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Posts by Keri Wiederspahn

Our Lady of Guadalupe, the perfect icon and patroness for artists

This day of December 12 heralds in the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a distinct time marker and life affirmer for years now in my life, and so on this particular day when snow has stilled much activity in the small Vermont town where I now live — with happy children afoot and home on a snow day — I embrace the opportunity to pause and quietly celebrate this gift of image and life.

For myself as an artist, a mother, and an iconographer, I feel it is especially important to pay special homage to Mary on this day.

Here in the fullness of Advent, we have a perfect opportunity to reflect on Mary as the ultimate image-bearer in this miraculous self-portrait image given through Our Lady of Guadalupe, herself pregnant and poised with the growing infant child Jesus in her womb.  The iconographic significance is most profound with the reality of the incarnation as she is, eventually, revealed as the Immaculate Conception.

Speaking into our lives as a powerful sign post to meditate on, the story of how Our Lady spoke to native Tepeyac Indian Juan Diego (now the first indigenous saint from the Americas) in December of 1521 is one to make sure to read: how she appeared on a hillside outside of Mexico City to this humble peasant man, and how she ultimately proved herself to the world when Juan Diego, as proof of the apparition to the doubting local Bishop, presented his cactus-cloth tilma filled with roses, which fell to the floor and revealed the beautiful image of Our Lady — both pure poetry and creative grandeur, and what ultimately pointed a whole country towards conversion.

The story continues to exist as a miraculous testament to the power of holy images, speaking into our souls and gracing us with understanding that supersedes both spoken or written language.  We could say that this gesture of image goes beyond teaching and allows us to enter into the way of virtue and transformation, witnessed in total simplicity (and yet utter complexity as scientific explanations fall short) by Mary being clothed in iridescent color and light and harmonious lines that dance around her miraculous image.

Icons made “without human hands” (called Arceiropoieta in medieval Greek), as this type demonstrates, are said to have manifested miraculously and were not of human creation. They are unusual, rare, beautiful, and important parts of our Christian history and heritage.  We have the Shroud of Turin, the Veil of Veronica, the Manoppello image, and this of Our Lady of Guadalupe which we know happened to directly contribute to over nine million conversions within just twenty years of the apparition. The Eastern Orthodox Church has others such as the Mandylion (the image of Edessa) and the Hodegetria (although they can be attributed to human painters, created during the time that Christ and Mary were alive).  I find that this tangible image of Guadalupe stands apart as a unique creative sign of love and purpose, a true icon.

me-and-olg

She is the compass to my creative practice.

With the lineage of iconographers and iconographic teaching primarily coming from the Eastern Church, we need more Catholic artist iconographers to depict the potent images of our Western Church orientation. There are myriads of saints, many of which have not yet been illumined through the practice of iconography.

I hope we can pause and pray today that others will pick up the brush and deepen faith through both miracle and icon. It is also a time to remember the unborn, the lost, and the forgotten, and to contemplate the perfect beauty that Mary radiates to us, her children.

Here is a prayer to Our Lady of Guadalupe that his Holiness John Paul II made during his first foreign trip as Pope to Mexico to the Basilica there (January 1979):  

O Immaculate Virgin, Mother of the true God and Mother of the Church!, who from this place reveal your clemency and your pity to all those who ask for your protection, hear the prayer that we address to you with filial trust, and present it to your Son Jesus, our sole Redeemer.
Mother of Mercy, Teacher of hidden and silent sacrifice, to you, who come to meet us sinners, we dedicate on this day all our being and all our love. We also dedicate to you our life, our work, our joys, our infirmities and our sorrows. Grant peace, justice and prosperity to our peoples; for we entrust to your care all that we have and all that we are, our Lady and Mother. We wish to be entirely yours and to walk with you along the way of complete faithfulness to Jesus Christ in His Church; hold us always with your loving hand.
Virgin of Guadalupe, Mother of the Americas, we pray to you for all the Bishops, that they may lead the faithful along paths of intense Christian life, of love and humble service of God and souls. Contemplate this immense harvest, and intercede with the Lord that He may instill a hunger for holiness in the whole people of God, and grant abundant vocations of priests and religious, strong in the faith and zealous dispensers of God’s mysteries.
Grant to our homes the grace of loving and respecting life in its beginnings, with the same love with which you conceived in your womb the life of the Son of God. Blessed Virgin Mary, protect our families, so that they may always be united, and bless the upbringing of our children.
Our hope, look upon us with compassion, teach us to go continually to Jesus and, if we fall, help us to rise again, to return to Him, by means of the confession of our faults and sins in the Sacrament of Penance, which gives peace to the soul.
We beg you to grant us a great love for all the holy Sacraments, which are, as it were, the signs that your Son left us on earth.
Thus, Most Holy Mother, with the peace of God in our conscience, with our hearts free from evil and hatred, we will be able to bring to all true joy and true peace, which come to us from your son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who with God the Father and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns for ever and ever.
Amen.

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After several years of taking a pause from pursuing a true-to-size icon of Our Lady of Guadalupe, I am dedicating this next year towards completing the project in my studio.  There is significance in the timing, and I look forward to sharing the process along its journey, in part within the Pontifex course in Beginning Iconography that will be available in early 2017.

May our hearts be lifted and supported on the wings of blessing and remembrance this day.

“Let not your heart be disturbed. 
Do not fear that sickness, nor any other sickness or anguish.
 Am I not here, who am your Mother?
 Are you not under my protection? 
Am I not your health?
 Are you not happily within my fold?
 What else do you wish? 
Do not grieve nor be disturbed by anything.” 

(Words of Our Lady to Juan Diego)
angel-guadalupe

Close-up of the angel that hovers under Mary, said to possibly resemble the now saint Juan Diego

 

 

Reclaiming the Icon

 

BlueMaryFresco

By Keri Wiederspahn

In the wake of common desire for a new epiphany of beauty and a renewed cultural dialogue between artists, the faithful and the Church, can we as Western Catholics embrace anew the original language of our faith gifted by Christ’s incarnation through the icon?

I’m encouraged by the steps that David Clayton has made towards providing a platform to discover these answers in a balanced and clear way from the whole of our Western tradition, and I’m encouraged by the ever-broadening audience of Catholics willing to explore and reclaim the icon as a sacramental tool of prayer to aid us on our spiritual journey.  Icons bear the ability to hold a special place in the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church — a timeless contemplative beauty that endures as a spiritual compass gently reminding and pointing us home.

“He is the image [Greek: ikon] of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” – Col 1:15

I just finished hosting a 10-day iconography workshop in Vermont (OQ Farm: A Creative Sanctuary) for students to study with two preeminent European iconographers of our day, Anton and Ekaterina Daineko (www.ikona-skiniya.com) of Belarus.  It was a blessing to be part of an international gathering of Christian artists, both Orthodox and Catholic, and to hear stories of our collective creative calling, affirming the icon as a unique means to initiate people into the eternal and divine realities of our common faith.  These past few days were not only an encouragement to the students who came, but a critical witness to the greater evolution of artistic progress in the underserved arena of iconography in the U.S.

DAINEKO demo 2016

Anton Daineko demonstrates the beauty of line drawing to students at a recent master iconography workshop at OQ Farm: A Creative Sanctuary in Vermont

When we equip artists (and indeed laypeople as well) into the practice of skillfully and beautifully crafting an icon, we bring the icon into the forefront of the daily Catholic and Christian sacramental life.  Since the icon is one of the earliest and most powerful forms of sharing our faith (when the Church was yet one body, East and West), this is something we ought not to lose in our contemporary Catholic culture.  In recent decades it has been pushed aside for other visual representations, which have often fallen short of the original prayerful intentions of iconography.

Iconography, as a particular gift to our faith, needs an opportunity to be skillfully re-introduced to contemporary Catholic artists as well as to become more familiar and upheld in our churches.  I’m convinced that the return to serving these early Christian roots through the icon will grow and deepen our Catholic faith and allow us to gain a deeper spiritual awakening, allowing us to engage in contemplative manifestations of deeper spiritual hearing and seeing and providing a perfect counterbalance to the fast-paced and over-sensory modern lives we lead.  Training artists that are open to understanding the valuable place in our tradition that icons present and understanding their unique potential at this moment in time is something that we should not overlook or undervalue.

I’m convinced that with the current shift and stretch of the times into new technological frontiers (particularly in the past two decades), we need the peace and purity of the icon more than ever.

Of course, I say this as an emerging Catholic iconographer who both deeply hopes to affirm the value of learning this practicum while also participating in heralding the re-introduction and artful education of the icon — not as simply something ancient for our Orthodox brothers and sisters, but for us as Catholics to boldly claim as our rightful inheritance — this too, is our tradition.

Rublev Holy Trinity

Andrei Rublev’s Holy Trinity Icon, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, 15th c.

“Imprint Christ onto your heart, where he already dwells.  Whether you read about him in the Gospels, or behold him in an icon, may he inspire your thoughts, as you come to know him twofold through the twofold experiences of your senses.  Thus you will see through your eyes what you have learned through the words you have heard.  He who in this way hears and sees will fill his entire being with the praise of God.” –St. Theodore the Studite

With these recent days spent in quality hours with the Dainekos, sharing their artistic gifts as modern day iconography masters, I am deeply encouraged to have had an opportunity to glean critical techniques and theology from these gifted teachers. We need more creative and high quality teaching in this field to evolve the living tradition and allow it to more readily enter into our daily lives.  Without a doubt, through time spent learning this distinct spiritual artistic practice we can affirm the importance of icons and address the need for inspiring and accessible contemplative opportunities in our busy lives.  Herein lies the timely value of icons — drawing us into critical stillness and slowness in our lives so we can hear the voice of God, rendering us vulnerable to the very heart of the message of the gospel.  Iconography is a sacred piece of our life in the Church.  

Father Andrew church

Detail from a fresco icon by Father Andrew Tregubov, Holy Resurrection Church in Claremont, NH

“It is the task of the iconographer to open our eyes to the actual presence of the Kingdom in the world, and to remind us that though we see nothing of its splendid liturgy, we are, if we believe in Christ the Redeemer, in fact living and worshipping as “fellow citizens of the angels and saints, built upon the chief cornerstone with Christ.” -Thomas Merton

A good icon should always be a work of beauty, as beauty itself bears witness to God.  They are works of theology written in line, images and color, and aim to transform the viewer, pointing always towards the recovery of wholeness…of oneness with God.

I’m blessed to have had these past days steeped in the making of beauty, refining the ability to skillfully make the beautiful manifest and reinforcing the importance of time spent equipping artists of faith to excel in their creative and spiritual callings — a pursuit graced with helping to pave the way towards reclaiming the icon.  Pontifex has already begun to lay the groundwork to give artists the means to excel in the art of the icon, and I am eager to see this opportunity flourish in the days to come…

La Vierge Noir – the Power of French Medieval Art and Architecture

By Keri Wiederspahn

Beauty leads the way to inspire wonder and holds the key to mystery and a call to transcendence. 


Several decades ago, as an unchurched 15-year old drawn to art and already identifying myself as an aspiring artist, I was blessed with a transformative encounter on a trip to the ancient cliff-side village of Rocamadour in the South of France not far from where my parents and I were spending the year on my father’s sabbatical in the Dordogne Valley.  


Medieval discoveries were now expected daily in our lives in this new land, but this pilgrim experience became something altogether different — my first encounter with the infinite beauty and love of God received through a sacred aesthetic experience.   A true source of theology was manifest in this place of tangible space, color and sculpted form, celebrating the joy and mystery of salvation while revealing an unexpected door of mercy that initiated my early hunger and thirst for God.


With flights of steps worn smooth from the centuries of pilgrimage by kings, bishops, nobles and common folk, various legends and fact intermingle surrounding Rocamadour through St. Amadour who is said to have built the cliff-side chapel in honor of the Blessed Virgin, attributed to also having carved the simple Black Madonna known for its miraculous happenings.


The sense of the Other is profound in this place, rich with the gift of Divine inspiration.

black_virgin_rockamadour

The carved Black Madonna remains cloistered in its chapel to this day, and it was from within the centuries-old resonance of prayer that Christ somehow became real to me for the first time through this most simple presentation of Christ through his Mother.


It turns out that many conversions happened in this humble chapel — composer Francis Poulenc was one of them, a great talent influenced and mentored by Eric Satie, who after spending extended time in the chapel, dedicated the remainder of his life to spiritual themes in his work, beginning with his Litanies à la Vierge Noire.  I did not convert immediately, but the memory of my visit to this place has always been with me and was profoundly influential on my being received into the Church in my mid twenties.


Being an artist and a Catholic convert who has been pursuing traditional Byzantine iconography now for close to a decade, there is life-giving purpose to gaze at the origins of imagery and influence that pave the way towards diving deeper into one’s artistic practice. Currently, I’m poised to begin a large icon of Our Lady of Guadelupe, and recognize the moments that remain constant in the flow of beauty that continue to give back and illumine.


Pope Francis shares: “Every form of catechesis would do well to attend to the ‘way of beauty’ (via pulchritudinis).  Every expression of true beauty can be acknowledged as a path leading to an encounter with the Lord Jesus. (Beauty is) a means of touching the human heart and enabling the truth and goodness of the Risen Christ to radiate within it…so a formation in the via pulchritudinis ought to be a part of our effort to pass on the faith.”

Listen to Francis Poulenc’s Litany for the Black Madonna

Litanies à la Vierge Noire, Francis Poulenc translation: 

Lord, have pity on us.

Jesus Christ, have pity on us.

Jesus Christ, hear us.

Jesus Christ, grant our prayers.

God the Father, creator, have pity on us.

God the Son, redeemer, have pity on us.

God the Holy Spirit, sanctifier, have pity on us.

Holy Virgin Mary, pray for us.

Virgin, queen and patron, pray for us.

Virgin, whom Zacchaeus the tax-collector made us know and love,

Virgin, to whom Zacchaeus or Saint Amadour raised this sanctuary,

Pray for us, pray for us.

Queen of the sanctuary, which Saint Martial consecrated,

and where he celebrated his holy mysteries,

Queen, before whom knelt Saint Louis

Asking of you good fortune for France,

Pray for us, pray for us.

Queen, to whom Roland consecrated his sword, pray for us.

Queen, whose banner won the battles, pray for us.

Queen, whose hand delivered the captives, pray for us.

Our Lady, whose pilgrimage is enriched by special favors,

Our Lady, whom impiety and hate have often wished to destroy,

Our Lady, whom the peoples visit as of old,

Pray for us, pray for us.

Lamb of God, who wipes out the sins of the world, pardon us.

Lamb of God, who wipes out the sins of the world, grant our prayers.

Lamb of God, who wipes out the sins of the world, have pity on us.

Our Lady, pray for us.

To the end that we may be worthy of Jesus Christ.

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May we continue to strengthen our lives through the gifts of beauty 

past and present to bear light to Christ, the source of our joy, 

beholding and leading us further along the via pulchritudinis.