Bray People - - INTERVIEW -

AT MASS one morn­ing last week at the Carmelite con­vent in Delgany the cel­e­brant was Fa­ther Joe Walsh, who lives in the re­tire­ment vil­lage nearby.

He spent much of his min­istry work­ing in Cal­i­for­nia, but on this oc­ca­sion, the rit­ual drew in­spi­ra­tion from the east rather than the west.

Be­fore em­bark­ing on the fa­mil­iar liturgy, Fa­ther Joe called up three mem­bers of the con­gre­ga­tion to the al­tar, three peo­ple who be­came friends of his over re­cent days.

He and they were mem­bers of an icon mak­ing work­shop which was con­ducted in the Saint Therese Room, just a short step from the door of the chapel. The orig­i­nal plan was that the ex­er­cise would take five days but then na­ture in­ter­vened, with the heavy snow dis­rupt­ing the at­ten­dance of sev­eral mem­bers of the eight­strong class.

Many of the fin­ished icons were ready to be for­mally blessed as orig­i­nally sched­uled but these three were a few days late be­ing brought to the al­tar. The priest ad­min­is­tered his holy oil, pro­nounc­ing the prof­fered im­ages of Our Lady duly blessed and ready to be ven­er­ated.

Af­ter Mass, there was time to take pho­tos, with teacher Mi­hai Cucu join­ing his pupils in front of the smart phones and cam­eras for sou­venir poses.

Then every­one ad­journed in search of a cuppa to the Saint Therese Room, which had been ti­died up so that it no longer looked like a hot-bed of artis­tic ac­tiv­ity and more like the meet­ing room, which it is for the rest of the year.

The icon mak­ers, a mix men and women from var­i­ous back­grounds, glowed with pride in their achieve­ments as their hand­i­work was gen­er­ally ad­mired.

‘I have never done any­thing like this be­fore,’ ad­mit­ted Paul Dil­lon, a jour­nal­ist who spe­cialises in re­port­ing on the of­ten chaotic state of South Africa. He thanked his son for en­cour­ag­ing him to sign up for the work­shop, the tenth in an an­nual se­ries which cre­ates beau­ti­ful re­li­gious arte­facts each spring.

‘It has been very en­joy­able, an ex­tra­or­di­nary ex­pe­ri­ence.’

Fa­ther Joe re­vealed not only that he is 80 years of age but also that he has be­come a reg­u­lar at­ten­der, mak­ing pieces which have be­come very im­por­tant to the at­mos­phere of his Delgany home.

He de­scribed this ab­stract spir­i­tual ef­fect: ‘Icons are ad­dressed to the soul.’ He told how he re­placed a holy statue in his hall­way with the icon he made at the 2017 work­shop and finds that his eyes are al­ways drawn to it when­ever he en­ters the house.

The tra­di­tion is east­ern but cu­rios­ity about, and re­spect for, icons stirs in other branches of Chris­tian­ity. In the past, mem­bers of the lo­cal Carmelite com­mu­nity have en­rolled in the work­shop and this year a Holy Faith nun came from New Ross to par­tic­i­pate.

Found among all the Ro­man Catholics in 2018 was the Church of Ire­land rec­tor of Athy, the Rev­erend Olive Dono­hoe. Her icon mak­ing ex­plo­ration was blown badly off course by the bl­iz­zards but she has told the or­gan­is­ers that she will be back to com­plete the chal­lenge.

Lend­ing his con­sid­er­able ex­per­tise to the work­shop was icono­g­ra­pher Mi­hai Cucu, a long-time res­i­dent of Ire­land though his voice still car­ries some of the in­flex­ions of his na­tive Ro­ma­nia. He hails from the city of Suceava and, at 40 years of age, he is old enough to re­mem­ber the bad old days of the Ceaus­escu regime when the coun­try was ruled by a despot.

WHILE some com­mu­nist states of the time ac­tively dis­cour­aged or­gan­ised re­li­gion, Romanians were not for­bid­den to go to church, re­calls Mi­hai. The Ortho­dox Chris­tian faith re­mained strong un­der the dic­ta­tor and it re­mains strong to this day since the fall of the dic­ta­tor in 1989.

From an early age, he was drawn to art and to re­li­gion, lead­ing him nat­u­rally to his in­ter­est in the holy pic­tures which he calls an in­vi­ta­tion to the divine. Not every­one ap­pre­ci­ates the ap­peal of im­ages of saints on tim­ber, a prac­tice which goes against the grain for Mus­lims and Jews as well as some sterner strains of Chris­tian­ity.

‘I do not wor­ship the phys­i­cal mat­ter of the icon,’ is how he ex­plains the ven­er­a­tion. ‘I wor­ship the Cre­ator of the mat­ter. God does not re­side in the wood but in your heart.’ Peo­ple re­late nat­u­rally to im­ages, he muses, feel­ing that they of­fer an av­enue to a higher plane: ‘It is not that we pray to the paint­ing but to the Pres­ence.’

His univer­sity train­ing deep­ened his un­der­stand­ing of the tra­di­tion as he learned how to con­serve and re­store old icons as well as gen­er­at­ing new ones. They are his pas­sion and his ca­reer, though by chance his call­ing has brought him to Ire­land rather than re­main­ing at home.

He first came to visit a friend in Dublin around the turn of the mil­len­nium and dis­cov­ered that there were Ir­ish peo­ple hun­gry to feed off his ex­per­tise. The crypt of Christ Church Cathe­dral be­came the fo­cus of this in­ter­est as the young vis­i­tor staged a cou­ple of ex­hi­bi­tions in the an­cient venue.

While he spe­cialised in icons painted on wood, his girl­friend made her icons on glass, and to­gether they gave work­shops where they passed on their knowl­edge to any­one in­ter­ested. He quickly dis­cov­ered that his ob­ses­sion with these holy pic­tures was shared by oth­ers in this coun­try. There is an Ir­ish As­so­ci­a­tion of Icono­g­ra­phers, a body which is par­tic­u­larly strong in the Derry area.

He was drawn west for a while stag­ing ex­hi­bi­tions and classes in Gal­way, even spend­ing one happy stint as artist in res­i­dence on the Aran Is­lands. His icons from that time may still be seen on Inisheer.

He later resided for a while in West­meath at a Fran­cis­can re­treat in Mul­ty­farn­ham. Then he was drawn to Dublin and to the Carmelites who ini­ti­ated the an­nual se­ries of five day work­shops 2009, first in Grey­stones and now in Delgany.

He pro­vides all the ma­te­ri­als, in­tro­duc­ing his pupils to tech­niques which have barely changed

at all in 2,000 years. The only con­ces­sion to moder­nity is al­low­ing be­gin­ners to paint on A4-sized blocks of MDF rather than on the tra­di­tional lime­wood.

‘It is called writ­ing, not paint­ing,’ cor­rects Mi­hai, who starts each class with a prayer and sees the ex­er­cise as part of build­ing a re­la­tion­ship with God.

The first icons were de­vised to pass on an un­der­stand­ing of scrip­ture to peo­ples who were largely il­lit­er­ate, de­pict­ing Christ, his mother, saints, an­gels and scenes from the bible.

They were con­structed in ac­cor­dance a code un­der which each colour has a par­tic­u­lar as­signed sig­nif­i­cance (red for hu­man­ity, blue for di­vin­ity, green for re­ju­ve­na­tion et cetera) and laden with im­agery. Mar­tyrs, for ex­am­ple, have a cross while preach­ers carry scrolls, con­ven­tions which re­tain a logic first for­mu­lated in the days of Saint Luke: ‘ We keep the tra­di­tion.’

Be­gin­ners are di­rected to make copies of ex­ist­ing icons on their boards, which have been treated with a mix­ture of egg yolk, vine­gar and wa­ter, ap­plied layer af­ter re­peated layer. The dark­est shades are writ­ten first fol­lowed by lighter and lighter shades of paint in due suc­ces­sion. The process is ther­a­peu­tic food for both mind and soul, while it al­lows plenty of prac­ti­cal scope for cov­er­ing mis­takes: ‘Ev­ery­thing can be res­cued,’ laughs the mas­ter.

While his fol­low­ers are guided to­wards set pieces, Mi­hai Cucu is ca­pa­ble of de­vis­ing fresh new work in this most ven­er­a­ble of art forms. Five of Mi­hai’s pieces may be seen in the Lady Chapel of Christ Church and he also has work on pub­lic dis­play in Water­ford. And any Catholic cou­ple mar­ry­ing this year in Ire­land is be­ing pre­sented with a copy of his spe­cially com­mis­sioned ‘Amoris Laeti­tia’.

TO MARK the forth­com­ing ‘Meet­ing of the Fam­i­lies’ he painted this three-pan­elled se­ries of bib­li­cal scenes on lime­wood boards each two me­tres high. The de­sign had to be sub­mit­ted in ad­vance to the au­thor­i­ties in the Vat­i­can, who made it clear that they ex­pected the fin­ished ar­ti­cle to be in 4th-cen­tury Byzan­tine style.

‘ You draw the in­spi­ra­tion from the old icons,’ says the painter, who has nev­er­the­less pro­duced some­thing which glows with fresh life.

The ‘ Amoris Laeti­tita’ trip­tych has been brought on a tour of Ir­ish dio­ce­ses but it will be head­ing soon for Rome, part of the buildup to the great World Meet­ing of Fam­i­lies in Dublin at the end of sum­mer.

Mi­hai Cucu will be with his work in the holy city next month as it is blessed by Pope Fran­cis, an oc­ca­sion he is greatly look­ing for­ward to. He is grate­ful that icons are be­com­ing more widely ap­pre­ci­ated be­yond the es­tab­lished base in East­ern Europe, a phe­nom­e­non he at­tributes in large part to the late Pope John Paul.

The in­ter­est in these holy pic­tures means that he is in de­mand, not just in Delgany but also fur­ther afield, with work­shops planned for Bri­tain and the Czech Re­pub­lic.

Artist Mi­hai Cucu.

LEFT: Sr Gwen, Louise Hur­ley and Sr Mon­ica with their icons. ABOVE: Paul Dil­lon made this icon of Our Lady.

Fr Joe Walsh with the icon he made.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Ireland

© PressReader. All rights reserved.