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Portrait of an Iconographer

Iconographer Michael Galovic
Michael Galovic holds his icon Jesus The Good Shepherd inspired by the Year for Priests.
By Virginia Knight

Mary MacKillop Place in North Sydney recently hosted an exhibition of works by renowned iconographer Michael Galovic. “The Art & Heritage of Icon Painting” showcased a collection of Michael’s icons including works depicting Mary of the Cross and other figures.

In his works, Michael uses traditional gesso, pure gold leaf and paint with egg tempera, in a process that adheres to strict rules and technique, which combined make icon writing a unique form of Christian religious art.

Born in Belgrade in 1949, Michael’s parents valued art not only for its creative expression of life, but as a viable career choice. It was a natural progression for Michael to study art at the Belgrade Academy of Applied Arts with a view to following it as a profession.

However, upon completion of his studies Michael decided to leave art and travel instead. For many years he had been interested in languages and had a strong inclination to see the world. At this point it didn’t seem possible that there was a way to satisfy all three of his interests, but time was to show him a way.

After 15 years in the art world wilderness, Michael landed in Australia in the 1990s. In his own words he was already “itching to resume art practice”. However, he never believed it would form the basis of his primary living.

Australia was in recession and Michael found it difficult to get a job. Consequently, he had to pursue the only means of employment open to him, and began painting.

As commissions began rolling in and his work became recognised, Michael began teaching icon painting in colleges around Sydney. After 10 years of very active painting based in Bondi, he left behind the congestion of Sydney and settled on the Central Coast.

He has established his creative studio and gallery, accessible to visitors by appointment.

Michael first began to develop an interest in icon painting in his late teens. Familiar with the images of icons through his stepfather’s art restoration work in Serbian monasteries, Michael gave in to his own personal curiosity and began to teach himself the very intricate and difficult process of icon painting.

“When I started I had really big problems like anyone who starts on their own, not going to a school or under the guidance of a director,” Michael admits. “The task was incredibly difficult and looked almost impossible. But I like being challenged; it is an intriguing and stimulating force.”

While the problems in mastering this art form seemed insurmountable at times he kept on, and 40 years later, he is branded Australia's best-known iconographer.

Michael’s work is in high demand with pieces commissioned from both individuals and institutions, gracing more than 70 churches across Australia, New Zealand and the UK. “The process never tires me. From the very beginning, I endeavour to ever improve myself,” he said.

Michael does not classify iconography as art. “I don’t consider icon painting as art. Art is only the means, instrumental in conveying the message. It is a mix of art and craft in the service of theology.”

With his artworks now spread throughout the world, the highlight is the thought that he is leaving behind a concrete contribution that has resonance.

“There is great joy and fulfilment in seeing people I don’t know come across my work and cannot hide their delight. It means so much that what I do on a solitary basis can reach the hearts of so many.”

For Michael, the highlight of his painting life was an icon commissioned in 2008 for Pope Benedict XVI and given to the Holy Father during World Youth Day in Sydney. “I received a personal letter from him thanking me for the special effort and outcome in creating that icon.”

Having seen Michael’s recent exhibition at North Sydney I confess that I felt drawn to his representation of St Therese of Lisieux, a piece which seemed to emanate peace and grace.

Michael noted that this piece had a similar effect on many people. “When there is a strong impact upon a person, again and again it surprises and stimulates me to continue.”

Michael still proceeds to work at an obsessive rate, painting every day almost, he says, as though he is still trying to make up for those 15 dry years. The creative urge continues to drive him even when he is not producing icons, with his leisure time often overtaken by the need to realise a completely different idea for an artwork (such as those he has entered in the Blake Prize).

“I can’t rest or stop until I see it finished,” he said. “Only when I execute it, can I see if it works.”

Over the past 10 years he has been building a body of work with Uluru as the central theme. In the past two years he has focussed specifically on trying to convey the image of Uluru in the vein of something sacred as in the form of an icon (though never in a Christian religious sense), but with an aura of sanctity and sacredness, using a lot of the traditional iconic language through gilding, embossing and engraving.

These works will be displayed for the first time in an exhibition of his contemporary works in Korea later this year.

Michael regularly exhibits in many countries, and it seems he has finally found a way to marry his three loves. Travelling extensively and meeting new people Michael says the process of icon painting “speaks a language of its own”.

He hopes to mount an exhibition of his works at the Australian Catholic University’s Strathfield campus in October next year.

For more information about Michael’s work and to view his icons visit:

Icons: glimpses of eternity

Philip Kariatlis, lecturer, St Andrew's Greek Orthodox Theological College, Sydney.

The heart of the Christian Gospel is that the infinite and invisible God, who is uncontained, became visible and containable in Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit, so icons are nothing less than an affirmation that "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us" in reality, and that we "have seen his glory … full of grace and truth" (Jn 1:14).

Following St Paul, who referred to Jesus Christ as the “image” or “icon [eikon]” of God (cf 2 Cor. 4:4)1, the Christian tradition claims that in the humanity of Jesus, the faithful have been granted a vision of God himself .2 Therefore, icons affirm that God really became human, took on human flesh, and, therefore, could be portrayed.

The theology and meaning of icons was eventually clarified in the 8th Century during a tumultuous dispute about icons known as the “iconoclastic” controversy.

Literally meaning “the smashing of icons”, this heated quarrel gave rise to a council in 787AD, the 7th Ecumenical Council, in Nicaea.3  This council outlined not only the legitimacy of icons but also the propriety of venerating them.

Simply put, the Council taught that, to deny icons meant a renunciation of the incarnation of the eternal Son of God, thereby bringing into question the salvation of the human person.4  Part of the doctrinal statement of the Council of Nicaea read:

“We declare that we defend free from any innovations all the written and unwritten ecclesiastical traditions that have been entrusted to us. One of these is the production and representational art; this is quite in harmony with the history of the spread of the gospel, as it provides confirmation that the becoming man of the Word of God was real and not just imaginary, and as it brings us a similar benefit”.5

It is clear that the existence of icons was connected with a concern to preserve a full doctrine of the incarnation. Just as the written words of the Scriptures brought the faithful into an immediate encounter with the very Word of God, so, too, could icons, as graphic images, do the same.

The icon was also seen as “theological language in colour” highlighting the sacredness of created matter. Following the Incarnation, the entire created cosmos could now be transfigured and saved. Christianity afforded a place of salvation to God's entire created world, spiritual as well as material.

No material element was to be excluded from the plan of God's redemption. In this way, all material elements (in the case of icons, colour, pigment, wood, etc) could act as windows giving the faithful glimpses of eternity – namely, an anticipatory insight of the world as it would be in the age to come.

To this end St John of Damascus, echoing St Paul (Rom. 1:20) wrote:

“I worship the Creator of matter who became matter for my sake; who willed to take His abode in matter; who worked out my salvation through matter … Never will I cease honouring the matter through which my salvation was wrought.”6

The icon was seen as a joyful testimony of the innate goodness of the material world (cf Gen. 1:1-28), its potential capacity to reflect the divine, and as fitting recipients of Christian respect and veneration insofar as they could lead the faithful into the presence of the divine.

That icons serve as windows into eternity is seen from their inverse perspective – namely, the elongated facial features and hands, the small mouth for example – which want to depict a radically transfigured world as it will ultimately be in the kingdom of heaven.7

Always worship and adoration (latreia) were directed to God alone, while reverence and veneration (proskynesis) could be paid to icons.

And so, it must be remembered that while it is true to affirm that icons open for us a boundless vision of the world as it was before the Fall and as it will be in heaven, this is nonetheless a “real-yet-partial” experience awaiting its fulfilment in the age to come.

In a profoundly mysterious way, icons take the gaze of those viewing an icon into the “beyond”, offering them in this way a foretaste of the sweet hope of the fullness of a life in God to come in His eschatological kingdom.

1 Also Col. 1:15: "He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation." Other Scriptural passages such as 1Jn 1:1-2; Heb. 1:1-3 could also be cited.
2 One can already begin to discern the various meanings of the word “icon”: For example, Christ is the icon par excellence of God; the human person is also an icon of God (cf Gen 1:26) and, of course, icons as sacred images.
3 This Council is also referred to as the “Council of Nicaea II”. Before that, the Council of Trullo (691AD) had insisted upon the legitimacy of icons.
4 From this it is clear that the Christian tradition of the first common Christian millennium saw the rejection of icons not simply as an indifference to art, but as a Christological heresy not affording full and fitting doctrine of the Incarnation.
5 Doctrinal Statement, 7th Ecumenical Council cited in Jaroslav Pelikan (ed), Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 1:235 & 237.
6 First Apology Against Those Who Attack Divine Images, 16 (PG 94:1245A). Cited in Peter Bouteneff, Sweeter Than Honey: Orthodox Thinking on Dogma and Truth (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 2006), 188-189. It is for this reason that there can be no question of idolatry when it comes to “venerating” icons, since reverence is afforded not to the wood or the pigment but to the prototype depicted.
7 In this sense the icon is not unrealistic in what it depicts but supra-realistic, betraying the saving effects of a world touched by God. It is this fact which rules out “realistic” or photographic portraits and events.

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