History and Blessing of The Icons
On May 31, 2009, upon the occasion of The Oratory’s Diamond Jubilee celebration, those attending the listened intently as Father Joseph Wahl spoke of the icons located in the Pope John XXIII Center on the grounds of The Oratory. They tell a story that we felt you too would like to hear.
The evangelist icons celebrate St. Philip Neri’s gift of the familiar treatment of God’s Word to the Church. The art work is a gift from the Carter and Charlotte Lofton family in memory of their son and brother, Mark J. Lofton.
Some art historians will refer to the decorations in older, even ancient churches as mere “teaching tools” meant to be pictorial explanations or catechetical tools for communicating various aspects of the faith to an illiterate population. While this may be in part true, it reveals something of our contemporary bias. In fact, our ancestors in the faith were much more theologically aware, attentive and knowledgeable about their faith than many of us today — even if hey could not express these beliefs in written form. The beautiful iconographic images in the churches of Hagia Sophia, of those in Kiev and all the walls of churches and monasteries in Ethiopia and Egypt were and are presented not as mere teaching tools, but as a celebration of the gift of faith in the unique reality of the mystery of the Incarnation – a God who becomes one with His people. This proclaims that the invisible, incomprehensible One, beyond form and human understanding has condescended to enter into our world to be seen by us – to be known by us in order that we might experience the fullness of God’s love and mercy.
The Rock Hill Oratory began discussions with Father Damian, (a Ukrainian Catholic priest directing an iconographic institute out of Augusta, GA) in 2004, and imagined a piece of art to express some of the ministries provided in Pope John XXIII Center, especially in Scripture study. We also wanted to incorporate the memory of a beloved son whose parents had made a generous donation towards this project. We chose a biblical theme with the revelation of Christ as The Word.
For the center, Mr. Soariya Kumac, a native of Sri Lanka and a copper artist of international acclaim, agreed to represent the Oratory’s logo in copper. Radiating out from this center are fiery flames with the energy and dynamism of the Oratorian charism to reach out to all the world. The cruciform pattern behind this radiation is created with mahogany, walnut and poplar. The cross expresses the saving grace of Jesus Christ manifested in His sacrificial offering on a tree to which He invites all of this followers to participate.
The four quadrants contain in symbolic form, circular images of the evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John painted in brilliant red to image the fire of Heaven on a blue base to image the eternal glory of the heavens. These symbols are rooted in the prophecy of Ezekiel (Chapter 1), where he describes a vision of God coming forth on a chariot of fire accentuated by what appears as four figures intermingled with each other: a human, a lion, an ox and an eagle. They possess the nature of seraphim or angels of fire who surround the throne of God. They are in Ezekiel’s vision, communicators or graphic transporters of God’s invisible image. In the Christian Scriptures, these same figures are revealed in the vision of St. John in the book of Revelation 4:7 surrounding the throne of God with praise, honor and thanksgiving.
In the arrangement of icons in a Byzantine Church, these symbols of the four evangelists would normally be presented around the dome of the church – either on the four pillars surrounding the dome or at the base of the dome itself. In the center of the dome, we see an icon Christ pantocrater or the One who rules over all – the pre-eternal Word. This arrangement reminds us that the unattainable – the unreachable space of the dome is communicated to us – or put within our reach through the ministry of the evangelists who in their words make known The Word.
The four panels with the evangelists are prepared in a traditional manner using wooden boards soaked in skin glue and covered with pure linen and then coated with layers of gessoe (crushed marble + skin glue). The haloes are sealed with leaves of 23k gold. The images are painted in egg yolk mixed with natural pigments and layered on the gessoed boards. Finally, they are sealed with oils that help preserve the image.
The use of these natural materials gives expression to our appreciation of the beauty of the created world and represents an offering of creation as the icon is composed of parts from the four created kingdoms: animal (brushes & glue), vegetable (wood, linen & oils), mineral (gessoe, pigments, gold) and human. Reconstituted, these various elements move into a single form that offers praise to the One who brought all things into existence. St. John of Damascus expresses this beautifully when he says, “I worship the Creator of matter, who for my sake became material and dwelt in matter and through matter effected my salvation.”