08 September 2014

The Kursk Root Icon of the Theotokos

Acrylic and gold leaf on birch panel, 2014.

Today, the feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos, is also the commemoration of miracle-working Kursk Root icon. Over 700 years ago, a Russian hunter discovered this icon lodged in the roots of a tree near Kursk. When he removed it, a healing spring gushed forth. The icon would always return to that tree when removed and placed in the local church, so a chapel was built around it. When the Tartars invaded in 1383, they cut the icon in half and burned the chapel, but the icon remained unburned and restored itself whole. Similarly, in 1898, anarchists placed a bomb under the icon, which remained unharmed while the church was destroyed in the blast. Saint Seraphim of Sarov was among many healed through this icon. Since the Russian Revolution, the icon has remained protected in America and regularly visits the Russian Orthodox Church in my town. Through the years, I have drawn much hope and inspiration from this incredible icon and wanted to honor the Theotokos by painting this icon. I have also chosen to use this icon as the prototype for my upcoming workshops this fall. Please see more information about my workshops here.

13 July 2014

Agia Sophia Thessaloniki

Agia Sophia in Thessaloniki is unassuming from the outside but the interior took my breath away. The church was built at the same time as the more famous Agia Sophia in Constantinople and share many of the same architectural elements. Both churches are named for Christ who is the "Holy Wisdom" of God, and not the martyr Saint Sophia. This church has stunning ninth century mosaics.

Agios Demetrios

This is the view from our window in Thessaloniki: the 1700 year old church of St. Demetrios.

I awoke at 7:30am to the church bells announcing the beginning of Orthros (morning prayers). I got ready and went downstairs and across the street to church by 8:00 for the last part of Orthros.

The Great Doxology and bells at St. Demetrios Thessaloniki, Sunday 13 July 2014.

It was a pleasant surprise when a fully vested bishop emerge from the sanctuary: this meant this morning would be the much more ceremonious Hierarchical Divine Liturgy. At least half a dozen priests and a dozen subdeacons and servers made lengthy processions the entire length of the five aisled basilica. Hundreds and hundreds of faithful prayed. The house was packed with standing room only.

This church houses the relics of St. Demetrios and the nun martyr St. Anysia, his contemporary. St. Demetrios was a well known, high ranking official in the Roman army whose outspoken Christian beliefs drew the ire of the emperor Maximian. The emperor was killing Christians in gladiatorial contests with his invincible vandal champion Lyaios. Nestor, an untrained disciple of St. Demetrios, defeated the mighty Lyaios. The crowd erupted in chant "Great is the God of Demetrios!" St. Nestor was then beheaded and St. Demetrios was martyred with a lance on 26 October 304. The church was built over the site of ancient Roman baths where St. Demetrios was imprisoned, martyred and buried, near the site of the arena, the ruins of which are still visible a block to the south.

12 July 2014

Zurich: First Impressions

After an overnight flight with little sleep, we arrived in Zurich around 6:30am (or 11:30pm eastern time).
We secured our luggage in a locker, took a ten minute train into the old town, and have spent about an hour strolling through the narrow empty streets.

It's pretty early on a Saturday morning, and it's great to watch the city waking up.

Around almost every corner is a small square with a fountain.

And lots of great courtyards.

We've grabbed coffee at a great little cafe.

11 July 2014

Here We Go Again

Rebekah, Codey, and I are about to depart for our return to Greece!
My first trip to Greece found me in Athens for five weeks, studying Byzantine chant in daily lessons with Dr. Ioannis Arvanitis. It was a tremendous learning experience. This trip will allow me to follow through with some dreams and plans unrealized in my last trip. Over the next few weeks, we will travel through Greece as pilgrims, beginning in Thessaloniki, visiting a friend and his family in Trikala, a brief stop in Athens, some island hopping, and finally, if God wills, we will venerate our Lord's empty tomb in Jerusalem.
Our flight leaves Chicago in about an hour. Next stop: Zurich.
Κύριε ελεισον!

25 June 2014

St. Justinian the Great

St. Justinian the Great, 5x7", gold leaf and acrylic on panel.

The likeness and vesture is based on the mosaics at Ravenna and Sayidnaya. The scepter and orb portray his imperial power and authority. The scepter is quite historically accurate, based on a contemporary ivory bas relief of emperor Anastasius I, who died in AD 518, or nine years before Justinian ascended the throne. The globus cruciger is based upon historical models and really little has changed here from antiquity to modernity.

Please see more of my work at www.brianwhirledge.com.

19 June 2014

The Met

Rebekah and I had a great day in New York City. Of course, we went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 
Just past the ticket counter is the ancient Egyptian collection.

I was drawn to the Fayum Portraits. These were funerary portraits of the deceased, painted with encaustic or egg tempera on wooden panels, and bound in the wrappings around the mummy. These portraits originated in  second century AD, Roman Egypt. 

 The realistic style originated in Greece, but due to the hot, dry climate of Egypt, these Fayum portraits are among the only extant encaustic paintings from antiquity. These frontal, luminous images directly influenced icon painters and are one of the art forms that developed into Christian iconography. 

Next we encountered art from classical Greece and Rome. The marble sculptures was impressive, but as a painter, I was drawn to the frescoes. These frescoes were removed from walls near Naples, Italy, and carefully reconstructed in the museum. As I mentioned above, classical antiquity developed advanced realistic painting, but little has survived outside of the arid climate of Egypt. These frescoes were preserved not by a harsh climate but by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 70, destroying but persevering Pompeii and its surroundings.

Frescoes are wall paintings created by painting into freshly applied plaster. The pigments become permanently embedded into the wall as the plaster cures. Michelangelo famously used plaster in the Sistene Chapel a millennium and a half after these Roman frescoes. 

Similar brush strokes and building light and shadows have been passed into iconography. 

The Fayum portraits and these Roman frescoes provide a great glimpse into the stunning realism that dominated the pre-Christian world. Early Christian artists took the best art from antiquity and abstracted it to depict spiritual It is appropriate to quote Kontoglou:
"We received our Orthodox faith from divine revelation and not from human wisdom, so that its art also could not be naturalistic but only spiritual."
(Fotis Kontoglou in Byzantine Sacred Art by Constantine Cavarnos)

The highlight of my tour was, of course, the medieval period, when Christian art flourished. 

A beautifully illuminated hymn from the feast of Pentecost, which we just celebrated. 

I draw influence from Romanesque sculptures and paintings when approaching western saints. Romanesque is the indigenous art of the Christian west and is a fitting, organic way to depict western saints without the forsaking rich tradition and beauty of Byzantine iconography. 

While the Met has a great Romanesque collection, the Byzantine gallery was a bit lacking. In all fairness, I did not see their collection at the Cloisters, and next month, I will be inundated with great art upon my return to Greece. 

For further reading:
Fayum portraits:

Roman Painting: 

The Art of Arts

"Byzantine art is for me the art of arts. Only this art nurtures my soul with its deep and mysterious powers, it quenches the thirst which I feel in the dry desert which surrounds us. Next to Byzantine Art, all other art seems to me light, 'distracted by many things,' while only 'one thing is needful.' That one thing, when it is perceived by someone, it is understood."
Fotis Kontoglou in Byzantine Sacred Art by Constantine Cavarnos

17 June 2014

Christ the Healer

Christ the Healer. Acrylic and gold leaf on birch panel. 18x24" 
Installation in Prayer Chapel at IU Health Goshen Hospital, Goshen, Indiana.

"O almighty master, physician of souls and bodies who humbles and raised up, who chastises and again heals, do thou forbid the spirit of sickness, heal every wound, ever infirmity, every sore, ever fever, ever pain, and seizure. Yea, O Lord be merciful unto thy creation, in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."

The Antiochian, Russian, and Ukrainian Orthodox churches of Goshen, Indiana, commissioned this icon of Christ the Healer for the local hospital's prayer chapel. Christ is surrounded by those he has healed: The Paralytic, Lazarus, The Leper, The Possessed Boy, The Possessed Man, The Daughter of Jairus, The Bleeding Woman, and The Blind Man. Along the borders are small icons of 15 saints associated with healing: The Theotokos, Saint Anna the Grandmother of Christ, Saint Anastasia Deliverer from Potions, Saints Hermione, Philonella, and Zenaida, Saint Sophia Martyr and Physician, Saint Luke the Apostle and Evangelist, Saint Nektarios of Aegina, Saints Comas and Damian, Saints Cyrus and John, Saint Panteleimon, and Saint Luke the Surgeon of Simferopol.

Photo of Icon by Codey Holliday.

08 June 2014

Holy Trinity

The Holy Trinity. Acrylic and Gold leaf on panel. 8x10"

"Come ye nations, let us worship the three-personed Godhead, a Son in the Father, with the Holy Spirit; for the Father timelessly hath begotten the Son, equal to Him in eternity and the throne; and the Holy Spirit was in the Father, glorified with the Son, one Might, one Substance, one Godhead, which we all worship, saying, Holy God Who created everything through the Son with the help of the Holy Spirit; Holy Mighty, in Whom we knew the Father, and through Whom the Holy Spirit came to the world; Holy Immortal One, the comforting Spirit, proceeding from the Father and resting in the Son; O Holy Trinity, glory to Thee."
-The Vesperal Doxastikon for Pentecost  Source

08 May 2014

Peter and Zoe

Χρόνια πολλά Peter and Zoe!
Saints Zoe and Rome and Peter the Aleut, private collection,  acrylic and gold leaf on birch panel, 11x14"
Many years to my friend, Peter, and his new wife, Zoe, who were married today! In honor of the occasion, I painted for them this icon of their patron saints: St. Zoe of Rome and St. Peter the Aleut. St. Zoe is pictured in her native Rome, with the tree on which she was hung in martyrdom, as well as the Tiber River in which the pagans threw her holy relics before being honorably buried by Christians. Saint Peter is depicted in his homeland of Alaska, along with a kayak reminding us of the hunting expedition which led to his capture and torture at the hands of Jesuits. Christ is in the heavens in the mandorla, giving to them their martyr's crowns.
I am happy to make custom family icons like this as wedding gifts. Please go to www.brianwhirledge.com for more information or to commission a custom icon as a gift for a wedding this summer or fall.

28 April 2014

Saint Zoe of Rome

Saint Zoe of Rome, private collection, acrylic and gold leaf on birch panel, 8x10."

I recently finished this commissioned icon of St. Zoe of Rome. In Greek, Zoe means "life," as in eternal life, not to be confused with "bios," biological life. In the Greek Bible (Septuagint), Zoe is also the name of our first mother, Eve, in English. St. Zoe (+286) was a noblewoman, wife to a Roman official. Unable to speak for six years, she fell down at the feet of St. Sebastian, and by her gestures implored him to heal her. The saint made the Sign of the Cross over the woman, and she immediately began to speak and to glorify the Lord Jesus Christ. She was arrested while praying at the grave of the Apostle Peter, found guilty of her faith in Christ, and burned alive while being hung from a tree, receiving a martyr’s crown.

Please see more of my work at www.brianwhirledge.com.

26 March 2014

Righteous Rebecca

Righteous Rebecca. Acrylic and gold leaf on birch panel, 5x7"
Private collection.

I was recently commissioned to paint an icon of Saint Rebecca, wife of the Patriarch Isaac, whose life is recorded in the book of Genesis. She is wearing the earrings and bracelets given to her by Isaac's servant as a pledge of betrothal (Genesis 24:22). She is also holding a pitcher, from her prophetic encounter at the well with Isaac's servant (Genesis 24:15-21). Her pitcher is based on contemporary Mesopotamian pottery. This event foretells Christ's encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob's Well in which Christ finds his bride, the Church (John 4).

This commission has been a welcome opportunity to return to paint my wife's patron saint. On left is an icon of St. Rebecca of the Old Testament that I just completed. On the right is an icon of the same saint that I painted five or so years ago. It's amazing what a difference five years of continued practice and learning makes!

20 March 2014

The Kursk Root Icon of the Mother of God

The 700-year-old, wonderworking Kursk Root icon visited our town's Orthodox churches today, and what an inspiring icon to behold. Here it is at my own parish, St. Mary's Orthodox Church, yesterday. You can see some of my own icon wall murals of the Theotokos mirroring the Kursk Root icon. Learn more about the Kursk Root icon here: http://www.kurskroot.com/

19 March 2014

The Holy Protection

I finished this icon of The Holy Protection a few weeks ago. I plan to use this icon as the subject of an icon painting workshop I will teach this Fall. It depicts the Virgin Mary, Mother of God, in prayer holding her veil as a protective shield or covering. This feast is known as Pokrov (Russian/Slavonic) or Agia Skepi (Greek), and is celebrated in October.

"Most holy Mother of God, today we Orthodox joyfully celebrate thy coming among us. As we gaze at thy icon we cry with compunction: Shelter us under thy protection, deliver us from evil, and pray thy Son Christ our God to save our souls." - Troparion of the Feast

18 March 2014

St. Vincent of Lerins

I recently completed an icon of Saint Vincent of Lerins. The colors in his clothing are inspired by Father Gregory Krug, a mid-20th century Russian iconographer who worked in exile in France. The thin, translucent layers of color are muted by a complementary under painting and the highlights move from warm to a cool white. A leading theologian of the Church in the 5th century, Saint Vincent is celebrated for his definition of the Orthodox faith in a time plagued with errors and heresies: "Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus, creditum est." Or in English, "That which has been believed everywhere, always, by all people." His defense of the traditions of the Fathers and his condemnation of innovation and novelty in the Church are as appropriate today as they were in his time.

"The Church of Christ, zealous and cautious guardian of the dogmas deposited with it, never changes any phase of them. It does not diminish them or add to them; it neither trims what seems necessary, nor grafts things superfluous; it neither gives up its own nor usurps what does not belong to it. But it devotes all its diligence to one aim: to treat tradition faithfully and wisely; to nurse and polish what from old times may have remained unshaped and unfinished; to consolidate and to strengthen what already was clear and plain; and to guard what already was confirmed and defined. After all, what have the councils brought forth in their decrees but that what before was believed plainly and simply might from now on be believed more diligently; that what before was preached rather unconcernedly might be preached from now on more eagerly." - The Vincentian Canon in "Commonitorium"

02 February 2014


Prophet Elias. Acrylic and gold leaf on birch panel, 9x12"

My wife and I have several godchildren, and the newest is Elias Alexander, who was baptized into Christ's Church today on the Feast of Our Lord's Presentation in the Temple. Little Elias also received his first hand-painted icon: his patron saint, Holy Prophet Elias. 

After telling King Ahab that it would not rain for 3 years, St. Elias fled to the wilderness, where he lived by the Brook of Cherith and where the ravens brought him bread and meat for sustenance (III Kings 17:1-7, St. Matthew 6:25-34).

Please see more of my work at www.brianwhirlege.com.

01 January 2014

Saint Basil the Great

Today, January first, in the Orthodox Church, we celebrate a double feast.  Being the eighth day of Christmas, that is the eighth day after Christ's birth, Jesus was named and circumcised according to the Law of Moses. For our salvation, God became fully human, and subjected himself to all that entails.  As a human, he received a name, Jesus, which means "Savior." 
As God, he gave the Jews the Law, and as a man, he shows us how to faithfully follow his commandments.  Being born a Jew, he followed the Law; as the Messiah, he fulfilled the Law. Circumcision was the initiation rite into Judaism; Christ fulfilled it and gave us Holy Baptism for us to be initiated into our life in Christ. Under the Law, only men were circumcised; in Christ all can be baptized equally, as their is "no male or female." Just as the Jews circumcised infants born to Jewish parents, bringing them into the Jewish faith, so traditional Christians baptize their infant children to bring them into faith and discipleship at a young age so they can follow Christ their entire life.
The second commemoration on January first is Saint Basil the Great. Saint Basil was a great bishop, liturgist, teacher, ascetic, and theologian.  Saint Basil came from a family of saints.  He was born (330) to godly parents, whose parents suffered persecution and martyrdom under Emperor Diocletian.  His mother, Saint Emilia and his father, Basil, had ten children, five of whom are formally canonized saints.

Saint Basil the Great, acrylic and gold leaf on panel, 11x15" private commission.
He studied philosophy and rhetoric in Athens, becoming friends with St. Gregory the Theologian.  He undertook an ascetic pilgrimage to Syria, Palestine, and Egypt.  Inspired by the holy monks, he returned to Cappadocia, lived a very austere life, founded a monastery, and was ordained a priest. 
He compiled the Liturgy, now known as the Liturgy of St. Basil, which we still celebrate ten times a year. He preached twice every day, and wrote many theological books, perhaps the most famous is the Hexamaeron, or “on the six days of creation.” In 370 was appointed as bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia. He was a great pastor of the church.  He gave his personal inheritance to the poor and did much to help the poor in his diocese, especially by building homes for the homeless and destitute.  He was persecuted by the emperors who supported heretical factions that denied the divinity of Christ.  His body was exhausted by his strict ascetism as well as the stress of being a pastor, he reposed in the Lord on January 1, 379 at the age of 49. (source: oca.org)
One of my favorite passages of his writing is the following commentary on Psalm 1:
Any part of the Scriptures you like to choose is inspired by God. The Holy Spirit composed the Scriptures so that in them, as in a pharmacy open to all souls, we might each of us be able to find the medicine suited to our own particular illness.Thus, the teaching of the Prophets is one thing, and that of the Historical books is another. And, again, the Law has one meaning, and the advice we read in the Book of Proverbs has a different one.But the Book of Psalms contains everything useful that the others have. It predicts the future, it recalls the past, it gives directions for living, it suggests the right behavior to adopt. It is, in short, a jewel case in which have been collected all the valid teachings in such a way that individuals find remedies just right for their cases.It heals the old wounds of the soul and gives relief to recent ones. It cures the illnesses and preserves the health of the soul.Every Psalm brings peace, soothes the internal conflicts, calms the rough waves of evil thoughts, dissolves anger, corrects and moderates profligacy.Every Psalm preserves friendship and reconciles those who are separated. Who could actually regard as an enemy the person beside whom they have raised a song to the one God?Every Psalm anticipates the anguish of the night and gives rest after the efforts of the day. It is safety for babes, beauty for the young, comfort for the aged, adornment for women.Every Psalm is the voice of the Church.

Translation by Thomas Spidlik, Drinking from the Hidden Fountain: A Patristic Breviary, Cistercian Publications, Kalamazoo, MI – Spencer, MA, 1994.