Can You Paint a Holy Icon of Someone Not Yet Canonized? The Answer is Yes!

Here's an interesting conundrum. I was asked about the legitimacy in the eyes of tradition of the idea of painting an icon in memory of someone who recently died, was a devout Catholic. She is much loved and admired by many people beyond her family. Her story - which I won't describe in detail here for reasons of discretion -  is one of virtue, undoubtedly. However, she is not a canonized saint.

The thought had been to paint a particular icon of an established saint, such as Our Lady to and to dedicate it to her memory. But is there an appropriate way to do this without falsely elevating the stature of the person whom we wish to commemorate while preserving the icon as a holy image worthy of veneration in the context of the liturgy?

I had to seek advice from Aidan Hart, my old friend from England and one of the icon painters whose work I admire most, on how to do this appropriately. Addressing the general principle, he suggested that I could have an inscription, 'In honor of [NAME].' This could be within the raised border. Also, within the icon itself, it would be appropriate, he thought, to portray the narrative of her righteous acts, but without giving her the halo of a saint. 

The goal here is to portray those aspects of her actions that participate in the Christian ideals of virtue countering the malaise of our time when the qualities of purity, chivalry, and valor are not fashionable.

The hope is to inspire such virtue in others, of course. I have been careful not to refer to her as a saint, even while elevating certain saintly qualities of his character and life. I am not qualified to judge whether or not he is in heaven. However, one might ask, hypothetically, if such a person is a saint, how might that become apparent in time? It seems to me that if she is, then additional aspects of her life and its impact on others would gradually emerge and contribute to growing respect and love of him through the collective memory of his life. If this memory - a true reflection of her life - was found to be one that more greatly reflected Christian ideals with each added detail, and had a steady and growing impact on others, inspiring them to be virtuous, then a cult might develop around her. This would be a cult in which love for him grows over time, even from people who never knew her personally, and the fruits of which are always good. Through this, we would see that she merited her golden halo. This is the process by which we collectively recognize the sanctity of someone. The official canonization comes after this and does not make someone a saint, it merely accepts what is already known.

But, one might counter, it is attributed miracles that indicate sanctity. It occurs to me that there could be no such attribution if there were not those before the canonization whose devotion to this person was significant enough to ask for her prayers. 

Also, some saints were never canonized officially and are saints by widespread acclaim and are celebrated in the Feasts of the Church. So St Peter and St Gregory Palamas come to mind, here. 

Aidan sent some examples to illustrate what he meant, along with a couple of recently completed icons. They are all so good, I thought I would just pass them on to you for your pleasure.

First, here is a Nativity Icon in which the narrative is portrayed as events happening simultaneously within a single heavenly landscape. 

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Then we have an icon of New Martyr Elizabeth, a Russian Orthodox saint, in which the scenes from her life, in the first part of the 20th century, are portrayed as separate compartments. I sense that this style is probably more appropriate for our saint-in-the-making. 

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And here is a recent commission of patronal saints just for your pleasure. 

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For such small figures, the faces are exquisite in this one. I wonder if it is because has been doing some non-iconic commissions recently as well, which are based upon the encaustic Fayum portraits from 3rd century AD Egypt? It seems to me that his mundane art is enriched by and informing his sacred. All as it should be! Here is one of his recent Fayum-style portraits, with Aidan's commentary.

I have just finished this invented “portrait,” a commission from a dear friend living in China. It is not an icon, but I have tried to express something of spiritual depth and mystery. It is painted only with four pigments: black, white, and red and yellow ochre.

I have just finished this invented “portrait,” a commission from a dear friend living in China. It is not an icon, but I have tried to express something of spiritual depth and mystery. It is painted only with four pigments: black, white, and red and yellow ochre.