Why i paint icons?
Updated: Apr 24, 2020
Photo below of my son helping paint base layers for the Acension Icon.
I have experienced a lot of pain over my 32 years. The death of two of my siblings growing up. Family members with mental illnesses. The death of my mother and grandparents. My wife and I nearly losing our first-born son to prematurity. A mother-in-law recently diagnosed with cancer. Spiritual communities and friendships torn apart. All of these hardships have led to a lot of pain. Pain that has manifested itself emotionally, physically, spiritual and socially. A pain many of us can relate. In this pain, there have been ways that I have dealt with it, at first it was though music and today it is through painting icons.
Before art, music was therapy.
I first learned guitar in middle school as a way to “impress the girls.” Then in college, I left my guitar back home (along with my childhood faith) and lived the “party-life.” I guess alcohol and listening to music became my therapy. I embodied the American college stereotype. Instead of playing music on my guitar, I would find myself dancing on a coffee table to “Don’t stop believing” as a way to destress from midterms and finals. I loved the rock group Journey, but Journey couldn’t cure my sadness.
After college, when I was 23, I found renewed faith in Christ. With this, I renewed interest in playing guitar as a way to work through pain. My mother bought me a new guitar and I finally learned to sing while playing. I think it helped that my focus was God and not impressing girls. For the next several years, I found myself worshiping as part of a movement similar to the “Jesus People.” You know the movement, young 20-somethings, singing in tongues, on fire for God, literally trying to “save the world” before Jesus returns this generation.
During this renewal time, my mother became more ill with her psychosis, and she ended up in a care center tormented with severe depression and anxiety. I would go over to the center to play music for her. I felt like David playing for Saul, and I saw torment noticeably leave, and peace come into her life.
However, this did not last. Her condition kept getting terribly worse and the music I played became a bigger distraction in her life. Hopeful and joyful songs turned to sad and melancholy. My faith suffered and I left the charismatic faith movement, frustrated.
As a charismatic, I was so convinced I could cure my mother of hardships and sufferings. I thought faith was about maximizing cheerfulness and having the right word or song for everyone. But now the once simple explanations no longer felt valid. My black and white answers turned to gray. A gloomy existential crisis came and went. Then acceptance came and new life started to form in me. My gray turned into colors. During these few years, I went from Pentecostal, to solo scriptura Baptist, to a Christian mystic, to agnostic liberal, to Eastern-Anglo (basically an Westerner whose is a student of the Christian East).
As the music lost its voice, art started to speak.
I went from learning from charismatic preachers to dispassionate monks. From boisterous and wordy prayers to quiet and calm. Churches filled with light shows, entertainment and smoke machines, to churches filled with divine art, contemplation and Eucharist. Then on one sacred evening, I found myself at an Eastern Orthodox vespers service, breathing in heavenly incense, hearing angelic chorus singing “Lord have Mercy” over and over, all while gazing at hundreds of byzantine icons for the first time. It felt like I was swept up in heaven surrounded by the cloud of witnesses around a greater cloud of unknowing.
St. Athanasius once said “Icons do with color what scripture does with words.” Never did I feel this was more true than that evening. The somber, yet inner radiance I saw in every icon deeply spoke to me about the reality of life. For every human, life will have trials, sins, and sufferings. To look only for happiness is fleeting, like the passing smile of a baby. Icons visually show us this human pain, a desire to overcome life’s adversities, and leave this world transfigured in the image of God.
I realized we can learn a lot from the icons. Icons can teach us how to listen more, speak less, be content in all things, see the image of God in other humans, and cultivate an inner life with our creator. It is important to know that icons should never be worshiped, as icons are only created items. Instead, like musical instruments, icons are visual instruments that help people worship God, who is uncreated.
Icons are unique because they are considered “windows into heaven” just as scripture is also a window into heaven. The reason icons still exist today, after centuries of iconoclasm, is that they help teach stories to the illiterate, and provide another avenue for prayer and contemplation. Yet more importantly, icons helped to fight off heresies that believed Christ was only God, but not a man. Because Christ entered the material world as man, he also sanctified the material world in his resurrection, so today people are also free to participate in the consecration of the material world through visual arts, music, food, and other modern mediums. Therefore, to paint Christ, his mother, a story, or a saint is a tangible witness of both the immanent and transcendent nature of God.
Once icons got my attention, I started to experience deeper healing through painting them.
As my mother got closer to her death, I picked up a paintbrush and began my first icon. From this moment, my walk moved away from filling air with words to expressing prayer through paint. It went away from certainties into mysteries. From knowing to unknowing. From trying to convince others of the love of God, to just showing others the love of God. Words could not describe my journey any longer. Because my faith could not be contained in words, it found expression through color.
It’s as if life got so muddy, my words so full of emotion and color that they were screaming to come out of me. But not eloquently in a poem or prayer or song, as this just felt chaotic and random, but rather expressively smeared onto a gesso board in the image of the only one who can handle it — God. So with every brush stroke, every dab of paint, and every smear, all emotion, feeling, worry and care is cast into the panel onto God. Never done so in vain, but in every stroke the utmost intention and care. Every frustration and doubt is cast onto the panel in the form of our creator. And when it’s finished, it leaves behind something of beauty.
Unlike music that can come and go, art always is on. You can never turn it off. An icon can be destroyed, but if God’s grace remains with the image it may transcend centuries. Unlike music that may give you a 3-minute window of reflection, icons are always there, eternally present and always looking back at us as a mirror into our fragile souls.
I could no longer just say a verse, but needed to paint it. I could no longer just believe something, but needed to express it. I could no longer write a song that lives and dies in my iPhone, but create an image that will remain for my children’s children and the church through the ages.
We are living icons
With all this said, in 2015 I was inspired to paint an icon for my mother instead of write a song. It felt like I could leave something for her to at least look at and be reminded of God. She ended up passing away in the middle of my first painting, so the icon that I started was never completed. I do not know if I will ever complete it. Looking at it today, it is a reminder to me that we are all incomplete and that life is a process.
Every day of our life, the hand of the divine painter is adding new strokes and colors to our existence, and once we pass, the image of the almighty never ceases to remain in a person. In other words, we are living icons of God. Just as ancient art from an extinct society is still restored today, so are souls of those who have passed in Christ. Their image renewed and their memory kept eternal.
What is an Icon?
The traditional icon is a stylized religious picture that is usually painted on a wood panel in egg tempera. Icons depict Christ, the Trinity, St. Mary, other saints, and events in the gospels and lives of the saints. Icons have been used in both eastern and western churches. Icons were painted or placed on the walls of churches and on interior beams and screens. They were also displayed in private houses and at wayside shrines.
The oldest extant icons date from the fifth century. The Seventh Ecumenical Council of 787 determined that the use of icons is supported by the Incarnation, in which the Word of God united to created human nature and thus to matter in general. That Council also taught that the honor given to an icon passes to that which it represents. The eastern churches developed the icon tradition extensively. In the west the tradition was eclipsed by the Renaissance and other artistic movements. However, offshoots of the icon tradition in the west include the use of stained glass windows and the illustrations in manuscripts and liturgical books. Today there is a revival of the use of icons in the western churches, including the Episcopal Church.