These paintings are rooted in prayer

Michael Goltz of Port Vue, a full-time iconographer and one of the organizers for the Pittsburgh's upcoming Icon Festival.

Michael Goltz of Port Vue, a full-time iconographer and one of the organizers for the Pittsburgh's upcoming Icon Festival.

By Ann Rodgers, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
27/2/2012

As Orthodox Christians celebrate the ancient triumph of their faith over those who wished to destroy all icons of Jesus and the saints, the public is invited to learn more about those holy images at an icon festival this weekend in Oakland.

On Saturday and Sunday from 1 to 6 p.m., the public is invited to view and purchase icons, hear lectures on their importance and see demonstrations of icon-making at St. George Antiochian Orthodox Cathedral, 3400 Dawson St. There will be Liturgy both days at 10:30 a.m.

The speakers at the free are the Rev. Bogdan Bucur, a theology professor at Duquesne University, on Saturday and Edith Humphrey, professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, on Sunday. Iconographer Randi Sider-Rose will give a demonstration on Saturday.

“You don’t have to be Orthodox to come,” said Michael Goltz, an iconographer from Port Vue who helped to organize the first Pittsburgh icon festival in 2000.

“Very early in my career most of my commissions came from Anglicans and Lutherans, and I still get quite a few. If you don’t know anything about icons, come and talk to us. Most iconographers I know are itching to share what they know.”

The event is held every other year, sponsored by the Brotherhood of Orthodox Clergy of Pittsburgh. It’s held on the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy, which refers to the decision of the Second Ecumenical Council in 787 that proper use of icons isn’t idolatrous.

For more than a century prior to that, iconoclasts had gone through the Byzantine empire smashing icons.

Mr. Goltz, 38, is a convert who was studying for the Catholic priesthood when he was drawn to Orthodoxy. He began working at iconography in 1996.

Many iconographers say that they “write” icons, drawing on the literal translation of “iconographer” and on the idea that the icon conveys in pictures what the Bible conveys in words. But Mr. Goltz routinely speaks of “painting” icons.

“We’re not writing. We’re painting with a paint brush,” he said. “But I don’t think either is an accurate term for what we do. It’s an act of symbiosis with God. God doesn’t have physical hands, but the iconographer can’t do what they do without God. What makes an icon an icon is prayer.”

Prayer infuses the process. Many iconographers pray the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Mr. Goltz prays for the person or family who commissioned the icon. He also has discovered that painting an icon can strengthen his relationship with the saint he is painting.

For many years, he said, he had an aversion to St. Paul because he didn’t like some of his letters in the New Testament. But he felt drawn to paint an icon of the apostle and, as he did so, “I started to gain an understanding of St. Paul. My attitude toward him changed as I prayed while I was painting him,” he said.

The making of an icon “really is tied into the spiritual realm,” he said.

Although iconographers use a variety of styles and techniques, certain rules must be observed, he said. Some have to do with the appearance of particular saints. St. Peter, for instance, always has short curly hair and a similar beard.

Colors have great significance. Jesus is nearly always shown wearing blue over red, because blue is the color of heaven and red the color of humanity. The exception is in icons of his infancy or after his resurrection when he wears white and gold, the colors of God’s uncreated light.

“Initially it looks very rule-laden. But once you learn the rules, it’s like football. Every game is different,” Mr. Goltz said.

“The whole goal of iconography is to teach the gospel, whether that’s the actual gospel or the lives of the saints. Our churches are full of icons in order to teach the lives of the saints and the life of Christ and the gospel, and to bring people to Christ.”

Ann Rodgers: arodgers@post-gazette.com or412-263-1416.

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