Praying in solidarity with Ukraine through iconography

Despite war raging in Eastern Europe, it can be easy for the conflict to feel worlds away. With or without an extra intercession during Mass, the minor inconvenience of higher gas prices, or a blue and yellow flag on the horizon, our attention can quickly wander from the injustice that Ukranians are suffering.

Even if one is attentive to the shifting dynamics of Russian and Ukrainian troops — and the heroic efforts of those citizens and civic leaders placing their lives on the line to defend their homeland — one ought to be careful to avoid reducing the present violence to merely a territorial dispute. Rather, what is at stake is existential: an attempt to define away the Ukrainian people and culture in the name of a homogenous Russian one.

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What, then, are we to do? How can we effectively stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Ukraine as they fight, not only for their land, but for their identity and culture? While our first and most effective means remains heartfelt and consistent prayer, an additional opportunity lies in not only recognizing, but celebrating the unique gift that Ukrainian culture — and faith — offers to the world.

Hidden Life in Nazareth
“Hidden Life in Nazareth” by Ivanka Demchuk

Much of Ukraine’s religious heritage is eastern byzantine — both Orthodox and Ukrainian Greek Catholic, a church in union with the Roman Catholic Church but continuing to pray with much of the tradition of the East. One such precious heritage of our brothers and sisters in the East is iconography.

“Icon” comes from the Greek word eikon, and the sacred images are meant to make present, not just depict, the subject using a long tradition of styles, types and materials. For this reason, Christians venerate, or show respect to, icons and pray in the presence of them — though they do not pray to them. Rather, icons might facilitate encounters with God, as St. John of Damascus, an ancient defender of the tradition of iconography, wrote: “We are led by perceptible Icons to the contemplation of the divine and spiritual.” The tradition of writing icons is centuries, even millennia, old, and continues to this day. As we look for ways to enter into solidarity with both Christians and non-Christians in Ukraine, I found one such opportunity by entering into prayer with the iconography of a modern iconographer, Ivanka Demchuk.

Demchuk appears to be a member of a new and experimental school of iconography born and growing in Lviv, Ukraine, a city which sits on an interesting boundary between the Byzantine East and Latin West — and a region that claims Ukrainian Greek Catholicism as its dominant faith. This means that the city is perhaps uniquely suited to an embrace of eastern iconography with touches of western tradition — and uniquely suited to integrate Byzantine and Roman devotional practices without losing any of the richness of either. Many of these young artists, including Demchuk, graduated from the department of Sacred Art at the Lviv National Academy of Arts, where iconwriter Roman Vasylyk teaches traditional iconography techniques to the young artists who incorporate more modern abstractions into the writing of icons — while continuing to take up many of the forms of the traditional icon — Christ Pancrator, Madonna and Child, the Rublev Trinity, etc.

I was introduced to Demchuk’s work through two particular icons: one of the Annunciation, and one of the hidden life of the Holy Family. In this month of both Mary’s fiat to the angel Gabriel and the solemnity of St. Joseph, Demchuk’s iconography offers a particularly poignant opportunity for prayer — and through prayer, recognition and celebration of the culture of Ukraine.

There is a serenity to Demchuk’s Nazareth, which sits poised at the moment of offering, just before the fiat. In “Annunciation,” the writer uses tempera and acrylic on a wood surface to place both Mary and her messenger in a scene of utter stillness, as if on a two-dimensional set. Furnishings and furniture and even the walls of Our Lady’s abode are frozen in time, as if stenciled and cut out with paper: pieced together rather than painted. Even as my eyes, accustomed to hyper-realism of modern (and even more traditional) western religious art, reacted to the apparent stiffness — the otherworldliness of Mary’s face, the hidden proportions of Gabriel — I found myself drawn powerfully into the scene.

A book sits open on Mary’s lap and a ribbon marks the page. What was it Our Lady read? Was it a song of David — perhaps Psalm 40? “I delight to do your will, my God; your law is in my inner being!” A reader of this icon could hear Mary whispering: “Though I am afflicted and poor, my Lord keeps me in mind.”

The abode of Anne and Joachim sits, while not in darkness, in shades of twilight, with blue-gray walls. Our Lady sits on a couch that stretches out on either side of her — plenty of space, one might think, for a spouse or child. A single window lets in a stream of light and a hint of Galilean hillside. The only mark of something extraordinary in her setting is the apple on the windowsill. Despite the light streaming in, the apple remains in shadow: a reminder of Eve’s disobedience, which Mary’s obedience will undo.

Our Lady’s gaze doesn’t seem to notice the apple, though; her gaze is fixed and draws our own attention definitively to the heavenly stranger who waves a quiet greeting from beyond the wall: “Hail, favored one!” (Lk 1:28). He offers a single lily — a symbol of chastity and of purity — as Mary seems to pull her cloak more securely around herself, wrapped in a dark mantle of stars. Neither speaks, but the anticipation of such a familiar event is clear. The hope of the light Gabriel is clothed in promises the hope of the incarnation; the sprouting plant besides the young mother-to-be anticipates her “yes.” Though Demchuk leaves that moment for another icon, we can be confident that Our Lady will accept the new life which Gabriel’s lily offers: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38).

If “Annunciation” is an exercise in stillness, the second of Demchuk’s icons that caught my attention, “Hidden life in Nazareth,” is one of movement. The Christ Child totters at a run toward the open arms of his mother, having just left the embrace of his earthly father, Joseph.

Our glimpse into the life of the Holy Family is intimate: the abstract and wide open gray space of the background hides them from any sense of an exterior world. If one does lay beyond the three figures in the foreground, it is marked only by laundry swinging in the breeze, a table and chairs holding a game mid-play, and perhaps some carpenter’s tools strewn below it. Again, the iconographer’s style creates an otherworldly setting — Where are the walls? Why does the furniture float? — that contrasts with the profound humanity of a mother and father rejoicing in their young son’s first steps.

The night sky that marked the mantle of the young virgin in “Annunciation” has been replaced with a brightly colored one — shining with the joy of the virgin mother who bends down to greet God made man. There is something adorable — literally, in this case, worthy of adoration — in the little Jesus, his arms reaching up in that toddler’s grab, which is so familiar to us: “Amma!” Perhaps he squeals with delight: “Mommy!”

The treasure of iconography is, of course, that our prayer with any one of these works of sacred art is not limited to my — or any — meditation upon it. Be they centuries old or hanging in a modern exhibit in Lviv, the work of icon writers promises a richness of prayer that contains within itself a history and heritage that is worthy of celebration and in need of protection.

As Ukrainians fight for their country and culture, perhaps we can renew our solidarity in prayer and our evangelization in art by lifting up the work of distinctly Ukrainian artists like Ivanka Demchuk — sharing with the world the gift that Ukraine offers and is, and denouncing any and all attempts to snuff out or otherwise erase her.

Featured image “Annunciation” by Ivanka Demchuk.

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