VISIONS OF HOLINESS IN DELGANY
DAVID MEDCALF MET ARTIST MIHAI CUCU AND MEMBERS OF HIS CLASS, WHO RECENTLY EXPLORED THE ANCIENT TRADITION OF ICON MAKING AT DELGANY’S CARMELITE CONVENT
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.