Our Lady of Korsun Icon


Our Lady of Korsun is a beautiful image, simple and tender. It became popular as a private devotional image in the 1500s, painted by the iconographers of the Isle of Crete. I have written this image before–and written about it as well. I am reblogging it below, to explain the symbolism and other details about the icon. This latest version has just been completed. It is tiny, only 6×6 inches.

Originally posted on reinkat:

In every icon, Christ is the center and the subject.  Careful observing makes that very clear in this icon, Our Lady of Korsun, which is  my favorite image to pray with.  I love the tender, pensive sorrow of the expression and gesture of the Theotokos, the reassuring blessing and comfort of the Lord. The image glows with love and compassion.  Dating back to the 16th Century, this icon was used for household devotions rather than formal church liturgy.

At first glance, it might appear that this icon is about Mary, the Mother of God. After all, the figure of Mary is much larger, and her face is the literal center point of the icon.    However, every element of the composition points to the Child Jesus as the  true center, the focal point, the main focus of this icon.  Our eyes naturally follow along lines, and both line–and color– draw our…

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What Did Jesus Look Like?

What did Jesus look like?

You know, nobody knows for sure, and it really doesn’t matter.  Christ lives in each of His followers, in everyone who believes in and follows Him,  reflected through them.

Artists all over the world have depicted Him in as many races and cultures in which there are Christians.

mosaic of Jesus in Roman church 530 AD

mosaic of Jesus in Roman church 530 AD

The Risen Christ looks like each of us, is part of each of us, and these

Jesus speaks to the wealthy young man

Jesus speaks to the wealthy young man

images are all beautiful, transcending race and mere physical appearance.

Jesus Christ is all things to all people of all times, the Savior of all of us.




But God did become a man, at a particular location and a particular time.  He took on a particular visage, a specific individual body build and shape, an individual appearance.  The tradition of iconography, which began in the very early years of Christianity, has established a general depiction of Our Lord’s face, based on oral tradition and also a few early images.

Some of the oral tradition finds it beginning in the story of a King Abgar, who sent a servant to ask Jesus to come heal him.  Jesus declined to travel, but permitted the servant to try to draw a portrait of Him, to bring to the king to represent Him.  The servant tried, and failed many times to get a good likeness, so Jesus took a cloth and pressed His face into it, leaving an image of Himself upon it.  The king was immediately healed when he accepted this image.  The cloth became a great treasure of the kingdom, and was built into a hiding place in the city gates, where it remained for centuries despite wars and sieges.  Icons fashioned after this cloth are called Not-Made-By-Human-Hands.  In the West, it’s called the Mandylion, and Westerners have the story of Veronica and her veil.  The origin of the name Veronica is from the words “vera icone”, or True Image.

Another part of the oral tradition comes from the story that St. Luke was the first iconographer.  As he was an eyewitness to the appearance of Jesus, his paintings were carefully observed, described, and copied.

The hand of different artists and their painting styles inevitably alter this appearance, so the canon arose that all figures in an icon are to be labelled, so as not to be misidentified.  Thus, every single icon of Jesus has a cruciform halo with letters that stand for “I Am Who Am”.  Additionally, the name Jesus Christ, in the vernacular, or the Greek letters which stand for His name:  IC XC, will identify Him.

Historically, there was a huge controversy over using images in worship during the early years of Christianity. For a while, those who were against using icons gained power, and nearly every icon created before the 8th century was deliberately destroyed.   The oldest surviving icon of Jesus was hidden away in the remote desert of Mt. Sinai.  It shows a dark-haired, dark-eyed, adult Jesus, and was painted in the early 500s.  There are also very early images of Jesus found in some of the catacombs, as frescos.

In monasteries, oral tradition and a few ancient surviving images allowed iconographers to continue their work and to produce new icons faithful to the ones that had been written before.

Many icons, as well as Western religious paintings,  follow the general proportions and features of the image on the Shroud of Turin.  The Shroud of Turin is believed to be the burial cloths of Jesus, preserved through the centuries.  The face is thin.  The proportions of the features are based on the length of the nose.  Sacred geometry has been developed to maintain these proportions and the likeness.



Images of the Child Jesus have also been depicted  many ways.  


I saw the icon below in Russia. It was painted in 1679, and is in the State Historical Museum at Novodevichy Convent.

Each painting reflects the culture of the artist and the living presence of God dwelling within each one of us


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The Penitent Magdalene and True Conversion of Heart

Originally posted on Biltrix:

By Fr Jason Smith

I have found no better representation of conversion and penance in art than The Penitent Magdalene, by George de la Tour. Though simple, it expresses the essential elements behind every conversion, and we can find in it powerful lessons to apply to our own life. Let’s take a closer look.

The Penitent Magdalen, George de la Tour

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Lenten reminders

I was on a short vacation last week, and tried to continue my Lenten practices faithfully every day.  It was not difficult to do that at all–every step I took, every minute that went by, seemed to be a reminder of God’s goodness and grace.

Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

Maybe my imagination went into overdrive at times, but the connections were always there for me, helping me to move towards that goal of praying constantly, of continual awareness of the presence of God active in our lives.  The things that I saw brought prayers to my heart and soul:

the shape of a chalice in the face of a cliff

a sculpture of the head of Christ in a small chapel

the chapel itself, a place of prayer anchored onto the rocks

and thorns, calling to mind the Passion of our Savior.

There was the surprise and beauty of life amongst the harshness

Delicate,  fragile–

and thriving against all odds

And there were vistas themselves, and the vast skies,

bringing to mind at every turn of the trail the words of the psalmist:  “Be still, and know that I am God.” Psalm 46:10

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Icons for Lent

Lent is almost here.  I have set up my “beautiful corner” for the prayers and images for the season.   I find myself drawn to certain of my icons during Lent, and create a home altar to contemplate and prepare my soul for the celebration of the Resurrection of our Savior.

One prays not “to” icons, but “with” them, and in the presence of the person depicted.  An icon represents someone in particular, and we are in their presence of and in communion with the saints and God as we pray.  Having the imags in front of me keeps me focussed and cognizant of this, of God’s presence with me every day, of the entire communion of saints praying with me.

I used 3 icons for my Lenten altar:  the first is an image called “Extreme Humility”.  The model for this icon is Serbian.

Jesus is shown with a part of the cross above, and part of the stone tomb indicated below.  His hands are crossed over His chest, in death, and in a symbolic gesture of silence and humility.  He is shown as dead, because the Son of God truly died on the cross, only to rise again.  He bears the marks of suffering and pain on His body.  Jesus’ head is bowed in submission to the will of God.  He gives all of Himself to God for our sake.  We are saved through His loving sacrifice.

The second is a small crucifix that I painted, based on an 8th century Syrian icon.  Jesus has died upon the Cross.  Blood and water gush from his side.  The Cross is glowing with gold, with Divine Light.  Jesus wears not the usual loincloth, but a long gown:  the ancient gown of a High Priest in the Middle East.  There isn’t too much emphasis on His suffering in this image, but instead on His conquering of death through the giving of Himself for us.  The inscription above His head reads:  Jesus Christ, The King of Glory.

Finally, there is an icon of St. Anthony of the Desert/aka St. Anthony the Great/ aka St. Anthony of Egypt. He is one of the earliest Desert Fathers, living alone in the remote Egyption desert as a hermit, praying constantly.  The saint spent many long nights wrestling with temptations of the flesh and the attacks of demons.  Often they came in the context of vivid dreams, and Anthony would awake battered and exhausted.  His temptations were defeated through intense prayer, humility and contemplation in solitude.  An angel was sent to him to strengthen and guide him–perhaps his own guardian angel?  He became famous as a holy man, and many came to him for teaching and guidance.  Eventually his disciples established a monastery in the desert outside of Cairo, which they named after him.  It still exists. His rule is simple:  prayer, times of solitude, and simple work.  St. Anthony’s example of contemplative prayer and his overcoming of personal obstacles has always been an inspiration to me, especially relevant in this time of atonement and repentance.

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Some Thoughts on Religious Freedom

Years ago, when I was an illustrator collaborating with an author in another city, we travelled to a central meeting place to work.  My route passed through beautiful rural areas, going by a small wooden church–Church of Christ the First Born, or something like that, on my way.  A tiny church with a few shade trees, a tiny parking lot, out among the fields.  What a surprise it was to one day hear about this little congregation on the news.

It seems that they believe in faith healing, in the laying on of hands for healing as in Scripture.  They trust in God alone, in a most literal and specific way.

A couple there brought their sick baby to be prayed over by the elders and congregation. But the baby died.

The government authorities were furious and took immediate action.

The case went all the way to the Supreme Court.  The parents lost the legal case as well as their baby. Their other children were taken away by the state.  They themselves went to prison.  They had put everything on the line for their faith, for their firmly held religious convictions, and wow, did they pay the price.  Since then, there have been other, similar cases, in other places, but with the same results.  Prison.  Jail time.  Children made wards of the state.

(And this from a government power structure that sanctions late-term abortion and euthanasia, and might even be moving towards allowing “after birth abortion”. What hypocrisy to protest the dying of this particular unfortunate infant with such vigor. I don’t think they were really concerned about the sanctity of his life.)

I am not agreeing with the direction that the congregation’s faith led them, with the interpretations they believe, these folks in these churches.  Nor do I condemn them for the choice they made.  After all, our life truly is in God’s hands.  I once had an ill baby, too.  We took him to specialists, to doctors.  When he was 4 months old, Eric died in my arms, hooked up to tubes and IVs, in the pediatric ICU of a hospital filled with all the latest in modern medicine.

Sometimes babies die, anyway, despite our best efforts, despite our grief and beliefs and dashed hopes.  I know this all too well.

I didn’t hear much on the news about the charges against the Church of Christ the First Born, except as a local story. No reaction, no analysis, no protest, no national coverage.  Yet I think this was one of the first volleys in the war against religion in this country.  A belief was chosen that garners little sympathy, and it was attacked without comment.  It was a  safe target to establish legal precedents that will be built upon later.  A desensitizing process that will lessen protests when the target becomes something larger, somebody more respected. It’s been done before, in other countries and with other ugly goals.

We might not much like the details of these cases, nor sympathetize with the direction the believer’s faith led them, but I think we make a huge mistake in not loudly pointing out the principle underlying it all, the purposeful precedents being set.  It is power vs freedom of worship, and our right to believe and live out those beliefs without government sanction.

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Praise God!

I have been gone from home and routine for several weeks, sitting at the hospital bedside of my critically ill mother.  She was on life support, unaware of my presence and that of my siblings.  We prayed and prayed, saying rosaries, saying the Chaplet of Divine Mercy.  And God heard our petitions:  12 days ago mom awoke, at first a bit at a time, then longer and longer . . . last week the ventilator was removed and she breathes now on her own.  Yesterday the feeding tube was removed–and minced turkey and mashed potatoes were her first meal since early January.  She loved it!

I finally returned home last night, and in reading the Evening Prayer for January 26 that night, I found this psalm.  It fit our family situation so well.  I want to share it with all of you:

I love the LORD, for he has heard

my voice, my appeal;

for he has turned his ear to me

whenever I call.

They surrounded me, the snares of death;

the anguish of the grave has found me;

anguish and sorrow I found.

I called on the name of the LORD:

“Deliver my soul, O LORD!”

How gracious is the LORD, and just;

our God has compassion.

The LORD protects the simple;

I was brought low, and he saved me.

Turn back, my soul, to your rest, 

for the LORD has been good to you;

he has kept my soul from death,

my eyes from tears, and my feet from stumbling.

I will walk in the presence of the LORD

in the land of the living.

Psalm 116: 1-9

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If Christmas


so beautifully stated, and so true.

Originally posted on A p r o n h e a d -- Lilly:

185 - Copy

If Christmas were all about glitter and lights

and gifts under a Charlie Brown pine,

perched awkwardly, displacing a more permanent resident chair;

if it were just about cards and carols sung off-key at children’s plays,

with lop-sided crowns and angels sporting withering wings—as cute as that is;

if it were just about expectation of giving and receiving more stuff,

then I would be the Grinch’s biggest fan.

Disappointment would not be worth the price of turkey and pumpkin pie.

But as much as it can be about family and fellowship, the good and ugly

in all of that;

and as much as it is about traditions and nostalgia, the good, quaint, and sometimes trite

in all of that;

even more, it is about the crèche, lost in the parade of tinsel, tumult, and talk.

It’s the spectacle of God humiliating Himself to accommodate a fallen race,

becoming of us,

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Icon of the Nativity of the Lord

Nativity Icon, St. Kirill Monastery, Cathedral of the Assumption 1497

Nativity Icon, St. Kirill Monastery, Cathedral of the Assumption 1497

The Orthodox Christmas icon is a bit different from any depiction of the Nativity of Christ in Western art.   It is a bit strange to our eyes,  lacking the sentiments and techniques that we are used to seeing.  It is even  foreign, almost unrecognizable at first glance, but upon careful study, is deeply meaningful and beautiful.  Like every icon, each translation of the image differs according to the iconographer’s style and region, but they all have certain image elements in common.  The feast of the Nativity was developed in the 4th Century, and by the 6th Century, all of the imagery had been established.

This icon’s purpose is to teach the essential truths of our faith, in this case, the Incarnation of God, and the fact that Jesus is fully human and fully divine.  As in all icons, there is no attempt to show depth, or time sequence.  Events that took place at different times are all shown on the same plane here.   Like the icon above, the following image is Russian, done in a very classic and typical manner, and makes a good sample for studying the symbolism.  (I learned most of this information about the theology from Ouspensky’s book:  The Meaning of Icons, an excellent resource about iconography.)

Nativity of Christ, 15th Century Novgorod icon

Nativity of Christ, 15th Century Novgorod icon

At the top of the icon there is a dark blue half circle, which represents heaven, as well as the mystery and presence of God.   Three rays come down from this area, a reference to the Trinity, and they point to the place where the Child lies.  The Child is the center of the icon, both compositionally and dogmatically.

He is lying in front of a dark cave. He is wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger, accompanied by an ox and an ass.  (Interestingly, these 2 animals are not mentioned in any of the Gospel accounts, but appear in every artistic depiction of the birth of Jesus, in both the East and the West, sharing in the joy and taking part in the worship of the Babe.)  The cave, the stable for beasts where He was born, is black, representing the darkness of sin.  The Child shines in front of it, the light coming out of darkness for us.   There is a second element of symbolism here, linking Christmas and Easter.  The way the image has been developed is not only the telling of Jesus’ birth, but also a foreshadowing of the death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord.  The cave looks like a tomb, the swaddling clothes like burial wrappings, and the Lord shining in front of its darkness, life defeating sin and death, reminds one of the Resurrection.

Mary lies on a bed in front of the figure of Jesus, outside of the cave. She is painted proportionately large, because she is an important person in the salvation story but not the central one. She is laying down on a bed because she is a normal woman, tired after giving birth.  This is to witness explicitly that the Lord became fully human and was born in pain, as are all babies.  This a very important dogma, and a refuting of the early heresies about the nature of Christ.  Mary not only looks tired, but sad as well.  This expression, too, foreshadows her Son’s passion and death.  She is, however, looking towards Joseph, another important figure in the story.  More on that later . . .

On one side are the 3 wise men, coming to pay homage to the newborn king.  They follow the light from the star of heaven, looking upward.  In most Western paintings, they are shown as different nationalities.  In the Eastern icon, they are shown as different ages.  They represent the learned and educated of the nations, the leaders and elite, both young and old, worshipping and honoring Christ.

On the other side are the shepherds, one in this icon.  They represent the simple man, the ordinary working people, also coming to worship and honor the Lord.  The shepherd in this icon is playing a musical instrument.  He listens to the angels, and adds his own human music to the chorus of the heavenly beings.

The angels in this icon serve a two-fold purpose: they sing glory to God, looking up to heaven and the mystery of God.  Other angels look down towards the people.  They are messengers bringing the Good Tidings to mankind.

Down in the lowest section of the Nativity icon are midwives bathing the infant Jesus.  Just as Mary is shown exhausted after giving birth, these women are placed in the icon to attest that Jesus was born a human infant, a real child, with the same needs as any newborn.


Finally, there is St. Joseph in the lower left corner.  He is separate because he is NOT the father of Jesus.  Like most of us would be in such a situation, he is a bit confused and troubled.  He has had some doubts over this pregnancy and birth.  The other figure, shown in profile and not relating to the viewer at all but merely exposed to our view, is Satan disguised as an old shepherd.  He is tempting Joseph to doubt.  Leonid Ouspensky, in his book, explains it well:  “In the person of Joseph, the icon discloses not only his personal drama, but the drama of all mankind–the difficulty of accepting that which is ‘beyond words or reason–the Incarnation of God’.

While in some icons the Mother of God is represented looking at the Babe, ‘keeping in her heart’ sayings about Him, or else looking straight before her at the external world, in our icon, as in many others, she looks at Joseph as if she were expressing by this look compassion for his state. In this, the icon teaches a tolerant and compassionate attitude towards human unbelief and doubt.”

All of these figures are arranged more or less in a circle around the newborn Christ Child.  Heavenly hosts worshipping our Lord, joined by simple people, joined by educated people, joined by practical people doing their jobs with love and care, joined by those struggling with doubt, Jews, Gentiles . . . all of us together singing praise, sharing our talents, and adoring the Son of God at His birth, our center, and our Lord.

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Why Icons?

So why do you like them, people ask?  Arty types say they are just craft at best, and mere uncreative copying at worst.  Others say they are stiff, archaic, and not so pretty.  So why am I, and many others, so drawn to icons?  Why did I drop decades of work as an illustrator and devote my time and talent entirely to the making of images of God?

I’ve been thinking about how to answer that.  Why icons, indeed.

In a society filled with a cacophony of visual noise, a world that bombards us with image after image in advertising, television, internet, movies– a culture that admires anything “Xtreme” . . . the icon offers an image of calm, peace, silence.

It invites one to stop, to contemplate, to look deeply, to relate.  It shows us the value of process, and its appeal deepens when one takes the time to learn more, to ponder the symbolism.

The icon offers answers to those who seek Truth.  It teaches patience.  It teaches the viewer slow down, to meditate,  and to pray.  It reminds us of mystery, and of meaning.

Christ Pantocrator: Dormition Church, Moscow

Christ Pantocrator: Dormition Church, Moscow

Icons don’t break startling new ground in themselves, don’t dazzle the public with innovation–but they can do exactly that in the hearts of the thoughtful viewer who responds to their message.  Instead of “pushing the envelope” with ever more stimulation, they invite us instead to sit in stillness with God’s  unchanging Truth.

Contemporary Icon, Father Dmitri of Yaroslavl

Contemporary Icon, Father Dmitri of Yaroslavl

An icon doesn’t begin, or end, with self-expression, it begins and ends with prayer.

An icon’s color, harmony, and balance is usually pleasing, although that is not necessarily so  in every case–inexpertly done icons are just as prayerful as exquisite ones, because the purpose is not to measure or display skill but to witness to the incarnation and glory of God.

Icon of Pentecost, Novgorod, Russia

Icon of Pentecost, Novgorod, Russia

I will never become rich or famous writing icons.  It is not very likely that I will be invited to create images for parish churches, let alone grand cathedrals.  They are my personal prayer journey.  Icons have brought me closer to the Lord, and have taught me to pray deeply and contemplatively.  That is a treasure beyond compare.

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