|Located in Christ the King Chapel, St. Ambrose University|
The Theophora Icon: The Iconography of a Modern Image
by Edward M Catich
by Paul P. Herrera and Pam Jones Aloisa © 2014
One of E.M. Catich’s most thought-provoking and often controversial images is his painting, “The Theophora Icon.” An icon (from Greek Θεόφορος, “image”) is a religious work of art, most commonly a painting, observed even today in churches within the Christian Orthodox tradition. Icon painters adhere to rigorous ritualistic practices using materials, techniques, and content based on standards set by several well-known icon-painting centers established in the middle ages in Greece and Russia. Session 25 of the proceedings of The Council of Trent, Dec 3-4, 1563, covered specific church control of the making and use of icons. Icons still usually require a formal blessing by the church before display and use in worship rituals. Edward Catich challenged these traditions with this painting, which, while depicting some of the traditional visual elements of an icon, was not meant for facilitating worship in the traditional venue, but transcends its original purpose to become an object of modern contemplation. Catich’s audience was not meant to be a church congregation but, rather, modern society at large.
One strength of the design of this modern icon is Catich’s use of religious symbolism to enhance the narrative and story-telling function of the piece. A mandorla surrounds the two central figures of the Madonna and child. A mandorla is a pointed oval motif used as an architectural feature and as an aureole enclosing figures such as Jesus Christ or the Virgin Mary in medieval art. Mandorlas also are used in traditional depictions of sacred figures in Hindu and Buddhist art. A Catich trademark is that his paintings often embrace broader cultural meaning and larger contexts than the Catholic religion.
The title of the icon, THEOPHORA, is written in Greek in the upper left quadrant of the golden mandorla. A theophoric name (from Greek: Θεόφορος, theophoros, (in neu adj. form) “names derived from a god,” lit. “bearing or carrying a god”) embeds the name of a god, both invoking and displaying the protection of that deity. Theophoric personal names, containing the name of a god in whose care the individual is entrusted (or a generic word for god,) were also exceedingly common in the ancient Near East and Mesopotamia.
As a title for the Virgin Mary, Theotokos was recognized by the Orthodox Church at the Third Ecumenical Council held at Ephesus in 431. It had already been in use for some time in the devotional and liturgical life of the Church. The theological significance of the title is to emphasize that Mary’s son, Jesus, is fully God as well as fully human, and that Jesus’ two natures (divine and human) were united in a single person of the trinity.
The figures in this icon represent the tradition of one type of Mother of God icon called the Hodigitria icon, which depicts Mary with the Christ Child but neither looks at the other. Intimate engagement is expected between each viewer and each figure. This representation contrasts with Strastnaia Mother of the Passion Icons which feature the nails and symbols of Christ’s passion and the Umileniye Lovingkindness Icons that show Mary looking lovingly down at her son and her son looking up at his mother.
Mary’s nimbus (halo) contains twelve golden stars which represent the twelve apostles her son will have as his immediate disciples. In conformance to standard medieval imagery, a nimbus is a solid opaque circle surrounding the Virgin’s head; in the Renaissance, the depiction changes to show a transparent, barely noticeable gold ellipse circling the head. The Christ child’s head is also surrounded by a nimbus which includes a Greek cross with equal vertical and horizontal components, in contrast to a Latin cross which features a shorter horizontal beam. Catich was very deliberate in his choice of these symbols.
Jesus is represented as a black child but he also holds a white-skinned mask indicating his universality to all races, a Catich reference to the gospel of St. Paul, I Corinthians 9:20-22. The green apple held by Jesus symbolizes him as the “new Adam,” and his youth as unripened fruit.
A continuous linear design is hand-etched into the 23 karat gold leaf mandorla. The design is a series of natural organic and dragon-like images. The faces echo the images of souls outside of the mandorla that are in the process of being saved because of their close proximity to the central sacred figures. The blue background represents lost souls residing in despair, outside salvation.
Another major contribution of Catich to modernist imagery was his inclusion of historical contexts, relaying narratives of significant current events of his time. The dark blue Cyrillic letters in the upper left corner are written in mirror script. The letters are reversed as if you were reading the words in a mirror. HUHEL reversed is LEHUH= LENIN. HULATC reversed is CTALUH=STALIN. The names LENIN and STALIN represent significant figures in the establishment and early history of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
Below the names of Lenin and Stalin is a mouse trap symbolizing Christ’s trapping and defeating of the devil, a metaphor used three times by Saint Augustine. “The cross of the Lord was the devil’s mousetrap; the bait by which he was caught was the Lord’s death.” The mouse trap is overlapped by a pitcher that is partially filled, representing holy water, the blessed water used for spiritual cleansing.
The upper right corner of the painting depicts a shattered window which is a symbol of the “Kristallnacht” also referred to as the Night of Broken Glass. Kristallnacht, November 9-10, 1938, takes its name from shards of broken glass littering the streets after Jewish-owned stores, buildings, and synagogues were damaged by roving bands of Nazis in coordinated attacks against Jews throughout Nazi Germany and Austria. Edward Catich was travelling in Europe at the time. A golden ribbon moves from the shattered window toward the Star of David on the left sleeve of Mary, who wears a white garment symbolizing innocence, purity, and virginity. Although the Jews under Nazi control were ordered to wear a yellow “Jewish identity badge,” the star Mary wears is the color of human sacrifice and matches Jesus’ garment color, symbolizing his connection to her as her son. The star also connects back to early icon symbolism which required three stars (developed from designs of crosses) on the Virgin’s garment, called a maphorion—one on each shoulder and one on the front of the veil. Catich deliberately pictured Mary as a contemporary woman, not wearing a veil, which reflects the newly changed rule in the Catholic church of Post-Vatican II that allowed women to attend services without a head covering.
The serpentine figure in the lower left corner represents Satan who bites an inverted crucifix, recalling early persecutions of Christians and the image of St. Peter being crucified upside down. The stylized ribbon design of the snake’s body is nearly symmetrical to the ribbon imagery on the opposite side of the figures, melding another common composition used in both the middle ages and Renaissance periods and now another modernist adaptation by Catich.
The ribbon motif in the lower right corner of the painting is inscribed with a combination of languages. There are Slovak, German, and English words in the passage: “And otereí shríp ho ícheí rge pfürt vhegí fakèr mue fold agni aprotn Rehnil. S.I. 10:16”
The passage is a paraphrased translation of John 10:16: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead, (Note: the pictured translation stops here) and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd.”
Edward Catich clearly intended to enter “The Theophora Icon” painting into a juried art competition as part of the “American Painting Today Exhibit” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in 1950; his entrance tag is still attached to the top right corner on the reverse of the painting. Perhaps he pulled the work before judging began, perhaps circumstances didn’t allow his participation, or perhaps his work was not one of the 300+ chosen from more than 6,000 submissions. Whatever the case, the Met exhibition catalog does not list the “Theophora Icon.”
“The Theophora Icon” is an excellent example of modernist imagery and contemporary history melding with medieval spiritual concepts and design, a trademark of Edward Catich’s mature and forward-looking artistic style.