For centuries, the art of iconography has provided a window to the divine, a doorway into history that not only serves as an artistic representation of a biblical event or of a saintly figure, but more so, as a form of evangelization that reveals the love of God towards mankind.
The Nazareth Institute in Rome, one of the most prestigious schools in Italy, held an exhibition by famed iconographer Christina Munns to commemorate their 125th anniversary. Born in Hamburg, Germany, Munns has spent more than 20 years perfecting her craft, learning from both Greek and Russian Orthodox styles of iconography.
The 23 icons displayed not only gave viewers an opportunity to see Munns’ artistic ability, but also a glimpse into her spirituality and faith.
From the depiction of the Resurrected Christ’s appearance to Mary Magdalene in “Noli Me Tangere” to the breathtaking view of the “Flight into Egypt” of the Holy Family, each icon offers viewers both Christian and non-Christian, an opportunity to cross the threshold of the Infinite, the mystery of the love of God for all.
ZENIT had an opportunity to speak with Christina Munns on her work, her faith and how her artwork has become a tool for the New Evangelization in the Year of Faith.
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ZENIT: Tell us a bit about yourself.
I am Christina Munns, I am an iconographer. When I started, it was a mission. One day, my parish priest, during Mass, announced that there was no one to paint the Easter candle. And I don’t know how it happened, but I was standing and I said, “I will do it.” This was 20 years ago here in Rome in the parish of Santa Maria in Vallicella – Chiesa Nuova. I was very afraid because though I have been painting since I was a child, this was really something new. This was the beginning.
I first started to learn with a famous Greek iconographer, Stefano Armakolas and now I am with one of the most famous iconographers in Russia, Alexander Stalnov, from the Orthodox Theological Academy of St. Petersburg. He is also the president of all the iconographers in Russia. And I am very lucky to have the best teachers, he is one of the best. In life, one must follow the best.
With every icon I paint, I go to retire myself in a cloistered monastery because I have the traditional habits of icon painters, like the Church teaches us. I pray, I go to Mass.
ZENIT: So you could say that it follows the tradition of “Ora et Labora (Pray and Work)…
Christina Munns: Yes, it must be done in a liturgical context of prayer in order to receive all the blessings. The spirituality is important because an icon is not a normal painting, it must have the spirituality. An icon opens to you a path to heaven and allows you to enter the invisible and make it visible. It;s very important that an icon has both the spirituality and the blessings.
It is also important that you do not look at the icons, but allow the icon to look at you, that you let yourself be looked at by Jesus. This is very important because he wants to look at you and its a form of prayer. If you let yourself be looked upon, you receive the spirituality. It is a connection that allows you to touch spirituality.
Icons do not have religious barriers: it is open to all religions, it’s unity. It is very important to be united with other religions and iconography has no barriers. Everyone can receive a spirituality from these icons.
ZENIT: There have been many discussions in this Year of Faith, both from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI as well as Pope Francis, on the importance of evangelization. Many people evangelize in different ways. How do you see your art as a form of evangelization?
Christina Munns: It is a form of evangelization because through icons you can explain the path of history since the Bible is a written historical account. But you can also relate messages on how to recognize where is Jesus in your life through iconography. Where are you? Where do you find Jesus? Faith comes through an announcement. When someone gives you an announcement, or you speak about an icon, they are announcing to you something when they explain what the Icon represents.
So, after you receive the announcement, maybe you become curious and start researching because you want to know more. And through this research, you can recognize Jesus in your life. Like Simeon said, “Now let your servant go in peace […]because my eyes have seen the salvation.”
An iconographer is a minister, an ambassador of peace. So, that is also a rule that we have. To transmit peace. Through icons, you can recognize Jesus in your life, that he is with you everyday. It is us that strasy away from Him. You can start to sing, to praise God, to be grateful and then you can receive faith.
ZENIT: What is the purpose of this exhibition at the Nazareth Institute?
Christina Munns: The Institute is celebrating their 125th Anniversary and they wanted to have a religious event for this occasion. So I was invited by the director to have this exhibition. This is a very well known school. Some of the most important families of Rome have their children enrolled. It was originally run by French sisters but they still hold to very old traditions. So they know the quality of my work as an iconographer and they asked me to do this exhibition for their anniversary.
ZENIT: Of all the icons that you have on display today, which one strikes you the most or allows you not only to evangelize others, but that speaks to you as well?
Christina Munns: The most important icon for me is the “Noli Me Tangere” because I feel like Mary Magdalene. I am a sinner and so I feel very close to her. She represents my life, how I am poor without Jesus, that I can only be a sinner. So, she is saved by Jesus and this gives me hope because she was a very great sinner.
After his resurrection, Jesus appeared to her first. So this gives me hope to be saved like her because if she was able to obtain salvation, I for sure have the opportunity to be saved as well. And this is the news for today: everyone can be saved. It doesn’t matter what you have done in your life because everyone makes mistakes and go on the wrong path. But you can always be with Jesus. God is love, the true Love and He forgives so you can start a new life.
Icons are a door which opens to you the Mysteries. It allows you to go inside and understand the mysteries a little bit better because it shows you the glory of God. You have a meeting, an encounter, you recognize our Lord, Jesus Christ who saves us. He gave his life for us, for the true Love. God is the real love and He loves you as you are. So the icons opens this door to a mystery that we cannot understand with our intelligence thus opening a door to a mysterious world.
This is very important. So the person who will look to the icon will receive all the blessings for his life. It is also ver important is that you not only look at the icon but that you allow the figure represented in the Icon to watch you.
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For more information on Christina Munn, go to: www.christinamunns.com