ICONS: THE PAINTED WORD
By LORETTA FULTON
Nothing illustrates the adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words” as do icons, with their rich layering of colors and light and their deeply spiritual message.
In fact, icons are both words and pictures. Iconographers “write” icons rathering than painting them because they are writing the theology of the church, explained Linda Fowler, a local iconographer and member of St. Luke Orthodox Church, 501 Sunset Drive. In ancient times, iconographers were guided by the theology of the church and its canons.
“The same rules guide the iconographer today,” Fowler said.
Fowler was guest speaker for the Jan. 16 meeting of the Abilene Interfaith Council. The meeting, which drew a large crowd despite the cold and rain, was held at St. Luke. The church walls are covered with icons, many of them Fowler’s work. The icons that most people are familiar with depict the saints of the church.
“We are God’s living icons,” Fowler said.
Photos from the Jan. 16 meeting of the Abilene Interfaith Council. Top right and top left photos are by Larry Fink. Others are by Loretta Fulton.
Some icons depict events, such as the crucifixion of Jesus. But icons existed before Christianity. Judaism rejected any images of God, but the ark of the covenant was engraved with other other images.
Since Jesus was both human and divine, early Christians believed images were permissable.
“This is the reason we can paint a picture of him,” Fowler said.
Early images that Christians understood to represent Jesus, such as a fish, dove, or anchor, can be found of the walls of the catacombs, the underground passageways in Rome that were used as burial sites. Those images were used to teach the mystery of salvation, Fowler said.
When Constantine became emperor of the Roman Empire, he moved the capital from Rome to Byzantium, renaming it Constantinople, which today is Istanbul. Constantine, a pagan most of his life, converted to Christianity and early Christians no longer had to live in fear. During that time, Fowler said, icons flourished and a new style was created to distinguish those depictions from other paintings. The style is still used today and is easily recognizable.
Every feature of the saint is depicted in a meaningful way, Fowler noted. The arms sometimes are raised in prayer, the eyes large and open, seeing only Christ.
“They seem to be looking into the soul of the viewer,” Fowler said.
Icons do not have shadows, Fowler noted, because they are filled with God’s light. All the colors used in iconography have a meaning. For example, red represents the blood of the martyrs or Christ’s robes, purple represents royalty and wealth, and white denotes purity, innocence, and God’s light.
Creating an icon is more than an artistic endeavor for the iconographer, it also is a spiritual experience.
“I pray all the time I’m painting an icon,” Fowler said, specifically to St. Luke, the patron saint of iconographers.
At St. Luke Orthodox Church, icons are carried in the processional, depicting the season of the church year. In 2019, Fowler created a 4 x 5-foot icon of the Theotokos, or Mother of God, that hangs behind the altar at St. Luke.
The icon shows Mary seated and holding the baby Jesus. The project took about two years to complete. Fowler’s first icon, also was a Theotokos that she created in 1996.
“I still have it,” she said.
Fowler didn’t take art classes until she was a student at Lamar University in Beaumont. She was born Linda Ransleben in Iraan, in Pecos County in far West Texas. Her father worked for the former Amoco oil company, which meant the family made several moves. When Linda was 12, the family moved to Monahans and from there to Singapore and Tripoli. It was in her world travels that Fowler discovered her love of ritualistic worship, visiting Anglican and other traditions that were new to her.
But she wasn’t introduced to the Orthodox church until she was a college student in Beaumont. There she met a Lebanese man named Joseph Haddad, whom she would marry.
“He introduced me to all this,” she said, gesturing to the icons on the walls of St. Luke.
Growing up, Fowler didn’t dabble in art, although the ability obviously was there. Her mother and her mother’s aunt both were artists and Fowler inherited the talent. Fowler focused on fine art, especially portraits, until being introduced to iconography by her husband.