St John of Damascus: on Icons

Mar Saba Monastery, sunrise. (Israel)

Mar Saba Monastery, sunrise. (Israel)

This week I will be painting an icon from beginning to end (having already gilded the board) on retreat with Aidan Hart down in Shropshire. It is such a treat to have him as a guide and mentor, he is a wonderful teacher with a gift of clear sight, talent and communication. The subject of the large icon – which will be for sale in the shop next week – is St John of Damascus.

Wait, Damascus? Isn’t that… you know, in the middle of an awful civil war right now? Yes. Yes, the whole of Syria is suffering from the ongoing battle between just about everyone and the tide of refugees seeking to escape with their lives has transformed Greece, which most people think of as the cradle of Orthodoxy. Yet Syria and large areas of the Middle East were once dominantly Christian – what we would now recognise as Eastern Orthodoxy. Many saints lived, wrote and prayed there and one of the foremost is St John of Damascus (or the Damascene). 

He lived in the 7th Century AD, he was also called Χρυσορρόας /Chrysorrhoas (literally “streaming with gold”—i.e., “the golden speaker”) and studied law, philosophy, theology, and music. He was born and lived in Damascus but died at the monastery of Mar Saba, near Jerusalem. So important was his contribution that some of his hymns are still sung  – even the western church uses them at Easter. He is recognised in both the East and West as an important theologian and so his work on Icons is especially important to me.

I will not be able to access the internet while I am away so I have decided to share a few words of his each day, so that when I return with the icon and share the image, you will already ‘know’ him through his works.

Holy Saint John, pray to God for us!