Castleknock College Union

The Vincentian Icons at Phibsboro’

Fearghal O’Farrell, class '51

Nov 10, 2000
The Vincentian Icons at Phibsboro’ -


Pastman, Fearghal O’Farrell, '51, is a noted iconographer with his work to be found in many private collections and Churches throughout the land, including St. Peter's, Phibsboro; The Holy Family, Deansgrange; St. John’s, Sandymount; St. Paul’s, Arran Quay; Iona Road, Glasnevin; St. George’s in Belfast and Emmanuel House of Providence in Confert.

In Colloque No. 42, Winter 2000, he penned the below article on his thought process behind the icons for St. Peter's in Phibsboro.

The original brief was straightforward: to create an icon of St. Vincent de Paul. The brief was then extended to include the Vincentian family, St. Vincent de Paul. St. Louise de Marillac and Blessed Frederic Ozanam. The suggestion was that they could be incorporated into a triptych. The icons were to be installed in St. Peter’s Church in Phibsboro’. The church itself is a beautiful, rather large. Gothic-style church. The proposed site for the icons was to be one of the old confessionals. This was to be converted to a shrine. The confessional was formed in a very fine carved limestone niche with marble columns. It was obvious that this space would lend itself to three individual icons rather than a triptych.

The initial study for the icons consisted in searching out some of the well-known paintings and images of the three saints. The appearance of both Si. Vincent and St. Louise were well charted in many pictures. The general public would be well aware of these and would be well acquainted with their likenesses. It would be a foolish man who would try and portray them in a different form. Frederic Ozanam on the other hand was not so well known and in fact it was quite difficult to find good portraits of him. But it was felt this could be an advantage as it was hoped to present him as a young man.

Many of the pictures of the saints showed them performing works of charity but I thought it essential that each icon would concentrate on the actual saint and so tried to render him present rather than portray his actions. I did not come across any icons of the saints, though there was one interesting, if rather severe, one of St. Vincent which showed him seeing Christ in the beggar (the icon by Meltem Akbas in Rosati House in Chicago; ed.)

St VDPThe Theory

As these were to be icons, as opposed to paintings, I will set out some indications of the approach to icon painting, how they are prepared and how I became involved. Historically icons (Greek; images) were extant throughout the early church. Some of the earliest examples of such images are still be seen in the catacombs of Rome. However, they really developed and matured in the eastern part of the “Roman Empire”. As Byzantium, Nova Roma, Constantinople, flowered, so also did iconography, spreading through the entire Eastern orthodox world.

There had been, throughout the early period, intensive arguments within the church as to whether one could make portraits of Christ and the saints. The Old Testament ban on “graven images” was always there to support the banning of images. Even though the Trullan Council had declared “that from henceforth icons should represent instead of the Lamb of old, the human image of the lamb… Christ our God” the Iconoclastic movement lasted many centuries. It was finally defeated after the great council of the 9th Century which declared “What the Gospel proclaims to us by words, the icon also proclaims and renders present for us by colour”. Even after that the puritan objection to images was to resurface on many occasions.

Whereas the Iconoclasts had argued “how could you represent God” since John says in his Gospel “No one has ever seen God” (Jn 1:18) we know that when God became man, the invisible became visible. We then can portray him and of course the saints – temples of the Holy Spirit. As Christ himself said “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn 14: 2-9) and Paul echoed “He is the image (icon) of the invisible Father” (Col. 1: 15).

The image is said to share in the likeness of the prototype but not in the essence and the icon proclaims the presence of God as does scripture, for God became human so that we could become one with him “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4). “In his unbounded love God became what we are, that he might make us what he is” (Irenaeus). Theosis or deification indicates the goal of human life as union with God. In creating an icon we create a point of contact between the material and spiritual worlds and as such the icon is an empirical manifestation of the spiritual in the material – theosis – a visible expression of the invisible. The icon does not exist by itself or for itself. It is a means to lead us to other, to Christ, the Trinity, theotokos (Mother of God) and the saints.

The reality of theosis as both a present and future reality, one that potentially affects all of creation, is representationally present in the icon. The icon “proclaims and renders present” that “new creation”. While the icon of Christ is the unique icon of the Father, all other icons, including those of the Mother of God, are theological extrapolations of the regeneration accomplished by Christ.

Personal ExperienceVDP nun

I became interested in painting icons through my involvement with the Charismatic movement; not a connection that would be expected. In fact, I had been wondering for quite some time why this huge movement of the Spirit had not inspired an outflowing of Sacred Art. If the Spirit was so active among people I was sure there would appear some great manifestation of the Spirit in visual art form around the world. I think I may have been expecting to see a new sort of Impressionist movement with free swirling colours to match singing in tongues. Artists would be “set free’ from all the old restraints and the Spirit would be manifest in some new, far out “ism” (Maybe I was projecting my thoughts – and God should follow me?). I was certainly forgetting that most of the twentieth century “isms” were the result of different artists or groups trying to pursue their own ideas, their own professional visions, their own agendas and to create their own visual world. While we may sing to the Holy Spirit “…melt me, mould me, use me” we see nothing inconsistent in our striving to achieve fulfilment by doing our own thing. I think Sinatra”s “I did it my way” was such a success because it really captured the cult of the individual.

When I was first asked to paint an icon I was, to a certain extent, still looking on the task as a rather severe discipline with a whole set of traditions and Canons which would restrict my freedom. However, without realising it, I must have sensed the incredible spiritual quality of icons. And icons were totally based on scripture and tradition as, of course, were the charismatic songs sung at the different prayer groups. The concept of the deification of matter would not have actively occupied my mind but in effect it was being recognised unbeknown to me. The joy and celebration of the charismatic movement was finding its echo in the joy and celebration of the icon. “What the Gospel proclaims by words the icon also proclaims” began to have real meaning.

In the Byzantine world the iconographer was not some unique artist with a highly personalised talent. He was one of a team and usually a monk. He would work with many others, fasting and praying, preparing wood, gesso and paints. Many of the iconographers would be largely anonymous outside of their monasteries. While the outstanding ones are known to this day, e.g. Andrei Rublev, Theophanes the Greek, many would have laboured, crafting away within a deep spiritual framework. This has continued for centuries within the Orthodox tradition.

In the west, particularly from the Renaissance on, art became far more secularised and also far more individualised. Too often artists sought to portray Christ in a more realistic or naturalistic form. Inevitably this meant a portrait that became more secular and earth-bound. It was often the model that the painter had used that one looked upon. There are many beautiful paintings of Christ, Mary and the saints with tremendous human perfection but often little spiritual content. Worse still, at some periods distracting sentimental content abounded. They can truly be best described as holy pictures or pictures of “holy people”.

Probably the ultimate achievement of “realistic” painting was the trompe I’oeil painters who were so skilled that it was difficult to tell illusion from reality. However, by the end of the nineteenth century there was a strong understanding of the limits of realistic painting. This continued into the twentieth century with many movements and “isms”. Abstract painting of various kinds took over. Many western artists sought to find new ways to express spiritual concepts and often did so very beautifully and successfully. Though many of these artists could be considered secular they still came out of a largely Christian ethos.

Unfortunately the modern artistic vision is largely divorced from Christian values and though it often aspires to a spiritual vision it seeks to do so in the language of the modern secular world. There are many largely negative works of art, often abstract and often brilliantly and accurately exposing the vacuousness of much of the world’s current aspirations. Spiritual concepts are in many instances successfully evoked in an abstract manner. But Christianity is not founded on an abstract sense of spirituality, a somewhat vague mystical force greater than the human. Total abstraction can portray the Spirit in many ways, the sense of transcendence and power, but we must remember as Paul said “we preach Christ crucified” (1 Cor. I: 23). This is no woozy spiritual force for good – this is Christ, the Son of the living God – true God, true man. Christ himself was quite definite “I am the way, the truth and the life” (Jn 14: 6). So it is not just Jesus the historical man who has to be portrayed and made present but Jesus Christ incarnate.

OzamanI now come to consider how could I draw icons of St. Vincent, St. Louise and Blessed Frederic. It is all right to have lofty ideas but entirely another matter to put them into effect. Also I was not coming from a highly developed Orthodox tradition. I hadn’t prayed, fasted and studied in the Orthodox tradition. It is true I had been painting icons for about nine years but I was still very much on a learning curve, on a pilgrimage and will hope to continue on that pilgrimage for many years to come. So would my efforts be good enough? I wouldn’t dream of attempting to answer that question.

I certainly fell each icon should be strong and relate directly to the viewer. They would also have to relate well with each other. The figures should be as large as possible and should face the viewer for maximum impact. This led me to prepare designs of large half length figures allowing the faces to be relatively large. I also decided that all three saints should be shown reaching out to the viewer. This gesture is not so normal in icon painting where the saint normally takes a more distant posture. There was also the possibility that it could be interpreted as a begging hand (more church collections’.’). However, I felt it was justified and while Vincent’s and Louise’s hands are open the younger Frederic is more reaching out to shake hands.

The Vincentians have a double tradition of both contemplation and mission. I wanted to reflect this in the icons. Thus, while drawing from well known portraits, the faces and figures generally should be portrayed in the traditional spiritual manner of the icon. Their practical mission of mercy could be portrayed more realistically and directly. Thus, each saint is shown holding a symbol of their practical service to the poor and needy. As these icons were to be seen together the symbols could relate to all three. In practice, Vincent is shown with bread, the staff of life and symbol of the Eucharist. Louise is shown with a towel and water as service to the sick and Frederic with clothes for the needy. All three are in service.

So much for the overall design. I also had to concentrate on the preparation of the icons which in itself is symbolic and should also be prayerful. It is not just the finished icon which is the prayer. Icons are painted on a timber support which brings to mind the wood of the Cross. The board is then sized with rabbit-skin glue or similar. Then a natural cloth, e.g. linen or cotton, is stuck over the entire board reminding one of the shroud. It also has a practical purpose, providing a strong base to combat any movement of the timber. Then up to twelve coats of gesso, made up of whiting, a calcium carbonate from the earth and rabbit-skin glue from the animal kingdom. These are scraped, sanded and polished ready for gold leaf and paint.

The gold leaf, symbolising uncreated life emanating from God before creation, is then applied. Only then does the painting commence. The paint is egg tempera, pigment from the earth mixed with egg yolk, symbolising life and resurrection, with a bit of vinegar added. The actual painting process proceeds from dark to light, i.e. the flat dark backgrounds are painted first and then the lighter highlights are gradually introduced. The symbols of the works of mercy could be painted quite naturalistically in keeping with the practical actions involved. Thus, for example, there is no real stylisation of form in the depiction of the bread that Vincent holds.


The spiritual foundation of the Vincentian mission is indicated through the iconic form of rendering the figures, particularly the faces. Icon painting, in seeking to present the infinite spiritual “reality” in which Christ, his mother and all the saints exist along with ourselves, turns very clearly to the symbolism of light. All light is shown to emanate from Christ or the Spirit within the saints: “I am the light of the world. The one who follows me will not walk in darkness” (Jn 8: 12). Thus there are no shadows as we know them in icons, for shadows in the natural world are cast by the sun or artificial lights, all created objects are as nothing compared to the “light of the world”. “They need no lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light” (Rev. 22:5), So the entire icon seeks to proclaim God’s glory.

This understanding of light is emphasised by the use of gold as mentioned earlier and usually used in halos: “the righteous shall shine like the sun in the kingdom of the Father” (Mt. 13: 43). The face is the most important part of the icon and is always painted last. Here the base colour or protoplasma applied flatly over all the skin areas is a sort of olive brown colour, symbolising the earth. Introduced into this is an orange colour of burning light which is gradually built up with light tones, thus dispelling the darkness and the almost pure white highlights being the last lo be applied.

The whole face should emphasise a detachment from mundane excitements in order to better grasp the spiritual world. In most icon figures the nose is usually drawn thin and noble, scenting the sweet odour of Christ rather than the scents of this world. The mouth is closed because true contemplation requires silence. It is usually drawn finely to eliminate sensuality. The eyes do not reflect any external light shining on them. In portraying the likeness of the saints not all of these techniques may be realised in practise.

Finally the name is painted on. It is an intrinsic part of the icon, indicating the imparting of the presence in preparation for the blessing. In Genesis, we read of where God brought all the animals to Adam that they might be named: “Whatever the man called every living creature that was its name” (Gen. 2:19).

In the last analysis, of course no amount of preparation, theory or technique is necessarily going to produce a successful icon. It’s success will entirely depend on whether it does induce viewers to venerate the saints and through them to listen 10 Christ, to see him in all whom they meet and to express his love in whatever way they are called.

Fearghal O’Farrell