This icon of the Mother of God, the Life-giving Spirit
was commissioned for the jubilee of the founding of Immaculate Conception Cathedral
in the Diocese of Springfield, Illinois. The world's people are intentionally multiracial
and the bishops wears Latin-rite vestments.
© Marek Czarnecki/2003, Photo by P. Fortune
Surrounded by religious paintings and statuary, Marek Czarnecki prepares to “write” an
icon of St. Faustina Kowalska at Seraphic Restorations, his studio in rural Connecticut.
Icons are, quite simply, tangible tools that Christians use when praying, he says. By no
means are they merely a pious folk art.
Because the artistic language of iconography is so exact, icons are said to be “written” rather
than painted. When one of his icons was unveiled at the Springfield, Illinois, cathedral,
Czarnecki told the diocesan newspaper, Catholic Times: “Creating an icon doesn’t
feel like painting. It feels like writing and, in fact, what is portrayed cannot contradict
He added, “We can compare an icon to a carefully constructed poem. Indeed, this is why
we call it icon ‘writing’ instead of ‘painting.’ Every ‘word’ or element of it fits very
concisely and precisely to contribute to the overall meaning and integrity of the whole.”
The 39-year-old artist begins by mixing his pigment from ground precious or semiprecious
stones, such as hematite, turquoise and lapis lazuli, with vinegar and the yolk of ordinary
eggs. Working horizontally—tempera can be as runny as watercolor—with sable brushes, Czarnecki
begins painting on a board, first glued with linen, then covered with gesso (a kind of
Carefully, precisely, he builds up the layers of paint, working from dark hues to lighter
ones, whereas the typical artist applies lighter colors first. The religious significance
of this counter-intuitive approach is the transfiguring of the world from darkness into
“If I’m working on a blue robe, for example, I will begin with a layer of dark green paint,
followed by a layer of green tempera with a bit of white mixed in and finally the blue
itself,” says the unassuming iconographer, clad in plaid shirt and blue denim apron. “The
layers of egg tempera give a depth to the colors that makes them almost jewel-like.”
The work is slow and painstaking. Commissioned by a Franciscan friary in Chicopee, Massachusetts,
the icon of St. Faustina Kowalska, a recently canonized Polish saint, will take hundreds
of hours to complete.
By the time he is ready to begin, the thoughtful and extraordinarily knowledgeable Czarnecki
has done his homework on this visionary nun to whom Christ revealed himself: Czarnecki
knows her history, he knows her likeness, he has visited her grave in Poland. He has already
completed a prototype on paper.
Since St. Faustina died in the 1930s, he was also able to take advantage of photographic
images of her. He says, “I always ask myself, ‘How would this person want to see herself
Out of an artistic tradition that dates back many centuries, icons are
the haunting and beautiful images that were found in homes and churches, both in the Eastern
and Latin Churches. They are most often seen in Greek, Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox houses
of worship. Always, they are full of religious symbolism and historic detail.
Around the seventh century, Eastern Christianity’s icons were almost obliterated
when the “iconoclasts,” mixing religion and politics, set out to escort them to oblivion.
Viewing icons as idolatrous, these individuals were largely successful in destroying the
images themselves as well as those who created them and those who prayed with them.
The few paintings that survived did so largely as a result of being spirited
away to St. Catherine’s Monastery in Mt. Sinai, Egypt. “We have very, very few icons that
date prior to the sixth century,” says Czarnecki.
“In the eighth century, an ecumenical council was convened. At that time, St. John of
Damascus determined that icons were not an ‘option,’ but rather a necessity in explaining
the Incarnation of Christ. To not have icons would be a denial of the Incarnation itself.”
Icons also tie us to our spiritual relatives from the past, notes the Rev. Thomas Dennis,
a priest at Springfield, Illinois’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. The cathedral
commissioned an icon from Czarnecki.
“It’s in our nature to relate to other beings, and icons help us make that connection,” says
Father Dennis. “We like to keep photographs of our loved ones around. Interestingly, I
think once you pray with icons they eventually draw you more deeply into communion with
the tradition from which they were born.”
Perhaps due to this venerable history, modern-day artists such as Czarnecki are happily
finding a demand for their work. Indeed, he has been commissioned to write icons for Michigan’s
Ave Maria College, The Franciscan University of Steubenville (Ohio) and St. Stanislaus
Kostka Parish in Bristol, Connecticut, his hometown, as well as for private individuals.
“The time to complete an icon varies,” Czarnecki says. “Some icons, like that of Our Lady,
the Life-giving Spring, require a lot of planning. Because of its size and complexity,
that one took me three months to paint.”
The reasons are many. One practical one: The medium of egg tempera needs to cure before
it can be varnished, so the icon has to rest before it can be sealed. Even a small icon
takes about a month.
From Czarnecki’s viewpoint, the 1960s and 1970s saw countless American churches getting
rid of their traditional artwork in an attempt to be, well, modern, if not downright trendy. “That
was a terrible form of internal vandalism,” he says. “But now, as the Catholic Church becomes
more ecumenical, it also finds itself looking for a return to its fundamental values.”
The Rev. William Sokolowski, pastor of St. Maria Goretti Parish in Wolcott, Connecticut,
agrees. He commissioned from Czarnecki two icons—one of the church’s namesake and another
of Our Lady of the Sign. Father Sokolowski says, “Spirituality is a need people have and
that need is something technology and science cannot fill. Icons represent a deep connection
with that reality.”
Czarnecki says, “When a client asks me to write a new icon of a recently recognized saint
like Maria Goretti, I do a lot of reading and research. A new icon must satisfy three criteria:
It must be semantically correct, theologically correct and aesthetically correct. I use
older icons as a foundation and incorporate new faces into them.
“Even though iconography has its rubrics, it still has to be flexible and adaptable. If
it is truly an eternal language (which I feel it is), it must be able to be used to talk
about holiness in the contemporary Church.”
Czarnecki did not set out to become an icon writer. He does describe himself as a pious
child who liked church. He spent countless hours drawing the saints from art books that
his older sister brought home from the library, so his profession should come as no great
The son of Polish immigrants and a graduate of New York’s prestigious School of Visual
Arts, Czarnecki was working in a rare bookstore in Manhattan, when he learned that his
father had “volunteered” his son to paint an icon of the patron of Poland—Our Lady of Czestochowa.
This image, perhaps better known as the Black Madonna, was for St. Stanislaus Kostka Church.
The year was 1991.
At first resentful of being volunteered, Czarnecki nevertheless returned home. “I was
afraid to do the work. Icons are so holy and intimidating,” says Czarnecki.
The artist’s perspective quickly changed when Czarnecki saw the very real impact his work
had. “I had no idea what I was doing until I saw people praying in front of this piece.
When the entire parish faced my icon, knelt in front of it and began to say the rosary,
I was filled with embarrassment for my distance and aloofness,” Czarnecki says today. “I
realized I had a responsibility to the Mother of God to paint her as best I could and,
secondly, a responsibility to the people praying in front of her to do that as well as
“I don’t want this to sound presumptuous, but I think it was the Holy Spirit working through
my pastor and my father that brought me to this work. I had found the pearl of great price,
but I also understood it was a terrible—and I mean that in the sense of ‘awesome’—responsibility.”
From that moment of realization, there was no turning back. Czarnecki ditched Manhattan,
returned to Bristol and spent the next three years painting the 12 apostles. That ultimately
led to a state Commission on the Arts Fellowship—which allowed him to undertake an apprenticeship
with icon masters. This included what he describes as an ongoing, life-changing course
of study with Ksenia Pokrovskaya.
Considered perhaps the premier iconographer in the United States, Pokrovskaya immigrated
to this country as a political refugee. In Moscow, she was one of the founding members
of “Izography,” a group of artists largely responsible for the renaissance of iconography
in Russia today.
Father Dennis notes that the breakup of the Soviet Union has enabled many to have access
for the first time to these treasures. “Since the fall of Communism in Russia and the Eastern
bloc countries, people have become able to delve into the rich storehouse of icons and
to rediscover their beauty,” he says.
In the United States, only a handful of men and women—including several master painters
from Eastern Bloc countries who emigrated here after the perestroika in the mid-80s—are
currently teaching and practicing this ancient art while eschewing modern shortcuts.
In addition to completing his own commissions, Czarnecki is determined to ensure the future
of iconography as a form of expression. He has presented a paper titled “Sacramental Art
in American Immigrant Parishes” at an annual meeting of the American Folklore Society.
He teaches and gives workshops.
While nothing replaces the value of studying with a master iconographer, Czarnecki is
working to make certain that the technical details of icon writing become more widely accessible.
He has written a privately distributed technical manual for would-be iconographers. “You
really need to study with a living teacher,” he cautions, but he’s testing his text with
students, preparing illustrations and deciding whether to search out a publisher when it’s
completed to his satisfaction.
“Requests for icons have increased significantly over the past dozen years that I have
been writing them,” says Czarnecki. “It is amazing that we still do this. I love that an
image, such as one of the Virgin nursing the Christ Child that dates to the second century,
is still relevant today. People instinctively respond, and always will, to these images.”
To contact or commission the artist, write: Seraphic Restorations, 27 Arts Center Lane,
Studio 4B, Avon, CT 06001. Or e-mail: marekstudio4b @hotmail.com.