Sacred icon exhibit opens in Unionville

By  Lorraine M. Williams, Catholic Register Special
  • May 21, 2008

{mosimage}UNIONVILLE, Ont. - Visitors to Unionville’s Varley Gallery will find a unique religious exhibit this summer. More than 150 sacred icons from mainly private collections will be on display until Sept. 1.

The subtitle of the exhibit, The Sacred Image of the Icon: A World of Belief, is apt considering the icons have been gathered from all parts of the Eastern and Middle Eastern Orthodox world — Ethiopia, Serbia, Greece, Macedonia, Egyptian Coptic, Bulgaria, Russia and Ukraine. Co-curators Katerina Atanassova and Dr. Sheila Campbell have had a lifelong interest in icons and are thrilled with this opportunity to let the general public view some excellent examples of the art.

The icons mounted at the Varley are created in various media — painted on wood, sculpted in ivory, mosaic tiles or cast in metal. Some painted on wood are partially covered with a carved metal overlay (RISA).

Atanassova, who is also curator at the Varley Art Gallery, is a graduate of the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies in Toronto. Campbell, a graduate of the University of Toronto’s Fine Arts department, is a fellow emerita of the Pontifical Institute and former curator of the U. of T. Malcove Collection in its Art Centre, which included 75 icons.

“We’re hoping to show people the range of icon painting and to explain to gallery visitors a spiritual and artistic expression that many people are not used to seeing or understanding,” Campbell said.

The themes include Mother and Child, Christ, the life of Mary, Old Testament depictions which are infrequent (one of Elijah is quite impressive) and various saints. There is also a very colourful crowded icon representing a year calendar with indications of all holy days and saints’ feast days. Another icon depicts St. Demetrius (a favourite icon saint) on his horse, slaying an evil serpent on the ground.

“People often mistake this figure for St. George,” Campbell informed me. “But it isn’t. You can always tell St. Demetrius by his curly hair.”

The oldest icon on exhibit is the painted-on-wood head of an angel, a fragment dating from the 13th century. There is also a rare depiction of Virgin and Child, with Mary having three hands. The richly coloured icon of Our Lady of Kazan from the Black Sea region has no hands showing for Mary, only her face. The Christ Child in this icon is holding up His fingers making the sign symbolizing speech. And one of the world’s favourite themes, Our Lady of Tenderness, with Christ’s face touching His mother’s, is represented more than once in this display.

Visitors will be able to read about the meaning of icons on the excellent signs accompanying the exhibit. Icons are meant not simply as aids to meditation and prayer, but they are believed to put the viewer in the presence of whatever event or person is portrayed. That’s why icons are referred to as “Hotlines to God,” “Windows to Heaven” and “Theology in Colour.” No inscription is needed to identify the subject. No shadows are present. The person is present to the viewer “in a timeless and mostly placeless context,” according to the signs.

The depiction is always in the here and now, never time-constrained. When viewing an icon of Christ, the viewer is in the actual presence of Christ. The symbolism in an icon often represents a theological truth as well. For instance, the halo behind Christ’s head may contain the words “I am,” referring to God’s answer when Moses asked the voice he heard, “Who are you?” The face is always frontal, allowing eye contact between viewer and subject of the painting.

The actual process of creating icons is much different from that of creating western religious art. The icon artist often fasts for two or three days to prepare himself. The panel, brushes and paints are blessed by a priest. And when the icon is completed, it is blessed a second time. Even if severely damaged, an icon is never discarded or destroyed, because to the faithful Orthodox believer it represents the actual person depicted.

Icons are found in Orthodox Christian and Byzantine (Eastern) Catholic communities. There is minor increasing use of them in Britain’s Anglican churches. Croatia is one of the few countries in the Roman Catholic tradition which use icons in its churches.

Co-curator Atanassova hoped that through this exhibit, visitors will learn more about other cultures and beliefs. “Icons are a religious work of art but also a vital contribution to the understanding of human history and civilization,” she said.

A Workshop on Icon Painting and Creation will take place June 15 from 1-4 p.m. And a symposium, The History and Conservation of the Icon as an Art Form, will be held July 13 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. An exhibit catalogue will also be available. The Varley Gallery is located in Unionville at 216 Main St.

For further information contact the Varley Art Gallery at (905) 477-9511, ext. 228 or

(Williams is a Contributing Editor to The Catholic Register.)

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