The sign of Jonah


Gianluca Busi, author. Nathanael Hauser, translator

DEMO introduction

I have been painting icons for a long time. It is for me, as it is for many who have shared the same experience, a particular way of encountering the “Living God” who reveals his likeness as “the most beautiful among the children of the earth.”) I like to compare iconography to the “Sign of Jonah” that was given to the generation living at the time of Jesus and is given again to every new generation, including our own. The Gospel passage quoted at the beginning of this introduction shows us that the “Sign of Jonah” is Jesus himself. Iconography is one of the many ways by which we can represent him living among us. Every generation seeks for signs that will point to the presence of God, but, in the words of Jesus, “No other sign is given except the sign of Jonah.” Through signs that are small, at times unrecognized, or even vilified, the “Living God” reveals his face.

The icon is a small, quiet sign. It is a handmade object that goes contrary to every mechanical reproduction. It “squanders” the most precious things the earth offers: gold and precious stones, in order to represent the invisible. Above all it requires countless hours of patient manual labor that is imbued with recollection and prayer. This book seeks to open up a few ways that will assist meeting the many “universes” of iconography for those who wish to come into contact with this little sign that today has been given to our generation.

For whom is this book intended? First of all, for those who paint or want to paint icons. I myself began my introduction to iconography by boughtan old handbook from the an Italian publishing house: the book by Guillem Ramos-Poqui “Come si dipinge un icona” translated from English and published in the 1990s, but now out of print.

In the past year (2009) a website estimated that there are about one hundred “official” icon courses in Italy, with about nine students in each course. However, this statistic does not include the important Scuola di Seriate along with the other iconography schools in Italy. As there are also smaller groups that were not included in the count, the number of students may be twice as many as estimated.

Although this data is significant, it does not have a direct relationship with the “lovers” of iconography. In fact, those interested in icons are led by many different motives: from the simply curious to those seeking a deep theology, from the collector of antiques to those searching for a meaning to life. It seems impossible to calculate their number!

This project is the child of a pleasant surprise. Thanks to my long friendship with Maurizio Grandi, I have been able to profit from his skills to have some professional films made for my students in the iconography courses in which everyone of whatever level paints an icon. Once made, we posted the films on YouTube. We observed with surprise the enormous amount of hits, many thousands for each film in a few months! That urged on us the idea of publishing an interactive manual with a DVD. The step was quickly taken.

I have divided the book into three parts: Theory, Interpretation, the Practical Manual and DVD.

The first part considers the theoretical aspects of iconography. Above all, I have sought to identify some of the central convergences out of which I can develop the theology of the icon. Here I pay particular attention to the concrete situation in which we are receiving a tradition that we haven’t directly assimilate. This part is divided into six chapters. They are full revisions of articles that I published in the journal of the Facoltà teologica dell’Emilia Romagna and the journal, Parola, Spirito e Vita. I have reworked a series of lectures that I gave in the architecture department (DAPT) of the University of Bologna that were developed as drafts for later publication. The sixth chapter “Putting the Icon Back” is a small extract in a plainer form of my doctoral thesis. The development of this chapter may have been the most interesting and original aspect of the whole book. Here I am trying to offer some possible connections between the traditions of the East and of the West read in the light of iconography. It is a thorny and complex topic, which is normally avoided. But I wished to express a personal idea on the subject. At the end of the section I have added some new reflections about some iconographical topics that are dear to me and that I consider to be important for the reader.

The second part is a commentary on icons and is divided into thirteen brief chapters. I have purposively written them in a simpler style because I offer them as themes for meditation, which call for this style. Experience has taught me that there is a sort of necessary osmosis between painting an icon and a certain spiritual nourishment. Perhaps it comes from the same spring that nourishes the act of painting an icon. Iconography, born and raised in a monastic ambience follows by analogy the Benedictine way of worship and work (ora et labora). One does not devote oneself to painting without prayer and meditation, and vice versa. If this equilibrium falls out of balance, on will not succeed in correctly painting an icon. Lastly, I have inserted comments that come from innumerable meetings and conferences held within the last years.

I believe that there is a great demand for this kind of spirituality that is at the same time biblical and patristic. It is thus deeply rooted in the tradition while being paradoxically close to the contemporary search for religious meaning.

The last part, the actual handbook, is linked interactively with the films. Here I hope to help those of various levels who are beginning the writing of icons. I have tested it for a long time and it seems to be an easy, consistent and effective, and, above all, a truly usable method.

By simply looking through the table of contents it might seem that this text is actually made up of three ill-assorted books. However, after the experience of many years of intense labor in this particular field, I conceived of this book in this way in order to gather all those for whom it is intended. Iconography is a stratified phenomenon, which brings together very different people with distinct demands. Nevertheless, they must continually return to other aspects of iconography that do not directly interest them. The first approaches to iconography foresee many different environments, some quite distant from the others. But, whatever the approach into this “world” may be, one sees, either more or less quickly, the desire grows to deepen and widen one’s general knowledge of this material. When I look at the two hundred or so volumes in the library of iconography in my studio I see some handbooks, various illustrated catalogues with full introductions and, lastly, some scholarly papers on the theology of the icon. But I do not have a book that considers all of these aspects together. So this is precisely what I have set out to write: an introduction and a beginning in depth examination of the different subjects of iconography along with an practical instructional manual, all presented as a unified whole.

DEMO translation: abstract from 1 part, 6th chapter, translated by Nathanael Hauser Osb, MN, USA

1PART 6th Chapter


English version in progress: by now ready made the 40 Movies, available for free.

Translation and voice by Laura Rota, Philadelphia, PA, USA

Click on the following link and watch the playlist: