Today is the feast of St. Luke, one of the four gospel writers who, according to tradition, was also an artist and a "writer" of icons. Fr. Michael Cummins shares this artistic gift with St. Luke. Today, he explains how icons are more than mere paintings and can only be truly appreciated when we completely change our "perspective."
St. Luke is known as a fellow worker with St. Paul, an evangelist (the author of the gospel that bears his name and the Acts of the Apostles) and a physician. For iconographers, St. Luke is revered as the first (according to tradition) to write an icon of the Blessed Mother. In iconography, the verb “to write” is used rather than “to paint” as an icon is considered visual theology. Now, to my knowledge, there is no known or authenticated icon that can be directly traced back to the hand of St. Luke but I, for one, have no problem with considering this tradition a possibility.
Luke was obviously a well-educated and gifted man with many skills and abilities. In the first few verses of his gospel Luke establishes that his sources were some of the very people who were “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word…” Luke is the only one of the evangelists who lays out a full and in-depth account of the annunciation and incarnation to Mary as well as her visit to her cousin Elizabeth. Is it inconceivable that he might have met Mary herself?
Luke accomplishes through his account of the good news what the iconographer seeks to do visually through the discipline and skill of writing an icon. Luke brings the reader of his writings into a direct encounter with the living Christ.
Icons should not be considered “paintings” in our modern, employing a Western understanding of the term. Icons are not a representation separate and distinct from the original image. Rather, icons are a sharing in the very person(s) represented. When I look at an icon I am not just looking at some painting of a saint, Mary or Christ himself; when I look at an icon I am looking at the saint or Mary or our Lord. Even better, when I am before an icon it is the saint or Mary or our Lord who is gazing upon me. For this reason, the perspective of horizon is actually reversed in iconography. (This is why icons can, on the surface, come across as simplistic to our eyes that have been trained in the classical western notion of perspective and horizon in paintings. But icons are anything but simplistic and naïve.) In iconography the perspective of horizon is not to be found starting with the viewer peering into the icon (as in classical Western art); rather it begins from the icon moving toward the viewer. The icon looks upon us.
Here, there is a profound lesson for disciples in how we ought to approach the gospels. Iconography can help train our spiritual sight in the realization that it is of great and important benefit to let the gospels gaze upon us and put us in its perspective of horizon rather than the other way around. Time and again, throughout history, we have seen the temptation to read the gospels from our perspective and our little vantage point rather than letting the gospels envelop us into their depth and horizon. This is a shame, and it always ends poorly because we are always “poor” in comparison to the perspective of God himself! In the gospels we encounter the very face of Christ gazing upon us – Christ the rabbi and teacher, Christ the prophet, Christ the son of Mary, Christ the healer and worker of miracles, Christ the compassionate one and good shepherd, Christ the one who will judge, the transfigured Christ, Christ who gives the Eucharist, Christ the beloved son of the Father, Christ who suffers and was betrayed, Christ who died on the cross and was buried, the resurrected Christ in glory!
The perspective of horizon found in the gospels is the same as that expressed in iconography. In our reading of Sacred Scripture the perspective begins with the Word and moves toward us. Scripture gazes upon us and envelops us within its horizon and its possibilities if we let it and do not try to limit it to our narrow perspective.
St. Luke is called the patron saint of painters due to the tradition of his writing an icon of the Blessed Mother. In his gospel and in Acts we are presented with a verbal icon of Christ and also Christ and his Church. The wisdom of perspective and horizon in iconography can help us delve deeply into an ongoing encounter with the living Christ given us by St. Luke the evangelist and iconographer.
Fr. Michael Cummins is a Word On Fire blog contributor and serves as the Vocation Director for the diocese and Chaplain to Notre Dame High School and the Catholic Student Center at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga. Fr. Michael is a member of the Community of Sant'Egidio.