“An icon isn’t really an icon without a viewer,” Charles Rohrbacher said.
“Icons are looking out at us, and we complete the circuit, as it were.”
From his small, crowded workshop in Juneau, Alaska, the 68-year-old deacon and iconographer sends his icons out to be present for any viewer who’s willing to see and to be seen, whether in churches, in private homes or in books.
He painted his first icon for his grandmother when he was 8 years old. She kept the crude watercolor of Jesus by her bedside and prayed her Rosary before it every night.
But although Deacon Rohrbacher kept turning out art from that day forward, and went on to study art history and graphic design, it was not until the 1980s that he rediscovered iconography and began to understand how powerful these sacred pictures, with their ancient tradition of preaching the Gospel through images, could be.
He made friends with Dmitry Shkolnik, a Russian iconographer who brought him to the Easter Vigil at an Eastern church.
“The whole interior was painted in fresco from top to bottom, and I thought I had gone to heaven. I had this realization: This is what I’ve been looking for. This is what I’m called to,” Deacon Rohrbacher said.
It wasn’t just the aesthetic appeal. Around the same time, Deacon Rohrbacher was at a gathering at a Salvadoran church in San Francisco, where Catholics were grieving the martyrdom of Archbishop Oscar Romero. Someone had drawn his picture on a piece of white cardboard, and the people surrounded the image with flowers and candles as they prayed.
“Knowing next to nothing of the theology of the icon, it occurred to me that, when everyone said ‘¡Presente!’ when his name was read [a Latin American invocation signifying that the dead are still with us], these evil people have murdered him, but he is present among them. His image signified his invisible presence, along with Christ and Mary,” he said.
That urgent, undeniable sense of personal presence so many people feel when they spend time before an icon is no accident; it is deliberate, and hard won. When Deacon Rohrbacher is illuminating a manuscript or making a print, he allows himself more artistic license and personal interpretation; but when he’s painting an icon, he follows the age-old rules of the training he received from Shkolnik and from the Byzantine Catholic Jesuit Father Egon Sendler.
“What makes an icon different even from [other] religious painting is that self-expression and creativity are subordinated to the form, which is also the content, of the icon,” Deacon Rohrbacher said.
“It’s the opposite of photography. The stylization works in favor of the icon. It’s not the artist imagining what they look like,” he said.
Personal artistic style and self-expression make way for something more transcendent. It’s similar, he said, to how he serves at Mass as a deacon.
“You don’t make it up,” he said. “Every word I say is in a book. You don’t want to impose your personality on the liturgy.”
Which is not to say that you can’t tell the difference between different presiders.
“That’s a great thing; we’re not robots,” Deacon Rohrbacher said.
But individual interpretation present in icons, just as with liturgy, come about because their power works through individual human beings, and so some individuality is inevitable.
Icons are images that proclaim the Gospel. And images and the Gospel are meant to go together.
“There is something missing in our proclamation of the Gospel without images,” Deacon Rohrbacher said.
He vividly remembers visiting beautifully decorated churches in the early ’80s, and although they were glittering and grand, he was dismayed to realize that nothing visible made them discernibly Catholic.
“I was in a church where somebody had decided they would literally whitewash over the painted Stations of the Cross,” he said.
These pictures might not have been the highest quality art, he acknowledges, but some kind of imagery has always been vital to our faith. You can’t just do without pictures….Read the rest of my article about Rohrbacher’s work at Our Sunday Visitor.
I’m so pleased to announce that this is the first in a monthly series I’m writing for OSV featuring Catholic artists. If you have a suggestion for a Catholic visual artist (including yourself!) you think should be featured, please drop me a line at simchafisher at gmail dot com with “Catholic artist feature” in the subject line. I am interested in all styles of art.