Seminarians pour heart and soul into icons
Learning a prayerful, artful Eastern tradition
Father Bo Nahachewsky smiles as he watches over a group of seminarians and priests who are silently, carefully — and prayerfully — painting images of Christ the Shepherd.
“As we’re struggling to try and paint his image, he is recreating us in his image,” says Nahachewsky, who recently led a three-day iconography workshop at St. Joseph Seminary.
Nahachewsky, a priest of the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Edmonton, has practised iconography for more than 16 years. Icons are more than just religious art, he explains.
They are meant to depict Scripture and the saints in visual form, and prayer is an integral part of their production.
That’s one reason why many iconographers will say they “write” icons rather than paint them.
“This is a way of praying. A lot of people think icons are just neat pictures with a weird style, but they are actually a sacramental [a sacred object] of the Church.”
While iconography has a strong tradition in Eastern Christianity, Western Christians have begun to rediscover their beauty in their own churches. Some of the most famous icons in history include Our Lady of Perpetual Help, a popular 15th-century Byzantine icon found in both Roman and Eastern Catholic churches.
An icon of St. Joseph the Worker, commissioned for the centennial of the Archdiocese of Edmonton in 2013, travelled for a year and a half to every parish before being installed at St. Joseph’s Basilica in Edmonton.
Nahachewsky has led two workshops at St. Joseph Seminary, where another icon of St. Joseph graces a wall near the front entrance. At the most recent session, offered during the seminary’s Reading Week, Feb. 20-22, seven seminarians and two priests each spent more than 30 hours writing icons of Christ the Shepherd, an image of Jesus carrying a lamb on his shoulders.
“For me this is studying the faith and trying to express and share the traditions of the Christian East,” says Nahachewsky.
Though the seminarians were the ones painting, God was the one who was doing all the work, he says.
Sean Cote, a second-year seminarian, saw the workshop advertised last year and jumped at the opportunity to attend this time around.
“There’s definitely that aspect of learning about the Eastern Rite, and it gives you another perspective of art in the tradition of the Catholic Church,” said Cote.
The group learned the practical as well as spiritual steps to creating icons, such as using traditional methods to mix their own paints out of liquid egg yolk and various kinds of dirt and powder. The seminarians spent more than 12 hours each day working on their icons.
“It’s very tiring,” said Santiago Torres, a third-year seminarian. “There are long days where you’re concentrating very hard, and at the same time you’re praying. So it’s like you’re pouring yourself into this icon.”
Father Sylvain Casavant, who has served on the formation team at the seminary more than seven years, coordinated the workshop.
He decided that the seminarians would portray Christ the Shepherd, since they would be keeping the icons for personal use in their faith journey.
“We’re always trying to emphasize the importance of the Word [of God],” said Casavant, who also participated in the workshop himself. “Well, here’s a way of expressing the Word in a different way than what we’re used to.”
While the budding iconographers used the traditional 24-carat gold leaf for the background of their icons, Father Nahachewsky supplied plywood instead of the usual solid wood panels to keep costs down.
He also spent time working on a project of his own during the workshop, an icon of St. Symeon the New Theologian that he had started at a different workshop nearly three years ago.
“I love painting, so I will take any excuse that I can to come out and spend several days not having to answer phone calls and emails, and be able to teach,” he said.
Nahachewsky lives in Calgary with his wife and three children, and serves as pastor of St. Stephen the Proto-Martyr Ukrainian Catholic Church.