Interview with Laurie Muench, one of our more advanced iconographers.
Tell us about yourself:
I am a member and parish administrator at St. Barnabas Episcopal church in McMinnville. My husband is the church organist and I have two grown sons. I’ve been an Episcopalian for five years – I started the job even before deciding to be baptized into the episcopal church. Before that, I was a Mormon.
Our parish has been supportive of my iconography studies, always giving me time off to attend the summer classes. St. Barnabas offers a scholarship, the Homestreet Fund, to support women who are furthering their education. They chose me as one of the scholarship recipients and sponsored one of my summer intensive sessions. I am going to write and donate an icon to the parish – we’re still in the process of deciding which one.
Before iconography, my artistic work was in graphics using an ipad. It’s so different from painting because it’s easy to instantly delete mistakes on an ipad! You can’t do that with paint. The last time I painted was over 20 years ago, and my work back then wasn’t great! I was familiar with working and mixing colors, but I didn’t know the name of the pigments as they’re used in iconography.
Today when life is so stressful, iconography is how I relax. I have my little painting corner set up in our dining room. I sit there, while my husband practices the organ, and painting takes away the stress.
What made you decide to try writing an icon?
I had always loved how icons looked, but in my Mormon community they were considered idolatry and were not encouraged. After leaving the Mormon church, I became keenly interested in icons and very much wanted to write one. I attended an art exhibit at Trinity Episcopal cathedral where the institute had a table displaying icons and information. My husband saw it and pulled me over – right then I signed up for a class! My first class was the icon of the child Jesus: Jesus Emmanuel. That was in the summer of 2017.
Since then, I’ve taken a class every season, including the advanced class this past August.
My first experience with the institute was one of the week-long intensive sessions. That was a great beginning because I was completely immersed – it’s good to learn the basics this way because you don’t forget over time, as can happen when classes are just once a week.
What would you like people to know about the Trinity Iconography community and classes? What advice can you give someone who is interested in iconography?
Anyone who wants to, should try it! Some join without any art experience and they do great. It’s such a learning experience and everybody’s icon ends up so beautiful. They all turn out really well. Everyone is so friendly and supportive. I always tell new classmates how I’ve made many mistakes, it’s a class to learn, so mistakes are ok! Fr Jon has so much knowledge and Ania has been a wonderful addition to the program.
It’s important for people to know that they don’t need a background in art! The Iconography Institute trains anyone of a Christian denomination. It’s open to everyone who wants to learn.
How has writing an icon (or icons) changed you, what have you discovered?
During my first icon, there were points of frustration and tears because I didn’t think it would turn out well. My image of the young Jesus looked terrible at one early point! It was such a relief when He finally did turn out. Still, sometimes things don’t turn out exactly the way you want. I tend to fuss and make it worse. I am a perfectionist and not a patient person and I’m learning to relax and let it go.
Learning to write icons has given me a higher appreciation for how much work is put into them and the spiritual process behind it. It is a constant process of trying to put yourself into a spiritual place while you’re working on the icon. I think it’s increased my own spirituality. I’m a busy person but this is the very last thing I would ever give up. I will always make room for my iconography classes. I need that in my life!
Which icon has been your greatest challenge?
My most difficult icon was the Archangel Michael posted here. It is an intricate icon with beautiful wings, flowing robes, and I chose gold for the frame and background. Gold is so difficult for me! (We use 24 karat gold leaf.) It got smeared and mushed. The gold is terrible, I still need to redo it. The truth is I still haven’t finished this icon. All but the gold is finished.
Which icon has been your favorite?
Honestly, that same Archangel Michael! It’s such a lovely icon and I need to finish it. Another favorite is the Theotokos of the Sign. Both are complicated and beautiful.
This summer I wrote my “pandemic icon” on my own outside of class: The Lady of Vladimir. It’s a tender icon. Baby Jesus has His hand wrapped around Mary’s neck and He’s looking at her with adoration, such a loving look. She looks at the viewer and her expression is both sad and compassionate. It’s beautiful. I loved doing that for the pandemic. There are many people who pray to Mary for support during this time so it seemed like the perfect subject.
God shapes the universe with the aid of a compass. Within the perfect circle already created are the spherical sun and moon and the unformed matter that will become the earth once God applies the same geometric principles to it.
Thomas Aquinas said: “God, Who is the first principle of all things, may be compared to things created as the architect is to things designed (ut artifex ad artificiata).”
For most medieval scholars, science, and particularly geometry and astronomy were linked to the divine because God created the universe after geometric and harmonic principles. To seek these principles was to seek and worship God.
This illumination of TheDivine Architect was of particular interest to me, since the Iconography Institute is offering a class in Geometry for Iconographers, as the foundation of icons. As I delved deeper into learning about the image itself, I discovered that “The Divine Architect” was not an icon, rather an illumination from a Bible Moralisée, one of only seven completely illuminated bibles produced in the first three decades of the 13th century. This illuminated manuscript is now in the Vienna National Library. The others have been mostly parsed out and can be found in different parts of the world.
As I began to learn more about this image, I made a new discovery about the genre of Bible Moralisée, which is an illustrated bible consisting of over 1000 exquisitely crafted medallions that interpret the bible pictorially, accompanied by “moral” interpretation of the Bible, but in context of the times. This provides a fascinating insight into the medieval 13th century world, as the moral interpretations make comparisons to contemporary life that a 13th century reader would understand, highlighting many of the ideological, political and economic dilemmas of the time.
There are only seven extant illuminated Bibles Moralisée that were created for French royalty, because only royalty could afford to commission such extensive, expensive and exquisite works containing thousands of gilded illuminations. Each page pairs medallions from the Old Testament with the New Testament. At the time, pictures were intended to teach lessons in morality and these bibles were specifically written to teach morality to the French King, hence the name of this genre. “Both the depiction and text must be read because the images hold an interpretation of the world or moment in history, and details within the images hold symbolic meaning.” *
This Bibles Moralisée did not contain every Bible passage, just the most important ones; even so, it contained 5000 illustrations.
“The pictures are arranged in two parallel columns on each page, each column having four medallions with pictures. Parallel to the pictures and alternating with them are two other narrower columns, with four legends each, one legend to each picture; the legends consisting alternatively of Biblical texts and moral or allegorical applications; whilst the pictures represent the subjects of the Biblical texts or of the applications of them. The illustrations are executed with the greatest skill. The painting is said to be one of the best specimens of thirteenth-century work in all probability prepared for someone in the highest rank of life.”
According to Wikipedia, “Of the seven Bibles moralisées only one, manuscript Français 167 in the Bibliothèque nationale de France at Paris, has survived in its complete form. Français 167 can be traced almost without a break from its creation in Paris for King John II of France in 1349-52 up until now. The sixth of the Bibles moralisées is known now as MS Additional 18719 and is the least known of the seven, and is the work of well known late thirteenth-century English artist. Français 166 is the last of the seven fully illustrated Bibles moralisées.”
It was a fascinating journey to learn about this genre that began with the image of Christ the Divine Architect, which is a subject of Orthodox Icons.
Some interesting versions are shown below.
*To learn more about Bibles Moralisée, check out: Bible Moralisée, Codex Vindobonensis 2554, Vienna, Oesterreichische Nationalbibliothek, by Harvey Miller Publishers (1995)
We are going to use this quiet time to study and expand our knowledge of icons. Sometimes, this intellectual growth process takes second position to the busyness of the day to day, but now there is time.
See this link to an analysis of Theotokos of the Unburnt Bush, by Professor Dennis J. Sardella, docent at the Museum of Russian Icons: An Interpretation.
I’ve summarized of some of the features that make this a very unique icon:
Why is it called the “Unburnt Bush”?
There are a couple of reasons for this term: the first is that it represents the Virgin Mary and the second is that it recalls the time when God revealed Himself to Moses.
Virgin Mary: The Unburnt Bush appeared to be consumed by fire, and yet remained untouched or unburned by the fire, analogous to the belief that the Virgin Mary remained pure before, during and after the birth of Christ.
Conversation with Moses: In the Old Testament, God reveals himself to Moses in the “burning bush” which also remained unburned by the fire. “The early church fathers believed that the burning bush was not a physical phenomenon in which the bush, though on fire, was somehow miraculously protected from the destructive effects of the flame, bur rather that what Moses saw as fire was the uncreated energy of God (who according to Saint John, is light), and that God used the bush as a vehicle or channel through which to reveal Himself to Moses.” (From Professor Sardella)
Moses was standing on holy land. And the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed. And Moses said, I will now turn aside, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt. And when the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called unto him out of the midst of the bush, and said, Moses, Moses. And he said, Here am I. (Exodus 3: 2‒4).
History of the Icon
Traditional Use of the Icon: this icon was used traditionally in Russia as a talisman against fire. Most of the homes in this time were built of wood, and the threat of fire was very real and constant. Legend has it that a woman stood outside her wooden home holding the Theotokos of the Unburnt Bush icon; that night, all the homes in her village were destroyed by fire all around her home, which remained untouched by the flames.
“The Mother of God rescued people from fire many times, which is referenced in the troparion of this icon: “He hath glorified Her holy icon with many miracles / and gave it to the faithful to heal their illnesses / and to protect them from outbreaks of fire.”– From St. Elisabeth Convent
Beyond this legend is the icon’s historic origin that dates back to the Monastery of Saint Catherine in the Sinai Desert, one of the oldest monasteries in the world. It is believed that Saint Catherine’s was built on the rock where God appeared to Moses and where he saw the mysterious burning bush (although this is not universally agreed upon). Saint Helen, Constantine’s mother, had a small church at Saint Catherine’s built and enclosed by walls to protect hermits in about the year 330. Later in the 5th century, Justinian built the church and the monastery structure that is known today as Saint Catherine’s…a repository of some of the world’s oldest icons.
The Unburnt Bush Icon (Neopalimaya Kupina) supposedly reached Russia when an ancient copy was brought to Kievan Rus by the Palestinian monks of the Sinai in 1390, however, it is believed that this particular icon began being painted in the first century. Originally, the Theotokos was placed inside the burning bush. Over time, the icon became more complex.
Symbolism of the Unburnt Bush
The “unburnt bush” was the vehicle by which God’s revelation (fire) came into the world without compromising the integrity of the bush, as the Virgin Mary was the vehicle by which God’s revelation (Jesus) came into the world without compromising the integrity of her virginity.
To the Orthodox, the miracle of the Unburnt Bush is understood in the theology and hymnography of the Church as a prefiguring of the virgin birth of Christ. Other commentators identify the Unburnt Bush with the early Christians who suffered persecution at the hands of the pagan authorities but were never defeated.
Take these lines from the Akathist Hymn*:
The great mystery of your childbirth did Moses perceive within the burning bush. The youth vividly prefigured this, standing in the midst of fire and remaining unconsumed, O undefiled and holy Virgin. We praise you therefore in hymns to the ages (Ode Eight, The Eirmos).
* The Akathist Hymn and Small Compline are two services which are sung on the first five Fridays during Great Lent.
The same idea is present in Coptic hymns, for example:
The Burning Bush seen by Moses
The prophet in the wilderness
The fire inside, it was aflame
But never consumed or injured it
The same with the Theotokos Mary
Carried the fire of divinity
Nine months in her holy body
Without blemishing her virginity
There are MANY versions of this icon and if you visit the Museum of Russian Icons, you can see at least six that span from 1700 to 1890. This particular version of this genre dates to 1880 and is by far, the most serene, and visually pleasing of them for several reasons: peacefulness and harmony.
Feeling of Peacefulness & Harmony
What creates that feeling for peacefulness and harmony? Experts say it has everything to do with symmetry between the many figures, elegance in style, harmonic placement (likely due to geometry) and the icon writer’s choice of color. Imagine, there are 21 figures in this icon and yet there is no sense of crowding, or cluttering, or confusion, as what you often see in many of the others in this genre. The colors are calm as is the relationship between figures, which makes this a very peaceful, harmonically designed icon, ideally suited for prayer.
Unusual Feature: The Mandorla
The Mandorla is considered the opening to Heaven and is typically reserved for Christ in Majesty (Pantocrator) icons. This Mandorla is both the opening to Heaven and contains the symbolic eight pointed cross, the number eight representing eternity. The significance of the numerology of eight is also connected with the idea of new creation, or rebirth – which is one reason why originally baptismal fonts were octagonal.
A Mandorla is formed by two concentric circles that create a band filled with angels, as Isaiah reported in his vision, surrounding God’s throne. The angels could be seraphim, the highest order of angels who sing the trisagon, and who are bright red, as derived from the Hebrew word meaning “firey ones” or “burning ones.” There is some question about this because the number of wings on these angels is not six, which is how they are described in the Bible and how they are traditionally depicted iconographically.
The Eight Pointed Star
The eight pointed star is intended to denote the presence of the Ancient of Days and is formed by the superimposition of a rhombus over a rhombus that is turned 90 degrees. The red rhombus symbolizes the earth, while the green or blue one symbolizes the Heaven. Red also means fire, while green points at the bush, which is burning yet not consumed by fire. Red can be considered the flames from Heaven and also depicts the gospels as another source of God’s self-revelation, according to St. Irenaeus. Green or blue can both symbolize “creation” as opposed to the divine, so the twin use of the blue to represent the bush and the Heavens is appropriate.
In the corner of this icon we see the tetramorph of the four evangelists, although in this icon their representations are different from traditional depiction:
Depicted in this icon
Matthew = man
Mark = Eagle
Luke = Ox
John = Lion
Matthew – Man holding a book
Luke = Ox
Mark = Lion
John = Eagle
Inside the clouds are the angels and archangels. There are only three archangels listed in scripture: Michael, Gabriel, Raphael. According to the Orthodox tradition and noncanonical sources, there are nine, although this icon only shows eight.
Michael – “Who is like unto God?” – warrior angel symbolizes the power to overcome the enemies of God.
Gabriel – “The Strength of God” carries a branch to symbolize the annunciation.
Raphael – “The Healing of God” holds a small pot or glass vessel to hold myrrh, representing God’s annointing.
The following angels are from the Apocryphal Book of Enoch:
Jehudiel – “The Praise of God” holds a crown and three thronged whip.
Raquel – “The Friend of God” who judges fallen angels.
Selaphiel – “The Prayer of God” holds a navicula (censer in the shape of a boat).
Uriel – “The Light or Fire of God” who carries a fiery sword.
Because there are seven and not nine angels pictured, it is possible that these are simply generic angels. Nevertheless, the Theotokos’ central position surrounded by angels highlights her central position in the course of salvation.
Edges of the Icon
Four scenes from the Old Testament are on the edges of this icon. The author of the paper references Saint Augustine’s comment that, “the Old Testament is the New Testament concealed and that the New Testament is the Old Testament revealed,” as a way to explain the mirror image symmetry of Old vs. New Testament.
Top Left Corner: Moses and the Burning Bush
More specifically, the “unburnt” bush. Early Christian fathers believed that the burning was not an actual occurrence, it was simply a figurative way to describe the uncreated energy of God.
Top Right Corner: Isaiah’s Vision of the Lord & His Call
This is the scene in which Isaiah is cleansed by the touch of fire of God on his lips.
Bottom Left Corner: The Vision of the Prophet Ezekiel
This is Ezekiel’s vision of the gate being closed, which is a prefiguration of the concept of Mary’s perfection.
Bottom Right Corner: Jacob’s Dream
This is the dream in which Jacob envisions the ladder to Heaven, which is again a prefiguration of Mary, who is the bridge or ladder by which Jesus descended to earth.
Central Image of the Icon
In the center, Mary is holding Jacob’s ladder, reflecting the Orthodox belief that she was the “ladder” by which one ascended to God, or by which Jesus descended to humanity. The burning bush that called out to Moses was among the most mysterious of God’s manifestations in the Old Testament. This icon reminds us that we can enter into this same mystery through Mary.
December 17 is dedicated to the O Sapientia, O Antiphon as part of Advent. In the first centuries, the Church had a custom of praying seven great prayers calling afresh on Christ to come, calling him by the mysterious titles He has in Isaiah, calling to Him; O Wisdom. O Root! O Key O Light! come to us! This is the first of them – O Sapientia. “The Great Os”, on which the Magnificat antiphons used at vespers on the last seven days of Advent are based, praise the coming child.
In this icon, we see Christ as the Messenger of Great Counsel/Wisdom — one of two times in which he is He is shown with wings. His face is red because He is filled with the fire of the Holy Spirit.
This icon praises the wisdom of God, through which creation came into existence, and which is found, personified, in Jesus. It is unusual to find a depiction of it, but the title is one that is often ascribed to Jesus. When the earliest Christians were searching back through scripture for references to Jesus, the figure of Wisdom in Proverbs 8 and in the Wisdom of Solomon 7 resonated.
In the icon, the figure of Jesus stands just above Wisdom, claiming and affirming her as an insight into His own character. Mary and St. John the Baptist stand either side of Wisdom, and also attest to her as the likeness of Jesus, with all the authority of the mother and the forerunner.
Wisdom sits on the seven pillars on which the universe is founded; she is dressed in vivid colors, making herself available to us, full of energy and passion. There is nothing insipid about Wisdom: she is forceful and attractive.
The attention and praise that are given to her are channeled upwards to the figure of Christ, and from Him still farther up to the Father’s throne, where the angels echo earth’s praise.
There is no embarrassment at all about the identification of the feminine Wisdom with Jesus. St. Augustine talks about the “breasts of the Father” from which we are fed; Julian of Norwich describes Jesus as a mother pelican, tearing her own breast to feed her children; Jesus describes Himself as a mother hen; Hosea pictures God as a mother helping her infant with its first toddling, unsteady steps.
The O Sapientia
LATIN: O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodidisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviter disponensque omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.
ENGLISH: O Wisdom, who came from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from end to end and ordering all things mightily and sweetly: come, and teach us the way of prudence.
Another Sophia, The Wisdom of God
At the center of the composition is a representation of Sophia, Wisdom of God, as a crowned Angel with a face of fire and wings. Sophia is surrounded by an aura of Divine Glory and sits on a throne supported by seven pillars. Under the feet of Sophia there is a stone, as a symbol of all Creation being subdued to the Word of God. The right hand is depicted in an act of blessing, while the left one holds a scepter.
To the sides of Sophia, in typical Deesis composition, stand the Mother of God and St. John the Baptist. The Mother of God holds the text ‘My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices…’, while St. John’s text says ‘This is the Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world…’. Both the Mother of God and St. John the Baptist are represented with wings and they are wearing crowns.
Behind them follow St. John the Evangelist (‘No one has seen God except His only begotten Son…’) and St. John Chrysostomos. Bringing these two saints together emphasizes the same idea of an ongoing Revelation. The Evangelist and the composer of the Divine Liturgy are depicted in identical manner, with no difference of glory. This is a strong visual statement about Tradition understood as a path of ongoing Revelation as opposed to tradition reduced merely to a museum of ancient beliefs.
Higher still, the Lord Sabaoth sits on a throne of Cherubim and is surrounded by a choir of Seraphim. The text in His left hand has the ancient call: ‘Listen to me, my people…’. Around the glory of the Lord Sabaoth there are the typical symbolic representations of the four Evangelists (the angel, the lion, the bull and the eagle), the angelic hosts, the sun and the moon.
Many thanks to Aidan Hart for granting permission to repost his talk to the School of Economic Science in Waterperry, Oxford in March, 2000. Click the download link below to read the pdf of his talk. A bullet point summary follows the download link.
Summary of Key Points in Aidan Hart’s Talk at the School
of Economic Science, Waterperry, Oxford, March 2000
Icon and Art
profane view of art is:
art is here to entertain us
by the artist as his/her creativity or innovation
you hang on a wall
vs. Sacred in this context simply means secular vs. sacred]
philosophy focuses on the Eastern view because it was the East that had to
define its experience with sacred images and defend them under iconoclasm,
which the West did not.
the image passes through to the Prototype, according to St. Basil, a 4th
Style of an Icon
Flatness – an icon does not represent or
replace reality, and therefore is represented in two-dimensional flatness.
Perspective – In
contrast to art of the Renaissance when perspective was developed using a
vanishing point to create distance between the viewer and the subject, requiring
the eye to travel, Icons use inverse perspective where the vanishing point may
actually be behind the viewer to draw the viewer into the icon, capturing the
viewer’s eye to establish a relationship between the person and saint.
Perspective – Icons
present subjects from multiple views simultaneously, because God sees all from
every angle at once.
– lines that parallel
in nature are also parallel in the icon.
– The uncreated light
of Christ causes shadows to flee, hence there is no external light source in an
& Profane –
Kronos (clock time), Kairos (Divine time) – the same person can be depicted in
multiple scenes in an icon simultaneously because the eternal significance of
an event is not dependent on the human construct of clock time. The icon portrays Kairos – Divine time.
– size is dependent
upon spiritual importance. The higher
the spiritual significance, the larger the subject.
– are both harmonious
and abstract; curved drapery lines are broken into a series of straighter
Modern Art’s Foundation
means art from the Renaissance, Age of Enlightenment forward. The Age of Enlightenment shifted the
philosophy of art from God-centered, to man-centered, developed from the
artist’s own imagination or creativity, depicting subjects from the inner state
of the artist’s feelings or consciousness, with its primary objective to provide
aesthetic pleasure, whether it was pleasant, unpleasant, stimulating, soothing,
confronting, shocking, etc.
The idea that
the artist created something out of nothing (like God) originated in the
Renaissance under humanist philosophy.
Key Elements of Sacred Art
Humility – “Every good endowment and every
perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of Lights.” James 1:17
Holy – Sacred Art does not merely represent
intellectual expression of rational ideas, but a description and embodiment of
Perception of Logos – Sacred Art’s purpose is to help the
viewer apprehend the Logos.
Depicts Transfigured World – not the material world.
Not Utopian – may show sadness and the reality of
Bright Sadness – shows the bright fruit of paradise
but requires repentance for the viewer to enter it.
Universal Principles – based on beauty, goodness and truth
and not novelty in expression.
Communal – Sacred Art is part of a tradition,
not the result of isolated genius.
Participates in sacred process – has liturgical function.
Connects us to the Cosmos – Sacred Art weaves the cosmos into the
garment of the church.
Liturgical – Sacred Art is man’s expression of
worship expressed in color, form and music.
Inspires Inquiry – explores dominions of truth and
genuine beauty and through its communal nature, does not allow the artist to
fall into solipsism.
Peaceful & Vigorous – peaceful because the artist is cast
off (no egotism/individualism) and vigorous because he seeks the truth, which
sets us free.
Deep – does not offer platitudes. What makes it sacred is not what is
depicted, but how.
Imperfection & Incompleteness – that which is mathematically perfect
and complete offers no room for the viewer.
Perfect imperfection beckons the viewer to seek more information. It is dynamic and alive.
Transports us – Sacred Art leads us to the threshold
of another world and affirms the primacy of love over aesthetic.
Harmonious – utilizes principles of divine
Quality not Quantity – Sacred Art is communal in nature. Profane art this is developed from secular
individualism boasts self-sufficiency and therefore cannot expand beyond
Hierarchical Importance – Sacred Art does not exist in
isolation, it is part of a hierarchy, existing in a relationship with something
greater than itself. The Icon participates in the Divine Liturgy.
Channels Service – Sacred Art does not strive to create
something never created before. As the
artist dies in his own self-interest, the more he channels expressiveness and
freshness. “Dying to himself he finds
himself in the other.”
Screen from the Spiritual World – Sacred Art is a screen onto which
messages from the spiritual world are projected.
Abstract – meaning it abstracts the invisible
essence of its subject. Sacred Art is
the union of the inner world with the outer world, invisible with visible
eternity in the present.
In this dynamic blog section we’ll post educational information about iconography techniques, history, news and events. Just hover over the “News” tab to the top right of this page and click on the article you wish to read. Most current will be on top. If you think there is something we should share, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In late June, I was blessed with the opportunity to spend a week in Paris, attending an exhibition in honor of the 50th anniversary of the repose of iconographer monk Gregory Kroug. The event ran from May 14th through June 30th, and included a curated exhibition of Kroug’s iconography displayed in the Russian Cultural and spiritual center of the Holy Trinity Cathedral; tours to the various churches that are home to his icons and wall-paintings; and various lectures and publications. In my 2016 OAJ interview I discuss the influence Fr Gregory’s work has had on my own iconography. I have studied his work from photographs for years, but nothing could have prepared me for the experience of encountering his work in person.
The exhibition was organized by Emilie Van Taack, my gracious host in Paris, herself an iconographer and teacher in the tradition of Leonid Ouspensky, who was her teacher until his repose in 1987. Emilie organized an exhibition of Ouspensky’s icons in 2017. Kroug and Ouspensky were lifelong friends and colleagues, venturing together into the study and practice of Orthodox iconography. The depth of their search for Christ through the icon has made these two men among the most influential iconographers of the modern era, whose impact we are still only beginning to see.
George Kroug, the future Fr Gregory, was born January 5, 1908 into a prosperous family in St Petersburg. His father Ivan Feodorovich, was a Lutheran who worked in industry. His mother, Paraskeva Souzdaltsev, was an Orthodox Christian and a pianist. George and his sister Olga were raised in the Lutheran tradition, and received a progressive education that emphasized the arts. After the 1917 Revolution conditions worsened and a devastating famine arose, causing the family to flee to Estonia where they were able to obtain citizenship following the 1921 Estonian independence. There George enrolled in art preparatory schools and studied drawing, watercolor, and printmaking. At age 19, George attended an Orthodox retreat where a mystical experience led him to convert to the Orthodox Church.
In 1929, the family learned that Leo Tolstoy’s daughter, Tatiana Lvovna Sukhotine-Tolstoy, had founded a school of fine art in Paris which focused on oil painting, taught by well-known artists. George was eager to go. Together with his mother and sister, he emigrated to Paris in 1931 only to find the school closed. However, some of the teachers, led by Nikolai Milioti, had agreed to continue teaching a zealous group of students free of charge. George joined this group. Leonid Ouspensky was one of his classmates, and the two became lifelong friends. They spent the summers at the dacha of their teacher Konstantin Somov, where they executed many lively portraits and drawings. 2
Ouspensky soon had a powerful conversion experience as well, directly related to his encounter with iconography. Before long the two artists began their journey into the icon. Ouspensky was quicker to abandon all other forms of art in favor of iconography, while Kroug maintained close ties with the avant-garde. He continued to work in the studio of Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova, leaders of the Russian avant-garde movement.
Like most of the Russian émigrés, Ouspensky and Kroug lived in poverty, but zealously pursued their spiritual and creative aims. Both joined the Brotherhood of St Photius, a group of theologians and creative intellectuals who attempted to articulate their Orthodox faith in and for the western society surrounding them. They brought their work before this interdisciplinary group for review, in search of what iconography should look like in their modern western context. At first, by Ouspensky’s initiative, the two attempted to develop a Western Orthodox iconographic style influenced by Romanesque. Together they produced little-known frescoes and an iconostasis for a small house-chapel of the Protection of the Theotokos. They worked together on the frescoes and iconostasis for the Three Hierarchs Church on rue Petel, at first also in a western-influenced style. The two iconographers collaborated often, sometimes working on the same panel together.
George was deeply sensitive by nature, and from his various difficulties—the effort to paint in the Western Orthodox style that was unnatural to him, the cultural tensions involved in immigration, and the beginning of the Second World War—he became mentally unstable. A major spiritual crisis and depression brought him to a mental asylum. This took place in the early 1940’s, during the Nazi occupation of France, and the Nazi-led asylum aimed to let the inmates starve as useless to their regime. George’s sister Olga kept him and other inmates alive by trading some of the numerous drawings and watercolors George made in the asylum in the marketplace for food scraps, which she chopped, boiled, dried and ground to a powder she could covertly distribute.
During this time one Hieromonk Sergei Schevich, who knew the Krougs, began to visit George almost daily, comforting and encouraging him along the path of healing in Christ. The staff there saw George’s health improving, and eventually granted him permission to return to society, at Fr Sergei’s persistent request and under his supervision. George lived with his sister, and Fr Sergei counseled him to focus on iconography as a means of healing. Soon George moved to Vanves where Fr Sergei was founding a monastic skete. He became a novice in 1945. Three years later he received monastic tonsure with the name Gregory.
In the Monastery
Though the monks lived in very strict poverty, here began a prosperous time in Fr Gregory’s life. Besides the usual monastic cycle of services, he painted icons almost continually, both in his small studio and on church walls. Fr Gregory carried out this labor of love with increasing inspiration until the end of his life.
Fr Sergei described Fr Gregory’s working method as such: He would first consider his subject, look at various examples of icons, read relevant texts, pray, and be still to envision his icon. Then, seeming to have the icon fully inside him, he would go to his panel or wall and with great speed draw it out in its entirety and lay in the colors. The icon would be nearly complete within a short time, but he followed this with an often long, slow, and caring process which he called “polishing,” whereby he brought the icon to completion.
Because of Fr Gregory’s intense battle with his thoughts, Fr Sergei would read to him from the Fathers and the lives of the Saints while he painted in his studio. No one but Fr Sergei ever saw him at work. It is said that while he painted away from the skete, for the new iconostasis at Rue Petel, he would recite psalms continuously so that it sounded like the buzzing of bees. If anyone visited him, he would stop painting and wait until he was alone to begin again. Later, when Fr Sergei was no longer living at the skete, Fr Gregory would listen to classical music as he painted. He had a special reverence for the host of the radio station, Michael Hoffmann, whom Kroug affectionately referred to as “Misha Goffmann.”
Fr Barsanuphe, who was a young monk at the skete during the later years of Fr Gregory’s life, gave this description of him:
The thing that struck you when you met father Gregory for the first time was his absolute detachment, his renunciation of the appearances and conventions of the world, and at the same time his total openness to others, the warmth and concern towards others. His interest in what everyone had to say to him was shown by the attention he showed to each individual, his presence, which made him entirely available to the person who spoke with him.
As for his detachment, it was almost spectacular, having reached such a high degree that Father Gregory paid no attention to the way he dressed, to the worn-out of state of his clothing or conventions related to cleanliness, neatness and appearance. This was all the more evident when he was painting icons, for he was so absorbed in his work he would often wipe his hands or his paintbrushes on his monastic habit or his hair, leaving the most diverse colors about him. But what could have been an object of ridicule for some was, for us monks, a source of edification. When you spoke with him, you completely forgot how he was dressed and his appearance in general. 3
Father Gregory’s Work
Fr Gregory is known for his great freedom of expression in visual language and subject matter, as well as his strict adherence to the tradition of Byzantine iconography and Orthodox theology. While he neither taught nor wrote much, he was in close contact with profound spiritual leaders, theologians, and iconologists, including Leonid Ouspensky. Vladimir Lossky, a friend and fellow member in the Brotherhood of St Photios, would speak with him in detail about theology, and once remarked, “he understands every nuance with such finesse!”
Fr Gregory never named a price for his icons. His abbot Fr Sergei would manage his commissions, which were generally paid for as a voluntary gift to the skete. Fr Gregory would often give away icons freely to people who asked him, however poor. The poverty of the community of Russian refugees in Paris, in which Fr Gregory shared both physically and spiritually, is one source of the pastoral inspiration of his work. We see this in the warmth and immediacy of personal presence in his icons; the combination of deep poverty of spirit with joy in the victorious light of Christ.
Fr Gregory made most of his work for this Russian community in exile, people whose lives were very difficult. It is through his ministry to this very specific context that Fr Gregory’s icons are able to speak more universally to people of our often turbulent and psychologically complicated times. He painted the icons for a shed-turned-chapel on a small farm which Mother Maria Skobtsova turned into a refuge for the homeless in Noisy-le-Grand. In Montgeron, an orphanage for Russian children who lost their families during World War II, Fr Gregory painted icons whose tenderness and warmth have made them beloved throughout the world, including his famous icon of St Seraphim for whom the orphanage is named. He made his greatest program of wall-paintings for the small Skete of Our Lady of Kazan in Moisenay which housed an old folk’s home along with a small group of nuns.
Before his monastic years, Fr Gregory also painted icons for a shack that was used by a community parishioners at Rue Petel, which for a time included Fr Sophrony Sakharov after the latter’s return from Mount Athos. The spiritual quality of these icons so impressed Fr Sophrony that he asked Fr Gregory to make the iconostasis for the monastic community he began in France. This iconostasis now stands at the monastery Fr Sophrony founded in Essex, England.
In his later years, Fr Gregory rarely left his cell, but painted icons continually despite suffering from numerous and unusually painful illnesses. In the Spring of 1969 Fr Gregory was very ill and in the hospital, suffering from long untreated diabetes and stomach cancer. His ailments were incurable, and he returned to the Skete, where he decided to paint an icon for his doctor: The assurance of Apostle Thomas as he touched the wounds of the Risen Christ.
This large panel icon is brimful of an intense and otherworldly light, astir with the gentle surge of mutual desire for encounter between the human and the divine. On the day of Fr Gregory’s repose his fellow monks came into his room to find that he had quietly died in his hospital bed, the nearly completed icon on his knees, and his paintbrush in his hand.
Wall-Paintings and Iconostases
In addition to the curated display of panel icons, the recent Paris exhibition included tours to a number of churches where Fr Gregory painted: The Church of the Three Hierarchs at Rue Petel, The Skete of our Lady of Kazan in Moisenay, the Church of St Seraphim in Montgeron, and the Skete of the Holy Spirit in Mesnil Saint Denis where Fr Gregory lived. I include a few pictures to give a sense of each place. This list includes every place where Fr Gregory made wall-paintings, but his iconostases and panel icons also exist in other churches and private collections.4
What impressed me most in my encounter with these icons is their transparency, not primarily of paint layers, but of spirit. It is a thing difficult to translate into words, but I will try to give some sense of what I mean by “transparency of spirit.”
As a devotee to whom Fr Gregory’s icons appeal deeply, my impulse was first to analyze, to store and memorize a catalogue of ideas and strategies for future reference. This created anxiety in me, especially as these aims are manifestly impossible. Fr Gregory apparently eschewed every formula in favor of continual poetic visual responsiveness, always looking with fresh eyes in readiness for an unexpected solution or revelation.
With time and some guidance from my host Emilie, I gradually let go of this impulse. As Emilie says, we can only imitate Fr Gregory “from the inside;” that is, by learning from him to love that transparency of spirit. As I struggled to part myself from the Chapel at the Moisenay Skete, wishing I had more time to look, I noticed a bird’s song kept interrupting my anxious mind, and I remembered a phrase of Ouspensky’s that someone had quoted to me – “Fr Gregory paints as the bird sings.”
Creativity in icon painting can take the form of finding impressive or unusual styles; of calculated drafts from ancient iconography or modern art, or of making display of skill and virtuosity. Such approaches receive all the more fuel from the mass availability of models through Google Images, Social Media, printed publications, and the like.
Kroug and Ouspensky had limited access to models. They looked for old icons at the Paris antique market and studied these deeply for hours. Both men turned to the icon first of all through their own need for healing in Christ, and icons became a conduit of this healing both for them and through them for their community. The vitality of this need motivated them to seek the essence of what speaks and heals through icons.
The methods Fr Gregory finds may appear inexplicable and bizarre, however beautiful, when we study his work as an end in itself; an object of study or artistic analysis. But they begin to make a new kind of sense when we encounter them as they are – as a meeting place with the divine, a conduit of personal contact with Christ. The whole icon, as a unified composition, with its own inner order and emphasis and spirit, as it were, joins in the movement of prayer, allowing one’s spirit to pass freely. This is the meaning of that transparency for which Fr Gregory labored in everything – he was whisperingly sensitive to anything that might interrupt that flow of love through the icon – any visual imprint of showing off, of impressiveness, prettiness, sentimentality, or preciousness, as well as any show of carelessness, crudeness, or irresponsibility.
However countercultural, an iconographer labors to “get out of the way” – to be a channel rather than a fountainhead of the image. Fr Gregory’s own story of the need for healing in Christ opened to that of his specific community and time, and it is from there that his icons speak universally.
I received most of the biographical information here from my host Emilie Van Taack, in our conversations during my trip to Paris. This is supplemented in places from various texts, in particular Fr Andrew Tregubov’s The Light of Christ; Fr Barsanuphe’s Icônes et fresques du père Grégoire; Fr Michael Plekon’s Living Icons; and Fr Patrick Doolan’s Recovering the Icon.
Nikolai Milioti and Konstantin Somov were students of Valentin Serov and Ilya Repin respectively, who are amongst the most important Russian artists in history. Milioti and Somov were prominent Russians in the contemporary Paris art scene.
Higoumène Barsanuphe, Icônes et fresques du Père Grégoire, Marcenat, monastère Znaménié, 1999 p.26
For a full list (in French) of the places where Fr Gregory’s work is found, click here.
25 Maryhill Museum of Art Drive, Goldendale, WA 98620
(1 of 2 Posts)
In 1926, Queen Marie of Romania traveled to Goldendale, Washington to dedicate the Maryhill Museum of Art for her friend, Sam Hill. She brought with her many royal treasures including royal metal thread embroidered gowns, jewels, carved furniture and ecclesiastic treasures, but also the following Orthodox Icons that are part of the permanent collection. All are traditional egg tempera and gold leaf on wooden panels. (The Orthodox Icon room features 9 icons. We’ll several others in the next post.)
St. John the Forerunner
In Orthodox icons, St. John is typically shown with angel’s wings, a hair shirt (often blue) and a green cloak. As an ascetic, he is typically depicted as emaciated with thin arms, but with a very large chest to signify that he is the athlete of God.
In this image, he points to the infant Christ in a gold chalice, holding a scroll that reads, “I saw and have borne witness; this is the Lamb of God.”
Six scenes from the life of John surround him as follows, clockwise from the lower left:
Birth of St. John
St. John Baptizing in the River Jordan
St. John Praying in the Wilderness
An Angel Guiding St. John into the Wilderness
Finding the Head of St. John
Beheading of St. John
Because icons represent the lives of the Holy, they do not show events in time and space as we know it. This is why events occurring in different times and places may be shown simultaneously, not sequentially as we expect.
Pascal (Easter) Icon with Great Feasts
In the center we see Christ’s Resurrection above His Descent Into the Place of the Righteous Dead. Twelve scenes appear around the perimeter representing the Great Feasts of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Top left to right:
Nativity of the Theotokos (The God-Bearer or Mother of God) – September 8
Presentation of the Theotokos in the Temple – November 21
Annunciation of the Mother of God – March 25
Nativity of Christ – December 25
Top right down (vertically):
Theophany (Epiphany or the Baptism of Christ) – January 6
Transfiguration – August 6
Bottom left to right:
Pentecost (Descent of the Holy Spirit)
The Old Testament Trinity
Dormition (Falling Asleep or Death) of the Theotokos – August 15
Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross – September 14
2nd from top – Presentation of the Lord in the Temple – February 2
Below – Entry into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday)
Icon with Three Saints (St. Barbara, St. Seraphim Archbishop of Phanarion & Neochorion & St. John of Damascus
Left to right: St. Barbara, St. Seraphim Archbishop of Phanarion & Neochorion, and St. John of Damascus
These three saints share the same feast day – December 4. St. Barbara is a Holy Great Martyr and popular Orthodox saint, venerated since at least the 9th century. St. Seraphim (1550-1601) was a monastic, later elected archbishop in Greece, who was killed by Muslims. St. John of Damascus (~645 – 749) is considered the last of the “Fathers” of the Eastern Orthodox Church, noted theologian and defender of icons during the iconoclast controversy of the 7th century. His hymns are still in liturgical use today. His scroll petitions the “Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to have mercy on His people.”
This icon has an inscription in the lower central margin that says, “Painted by the hand of Ioannes Eugenoglu.”
Princeton University just updated a website on the expedition of the late 1950s/early 1960s to St. Catherine’s Monastery at Mt. Sinai, where there is a repository of the world’s oldest icons. This collection is unique in that it documents, in color and condition, all of the monastery’s icons after cleaning and restoration in the 1950s and 1960s. These photos have not been digitally altered, except for cropping and rotating. Princeton’s Visual Resource Center digitized and catalogued the collection of several thousand color images (5 × 7 inch color Ektachrome transparencies and 35mm slides) of icons in the Monastery of Saint Catherine made by the joint expeditions that you can view and download by clicking the link below.