For artist Kathryn Carrington, creating an icon is more prayer than painting.
“The icon is my prayer,” says Carrington, who was commissioned by the Divinity School to create “Christ in Glory” for its new worship space. “It’s all about gazing and growing.”
Carrington joined faculty, staff, and students Nov. 20 as Fr. Edward Rommen, a priest in the Orthodox Church of America and adjunct professor, presided at a service of blessing and dedication. For most in the congregation, the incense-rich liturgy was a rare opportunity to learn more about a centuries-old Christian tradition.
“Having an icon joins the Duke community to other traditions and underscores the Divinity School’s desire to represent and unite diverse Christian communities,” says Rommen.
“The icon adds one more way in which busy students, faculty, and staff can focus their attention on our Lord Jesus Christ.”
For centuries icons have been integral to Christian instruction, worship, and prayer. Often described as “the Bible of the poor,” they made Scripture accessible for the illiterate, much as stained-glass windows did for members of the early church.
Artists, some of whom liken the medium to writing a poem, “write” rather than paint icons.
“The icon is ‘written’ insofar as it continues the work of communicating the gospel of Jesus Christ, albeit through line, form, and color rather than words,” says icon writer Carole Baker D’03, an artist and research associate at the Divinity School. “Nothing in an icon can contradict the Word of God, and the Word of God is necessary for the illumination of the holy icon.”
For Carrington, who specializes in gold leaf icons, crucifixes, and gilded altarpieces, icon writing is an extension of her prayer life, a calling that “offers a glimpse of heaven, depicting the depth of God’s light.”
As preliminary planning began in 2002 for the Divinity School’s new chapel, an arts advisory committee formed to explore media for the new worship space. The group decided to place Thorvaldsen’s bas relief “John the Baptist Baptizing Christ” along the chapel’s north wall, symbolizing the beginning of Christ’s ministry.
“It seemed appropriate to place an icon of Christ enthroned — the culmination of Jesus’ ministry — on the south wall as a way of completing the narrative,” says Director of Field Education Susan Pendleton Jones D’83, who chaired the committee.
Another member of the group, Associate Dean and Professor of Bible and Practical Theology Ellen Davis, had been impressed by Kathryn Carrington’s work at Cathedral College of Preachers in Washington, D.C.
“Kathryn’s work is traditional in style and outstanding in quality,” says Davis. “There is simplicity in the work that is appealing to a community not normally schooled in the veneration of icons.”
Carrington, whose work has been included in exhibitions of the Royal Academy of Art, the Royal Society of Painters, Sculptors and Printmakers, and the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours in London, earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in fine arts from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
She understands that non-Orthodox Christians may find praying to icons both mysterious and controversial.
“God revealed himself in Jesus Christ, and we venerate the person and relationship,” she says. “It’s a window and opportunity to see Christ — another way of seeing the Good News.”
Praying to icons does not represent the worship of paint and wood, adds Fr. Rommen. “We regard the icon with reverence, directing our worship to the one depicted.”
Chaplain Sally Bates D’95, who served on the arts advisory committee, says, “It is our hope that students will embrace the icon as a window onto the divine, the ‘through which’ we encounter God.”
J. Dana Trent D’06 is an ordained Baptist minister who works at Duke Divinity School as Staff Specialist for the Chaplain’s office and the Anglican Episcopal House of Studies