Catholic Iconographer Struggles

There is a certain amount of confusion in being an iconographer, especially a Catholic one.  The icon is doctrinal and theological, and is the Eastern Church’s liturgical art.  The Western church long ago turned to self expression and individual interpretation, and largely regards artwork as decorative rather than part of the liturgy.  As Christian iconographers from all traditions seek to rediscover the artistic roots of the icon, there is little clear direction for us “outsiders”.   It is difficult to faithfully and accurately follow the guidance of a tradition not one’s own, in an area where seemingly small things can mean so much.

This is brought into focus for me when attempting to write an icon for a strictly Catholic saint–say for example St. Thomas More–or an image such as the Holy Family.  A true icon has much more to say than decoration, and is based on more than imagination. But which symbols are correct?  How should it be depicted? What colors and compositions would be correct?  Who will tell me when I inadvertently imply something that contradicts teachings?  Although the Catholic church has a bishop’s imprimatur and nihil obstat for written word, there is nothing like that for visual arts. 

Certainly there are many artists working today who distort the form of the icon, whether deliberately or unwittingly.  But there are many more of us who seek to honor and respect the shared theology of the Incarnation that the icon proclaims, and the artistic foundations built by the Eastern Church.  The icon can then be a bridge to understanding and brotherhood between Christians, and a witness to the Good News for all.


About reinkat

I am an iconographer, and have been studying Russian/Greek icons since 1995. I'm married with 3 children. I love hiking, camping, animals, my family and church--and icons.
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13 Responses to Catholic Iconographer Struggles

  1. reinkat says:

    Reblogged this on reinkat and commented:

    I am working on a icon of St. Anthony of Padua, and found this older post still relevant and applicable. I’ve narrowed it down to 2 drawings, neither one is just right.

    • Lyn says:

      Are there others that you can look at to get an idea of what to use? I have no idea, you stretch my brain with thoughts I’ve never ever considered before.

      • reinkat says:

        Sometimes there are models and examples, but not of true icons. Any icons of Western saints after the Eastern and Western churches split do not exist. The Eastern Church kept image as part of liturgical worship, and maintained the tradition of the icon. The West moved towards individual expressionism, and although music and the written word were carefully aligned with doctrine, visual arts were allowed much subjective interpretation. They were seen as decoration, and not as part of the Word of God.
        Now both churches are moving towards “rediscovering” the icon, which is the art of the unified church.

  2. Catherine says:

    It seems like a silly thing to type….but pray, ask the Holy Spirit to help you make the decisions you are finding difficult.

    • reinkat says:

      Yes, I did, and do, always pray during every stage of writing an icon. After Mass this evening, I suddenly found myself asking our priest if he knew about Franciscan clothing, for the icon I am working on now of St. Anthony of Padua. And it turns out, he did . . . and he led me to find a photo of one of the earliest portraits of St. Francis of Assisi, who was a contemporary of St. Anthony, and I felt instantly as I drew the historical clothing, that I had found the solution to at least one problem. The Spirit works in such wonderful ways!

      • Catherine says:

        I just completed an icon of San Pio, and he is in Franciscan clothing…would you like me to send a picture to you? I’m no expert, but the ‘robe’ turned out well, I think.
        I did not mean to be flip when I said to pray….I found myself struggling over and over again with this icon, so many hurdles…and in the end I know my issue was that I was not giving up control to the Holy Spirit, focusing too much on myself and lack of knowledge, technique, etc. When I finally let go, He took over and things went more smoothly for me.

      • reinkat says:

        Yes, thanks, I’d love to see your icon of San Pio.
        I understand totally what you said about prayer. Thanks for taking time to comment and to follow up. I appreciate it very much.

      • Catherine Jirikowic says:

        Here is a link to it on Pinterest: The center of his robe is not mottled, it is just that way in the picture.

        If you can’t see it, LMK know of another way I can send it to you. Sorry, not a techie.

        It is a small world of us iconographers….I wish there was a ‘help’ section where I could go when ‘stuck’. Practical assistance would have helped me many times during the writing of this icon. I hope something here helps you.

        Do you work in acrylic or egg tempera? Mine was done with JoSonja Artists’ Acrylics.

      • reinkat says:

        Thanks, I was able to open the link with no trouble. It is very lovely, your icon. It is always good and helpful to be able to see what someone else did to tackle a challenge. I really appreciate your help and willingness to share. I would love to see us, you and other iconographers, CREATE a community that can offer help, advice, and encouragement for each other via email and digital photography. I have done this a little bit, and it has been a wonderful experience.
        I am not a techie either, but can handle email and attachments/photos.

        I work with both acrylics and egg tempera. I much prefer egg overall. I will paint St. Anthony in egg, on a piece of cardboard that has had true gesso applied.

      • Catherine says:

        Please post your progress, I think many can learn from seeing the process, not just the finished icon.

      • reinkat says:

        I intend to do so, and have done this before, especially with an icon of Jesus Blessing the Children.
        Thanks for your comments.

  3. Catherine says:

    I have to apologize for the poor photo, there is no ‘scatter’ in the center of his robe. If you cannot see via the link, LMK:

  4. Catherine says:

    It was done with JoSonja Artists’ Colors and real gold leaves. Do you work in egg?

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