Mother Agnes Mariam is a professional iconographer. She learned the ancient byzantine painting techniques in the Carmel monastery of Harissa in Lebanon where she lived during 21 years. In this article we will present to you how she got acquainted with the Church of Antioch – the mother Church of the byzantine icons. In the second part of the article you can read a short exposé of what byzantine icons really are. Also take a look at our little video on icons we recently made here in the monastery.
Mother Agnes’s discovery of the Church of Antioch
Mother Agnes Mariam: “In 1983 a Lebanese monk visited our monastery. He was carrying a big icon of the Virgin Mary (Our Lady of Ilige – depicted here on the left) that had suffered a lot during the war. He asked us to restore it. When working on it I noticed that the icon had five underlying layers. These layers (the oldest one dating back to the 10th century) were like a resume of the entire history of the Maronite Christians in the Middle-East. When I started studying the layers I made a discovery that shocked me and that determined the rest of my life: I discovered the Church of Antioch, my own church, and I didn’t even know about her! It’s like if someone would tell a Catholic about the Church of Rome and he would answer: “What, where is that”? I was really shocked, how was it possible that I had left everything for Christ entering the Carmelite Monastery and that I didn’t even know my own Church?
It dawned on me that the Christians of this region – of Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Iraq and Jordan – have a great mission but that they have forgotten about it. The persecutions and the hostile attitude towards them have made them tired. Today they see their lives in the country of their ancestors more as a survival.
For a Christian everything begins with his cultural identity. During the Pentecost the Holy Spirit confirmed this. The Apostles, on whom the tongues of fire had descended, were proclaiming the miracles of God (Acts chapter 2). And everyone present heard the message of Salvation in his own tongue! This shows the importance that the Holy Spirit gives to the identity of every person and every people.”
What are byzantine icons?
In the second half of the 20th century Byzantine Icons experienced a spectacular revival in both the East and the West. In Greece it had already started in 1930, mostly thanks to Photios Kontoglou. The revival was further stimulated in the late 1980's by the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. Surprisingly, however, many people in 'the West' have never heard of Byzantine icons or don't know what they are. This page is meant to answer that.
Byzantine icons are sacred paintings (icons, frescoes and mosaics) of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, of the Most Holy Mother of God, and of the Angels and Saints. 'Byzantine' refers to the Byzantine Empire where icons became an integral part of the Orthodox Faith. Characterized by vivid colors and often gold colored backgrounds, the persons depicted in icons seem to float and often are longer than their natural counterparts. Everything shown in an icon is symbolic.
For example, the ears of our Lord Jesus Christ are large and his mouth is small. This signifies that he hears everything but that he only speaks words of holy wisdom. Icons and frescoes (murals) decorate about every Orthodox [and Greek-Melkite Catholic] church in both the East and the West. The iconostasis (as depicted here) is the decoration centerpiece and completely made up of icons.
After having looked at several icons, one may notice that icons only seem to have a width and a height. Depth, the third (physical) dimension, clearly discernible in virtually all other traditional paintings (not including modernistic or abstract works of art) seems to be absent. The "third" dimension of an icon goes beyond what the eye can see, as it is spiritual. Icons have a profound spiritual meaning. An icon is a Window into Heaven. This Window into Heaven will enable someone who is praying to the person depicted in the icon, to directly connect with that person: our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the Most Holy Mother of God, an Angel or Saint. Many icons are miraculous as many people who prayed to them were cured of their affliction. An icon is an efficient means for knowing God, the Holy Virgin, Angels and Saints. An icon is not a work of art that only illustrates the Holy Scriptures. It constitutes a confession of religious truths. In view of the foregoing, it can be readily understood that an icon painter needs to be more than an artist. An icon painter, or iconographer as they are commonly called, is a theologian as much as he is an artist. Painting an icon, presupposes, on the part of the iconographer a lifestyle of prayer, meditation and fasting.
Let us have a look now at the theme of the Nativity of Christ as this is depicted in a byzantine icon (right) and in a holy picture (left). It is surprising to see how the representation of this event in the Orthodox [and Greek-Melkite Catholic] Church differs from the one in the West. In the West we see the birth of the little Child and the goodness and humanity of God who is born to us. The Orthodox [Greek-Melkite Catholic] Church puts the emphasis more on the great mystery of God's coming among men, on the realization of the promise of the arrival of the Messiah. There is one central character: it isn't the Child but it is the Virgin Mary. Larger than the other characters, she is shown in the center resting on a red pillow. This signifies first and foremost that she is the One who gives us God, the Theotokos, the God Bearer, the Mother of God. Often, she isn't turned towards the child but towards us, because she is Mother of all men. A triple ray reaches us from heaven, representing the Holy Trinity. Joseph is seated below on the left. The Apocrypha tell us that Satan has come to tell him that it is impossible for a child to be born from a virgin. [Also you can see that the little baby Jesus is depicted in a dark cave. This darkness represents our fallen humanity in which He was born. He chose to descend into our misery, into our darkness, to give his life for all the sons of Adam. That’s why He’s so often called the ‘only friend of mankind’ in the Byzantine liturgy].
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