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Travel Religious Art: Its Traits, Secrets, And Significance As Seen Through Travels Around Europe

Religious Art: Its Traits, Secrets, And Significance As Seen Through Travels Around Europe

Religious Art: Its Traits, Secrets, And Significance As Seen Through Travels Around Europe
Detail of "Christ the Redeemer" by Andrei Rublev (1410s), an icon discovered by accident in a dilapidated woodshed in Russia
By Edu Jarque
June 17, 2021
Travels to Europe reveal the wondrous secrets behind this religious art and the roles they played in history

It was the birthday of my neighbour and good friend Dido, but we could not meet up for dinner due to the pandemic protocols. Thus, I decided to part with an icon from my travels abroad and immediately sent it as a gift. You see, this leading psychologist in the country is an avid collector and a painter of icons. Allow me to correct myself: not an icon painter but an icon writer. And the explanation will be revealed later, so read on.

It is certainly strange yet fascinating how certain items can bring back specific, vivid memories. And when these cherished moments come rushing back into consciousness, we are left utterly helpless to stop them.

A Western-style icon of the archangel Michael in the Greek Catholic iconostasis of the Cathedral of Hajdúdorog
A Western-style icon of the archangel Michael in the Greek Catholic iconostasis of the Cathedral of Hajdúdorog

I recall a trip to Poland which involved icons. Here, I was awed by the national symbol of the country, the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, set apart due to its two slash marks. Droves of believers lined up just to catch a glimpse of her.

Another was a holiday in Syria, where my group made a quick detour to the Our Lady of Saidnaya Monastery in the hilltop village of Saidnaya, just 30 kilometres away from the capital city of Damascus. Built under the orders of the Byzantine emperor Justinian I, the monastery is a popular pilgrimage site because of this priceless portrait of the Virgin Mary which, legend claims, was personally crafted by St Luke the Evangelist.

St Peter encaustic on panel, circa 6th century, at Saint Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt
St Peter encaustic on panel, circa 6th century, at Saint Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt

One more notable spot was the Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, which prominently displays the Maria Salus Populi Romani icon, also known as The Health of the Roman People. Pope Francis’ devotion to this Marian image is well-documented; he pays her a visit on her feast day as well as before and after his apostolic journeys.

The most memorable encounter for me during a vacation in Russia was meeting a mysteriously mystic yet professional tour guide who saw in me the eagerness of a young student thirsty for knowledge about icons. Therefore, I took advantage of this golden opportunity to learn more about the subject, not only from one who possessed first-hand information and experience, but a walking encyclopaedia who lived and breathed icons.

She maintained that in early Christianity, the Bible was for the educated, those who could read and write; while the icon was suited for those who could not. It was an accessible and inclusive way for them to worship. As such, religious icons were considered by most as a prayer than a work of art and have been a staple of sacred worship rituals as much as a mainstay of aesthetic practice.

Read More: 5 Important Cultural And Religious Sites To Visit In France

Icons at the Church of Dormition in Hydra, Greece
Icons at the Church of Dormition in Hydra, Greece
Maria Salus Populi Romani
Maria Salus Populi Romani

And here she explains to me what is meant by icon writing. According to my knowledgeable tour guide, every line and colour on an icon hold meanings. “Because of this, they are said to be written rather painted,” she said.

Then I discovered that icon writing had become a practical way to pray—that in fact, it is even a special vocation. I learnt that iconographers are expected to fast, meditate and live a holy life to be able to do justice to the image they create. Their obras, in turn, are treated as fruits of the Holy Spirit transmitting spiritual insight. Even though the creation of icons is an intricate and masterful process, the artists behind these do not claim ownership nor credit, for they insist such pieces are merely copies.

Black Madonna of Czestochowa
Black Madonna of Czestochowa
Icons at the Church of Dormition in Hydra, Greece
Icons at the Church of Dormition in Hydra, Greece

As we jump back to the present, in a reality where the novel coronavirus pandemic is rampant, I realised that some of these religious art pieces now play a role in the worldwide crisis.

For instance, the Black Madonna in Poland was paraded throughout the country to combat the bubonic plague of 1711. The epidemic miraculously ceased once the icon found its rightful place in a church.

St Luke the Evangelist painting the Theotokos of Vladimir (16th century, Pskov)
St Luke the Evangelist painting the Theotokos of Vladimir (16th century, Pskov)

See Also: Important Religious Paintings You Can Appreciate Online

Meanwhile, the Maria Salus Populi Romani icon was instrumental to Pope St Gregory the Great’s fight against the plague in 593, while in 1837 Pope Gregory XVI evoked the Madonna’s graces to combat the cholera epidemic.

Now sitting alone in my study, I tried to recall my newfound icon expert’s name. But alas, she never shared it despite our heart-warming, thought-provoking and lifechanging conversations. Perhaps, she adhered in similar fashion to the anonymity of the icon writers.

As we said goodbye with apprehensions that we may never meet again, she quickly vanished into the busy Moscow traffic, like a true ephemeral angel.


This story was originally published in Tatler Traveller Philippines Vol. 18. Download it on your digital device via Zinio, Magzter, or Pressreader.

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