Icons Reflecting God’s Uncreated Light
Art in Our Churches
By Louise Brass, Observer Correspondent
May 24, 2018
Why do Catholics create artwork featuring saints, Our Lady, and Jesus Christ, and display these works prominently? Why is making icons called “writing icons?” And, how do we know how to depict the holy ones?
It all boils down to tradition — and a lot of research.
The term “writing icons” (even though paints and brushes are used instead of pen and ink) implies exactness of meaning in tune with the truths of Holy Scripture. The phrase also suggests that the finished work will be devoid of the personal whims of those who create the icons. The description is believed to have originated in North America.
However, some theologians say “painting icons” is really the correct terminology for this ancient activity, since it is not about writing words. 
Either way the results are dramatic and beautiful creations, devoid of shadows, sometimes enshrined in gold leaf. Icons are meant to be displayed and meditated upon, says Father Frederick Peterson, pastor of St. George Byzantine Catholic Church in Aurora.
The features of Christ can be drawn from the image on the Shroud of Turin, from ancient sketches found in the catacombs in Rome, or from images in churches constructed in the first few centuries after the death and resurrection of Our Lord.
Father Peterson says icons are a central and traditional part of spirituality in the Romanian Byzantine Catholic rite, which resumed union with Rome in 1697 A.D. 
“The icons are a key and central part of Eastern Catholic spirituality,” he says. 
“What the West uses statues for we have here icons, although they are not exactly the same thing. The icons are thought of as windows into heaven and a means by which we communicate and experience events, in a spiritual way of course.”
The Eastern Rite tradition, he adds, “places us in the presence of the saints, of Christ, and of His Holy Mother and allows us that direct intimate experience of their presence, of their intersession and their love for us.”
As an example, Father Peterson says, “The confession of sins takes place in front of an icon of Christ, with the priest standing there as a witness. The penitent is involved that way,” he says.
Much contemplation is done with the help of icons, while images of worldly things are pushed aside. No shadows are depicted in the icons, indicating that the light of Christ destroys darkness.
Classes teach the art
Twice a year, icon writers, whether experienced or new to the method, meet at St. George in Aurora for weeklong sessions under the guidance of Phil Zimmerman, an iconographer from Philadelphia. 
“They are all religious paintings, called windows to heaven,” Zimmerman says. “Our ancient Christian artists — and missionaries from Greece — some 2,000 years ago saw the painting styles in India and China. 
“In China it is called brush writing. This is theorem painting. There are steps that you follow,” he says.
Theorem painting is an art form that uses stencils as guides.
The first icons were done in colored wax.
“The early Christians adopted the East Asian style and that’s what makes it different from other religious art,” Zimmerman says.
People in the eastern world, especially Russia, used a lot of iconography instead of statues to learn about the Holy Scriptures.
“It was also the language of the illiterate. They could look at these and know who the people are pictured in the icons, because literacy has only become widespread in the past few centuries,” Zimmerman says.
Recently 22 people attended his spring lessons to learn the rigid Byzantine art style.
“We have a lot of beginning people and they are looking like they are old hands at it,” he says. 
“You put on your dark colors first. Then highlights are added. With other painting, you put shadows in.”
On the first day of the icon workshop participants fill in the base colors on prepared panels of fine grain birch or maple, using acrylic paints. By the end of the week the icons are finished off with paper thin sheets of 24 carat gold leaf.
For the past 17 years, people who appreciate icons have come here from many different communities in the Rockford Diocese, other dioceses, and even from some foreign countries to learn the method.
Gloria Visel, of Winnebago, is a member of St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Rockford. She says she attended the workshops because her daughter, Benedictine Sister Jeana Visel, is an iconographer. Gloria decided she would like learn the method as well.
“I chose (to depict) Our Lady of Mount Carmel because I am a secular Carmelite and I thought she might give me some extra help,” Visel says with a smile.
Artist Karen Delaney, a member of St. Patrick Parish in St. Charles, chose to write an icon of St. Clare walking through a snow scene. 
“I have been coming to these for about three or four years,” Delaney says. “I just fell in love with it. It’s a wonderful relaxing week.”
 This year, the workshop was a birthday gift from her children.
“There are always different elements of an icon that I have never done before. This forces you as an artist to take a week to just focus on one piece of art and have a beautiful icon when you are done,” she says.
Although the method is ancient, some of the many icons in St. George were made as recently as the 1960s, adding a colorful glow to the church interior. 
One of the icons in the church shows its patron, St. George, on a white horse, winning a fight as he battles a dragon, the symbol of evil.
“We have the icons because of the incarnation of Christ,” Father Peterson says. “Iconography — which always is a way to attract people to God and the beauty of our faith, and of holiness — pulls us back to God.”
In fact, he says, it is a way to express the purity of the un-created light of God that breaks into our world and signifies the majesty and the transcendence of the mystery of God’s glory.