In Your Midst

The Cathedral Icons:  Windows to the Divine

March 2005

Joan Brand-Landkamer's Pentecost icon shows some familiar faces among the assembled apostles.  Archbishop Thomas Murphy, Father Ryan, and Dr. James Savage are all pictured here.

Icon of the Dormition of the Virgin.  The richly detailed icons reward careful study.

St. Veronica is said to have created the very first icon when she used her veil to wipe the Savior’s face as He struggled toward Calvary. According to the legend, an imprint of His face was left on the cloth. According to another tradition, the King of Odessa sent for Jesus to come and heal him of an illness. Jesus, already on the road to His crucifixion, wiped his face with a cloth and sent that instead, and it miraculously healed the king of his complaint. Meanwhile, the Byzantine Church holds that the first icon was a painting by St. Luke the Evangelist of Christ and His mother.

The tradition of icons (from the Greek word ikon, image) is particularly strong in the Orthodox Church, but St. James Cathedral is fortunate in having more than two dozen of these mystic creations. The St. James icons were “written” by iconographer and parishioner Joan Brand-Landkamer. The Cathedral icons, colorful images painted on wood panels, are carried in procession at Sunday Masses. Joan, who holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Medical Technology and a Master’s degree in Pastoral Ministry, has spent years studying and praying as she developed her gift and followed her passion for iconography.

Icons are said to be “written” because they are visual interpretations of scriptural events, not paintings as works of art. In medieval times, icons served as illustrations of Biblical passages accessible to all, even those who could not read. Icons, says one writer, “speak to the heart through intuition,” and have always been intended to be focal points for meditation, for inspiration, and for memory. The subjects, such as The Nativity of the Lord or The Dormition of Mary (The Assumption), are revisited by generations of iconographers, but each is interpreted by the inspiration of the individual. In Joan’s words, they are “like a little candle lit in a different place.”

Despite her prolific output, Joan calls herself a late bloomer. Icons are steeped in mysticism, she says, and she is “just getting the hang of it.”

Joan’s icons offer a few surprises for parishioners of St. James. Father Ryan appears in a number of them. Joan credits Father Ryan’s support and enthusiasm for encouraging her to continue writing icons. In Brand-Landkamer’s icons, Father Ryan stands beside Thomas at the Resurrection, or sits among the apostles in the Pentecost icon. He is Constantine in the Exaltation of the Cross, with his real-life mother next to him. A white orchid corsage also appears in several icons, a Mother’s Day gift to Joan from her son. People and things she loves and is moved by make their way into her creative process. Other parishioners and family members appear as well, such as a sweetly smiling portrait of Archbishop Murphy. Joan hopes these images may one day serve history as records of St. James Cathedral and its community at the turn of the twenty-first century.

The lettering in her icons are all in the Cyrillic alphabet. Though English is sometimes used on icons in English-speaking countries, Joan prefers the mystery of the old language. She also insists on working with the very best ingredients, egg tempera and 24k gold on panels of cherry wood her son cuts for her.

The veneration of icons has its deepest roots in the Eastern churches, including the Ukrainian rite which is celebrated at St. James on Sunday afternoons. But other Roman Catholic churches and monasteries have been blessed with iconographers. Benedictine Brother Claude Lane of Mount Angel Abbey, for example, found a new ministry when his abbot asked him to write icons for their new Byzantine chapel. Now, Brother Lane continues to work and teach the mystical art at Mount Angel.

Joan’s icons can be seen during Masses at the Cathedral. They are featured in House of God, Gate of Heaven, and on the Cathedral website. At Great Music for a Great Cathedral this past February, a splendid procession of the Cathedral’s icons accompanied the music of Rachmaninoff, concluding in a living “iconostasis.” An exhibit of the complete collection is planned for the summer of 2005.

You can compare Joan’s writing of The Dormition of Mary, for instance, with other icons of the same subject; particularly lovely ones are on the website of Saints Peter and Paul Orthodox Church and on Mount Angel’s website.

Spending a few moments contemplating these “little candles lit in different places” may help to illuminate the mystical and devotional aspects of the age-old tradition of icons.

Louise Marley is a long-time St. James Parishioner and a novelist whose books include, most recently, The Child Goddess.

Other articles in the March 2005 issue:

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