The Orthodox Faith contains within it a rich visual, aural and tactile world for both children and adults to explore. Our worship services are incredibly layered; they weave Scripture and song together into the dance of liturgy. Our iconography plays a key role in this liturgy by facilitating worship and revealing the basic principles of our Faith. Icons are a visual expression of our theology, bringing to life the hagiography of the saints and preaching the Gospel to all ages. Growing our children’s visual literacy and understanding of faith using icons is a powerful tool at our disposal.
Build the Foundation at Home and in Church
First and foremost, the foundation of a family’s visual engagement with the Church is the family’s icon corner. (If you don’t have one, then set one up!) Your icons don’t have to be relegated to that one particular area, however. An even more intimate and personal way for young children to connect with icons is to put them by their bedside. In our increasingly image-driven world, it’s important to surround our children with the art of the Church; putting icons prominently in the home and sprinkling them throughout our children’s environment helps to remind them (and us!) where they are most rooted—in God.
Preliterate children can also benefit from bringing icons with them into the church services. In the past, I’ve cut out the icons from expired paper calendars and laminated them into little books for my young ones. Depending on the church’s physical architecture and worship dynamic, I’ve also taken time to “visit” with icons on the perimeter of the sanctuary and talk with my young ones on each scene or saint. Each icon is a storybook that unfolds when you explain it to them. When you keep talking to your child about the stories of the Faith, the icon and other elements of the faith become another normal and routine element of their life.
Exercise Visual Muscles Inside Church
Of course, when my children were very young, their capacity to sit still for worship (even while telling them these stories) was fairly limited. Even more trying was the sermon—many times I’d have to make a quick exit from the sanctuary to entertain my little ones in the narthex. I soon developed a strategy from my own Protestant upbringing that helped: I let my little ones draw what was happening in the sermon or Gospel that day.
Left without direction, my kids would lose focus on where they were and draw scenes of cartoons and goofy things, as kids do. So I told them that if they listened closely to the Gospel and sat still during the sermon, they could make a drawing about the Gospel's story. I'd make them sign and date the drawing so I could connect the Gospel reading to their interpretation and remark on it more in-depth (or show it to their father, the priest) later. Sometimes the Gospel story was really abstract and tricky to illustrate, so I gave them a relevant subject matter or another story to work with (Angels! St. George and the dragon! Make a fancy cross!). If we were stuck in the narthex, they could really study the icon next to the candle stand and often came up with their own follow-up questions about what it contained or why that particular icon was showcased that day.
On the days when it worked, my young kids were listening and engaged and created some interesting and thought-provoking art. The process of creating can be a means of understanding and contemplating, and that can be a really powerful tool for young children who are just in the beginning stages of learning about what our Faith is all about. Children learn naturally by copying what others do; it follows that they learn through copying the Church environment. The mimicry and processing experience does not dwindle as the children grow older; even into elementary school and now on the cusp of middle school (as of this writing), my children still enjoy illustrating the Gospel and sermon on occasion.
Encourage the Basics of Visual Literacy
When we encourage our children to put the other parts of worship into a visual format, we help to teach our children how to observe and pay close attention to their environment. We can also help our children cultivate a more keen visual “eye” (think about how you can train a musical “ear”). When we pay attention to the form created by a three-dimensional shape (blind contour drawing through observation), we develop the skill of seeing the interplay of architectural lines. When we manipulate paints (learning to mix colors to get just the right color is tricky), we develop an appreciation for those who took the time, skill, patience and prayer to create icons. When we immerse ourselves in the variety of textures outside their door (by doing nature rubs with paper and crayon, for instance), we grow an appreciation for the variety and beauty of God’s creation.
Encouraging these basic exercises, and others, will help your child to see the beauty within our Faith more clearly. Many of the above techniques you can find easily online and are taught in art classes all over. If your child doesn’t get to experience free time with art, however, it might be worthwhile to make the space, time and materials available. Just like a parent chooses good books for children to read and makes time for them to explore writing, encouraging visual literacy means keeping your child engaged with good visual materials and time to create. Learning to read images by paying attention to color, shape, lines and form enriches a child’s experience of iconography and of worship within the Church.
Start a Conversation
But making time for the active engagement with visuals in the Church and learning observational skills are only two parts of the equation. Encouraging kids to pay attention to their visual world also means asking them questions about it. Children have learned intuitively that icons mean something; they can make the same inference that other images in their environments mean something, too. We can ask our kids about the icons in the Church, about their Gospel drawings, about their other creative endeavors—what they mean. Bringing these kinds of learning experiences into the church can help your kid synthesize information, but it also opens dialogue about the Gospel with your child through the drawing process.
For older children beyond the stages of initial learning, you move from the what (“This is an icon of the Transfiguration!”) and the how (the story of the icon itself or explaining how it’s made) to the why. Deeper explanations of the whys of Church can be incredibly fruitful if you spend time listening to children’s observations and impressions. Outside the Church’s visual world, it’s incredibly wonderful to spend time doing critiques of things they observe and enjoy. Engaging with icons has prepared them to think about how images communicate information. The next step is to start asking them what they think is being communicated to them in other contexts—increasing their visual literacy.
This can start younger than you think it can because, as I mentioned before, visual information is pre-literate. You can ask your elementary-age child who the “bad guy” or “good guy” is and what about the illustration or what’s going on in the movie tells them that. Drawing attention to how an image communicates what it is communicating helps your child to be more aware of the messages coming their way in advertising, film and other visual media. Really thought-provoking discussions can come of just pointing things out and explaining why this or that is doing its job well (or not at all). Helping them learn to back up their conclusions or opinions with reasoning and analysis in the visual world can help to provide them with a set of tools to analyze the onslaught of messages coming to them through the larger visual environment.
So we must not get too lost in the details of craft projects, idealized behavior, excessive worry or trying to measure progress. The point of engaging our kids in the visual world and its context inside and outside the Church is making connections. As parents, we first connect ourselves to God through prayer. We then connect ourselves to our children when we explore these things together. Our ongoing prayers, experiences and conversations with our children are a door held open; they can choose to walk through and connect more deeply with God on their own. And of course, cultivating thoughtful interaction with the visual world inside and outside the Church is just one way among many to prepare our children’s minds for fruitful thoughts and a deeper, more reflective faith that they can call their own.
Good strength for the journey.
Presvytera Jocelyn Mathewes is a photographer, designer, artist and mother of three. With a degree in English and studio art from Messiah College, she has worked as a graphic designer for several nonprofits, taught at various summer camps and written articles for the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Atlanta Family Life Ministry blog, Touchstone magazine and Christian Reflection. Her husband, Rev. Fr. Stephen Mathewes, is pastor of Christ the Savior Orthodox Church in Johnson City, Tennessee. See her work at jocelynmathewes.com.
This article originally appeared in PRAXIS Volume 17: Issue 3, "Faith and Art." To learn more about PRAXIS, including how to subscribe, visit praxis.goarch.org.