us to collect all the icons that we have in our home. (She’s getting a new apartment and was thinking about where she might place them.) I told her that we’d been adding to our collection for over twenty years—some were gifts, some we got while on pilgrimages, and a few were hand-written icons that I had done. But the main thing, I told her, was to have a specific place in your home for the icons where you would pray before them. It’s okay to have icons on other walls in the house, but they aren’t just “decoration.” They’re spiritual art, with a spiritual purpose. Their beauty is not of this world.
After she left, I started thinking about this more. I got back out an article I wrote a few years ago and re-read it: “Icons Will Save the World.” What struck me as I read the words I had written when I was still actively writing icons was how far I have moved away from focusing on an important aspect of the icon—its spiritual beauty. This section of the essay pulled me back in:
In his book Icons: Theology in Color , Eugene Trubetskoi said that the beauty of the icon is spiritual. “Our icon painters,” Trubetskoi said, “had seen the beauty that would save the world and immortalized it in colors.”
We are innately creative, because we are made in the image of a creative God. As the twentieth century-abstract painter Vassily Kandinsky said, we all strive to make “beauty and order from the chaos of the fallen world.” Our Creator has given us the freedom to do this, but sadly many artists and writers abuse this freedom. The results of that abuse are often pornographic, or at best self-serving exposes masquerading as art or literature.
Good secular art, music, literature, and architecture serve to refine and form our souls and make them better disposed to spiritual or liturgical art, music, literature, and architecture. In an essay called “Forming Young Souls, ” Fr. Seraphim Rose encouraged parents to expose their children to what he calls the “Dushevni Diet”—that which feeds the middle part of the soul. “The education of youth today, especially in America, is notoriously deficient in developing responsiveness to the best expressions of human art, literature, and music.” His premise is that people raised on such a “diet” would be better prepared to receive the higher, or spiritual foods. Perhaps they would have developed an appetite for the patient work of prayer, worship, and yes, venerating icons.
As I continue my work, whether writing essays, memoirs or novels, I hope that whatever I produce will fall into the category of “middle soul food.” I hope it will help my readers to develop an appetite for spiritual art. And I pray that my brush with iconography will help me to create beauty and order out of the chaos.