Iconography & Hagiography

Pietro Noris, my great-grandfather on my mother's side, was an Italian artisan living in the small village of Malacky, in what is now Slovakia.  He was also a Third Order Franciscan who created a prayer chapel in his home, which was carved in wood and painted in the local folk style of the late 19th-century Austro-Hungarian Empire. I never saw it, but my mother frequently spoke about this saintly man and his religious art.

I myself was born of immigrant parents in New York City, and heard my first stories from my Slovak mother... in English, and also from my Hungarian father's mother... in Hungarian. And though I tell tales from around the world, I am a traditional teller both in my style of telling, and in my choice of traditional folktales, myths, and sacred legends for my repertory. I am not an actor, nor a writer, but a traditional Storyteller shaped by my Central European cultural heritage and my Catholic religious tradition. I am a hagiographer, as well as an iconographer.

I was raised on the East Side (Yorkville) of Manhattan, in an ethic immigrant neighborhood. Though I was baptized a Roman Catholic, many in that mixed Eastern European community were Byzantine -- or as they called themselves "Greek" -- Catholic.  My interest in those rich cultural traditions shaped my love for the worship and the artistic traditions of the Eastern churches as I grew into adolescence and adulthood.

Twenty-five years ago I began to worship at the Byzantine liturgy (in my hometown of Hagerstown, Maryland) at the mission church of the Patronage of the Mother of God Byzantine Catholic Parish. And, about ten years ago I began to paint -- technically "write" -- Byzantine icons, gratefully receiving my first instruction from iconographer Peter Pearson, a prayerful and gentle teacher.

Over the past forty-five years I have worked as a hagiographer, writing and telling sacred stories.  Gradually, I began to transfer my narrative skills (based on visualization -- "seeing pictures" -- in the mind's eye) to the icon boards.  Since my spirituality is shaped by both Western and Eastern Christian traditions,  my hagiography and iconography is also a bridge between these two very different -- but complementary -- spiritual realms. My imagination dwells in the eternal cities of Rome and Constantinople.

I received my doctorate (Th.D.) in the performing arts from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley. Earlier, my M.A. was in religious education from the Catholic University of America. My doctoral dissertation was on the craft & philosophy of storytelling. And part of that research was into the artistic traditions of Western Europe in medieval iconography where I was under the tutelage of the distinguished art historian, Jane Daggett Dillenberger. Afterwards, I held appointments at various colleges, seminaries and universities, including the College of St. Catherine, Niagara University, Mount Saint Mary's College, and the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley.

     As both a hagiographer and an iconographer, I am a religious artist in two different media -- performing art and visual art. My spirituality, rooted in both Western and Eastern Catholicism, is broadly ecumenical, anchored in the classical humanism of the Judeo Christian tradition, and atuned to other sacred storytelling traditions of the world. 

     I am particularly indebted to my three spiritual mentors, none of whom were Catholic: a Jewish psychotherapist and theatre artist -- Jorge Rosner -- a Seventh Day Baptist playwrite, director and religious educator -- Wayne Rood. (Jorge served as a "mahalnik" in the Israeli War of Independence. And Wayne in his youth chauffeured evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson at her magachurch in Los Angeles.) — and Metropolitan Anthony Bloom — a physician and Orthodox priest. Through that Jew and that Baptist and that Russian Orhtodox, God has worked miracles with this Catholic.

     Today, I am particularly committed to ecumenical artistic dialogue with my Protrestant, Anglican, and Orthodox spiritual kin, and  interreligious artistic dialogue with my Jewish and Islamic sisters and brothers.

Shalom, Salaam, Pax


© Robert Bela Wilhelm 2018