They are said to have originated at the end of the first century. They are often venerated, kissed and highly regarded as an aid to meditation of the holy. Today, they can still be found throughout the world, as well as here, on the walls, ceilings and exteriors of onion-domed churches and cathedrals that have long enriched our Prairie skyline.
Upon entering the Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral of St. Mary the Protectress, one is struck by the colourfully painted walls, the frescoes on the ceiling and, of course, the enormous and elaborate three-tiered iconostasis. A type of icon screen wall, this one is magnificently decorated with icons strikingly painted in deep shades of red, blue and gold.
Behind the iconostasis, which separates the sanctuary from the nave, are more icons, says Rev. Archpriest Jaroslaw Buciora, pastor of St. Mary's.
These are smaller, easily moved and usually placed on a small table -- the tetrapod -- in the front of the nave where worshippers sit during services.
Vera Senchuk, the Winnipeg iconographer of these smaller icons and of about 800 others displayed in churches throughout the world, says: "This... (iconostasis) is a very good example of a church in the Orthodox tradition. Every iconostasis has the Mother of God on the left. The icon of Christ is on the right."
Between the two are the "royal doors through which only the priests can enter." The entire iconostasis is often intricately carved. This one was guilded and the wood carved, says Senchuk, by Roman Kowal, who also sculpted the famine monument in front of Winnipeg's city hall.
"The second level shows the 12 great feasts, the life of Christ and the Mother of God... above is the Mystical Supper as the Last Supper is called in the Orthodox tradition."
"The 12 apostles are on the third level and the four evangelists are on the royal doors. The cross always takes top place."
Huge painted icons of saints and monks from early Kyivan-Rus' history line the walls of the church to either side of the iconostasis and were painted by noted Ukrainian iconographer Sviatoslav Hordynski, with the assistance of Dmytro Bartoshuk, says Senchuk.
Hordynski was also the iconographer of both the iconostasis as well as a huge fresco on the ceiling of St. Mary the Protectress, she says.
Both artists were role models to Senchuk, who is also a parishioner at this church. According to Monuments to Faith, Ukrainian Churches in Manitoba, by Basil Rotoff, Roman Yereniuk and Stella Hryniuk, it was Bartoshuk's encouragement that led her to begin painting church icons. She was his only student and one of only a few female iconographers at that time, say the authors.
"The icon is central to the Orthodox church, says Buciora. "When people enter they cross themselves twice, venerate the icon and then cross themselves a third time."
"In the Orthodox church we use all of the human senses -- hearing, taste, smell -- it is not just a cerebral exercise."
"We don't negate nature, it's part of God's creation," adds Senchuk.
Bringing one of Senchuk's hand-held icons closer, Rev. Buciora says: "Vera has created her own unique style which is really close to our hearts."
"But there is a basic tradition, I didn't set out to create a different style -- each century, it reflects who you are," says Senchuk.
When asked how her style differs, she says: "The faces may be softer, the colours brighter, but I still hope I'm within the Orthodox tradition."
"The icon is only a true icon when used in the liturgical context whether for prayer in church or at home," says Bucoria. "But there is a line from Paul Evdokimov" (author of several works on icons) that each one of us is a living icon."
Senchuk says within the icon painting tradition there are three types of icons: the uncreated icon, which is God; the icon that each person carries within (the image of God); and the created icon, which is the painted icon.
Although they are often beautiful, icons are not mere religious art. It is not the paintings that are worshipped and it is only through contemplation that they become a link between heaven and Earth.
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