For the August edition of Faithfully, we asked sacred artist Maria Muszynski, founding member of Sacred Guild of Alberta, a Lay Association in the Diocese of Calgary, to share about her journey in the sacred arts.
Why becoming a sacred artist?
I was born an artist. But why the sacred arts? I have been journeying towards this path my whole life. A journey shaped by childhood experiences, unexpected circumstances, and twists of fate.
My father was a Polish soldier who fought with the Allied army and my mother was a refugee in a displaced persons camp. After the war, by chance, they both decided to settle in Calgary. My mother converted to Catholic Christianity when she agreed to marry my father. Mother’s side of the family were Russian Orthodox and we celebrated Christmas and Easter (twice!) with the extended family. On occasion I attended the All Saints Russian Orthodox Church and feasted my eyes on the iconostasis which separated the sanctuary from the nave. From the cadence and the passion of the choral voices singing the liturgy in the loft, to the intense images that were illuminated by hundreds of candles lit by the faithful – all of these elements left an indelible impression that shaped my sensibilities and my soul.
In comparison, the Queen of Peace Polish Catholic Church - which was the church we attended - was innovative on the outside (built in 1968 and shaped like a gleaming white teepee) but bereft of warmth inside because of its plain concrete walls and lack of imagery (minimalism and constructivism was “in”). Only a framed copy of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, Queen of Poland, resided above the altar. Over the years, as the population of Polish immigrants increased, many contributed their talents to the beautification of the church. Today the stained-glass windows, once plain, resonate with stories while the walls are warmed with carved traditional architectural features and religious imagery. It is a testament to the transformational power of art and faith.
I began my personal journey into the sacred arts when St. Mary’s University offered a Sacred Arts certificate program. The first course I took was Painting in the Western Renaissance Tradition. Other courses followed – traditional iconography, calligraphy and illumination, and even stained glass. A trip to Italy to see the glories of Rome, Florence and Ravenna was a special highlight. In 2014, I was one of 5 students to complete the requirements for the certificate in the Foundations of Sacred Art. The Sacred Arts Guild of Alberta (SAGA) was conceived by a handful of like-minded souls who wished to delve even deeper. SAGA brings in local and international specialists in illumination, iconography, calligraphy, sculpture - and in the near future Byzantine mosaic - to nourish the skills and spirits of our guild membership leading to a wonderful resurgence in the creation of sacred arts here in Alberta.
Share about other artists who inspired you
My journey has taken me through many mentors most notably iconographer Peter Murphy, David Clayton (The Way of Beauty) and the brilliant illuminator Jeb Gibbons. I am also inspired by the traditional work of Aidan Hart, and the contemporary style of Philip Davydov, among others. I am drawn both to the classical Greek/Byzantine and Romanesque style of icons, and to Marian images in particular because of my Polish heritage. Like Saint John Paul, faith in Mary kept me strong through many trials and tribulations including surviving cancer.
Sacred art is not ‘art’, it is theology, it is a way of praying and connecting with God and all His wonderful creation. I am humbled that people have expressed their admiration of what I do, but I thank the spirit of God who moves through me when I sit and begin the first line. Every stroke is meditative and reflective and prayerful. It is an act of salvation, my connection to the divine. Peter Murphy and Aidan Hart believe that a fragment of heavenly reality is revealed within the sacred image, as it is revealed in the holy Scriptures and through the blessed sacrament. It is ‘extraordinary’ in every sense of the word.
Any advice for novices in sacred art?
The best advice for beginning sacred artists is to be mindful while you are working – hold the focus and pray. Breathe. Practice your drawing skills which is key. Find a good teacher or mentor who inspires you. Learn from everyone you can and practice. The typical stereotype of the hermit monk writing icons alone in his hovel does not fit today, so find and join a community of similar-minded artists. And practice more. Do not worry about the medium you use because it is the message of the image and the intent of the artist that are more important.
Writing an icon is like praying twice. “Lord Jesus Christ, God of all, enlighten us, imbue the soul, the heart, the intellect of Your servant.” So begins the iconographer’s prayer. And is it still relevant today? In the age of Covid-19 and all its’ uncertainties and anxieties - more than ever.
Catholic Pastoral Centre Staff and Guest Writers