Theology's Visual Side

Artist Explains How Icons Lead to Prayer

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By Claudia Soberón Bullé Goyri

ROME, MARCH 5, 2009 (Zenit.org).- To learn the art of icons is to learn the art of prayer that leads to communion with God, according to an iconographer and teacher who just finished imparting a specialized course in Rome.

Fabio Nones, doctor in theology and director of a center of iconography in Trent, Italy, concluded last Saturday an advanced course for a select group of artists in an ecumenical center near the Vatican.

Nones explained to ZENIT that there is a great difference between an artist, in the ordinary sense of the word, and a painter of icons.

"The artist who creates a work of ark looks to communicate his sentiments, his vision of the world," he explained. "Meanwhile, the painter of icons is called an iconographer and this is a vocation that looks to express through the colors not so much what he feels, his sentiments, but the faith of the Church, of the Christian community he carries inside."

Icons invite to prayer, Nones continued, and "prayer is communion with God; is it not necessarily only to recite formulas but rather to live in communion with his presence and thus certainly in painting an icon, I pray to have a very strong communion with God."

The artist contended that icons are not just for experts but an invitation for everyone, because "art is very impoverished at the spiritual level and people seek the sacred more than religious art, as an instrument to communion with God, to arrive to God."

The icon in one such "very strong" instrument, Nones said, "fascinating from this point of view."

A vocation

The artist affirmed that anyone can approach the techniques of iconography, at least at an introductory level. "Later, clearly, along the way little by little, there are those who understand that they are being called to become true iconographers; many others don't continue."

"Through the painting of icons, one comes to discover the basis of the faith and, then, though it doesn't serve from an artistic point of view, it will serve from a spiritual point of view," he explained. And, he noted, icons do not serve just those who create them, but also those who contemplate them.

"This is very beautiful," he said, "because in Christianity it is God who goes to meet man, it is God who becomes incarnate and assumes a face, and because of this we can paint him. It is not us who invent a face for God, but rather we reproduce it, we make use of it from a possibility that God himself gives us, in having taken on a face."

"That is," Nones continued, "God comes out to meet us and the icon expresses that: God finds us. He contemplates us more than we contemplate him, and of course afterward these gazes interlock."

Going beyond

The teacher went on to explain that icons don't seek to reproduce nature in itself, but rather follow a logic of colors and elements that enable the observer to go beyond what is evident.

For example, the background of an icon is gold, he said, "because it expresses the glory of God. The background can be clear gold or even red to express that the icon is outside of time; there is not scenery or an optical illusion of distance, it is atemporal."

"And the background shows that the icon tries to offer a look at the divine world, at the world perceptible from on high," Nones continued. "It does not reproduce earthly forms; it doesn't seek to copy nature as it is, but seeks to see it transfigured in the light of God."