12 Comments

  1. Elijah Jacob

    These are so beautiful! I have an icon of him and he has helped me so much in my spiritual life. Will any be for sale?

  2. Michael Roeder

    This is a superb article which both expresses love and gratitute to Father Sophrony, AND clearly expresses any iconographer’s search for the right representation of the saint they are portraying. I find this very assuring.

    In a way it reminded me of being on a quest to paint an icon of St. Genevieve, from whom my wife took her Saint’s name. I read a comment by Gregory Krug that he searched for months to find the right color for the background of an icon of St Genevieve.

    At that time my wife couldn’t understand why there is difficulty painting a saint, but I think here you have summed up the challenge, for which we have to seek inspiration.

    Thank you

  3. Mary Benton

    What a gift and a challenge to paint icons of someone you knew in life! I am a beginner and thus my observations do not count for much. All of your icons are beautiful but I particularly love your work in pastels. Different mediums seem to capture different things and there is a softness in your pastels that seem to communicate a gentleness, a prayerfulness that match your description of the saint in words. Thank you.

  4. Sister Gabriela has told me that she invites critical comments, as she wishes for feedback that will lead to improvement in her efforts to paint Saint Sophrony. So I will offer her my own thoughts.

    I wonder, Sr. Gabriela, if you are trying too hard to stylize him and make him look like an ordinary icon. I feel there is room for him to look more distinctively like himself. He was a pretty distinctive looking man, with his big nose and mischievous smile – sort of like a playful leprechaun, to my eyes, as one who knows him only from photographs. I think your icons would be more satisfying with a little more of this character.

    While it is true that most icons, to a certain extent, make everyone look the same, I suspect this is just due to the memory of their subjects’ particular appearance being forgotten over the passage of time. There are historic examples of icons painted within a saint’s living memory, and these sometimes show the saint with a very distinctive appearance. The fresco of St. Sava that you include in your article is a perfect example of this. And in this age of photographs, where a saint’s exact appearance will never be forgotten, I think it is all the more important to make sure that the icons correspond convincingly with the photographs, and that the icons do not seem generic by comparison.

    Of course, this can go to far. A naturalistic likeness can also be distracting in an icon, and Byzantine perspective and stylization serves several helpful purposes, but surely, the right balance can be found, where the icon and the photograph seem like two sides of the same coin.

    1. sr Gabriela

      Dear Andrew,
      Thank you very much for such a constructive and helpful comment.
      I will follow it up.
      sr Gabriela

  5. Dear Sister Gabriela
    Thank you for this very interesting description of your efforts towards finding the best solution for an icon of Saint Sophrony. – We in Denmark are very glad that St. Sophrony, whom some of us have met personally at the monastery, is now numbered among the Saints of the Church.
    I have a question: Must the icon bear the official name, “Saint Sophrony the Athonite”? Or would it be permissible to write “Saint Sophrony of Essex”? – We have discussed this in our parish and with our local iconographer. If “the Athonite” is used, many will not know who this is, but if “of Essex” is used, many will immediately know whom the icon is referring to. – Maybe a compromise would be admissible, “Saint Sophrony the Athonite from Essex”?
    Thank you beforehand, Sr. Gabriela, for your comments on this.
    In Christ
    Fr. Poul Sebbelov
    Parish of the Protection of the Mother of God
    Copenhagen, Denmark

  6. sr Gabriela

    Dear Father Poul,
    The “subtitle” was given by the Patriarch in the act of him being added into the calendar of saints. There were many different thoughts going around wondering which “subtitle” be would receive. “Of Essex” was one, “Theologian of the Uncreated Light” was another, etc. Personally we hoped it would not be “of Essex” for many reasons, one of them is that locally it has not got a good association. When we heard “the Athonite” we were first a little surprised, but then realised that this is what Fr Sophrony himself would have wanted. He always considered himself a monk of Mount Athos and how he founded and arranged our life in the monastery was all based on his different experiences from his time on Mount Athos. He himself would have liked to return there, but life turned out differently. Also, like this he is more united with St Silouan, another aspect that he would have liked more than anything else. I hope that this helps?
    Your Blessing,
    Sr Gabriela

    1. Thank you, Sr Gabriela, for sharing your insights into this decision. It is important for people to know this reasoning, because some have assumed it was a sort of political move to Hellenize him – to downplay the English connection.

      Nevertheless, I am not sure everyone should feel obliged to use official forms of titles even if there’s good reason for them. Had St. Herman been canonized St. Herman the Valaamite, you can be sure that everyone would still call him St. Herman of Alaska, as they already had for centuries. I can understand that those of you who live in Essex would not call yourselves ‘of Essex’. But in the rest of the world, for whatever reason, people often call your monastery ‘the Essex Monastery’. It may not be logical, but it’s what people are used to. Therefore I think it is inevitable that some will use this title for St. Sophrony, and that he will end up being one of those saints who has multiple titles, like St. John the Theologian/the Divine/the Beloved/of Patmos.

    2. May God bless!
      Dear Sr Gabriela
      Thank you very much for your explaining the process which led to the subtitle “the Athonite” for the icon of St. Sophrony. It is certainly helpful.
      I realize, of course, the importance of stressing St. Sophrony’s lifelong attachment to Mount Athos, and of underlining his close relationship with and inspiration from St. Silouan.
      At the same time I still find it very important to not loose sight of what Andrew Gould in his latest comment calls “the English connexion”. For Orthodox Christians in the Western World, many of whom are converts to Orthodoxy, it is essential to become aware that Orthodox spiritual life and even Orthodox Saints are not always elements “from afar”, nor always belonging in “exotic” parts of the world.
      Therefore, in my opinion, it would be a good thing if by the “subtitle” used for St. Sophrony a signal could be sent that, in spite of his Russian and Athonite history, the Saint belongs (also) to Western Europe, since he founded and built up his monastery in England, thus opening the way to Orthodoxy for countless “Westerners”.
      Our “local” iconographer (from Georgia) has suggested the compromise I mentioned, “Saint Sophrony the Athonite from Essex”. – In your opinion, would such a solution be admissible?
      In Christ
      Fr. Poul
      Denmark

  7. sr Gabriela

    Dear Father Poul,
    Your Blessing.
    Your points are very valuable and true.
    Forgive me, but I find such a long title a bit too much. Better to be simple, with the one name or the other, unless it is for a special icon in a specific location, like for example your church. I do not think that it is something that has to be too rigid, especially not if there is a particular reason, like the one you mention. We, at our monastery, will however keep the original ‘subtitle’.
    With great respect,
    sr Gabriela

  8. George Ioannou

    Dear Sr Gabriela,

    than you for this great insight. I have not written an icon of the Saint, and by chance came across your wonderful and inspiring article. (God works in mysterious ways)!
    I have a little more courage now to attempt a line drawing, please keep me in your prayers.
    I hope that one day soon i will come again to the monastery. (I have not forgot your copy of the new book). My kind regards and respect, George

  9. sr Gabriela

    Dear George,
    Just today I was thinking of your book and wondering if you finished it as it is the feast of all the saints you depict in there. Please make it known to Orthodox Arts Journal, it will profit many readers and painters.
    Info: George has produced a book on the saints of the British Isles based on the model of the Stroganov icon pattern book with line drawings and descriptions of every saint arranged according to the church year. He showed it to me when it was virtually finished and it looked fantastic, an invaluable tool.
    sr Gabriela

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