Friday, February 6, 2015

Igumen The Iconographer

“We are here.  And we were not supposed to be.”

"Call me Charlie."

Those were the first words spoken to me by Igumen, the legendary, and rather mysterious, iconographer active in the metro New York area in the 1980's.  How I came to meet him, and to find his small studio filled with his labors and tools, captures what ecumenism was once like.

I forget exactly why now, I think it was because I had struck up a friendship with some of the Armenian and Syrian Orthodox students with whom I attended seminary, but one sunny, winter morning I found myself with them sharing an audience before Archbishop Torkom Manoogian, Primate of the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of America, in his private dining and reception room at St. Vartan's Cathedral on 34th Street.

There was certainly something regal about Manoogian, who was addressed in conversation as "Eminence".  He was, without question, the revered driving force behind the resurgence in the Armenian faith in the United States, had raised the spirits and funds necessary to build the first Armenian cathedral in the country, and was as sharp a theologian and parish priest as he was an ecclesial politician.  In his presence I had a sensation of what the earliest church was like, as it was in Armenia, and not Rome or Canterbury, where Christianity made its first historical inroads.

Manoogian held us in thrall as he spoke of the small pockets of devotion located around the cathedral, most of them highlighted with some vivid iconography, of the history of Armenian Christianity and, especially, of the Armenian Genocide of the early 20th century.  As he spoke of this, one of my Armenian friends began to mutter profanities concerning the Turks, which seemed a little impolite given our company.  The Archbishop, however, seemed used to such a reaction and pretended not to notice.

There were three moments that remain on the needle hooks of my memory about that morning.  The first two related to the sheer spiritual power of Manoogian as behind him at all times was an older monk or cleric, I was never sure which, who was there simply to attend to him.  At one point, Manoogian shifted slightly in his large, ornate chair.  His attendant, thinking the Archbishop desired to stand, leapt forward with considerable vigor, ready to assist Manoogian should he wish to slide the chair back from the equally ornate table at which we were seated.  The second was when, in the middle of a conversation about King Tiridates's regard for the theology of transubstantiation, the Archbishop suddenly clapped his hands and said "luncheon".  Bursting through the door to the adjacent kitchen came a collection of Armenian mothers [well, that's what they looked like] bearing various platters of chechil, topik, and byoreks.

 The third was the one that lead me to Fr. Igumen.  I mentioned to His Eminence how interesting I found it that, in the midst of the all of the very traditional artwork in the cathedral, including some of the most beautiful icons I've ever seen in the United States, there was one work that was contemporary and rather startling due to its juxtaposition.  He was delighted that I'd noticed and, after a quick burst of Armenian to his attendant, fetched same to the bureau to bring me a business card.  It said, simply, "Igumen the Iconographer" with an address but no phone number.  "He's always working," said the Archbishop.  Then, leaning forward and furrowing his brow, added, "He is devoted to the Lord".

I had an open afternoon one Saturday and thought I might test Igumen's devotion by dropping in on his studio.  Unannounced, of course, since the absence of a phone number made an appointment impossible. The address was on the border of Chelsea and Greenwich Village in a building that had once been a warehouse now converted into small apartments and simple shops.  Four floors up some bowed stairs between a bike shop and a witchcraft supply store I was to discover a large [by NYC standards; tiny by normal regard] flat that served as Igumen/Charlie's apartment, studio, and library.  He was a small, sallow-complexioned man somewhere between the ages of 40 and 60 with dark hair, thick eyebrows, a prominent nose and even more prominent beard.  About him were icons of various sizes and in various states of progress either propped up or leaning against every available space; paints, finishes, brushes, glues, and oils were in handmade racks attached to the shelving that held his impressive theological library.  On a metal pole suspended between two cabinets hung the vestments, artist smock, and simple black suit of his wardrobe.

He seemed casual and not at all nonplussed by my dropping in, "People do so all of the time", he said.  Charlie steeped some strong, fruit-infused Armenian tea, poured us both some cups, and lounged on a piece of furniture that looked like it had once been a sofa or loveseat, but now resembled something that had been left on the curb and perhaps run over by a large truck once or twice.  Despite its ébouriffé appearance, like its owner, it was clean and comfortable.

I explained to Charlie that I had received his card from His Eminence, he bowed at the mention of his name, and that he had urged me to drop in.  He understood completely. 

"I was informed by the Archbishop that you are devoted to the Lord.  I took that to mean that you work around the clock.", I noted.

"He often says that to people.  His Eminence understands that I spend my days in constant prayer.  I am a hermit*, you see.  The icons are my prayers; I work on them all of my waking hours."

For the remainder of the afternoon, Charlie took me through the theology and history of iconography and showed me the very deliberate technique that results in a proper icon.

"They are not simply art, you see?  They are windows to God.  What one does is look into the eyes of the sainted person.  With prayer and Godly intention, you can see beyond merely your own soul. An icon is always a religious subject, but not every religious subject is an icon.  There must be intention, you see?  I do not simply paint a figure.  Every icon is a result of the three legs of the stool of faith: Prayer, Fasting, and Study.  Always, always study.  Remove one and you fall on your dupa."

"This one, you see?  This one is about the Trinity; it is for teaching a doctrine.  This one," he pulled a length of wood from under a canvas that was under another piece of wood that was under another canvas, "This one is to feel the sorrow of the Holy Theotokas.  Do you see her face; her eyes?  Do you not feel her sorrow?  Does it not carry into your prayers?"

As our conversation progressed into appropriate subjects for icons, I mentioned that I had some experience as a rather poor carpenter, as it had once been the family business.  He brightened and said, "Good.  Now you can pay for the tea you drank."

The rest of the afternoon I prepped planks of wood for Charlie, cutting them to length with a hand saw and finishing them with a block plane.  He would lightly sand them, sweeping the fine particulates away with a brush that he told me was made from his own beard hair, and place them in the sunlight, where the freshly exposed wood would cure. 

When it was obvious that my audience was coming to an end, he beckoned me to an easel that was prominently centered in the studio.  "This is what I am making for the end of the month.  We are remembering our Holocaust, you see?  Do you know of it?  We call it 'The Great Crime'.  Two million Armenians slaughtered by the Turks.  Such loss.  Such horror.  In the midst of prayer this came to me.  I don't know if it's a true icon or not.  It is the result of prayer, of course, so perhaps...."

Charlie removed the canvas to reveal an icon of about two and one-half feet by four, divided into a triptych with two hinged panels of half the size of the center.  The border was of the blackest black I've ever seen.  Even given the constraints of the medium, the figures were twisted in agonized attitudes.  If an etching of Hieronymus Bosch's could be rendered as an Orthodox icon, this would be it.  On the left panel was a row of crucified bodies; naked and still.  Just to view it was painful, not because the art was poor but because it was so sublime that the rawness of the emotion was palpable. 

On the right panel was a collection of children, all clearly Armenian, and, while not smiling, looking at the viewer with deep power and devotion.  In the center was The Christ surrounded by the apostles and the Holy Theotokos and joined with a collection of what I took to be Armenian saints, including Tiridates himself.  They shared both looks of horror and those of hope.

"I was thinking of something His Eminence said recently.  Of our Holocaust he said, 'We are here.  And we were not supposed to be.'  That's rather good, you see?  We have come through our Exodus; our wilderness.  That is what this is; the Armenian people in the midst of death and horror, able to see the God who will make us whole again.  Whole and safe."

Charlie indicated a figure, small and distant in the background of the right panel.  A scholar, from outward appearances, and senior to all of the other of the panel's figures.

"My grandfather.  He was a professor of history.  He was killed by the Turks.  All of us, we have all lost grandparents, so we take their inheritance for us and become scholars and artists; people of faith. These young people will save all Armenians by being people of faith and knowers of history.  We are still here, you see?"

I assured Charlie that, given the effect that his work had on this American Episcopalian, that regardless of whether or not it fit the narrow definition of an icon, as far as I was concerned, it was.  "It makes me want to pray, Charlie; and to give thanks for what we have.  It's an icon."

We bid farewell.  Charlie did not let me leave without taking a piece of Armenian bread and an icon of the Last Supper, a work that I still cherish.  The triptych was well-received at the gathering of the Armenian survivors and their posterity, but was apparently purchased by a private collector in exchange for a remarkable contribution to an Armenian Genocide memorial.  I have not seen it since.

Fr. Igumen left to study with the most accomplished Orthodox iconographers in Romania a few years later and now resides in Jerusalem, creating his works of devotion for others who experience the pain and tragedy of intolerance and terror, yet still find hope and accomplishment through their faith.

An introduction to the art of iconography may be found here, although I would urge the reader to explore the external sources linked in the article, especially this one.

[*Traditionally, a hermit is not a person who simply lives alone, like Thoreau at Walden Pond, but is one within a religious community, whether a monastery or convent, who lives distinct from the other members of the religious order in order to pursue specific acts of contemplation.  Thomas Merton, for example, while a member of a Cistercian or Trappist order of monks, was a hermit who lived not in community with the other monks but in a small cabin, or hermitage, on the monastery's grounds where he concentrated on prayer and writing the books and articles for which he's famous.

Orthodox and Anglican traditions have a broader definition for hermits, also known as "solitaries", as the hermit doesn't have to be a member of a particular religious order.  Instead, a man or woman may choose to live a deliberate life of prayer and devotion under the authority of a his or her bishop.  I once had an organist who was also a hermit who was very much in the world but also devoted, through vocation and avocation, to prayer in all things, especially those musical.  True hermits, even the worldly ones, strive to maintain the traditional vows.

In Igumen's case, his hermitage was the studio and his work of devotion was, clearly, his art.

For those of the Anglican/Episcopal tradition, I would quote from the general manual for the so-called "solitaries":

In the Canon Law of the Episcopal Church, those who make application to their diocesan bishop and who persevere in whatever preparatory program the bishop requires, take vows that include lifelong celibacy. They are referred to as "solitaries" rather than "hermits". Each selects a bishop other than their diocesan as an additional spiritual resource and, if necessary, an intermediary.]