Icon Painting As A Spiritual Path: By Gabriele Ebert
Gabriele Ebert is a well known German librarian, scholar, and a painter. For information on her books and German translations, please go to the bottom of the article. Gabriele is a long term member of HarshaSatsangh and has been active in Sri Ramana groups for many years. She has served as an inspiration and a role model for all of us with her dedication to the interfaith approach to spirituality. Because Gabriele’s native tongue is German, I did some minor editing on this article and accept responsibility for any mistakes which may have occurred because of that. Fortunately, in this medium, mistakes can easily be corrected once we become aware of them. Enjoy the article. The Icons are stunning and beautiful! Thank you Gabriele for your generous sharing.
The Personal Story
Eleousa (Mother of Mercy)
It was 16 years ago that I discovered icon painting as a spiritual path. This door opened when at one Christmas eve my mother presented me with an icon of the Theothokos (Mother of God). Looking at it I was sure that I would start to paint as well. I felt drawn to painting and through it discovered a creative spiritual path.
Over the years I found different teachers for learning the technique – and later the Jesus prayer (see below).
Icons are enjoyed by many. Most of all it is wonderful if an icon can find its home in a meditation-room or prayer-edge, where it is dedicated to its original meaning.
This icon of St. John of the Cross has found its home in the prayer room of the Carmelite Monastery in Dolgellau, Wales.
“Christ the Vine” is in the meditation-room the Christian Zen-center in Eintürnen, Germany.
Icons – What Are They?
The home of the icons is the Christian Orthodox Church. The earliest icons were painted in the 6th century in Byzantium. From there they later came to Russia and to all other Orthodox countries. Most of the earliest icons have been lost. The oldest collection of icons is found at St. Catherine’s Monastery on Sinai.
Icons play an important role in the liturgical service, and also in the public life and of course for the individual. An icon is a steady companion from the cradle to the grave.
The icons are not individual paintings but rather in the individual. These painting come through the individual by spiritual grace and in a sense the painter does not count. So icons are normally not signed to claim ownership. Outwardly, icons follow fixed patterns and change of the pattern is only possible in a rather limited way as they are real “copies” of the one reality, which represents itself in various pictures and stories.
Icons are of great help for concentration, for prayer, for awareness of the ever-presence of Christ or Mary or the Saints. They are called “Gates to Heaven” or “Windows to Eternity”. If you look at an icon in candle-light, the gold and painting shines in an unearthly magic. The faces are serene, the gestures and colors are full of meaning. The more one dives into this world, the more one becomes drawn into it and the mind becomes silent.
The Path of the Painter
“To paint and to pray are the same thing” (Balthus)
Jesus with animals
I have always felt that this kind of painting is by special grace and has something in it which can’t be compared with other types of paintings. This kind of painting is devotion and prayer – prayer with the brush, so to say. So this “doing” needs not only much outer care, but also inner care. One should not do it with a distracted or unclean mind. According to tradition it is good to have a prayer before starting. The inner attitude should be giving up the sense of doership – which reminds one of Sri Ramana’s instruction as well. It can also be seen as an exercise for just being an instrument of God, which should become a reality in all our actions.
The Jesus-prayer (also known as the Prayer of the Heart) is a short prayer, which should be continuously repeated. The words are: “Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me!”
Like the icons, it comes from the Orthodox church. The prayer also can be shortened to just the call: “Jesus Christ!” or whatever one prefers. One repeats it as often as one can. In some way it can be compared with nama-japa. It helps to silence the mind and lead it to one thought. With practice it starts to become automatic (self-doing) and sinks into the heart. Yet at each stage it always stays as a prayer in you. The Philokalia – a collection of texts on the Jesus-prayer – can be a wonderful companion on this path. It is recommended in “The Way of a Pilgrim”, which most know who practice the Prayer of the Heart.
It is not so long ago that I discovered – or better re-discovered – the Jesus-prayer when reading this book (“The Way of a Pilgrim”). I felt immediately that this is a wonderful complement to the icon-painting as well. From the tradition of the icon-painters I have found out that my main-model, the famous Russian icon painter Andrej Rubljow must have practiced it. I am sure that his icons reflect it and speak through it.
“Dakshinamurti-Ramana” – an icon dedicated to Sri Ramana Maharshi
Icon of Narada
Mostly I am painting icons in the Christian tradition. Yet it happened that this Ramana-icon was painted and also some icons of Narada (the bhakti-musician). When being in Tiruvannamalai in 2003 and seeing the paintings in one of the shines of the Arunachaleswara-temple I was reminded of the icon-painting. Also there seems to be a connection to the Buddhist paintings as well. I am sure that the same thing has found its expressions in many religions.
If you would like to see more and get information about the technical side of this kind of painting you can visit:
Gabriele Ebert lives in Germany and works as a librarian.
Recent Books by Gabriele Ebert are:
Ramana Maharshi: Sein Leben, Stuttgart, 2003
Sadhu Arunachala: Erinnerungen eines Sadhus, Berlin, 2004 (German transl.)
Both books are available at amazon.de and can be ordered from each German book-shop.