St. Francis

    Our June 2013 cover artist is Veronica Bornyi, an iconographer from Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.

    What is this piece about?

    In this icon, St. Francis is depicted preaching to the birds of the air and the fish of the sea.

    I wished to show that by his closeness to God, St. Francis learned to enter into a relationship with creatures wild and tame alike—the way God originally intended. This relationship is based upon mutual respect, willingness to learn from each other, and unity in worship, adoration, and praise of the Creator.

    St. Francis wears the robe of a beggar, which became the well-known habit of the Franciscans. His right hand is raised to emphasize his words and in his left hand he holds a book of prayer. This reminds us that vocations are conceived in and sustained by a life of prayer. The birds and fish gather close to St. Francis and listen attentively to his words about God.

    Behind St. Francis, there is a mountain with the dark opening of a cave. This indicates the time St. Francis spent in prayer, silence, and solitude before his public ministry. In iconography, a mountain represents the place where God’s presence is manifest. Trees and shrubs are transformed by this Presence and here bend towards the saint, joyously bursting towards the real of the divine.

    On the upper right corner of the icon there is a segment of the Heavenly Sphere where God “Trice Holy” dwells. From there, the Holy Spirit pours down onto St. Francis threefold beams of grace.

    What is your artistic background? What led you to iconography?

    I never had formal artistic training, but I have always liked to draw and paint. For years I made textile pictures; I enjoy working with different materials and using colour to enhance and give depth to a picture. My dream was to paint still lifes and landscapes when I retired—but God thought otherwise.

    In the years when all my children were at school, I had the opportunity to spend time every day praying in a chapel. After a few years, I realized all my prayers of petition had been answered by God sending grace upon grace to my family. When you realize how much you are indebted to God and the Blessed Mother, you want to do something in return. I wanted to tell others about the goodness and generosity of God and his great love for us. I wanted to draw people to him, the source of life.

    One day as I was praying, the idea came to me that the best way to convey my message would be to paint icons. I knew a little about them, but had never thought of making one. To paint the images of Christ and his Blessed Mother seemed to me too daring for one so unworthy. Still, the idea persisted. After a couple months I gave in and started to work. My first icon, the Mother of God Glykophilousa, turned out so well that some thought I had cut the picture from a magazine and pasted it on a board. After that, I never stopped painting.

    What is the purpose of iconography? It is said that iconography is a form of prayer. How would you describe it? How do you experience it?

    I can best answer this with the words of Bl. John Paul II when he was addressing pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square on 17 November 1996. “East and West contend to place art in the service of faith. But from the East where icons had to be defended with blood in the iconoclastic crisis of the eighth and ninth centuries comes a special call to jealously guard the religious specificity of this art. Its foundation is the mystery of the Incarnation, in which God wished to take on the face of man. Through contemplation of icons, inserted in the whole liturgical and ecclesial life, the Christian community is called to grow in its experience of God, becoming more and more of a living icon of communion of life among the three divine Persons.”

    An iconographer enters a period of prayer and fasting before beginning an icon, because he needs Divine assistance to paint with the eyes of faith. When I paint, I pray for the person who commissioned the icon and for all those who will gaze upon it in future, that they will receive God’s grace and remedy for their spiritual needs.

    There are rules and techniques and designs that must be followed by the iconographer: there is nothing left to the personal whims of the artist. But once the rules are learned, there is a great freedom to create icons that will bring glory to God. For those who wish to undertake iconography, three things are necessary: a bit of knowledge, a bit of talent, and lots and lots of prayer.

    When an icon is finished, it is blessed by a priest so one can stand before it and meet God in the icon—for in every icon, in every saint, we seek and find God. The first gift of an icon is peace. Standing before an icon even for a few moments causes earthly concerns to disappear—even without uttering a prayer, for the prayers have already been said by the artist. Icons help us to realize that we are not alone but united with those who have gone before us and are now living in the presence of God. Through icons we see how man can be transformed by the grace of God when he perseveres in prayer and receives the sacraments.

    Icons are windows to heaven, a place where two souls can meet and touch each other. Thus the pictures of Christ, the Blessed Mother, the Angels, and the Saints are depicted as looking at us and not up to heaven. They are here to help us on our earthly journey and reassure us of their intercession at the throne of God. Grace is not limited to the intellect—it can also enter the soul visually. Icons are the Word of God written in shapes and colours on wood. They are rich treasures of sermons and prayers and instruct and guide us in our daily lives towards eternal happiness.

    Who or what did you learn from?

    I learned to write icons through prayer and observation. Fortunately, in our home I found books with icon pictures (more than in the public library). By observing them carefully and learning their composition I was able to imitate the ancient Greek iconographers. I most like Byzantine icons from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries—this period is called the Renaissance of icons. I have also learned a great deal by looking at copies of icons made by St. Andrei Rublev, who was canonized in 1988 by the Russian Orthodox Church, and the icons of Dionisij, who worked in late fifteenth-century Russia. Unlike St. Andrei, Rublev was a secular man.

    What do you do with your pieces? Are they ever shown? Are they for sale?

    Except for the first icon, all my icons are done for others. My original idea to catch young people by depicting the mystery of God worked well; I get calls from young people looking for authentic traditional art. I participated in the 1997 Festival of Faith in Sault Ste. Marie and from that time on was privileged to receive the approval and prayerful support of the clergy in our diocese. I do not sell my work, for I think the grace of God cannot be sold; I am satisfied if my expenses are covered. But I never say no to someone who requests an icon. The amount is left to the discretion of the individual. Over the years, my icons have found homes in several churches, chapels, rectories, and private homes.

    How would you define beauty?

    Although they say beauty is in the eye of the beholder—or, as the Romans said, De gustibus non est disputandum—I cannot separate beauty from Divinity. God is Love and Beauty. All creation is a living witness to that. Wherever we encounter beauty, we come face to face with God. When I see something beautiful my heart and whole being is lifted up to God. You simply can’t negate God when you see a sunset, a sunrise, early-morning dew, or children playing in the park. God’s beauty and truth create the greatest harmony of all. We can recognize Christ everywhere and in everyone; by keeping our minds centred on Christ we can see God in every aspect of our daily lives. It helps to remember that the Kingdom of God is already in our midst.

    What is the purpose of art?

    I think this is a question that much smarter artists than I have had a hard time answering. For all practical purposes, art has not much to do with the day-to-day activities of humankind. But if we look at the bigger picture, we see that art has influenced the hearts and minds of people in every century. Art can be used and misused, but in the long run I believe it has the ability to restore people to their original dignity as children of God.

    Who inspires you and what inspires you?

    I believe my call and inspiration came from the Most Holy Mother of God. As I visited her and Our Lord in the chapel of Sacred Heart Convent day after day, year after year, she graciously hid me under her mantle until I was ready to reveal the gift I had received from Our Lord. She inspired me to catch the flock of her Son through my work. I do not know how successful I have been in fulfilling her mandate, and I sincerely hope I have time for the many icons I still wish to paint.

    The second inspiration came from someone I never met. He is the brother of my grandfather and a Greek Catholic priest in Transylvania in the beginning of the twentieth century. I strongly believe that through his prayers I received this gift to bring others to the presence of God through iconography.

    Do you have any other thoughts about art?

    I firmly believe that as life changes, art changes. Those who wish to show the beauty of creation cannot be sidelined by those who reveal the alleged ugliness of day-to-day life. Anything which does not life the heart and mind is not a real piece of art. In our time, it is necessary and wise to return to our faith and rediscover the aids and tools by which we can preach the Gospel—icons which were put into our hands two thousand years ago.