An Icon of Saint Thomas

The gift of an icon of Saint Thomas from members of the community of Exeter Cathedral, UK.

“Just as when you depict Christ you depict a humanity soaked through with a divine action, so with the holy person you depict someone who, in union or communion with Jesus Christ by the power of the Spirit, is likewise carrying, transmitting divine agency, divine light.” Rowan Williams, 104th Archbishop of Canterbury.

From a lecture given at the Royal Academy of Arts in 2009 in which Dr Rowan Williams explored aspects of how icons are, amongst other things, practical aids to meditative prayer. You can find a link to the full lecture here.

There is something very prayerful about icons in the Orthodox tradition; they are more than pictures, for they each tell a story. Some icons quite literally tell a story for they depict a scene from the scriptures of the life of the Church such as the Transfiguration or the Resurrection or the day of Pentecost. These narrative icons are particularly used during the church’s year to give another visual aspect to the telling of the story through the liturgy. But even icons of Christ or the saints tell a story; as Rowan Williams suggests in in the quotation above, and which is explored very fully in his lecture on the subject, a depiction of Christ in an icon is to depict his full humanity and his full divinity; to depict a saint is to show the difference that knowing Jesus Christ made to that person of faith.

Some people say that icons are written rather than painted, insofar as they tell a story that is true. But icons are also artistic and are, indeed, painted. Some of the confusion comes from the different words for icon in Greek and Slavonic. (See Orthodoxy & the Sacred Arts. Ed. By J.A. McGuckin, pub. Theotokos Press, New York, page 176). As Eileen McGuckin, who has painted icons in New York for many years, once remarked:

“In my understanding of the modern iconographer’s vocation, one’s duty is to combine the joy and passion of fine art with the sense of the energy in the light of the holy Kingdom, whenever one can. Bishop Kallistos Ware was once asked at a conference by a zealous youth: ‘Your Grace, what is necessary to become an iconographer?’ His reply? ‘I think, to start with, one needs to be able to paint.’ (Ibid. page 179).

Following several visits by Exeter Cathedral parishioners to Saint Thomas Church over the past three years, a group decided that they wanted to give an icon of Saint Thomas, our patron, as a thanksgiving for the hospitality they had received and as a link to Exeter Cathedral. The iconographer, John Coleman, had previously written icons for Lambeth Palace, York Minister, Exeter Cathedral, Truro Cathedral, various monasteries, retreat houses and parish churches.