Icons bring new 'visual scripture' to Church Center's chapel

January 13, 1998

To artist Kathryn Carrington, icons are visual scripture, meant to complement the music and liturgy that regularly fill a church. The fact that two icons she has painted were recently installed in the Chapel of Christ the Lord at the Episcopal Church Center in New York City seems a natural step if the church is to consider all forms of art in worship.

"I'm delighted, of course," she said in an interview on December 8, the day that the icons were dedicated in a service at which Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold presided. An Episcopalian, Carrington noted with a smile that of all the icons she has painted in her Manchester, Vermont, studio, these were the first to find homes in an Episcopal church.

Griswold himself commissioned the works. After seeing them mounted on a wall, joining two other icons mounted elsewhere in the chapel, he declared he was "pleased beyond words. They are more beautiful than I had envisioned they might be."

The dedication was a pleasing step in a remarkable journey that, Carrington admitted, "hasn't always been a piece of cake."

The fact that she had painted them at all would at one time have seemed at odds with her life and work. "The first time I saw an icon I thought it was awful," she recalled, laughing. A graduate of the University of Michigan, where she earned bachelor's and master's degrees in fine arts, she also studied at Yale University, L'Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris and Chelsea College in London.

It was an impressive start, she agreed, but acknowledged later that her life also had taken her through some hard times. As a young widow with two children, she struggled as a single parent, then endured a long and debilitating illness that, for all its pain, nurtured her spiritual growth.

She recovered, and eventually met Gregory Norbet, a former monk who has won distinction as a composer, speaker and retreat director. They married in 1987.

Icon on the mantle

"A friend sent us an icon card for our wedding," Carrington recalled. She said she set it on a mantle and found herself lighting candles near it and saying prayers. "After a year, I wondered if I could paint one. It just wouldn't go away."

At that time she was busy as an artist (landscape watercolors and abstract paintings on her handmade paper) and an art consultant to many big firms and agencies. Her works are in the collections of IBM, Hyatt Regency, the U.S. State Department and Gannett Publishing, among others. She made room in her life, however, to study the art of icons and their history.

"A big part of icon painting is Tradition, with a capital T," she explained. That tradition, she added, "has been treasured and protected for us by the Eastern Church."

Although icons grew out of the mosaic and fresco tradition of early Byzantine art, it was the Russian Orthodox Church that embraced iconography after Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Empire. Unlike western art, which sought to reflect space and movement, icon art focused on the symbolic or mystical aspects of the divine being.

Carrington studied this tradition for years, working with a nun and a priest, and studying with masters of the technical aspects of medieval church art. The work combined beautifully with what she had learned earlier in the Spiritual Directors Program of Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation in Washington, D.C.

Her first icon was painted for a Roman Catholic parish on Long Island. She has painted others for churches, as well as private collections and for a monastery.

She met Griswold through her husband; the presiding bishop first visited Norbet's monastery as a priest in 1965, she said. She added that she got to know Griswold's wife, Phoebe, during the years that Griswold served as bishop of Chicago. The bishop, in fact, commissioned a small icon from Carrington, which he carried with him while traveling during the discernment period before he was elected presiding bishop in 1997.

When Griswold asked her to paint icons for the Church Center chapel, she said, she was proud and pleased to do them. Griswold noted that another icon in the chapel was the work of the Rev. John Walsted, an Episcopal priest from Staten Island, New York. A smaller icon was a gift to the late Presiding Bishop John Allin.

"There are so many creative people in our church," Griswold said. "I believe one of my functions is to bring attention and provide support to the talents of all those in our community."

Painting in prayer

Carrington began painting her icons in late 1998. "I paint each icon in prayer," she said. "I believe that I am receiving help as I work on it, that Christ is in my work for people to see."

Each icon slowly evolves, revealing itself over months of time, she said. Of the icons in the chapel, she said, "I wanted Christ to look very serene, and I wanted Mary to look tender, but strong."

Both Christ and Mary are portrayed as dark-skinned people, not discernable as members of any specific race, she said, adding, "I strove to make Christ raceless. He transcends that."

"Icons have their own power," Griswold said later. "They are a form of pictorial scripture. Growing numbers of people in the West, who have been starved for something more intuitive to balance western rationality, have found them to be a window to divine mystery.

"They are profoundly interesting. Because they come from the East, they transcend all the divisions we have experienced in western Christianity. Maybe it's through icons that we are receiving a sense of mystery that has been so much a part of eastern Christianity."

 

-Kathryn McCormick is associate director of the Office of News and Information of the Episcopal Church

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