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    An Art Like No Other

    Iconography is more than painting — it is a profound encounter with God

    By Elizabeth Bergeron, with Columbia staff  3/1/2022
    Iconographer Élizabeth Bergeron, pictured here with some of her work, wrote the icon of St. Joseph and the Christ Child featured in the Order’s pilgrim icon program. Photo by George Hosek

     

    The icon of St. Joseph that serves as the centerpiece of the Knights of Columbus pilgrim icon prayer program was created (or “written”) by Élizabeth Bergeron, an iconographer in Montréal. Based on a drawing by Alexandre Sobolev, the icon was originally a gift to the Sisters of St. Joseph of Saint-Hyacinthe and now resides at St. Joseph’s Oratory. The following text has been adapted from a recent interview with Bergeron about her conversion, her vocation as an iconographer and the Knights of Columbus prayer program.

    For me, writing an icon is a form of prayer of thanksgiving for all that God has given me. You see, until the age of 46, I sort of lived in dribs and drabs.

    When I was a child, someone heard me say, “I adore my father” and told me, “You cannot worship anyone other than God. You are going to go to hell.” In my 6-year-old head, no matter what I did next, my life was over, since I was going to burn in hell anyway. From that moment, religion repelled me. Not that I didn’t believe in God, but I believed in a God who didn’t love me.

    On the outside, everything seemed to smile at me — career, family, etc. — but much was missing on the inside. I was looking for happiness and I couldn’t find it. I searched all around and finally fell back into the faith of my ancestors. When I had my conversion — that is to say, when I passed from Christian-by-heredity to Christian — it turned my life upside down.

    Jesus said: “I will not leave you orphans. I will come to you” (Jn 14:18). This knowledge changes your life. It filled a void in me.

    After my conversion, I stumbled upon an icon exhibit, and right next to it was an iconography workshop. I fell in love with the technique and started taking classes.

    The word “icon” comes from the Greek eikona, which means “image.” Byzantine icons are images of Christ or other holy figures from the Christian tradition: the mother of God, angels, saints. No matter what image is represented, it is always the features of Christ that are evoked. There is an important link between iconography and the Incarnation. The word of God was made flesh in Jesus, and it was Jesus who said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn 14:9). The invisible made itself visible; that is why we can represent God in images.

    In Russia, iconographers first study fine arts and then spend three years in iconography proper. It’s a very slow process. The technique is laborious. There are a lot of steps, and each step is very long. It is difficult to learn, but it can be learned.

    An icon follows strict rules that we call the canons. We cannot change the colors, the shapes, the gestures, the symbols. Yet it is a merciful art because it leaves room for error. This is about taking our time. It is the mark of the Christian that one falls and one gets up as many times as necessary. Iconography calls upon all the dimensions of being: body, heart and soul. What better way to say thank you to God for all the blessings he has given me?

    I think that to be a good iconographer, besides being a good technician, you have to be a lover of God. An icon is an artistic work like no other because its purpose is to bring us into the presence of God and the mystery of his love for humanity. It is a place where God meets man. The icon is the Word of God translated in form and color; this is why we “write” an icon, like writing a sacred text. The icon is conceived and realized through prayer and contemplation.

    We start with a carved wooden board, whose rings have a particular and precise meaning. It is the heart of the tree which looks at the heart of the praying person, as if to symbolize the heart-to-heart of God with man. Icons also have inverted perspective — that is to say, in a traditional work, the vanishing point is inside the painting; with the icon, the vanishing point is outside the image, and the background opens toward the infinite. So it is the icon that looks at the praying person, it is God who initiates the meeting. There is no shadow in the icon because it is not a star that lights it; the light of God emanates from it.

    There is no naturalism in the icon; it is more symbolic than realistic. For example, in the pilgrim icon of St. Joseph, the two fingers of Christ raised in blessing represent the dual nature of Christ, human and divine; his three fingers folded inward represent the Trinity. The golden rays on Christ’s clothes represent Christ in glory; St. Joseph has rays on his clothes because he has entered into the glory of God. St. Joseph’s left hand is covered with a cloth to represent respect for Christ, and the lily represents purity, chastity and surrender to divine providence.

    St. Joseph is an example of faithfulness to the will of God, and an example of fatherhood. As the adoptive father of Jesus, he taught him the value of human work and contemplative prayer. Having a devotion to St. Joseph myself, I feel privileged to have been able to collaborate with the Knights of Columbus for their icon program.

    We know well the devotion of the Knights of Columbus for St. Joseph, who embodies masculine spirituality. My hope is that Knights will let themselves be looked at by the icon of St. Joseph, let themselves be touched, let themselves be transfigured by the love of God. Like Joseph, may they surrender to divine providence and discover the goodness of God.

    *****

    Go to Joseph

    St. Joseph Pilgrim Icon Program is underway

    Father Mark Salas, associate state chaplain of Texas, speaks about St. Joseph during Mass at Our Lady of Assumption Catholic Church in El Paso, where he serves as pastor. Our Lady of the Assumption Council 12697 welcomed the St. Joseph pilgrim icon to the church and hosted the prayer program on Jan. 27. Photo by Mel Musto

    THE ORDERWIDE PILGRIM icon prayer program in honor of St. Joseph has already drawn thousands of K of C families and other participants since it began last November, during the Year of St. Joseph. The centerpiece of the program is an icon of St. Joseph and the Christ Child created by iconographer Élizabeth Bergeron (see page 20).

    In June 2021, Supreme Knight Patrick Kelly knelt before a reproduction of the icon during his installation as the Order’s 14th supreme knight, consecrating his administration to St. Joseph. Later, in his first annual report, Supreme Knight Kelly urged members to participate in the forthcoming prayer program: “Seek it out. Ask for St. Joseph’s inspiration and intercession — for you, for your family and for the Order.”

    Pope Francis blessed a copy of the pilgrim icon during a private audience at the Vatican on Oct. 25, and the prayer program was officially launched two weeks later at the Midyear Meeting of State Deputies in Nashville, Tenn.

    Nearly 300 copies have been distributed to K of C jurisdictions throughout the world and, for the next two years, will serve as focal points for prayer and devotion. Accompanying the icon is a prayer service featuring Scripture and catechesis related to St. Joseph, the joyful mysteries of the rosary with reflections from Pope Francis’ apostolic letter Patris Corde, the litany of St. Joseph, and other prayers.

    Since 1979, the Knights of Columbus Prayer Program has featured numerous sacred images, with local prayer services drawing some 22 million participants. Learn more and find resources at kofc.org/pilgrimicon.

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