It seems strange to me that I am prayerfully painting an icon of St. Macarius while right now in the land where he once lived and taught, Christians are being slaughtered for their faith. Yet, praying for (and with) these newest martyrs seems to be all I can do. The calm and serenity of the icon promises a better future. I hope and pray that this is so, and plan to join Pope Francis in his call for worldwide fasting and prayer this Saturday, September 7, for the Christians of Syria and all of the Middle East.
I have learned much about St. Macarius’ life in preparation for writing this icon, and needless to say, there are many legends about this holy disciple of St. Anthony the Great. One of my favorite legends was the inspiration for the original model of this image.
The story is that St. Macarius set off across the Scetis Desert in the year 360 AD, to a very desolate area, with the intent of finding a cave in which to live a life of solitude and prayer. An angel appeared and took him by the hand, leading him to a location in Wadi Natrun. (I love that, that the angel reached out and held his hand, and guided him.)
The angel in the icon is a cherubim, described as having 4 wings and a thousand eyes. No wonder that in Bible stories, angels always had to reassure people who saw them, telling them not to be afraid. An angel such as this one would be a pretty alarming sight.
When St. Macarius and the angel arrived at the chosen spot, he began the prayer and work necessary to establish the monastery which is named after him. Disciples followed him, and soon there was a flourishing community of monks and nearby hermits. He himself dug a cave dwelling in the sand and rocks where he spent the remainder of his life. He is buried in a crypt under the church. The St. Macarius Monastery, also called Abu Makar, has been inhabited since that day. About 100 Coptic monks live there today. I pray as I paint, that the monks will continue to be safe, and implore the Lord to protect them from violence.
Some icon technicalities: some might remember my post a while back about making paint out of dirt. Perhaps you might find it interesting to know that for the inner tunic and the border of this icon, I used this paint, which is a lovely shade of tan and mixes well with ochre, red and white pigments for a rich range of color.
The original image is a Coptic icon, written in the 12th Century and presently located in St. Catherine Monastery at the foot of Mt. Sinai, the place where Moses stood before the Burning Bush.