Colors, Sounds, and an Incarnational Faith
Since icons are part of Father Kevin’s campaign, I wanted to get his thoughts on them and see how they fit into his priestly-musician life. I also wanted to catch up with the iconographer herself and ask her some questions. Last time, Father and I spoke about beauty and the ability for us as humans to access to divine through the material world. Father reminded us, “In the Incarnation, He has sanctified human life. Now every area of life that’s truly human somehow is a place where we can touch God.” This approach to the material world is the same perspective that undergirds an understanding of icons as windows into eternity.
The word icon comes from the Greek word for image or representation. First and foremost, Christ is icon, as St. Paul tells us in Colossians 1:5, “He is the image (eikon) of the invisible God.” What Paul is speaking about is the mystery of the Incarnation — that the invisible, all-knowing, all-powerful God came to us in the flesh. The face of God was revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ. This is the beauty of icons - they begin to penetrate the impenetrable, invisible mystery. St. John of Damascus said, “An icon is the visual image of the invisible, given to us that our understanding may be filled with sweetness.”
With this background, I asked Father about the role icons play in his campaign.
Team KMcG: Icons by Britta Prinzivalli are featured in three of your Indiegogo perks. Why?
Father Kevin: Britta is a good friend of mine. She studied art in college, and I’ve always loved her artwork. She was always talented, but she went on a course to learn how to write icons and it totally changed her. From that point on, she’s pretty much done only that, and I think I speak for her when I say it’s vocational for her. She’s taken her natural talent and her learned skill in art, and really put it at the service of iconography. So she’s a really good friend of mine, and she is also very supportive of what I’m doing with music and wanted to offer something to help.
Team KMcG: So that’s on a practical level. Do you personally use icons in prayer?
Father Kevin: In the West we are not as familiar with icons as the East - in the East, icons are central to their spirituality. But there is something about icons that both hides and reveals the mystery of God in a way that no other form of religious art does. So much so that iconographers wouldn’t call it “art” in the same sense.
Team KMcG: They would even say they “write” icons…
Father Kevin: That’s right. So they don’t say they “painted” it - they wrote the icon, like you write the Gospel. So this icon [Father held up an icon of the Mother of God] - I keep this with me wherever I go play. Britta wrote this for me on one of her retreats and gave it to me as a gift. Every brush stroke is a prayer. This whole icon is a prayer that she prayed for me— so hours and hours and hours of intentional praying and intercession. And I pray with this icon. Things of the faith are not meant to be passive, they’re meant to be active. And icons especially are meant to be active, they’re meant to be used and prayed with - bring them with you to prayer, or have them in your place of prayer where you can actually meditate on them and use them as sources and springboards of prayer. So this one I bring when I play because I need to have Our Lady. I don’t show it to people when I play, it’s there so I can see her.
I also wanted to talk to Britta about her experience as an iconographer.
Team KMcG: When did you meet Father Kevin?
Britta: When I met Father Kevin, he was just “Kevin.” (laughs) I met him at Saint Charles Seminary through one of our mutual friends about thirteen years ago. At the time, I was a budding guitarist (just a passing phase! No real talent!) and Kevin was an awesome guitarist (not a passing phase! Much talent!). Our mutual friend knew we'd connect there. I'm glad I pretended that I could play the guitar for awhile, because I made a great friend through it.
Team KMcG: Why did you start writing icons?
Britta: I started writing icons eleven years ago. I'll never forget the moment when I encountered my first hand-written icon. Father Kevin and I were making a visit to the TOR sisters in Toronto, Ohio, for a retreat. We took a moment to visit with a Sister who was making a private retreat in one of their hermitages. The Sister was praying before a hand-written icon of the Crucifixion, and I remember audibly gasping when I saw it. It touched me deeply like no other religious artwork had ever done. Immediately I asked her where she bought it, and she replied that one of her fellow TOR's had painted it. "You can PAINT those?!" I exclaimed. Within hours I was googling iconographers and trying to find out where I could learn how to do it myself. I had just graduated with a degree in Art Education, but I had never felt so intimately connected with a piece of artwork before. I suppose I had just assumed icons were images that ancient monks did... not something that you or I could learn to do. From that moment forward, I dove right in!
Team KMcG: How is writing an icon different than creating other works of art for you?
Britta: That's an interesting question. Now that I write icons, I see all art through the lens of iconography. I'm not sure I could paint any other way if I tried. I spent five years of college studio classes to get my degree in Art Ed, and none of those classes compare to what I've learned through writing icons. My own personal style has been refined and I feel like I've found my artistic vocation. Writing icons is a marriage of tangible art and prayer. It's technical and systematic, but also intercessory. The final result simply feels like a visible prayer - it is Heaven revealed. While I still do occasional art that is not an icon, it's not nearly as satisfying for me. It feels empty.
Team KMcG: So even in the process of writing an icon, you can see how icons bring the invisible into the visible?
Britta: One of the most rewarding parts as an iconographer is losing myself in the process. Since writing an icon is essentially copying images passed down through the ages, it takes the pressure off of me to express something of my own vision. Instead, I can silence myself in the process - much the way we do when we pray the rosary. If done well, you get lost in the mysteries and forget that you are praying words. The actual words of the rosary are just a compass to contemplation. There are moments when I'm painting where I don't have to think much about brush strokes or the technical process, and I can get lost in the intercession and prayers of my heart. And in the end, there is something tangible and real in front of me. While I feel I have only scratched the surface of the depths of iconography, I can say with confidence that it's enough to transform a person. And it's my hope that people who encounter icons, any icon, feel the prayers and Spirit behind the image. It's a wonder that some of the most miraculous icons through the ages have also been less than pretty - think of the icon of Our Lady of Czestachowa, for example. Maybe the heart of an icon is it's not how beautiful it is on the surface, but rather how it touches our soul. It's much deeper than just a pretty picture.
Team KMcG: As a busy mom, why spend your time on art?
Britta: I need it! (laughs) Being a mom is the greatest and hardest job I've ever had. It's also the most incredible journey, but let's be honest - all parents need an outlet. Some parents veg in front of the TV or a good book - I choose paint. Some days I just ache for an opportunity to dive into my work. The minute my youngest son (age 1.5) goes down for his afternoon nap, I'll often gather my supplies and take my icon work to my front lawn while I supervise my oldest son (age 4) riding his bike up and down the front sidewalk. I'm not quite sure what the iconographers-of-old would think of my "outdoor studio”... but, hey, you take prayer time wherever you can find it! And as a parent, prayer has completely changed in form from the luxurious freedom of my single days. Sometimes Holy Hours include Disney Jr in the background. My husband is also incredibly supportive of my work, and he'll often take the kids the minute he gets home from work so that I can immerse myself in my commissions. I couldn't do it without him.
Team KMcG: What have you found most challenging and most rewarding?
Britta: The most challenging part is knowing that one can never make an icon as beautiful as the Saints themselves. We're limited by our humanity. All the classes in the world could never make me a "good enough" artist to paint Christ, His mother, and the saints in their splendor. But there is also freedom in that. I just do my best, and put my whole heart into each icon I paint, and trust that God will touch the souls who view it. Knowing that it's His job to do that, it makes it easy to let go of my pride. The most rewarding part is the process itself. I feel like it's so amazing to have a tangible "product" of my prayers. It's also an incredibly satisfying artistic process.