December 20, 2002

Art and Religion

Throughout her career as a teacher and artist of acclaim, Derry nun, Sr. Aloysius McVeigh has been a reluctantly high profile figure on Ireland's Art scene. Currently however, she is one of Europe's leading iconographers, quietly busying herself with what she terms "a visible bible."

The next time you go into a church throughout the North West, check along the walls. More often than not you are likely to be confronted with the ancient, enduring image of Christ, the Virgin Mary or one of the saints in sacred icons. The mystical images which stare back date almost 1700 years. Yet, nothing has changed in the way these meticulous images have been processed. They hide within them the secret essence of the Bible. When Sr. Aloysius began painting icons in 1986 she was already a well established painter and art teacher. Smiling she says: "I have done nothing since." "I became interested in icons in the early 80's when I was teaching at Belfast College of Education. One of the professors there was interested in Byzantine painting and medieval painting. After speaking with him I used to go down to the Central Library every Saturday to learn more. At first I was only interested in the theology and never had any intention of painting an icon." While inspecting the centuries old works and their background, Sister Aloysius said she was "absolutely moved and deeply impressed," by the simplicity and the depth of theology within them. "If an icon is taken at its surface value as a painting of an event or a portrait and stop there, the meaningful symbolism is missed, and we lose the spiritual message of truth"

The entire process of making an icon is obedient to theological and aesthetic norms that go back for centuries and are charged with meaning. The images are imbued with powers held to be direct from God and through their symbolism lead back to Christ. "Every single icon represents our own redemption through Christ's suffering, death and resurrection" she says. All come from God and is offered back to God in the work. That's enough to make the material holy. "Everything about it is symbolic. Every single colour is deeply significant. Every bit of landscape represents something deeper It is like peeling an onion. Remove the outer layer and there is another underneath, just as perfect." Sister Aloysius feels icons have a special role to play in our times. Amid the blaring noise, the angst and the tension of the modern world, they represent and inspire a timeless silent respite for the soul. Icons demand that we stop, slow down and listen. They are so full of reverence, silence and strength, and the world needs all of those things tremendously right now."

Excerpts from an interview by Brendan McDaid courtesy of the Derry Journal.

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