The icon of St. Joseph the Worker marking the centennial of the Edmonton Archdiocese will be blessed and unveiled on the saint's May 1 feast day.
The icon of St. Joseph written for the 100th anniversary of the Edmonton Archdiocese is simple and colourful, and strives to invite the faithful to be open to God's work in their lives.
The icon, produced by Vancouver iconographer André Prevost, has been completed and is now in safekeeping in the archdiocesan archives. It will be blessed at the archdiocese's centennial Mass May 1 before travelling to all parishes across the archdiocese.
The icon of St. Joseph, patron of the Edmonton Archdiocese, is a 54-inch by 39-inch panel covered with gessoed linen written with archival acrylic and leafed with 24K gold.
"I've seen many icons that have been burdened with symbols," Prevost said in an interview. "Having a theatre background, I see the icons overladen with props, and they have too much stuff. It goes against what the icon should be."
When an icon has too many symbols, it blocks the intended connection between the saint and the viewer, Prevost said. By having fewer symbols, the interaction between the icon and the viewer is unhindered.
"I try to select one symbol that does what it needs to do, but still leaves St. Joseph free to interact with the viewer," he said.
Prevost has an extensive body of iconographic work, dating back to the late 1970s, in both churches and homes in Western Canada. His icons can be found in churches in Winnipeg, Calgary, St. Albert, Vermilion and Derwent.
Prevost recalled his talk with Archbishop Richard Smith, and learning that the Church's traditional admonition of "Ite ad Joseph" (Go to Joseph) was the key to the icon.
Of utmost importance was for the icon to serve as a reminder of being open to the working of God in our lives. It was also an invitation to trust in what God is doing as Joseph did, he said.
"In our conversation, we went through many versions of the placement of Joseph's right hand," said Prevost. "In most icons, there are symbolic positions where it's pointed upwards to heaven or in a blessing position. Again, after speaking with the archbishop, we settled for a hand position that is greeting and inviting."
Beyond that, Prevost had a lot of leeway in how to write the icon.
"In writing an icon, there is a freedom in a sense, but not completely. There are guidelines and boundaries that you have to maintain in true iconography.
"My background straddles the two rites, Byzantine and Latin, so I am able to design the icon so that it maintains the traditions and the symbols of the Byzantines, and yet it's also recognized within the Latin rite as well," said Prevost.
He explained that most icons which bear the name of St. Joseph the Worker portray St. Joseph with Jesus. Joseph wears the himation (outer garment) and usually holds the flowering staff or holds a set square to represent his carpentry.
This icon is different, however, in that St. Joseph is portrayed in his middle years, wearing a pale blue tunic with rolled-up sleeves and a leather earth-toned shop apron, which is buttoned at the shoulder.
The colours also play an important role. For St. Joseph the Worker, the tradition of blue for the inner garments represents the spiritual, and the outer garment is in warm brown colours for the earth. The blue in the detailing on his waist sash represents that St. Joseph was of the house of David.
"People know my icons from the colour," said Prevost. "Some people will say that they look a bit like stained-glass windows because the colours are so rich and deep. It's the archival paint that I use. It's high in pigment and doesn't discolour with time."
Colours are a gift of God, he said, noting God's presentation of the colours of the rainbow to Noah.
As Prevost adds more and more colours and highlights to an icon, paint moves from original chaos to shape and order. He never uses black paint in an icon because black is a sign of the absence of God's light. Details that may appear black are actually dark green, dark purple or dark blue.
An icon is referred to as having been written, not painted, because it is not associated to the fine arts. An icon is not an artistic creation. Rather, it is rooted in tradition, unchanging guidelines and iconographic theology. That theology understands an icon as sacramental in the same way that God's written Word is sacramental.
Through the process of writing an icon, Prevost recognizes that "the icon is in the driver's seat" and he is simply an instrument for creating it. The icon directs the journey, and the iconographer becomes a participant. Each icon has its own innate energy.
"I find it is the icon guiding me, rather than me guiding its design as a piece of artwork. It's not about the fine arts, . . . it's about portraying truth, something theological, something spiritual," he emphasized.
When an icon reaches completion, the white circle is drawn around the original red halo as a sign, not that perfection has been achieved, but that this particular transfiguration has been completed. As well, the oil varnish at the end symbolizes anointing, the consecration of a chosen one.
An iconographer learns quickly that if any step is rushed or simplified, it inevitably results in failure in later stages.
"I've always felt very deeply that the icons weren't about me," said Prevost. "Aside from my monogram and the year on the back of the panel, I've always remained fairly invisible in the process.
"Once an icon is completed, it's no longer part of me. Once it's installed and I go into the church, I am in a position where I am able to pray and contemplate with it the same as everybody else in the congregation."