"Let Me Show You"

Jesuit iconographer-in-residence uses modern and traditional elements in his acclaimed work

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

When he discusses his interest in art and iconography, William Hart McNichols, SJ, feels far more at home using pictures than words.
"I usually go on for about three sentences, then I say 'Here, let me show you,'" said Fr. McNichols with a laugh during a recent interview at his St. Mary's Hall studio. "I guess there's a part of me that feels it's the best way to explain art."

Fr. McNichols is sharing his expertise with the Boston College community as the University's iconographer-in-residence. The 1973 alumnus is creating icons for the University's Jesuit Community, which will be displayed in St. Mary's. In addition, he regularly appears at campus events, celebrating last Sunday's Advent liturgy, for example, and leading a session in the Jesuit Community's "Experiencing God II" discussion series.

Although a relative newcomer to iconography, Fr. McNichols has drawn praise for his creations, which have been commissioned by churches, organizations and even national publications. For Fr. McNichols, iconography is a fascinating and evolving art form, one well-suited to the skills he has honed since childhood.

William Hart McNichols, SJ-"The practice of gazing at icons allows one to communicate with them, to allow them to touch us with their spirit in a way that is transforming." (Photo by Gary Gilbert)

"Bill's icons are quite modern in some respects, but they are definitely keeping in the tradition," said St. Mary's Chapel Prefect James O'Brien, SJ, who helped arrange Fr. McNichols' invitation to the Jesuit Community. "He is an excellent draftsman and he has a way of capturing a mystical sense of the subject."

Prior to arriving at Boston College in July, Fr. McNichols spent approximately four years working with St. Andrei Rublov Icon Publication Ministry in Albuquerque, NM. He produced icons for a local Russian Orthodox church, Le Moyne College in Syracuse, NY, St. Joseph's College in Philadelphia, America magazine, and various parishes, families and individuals in numerous states. His "Our Lady of The New Advent" was presented to Pope John Paul II by the archbishop of Denver on World Youth Day in 1993.

"When I began exploring icons, I found they fed something deep within me," Fr. McNichols said. "Traditionally, icons have been a way for people to encounter Christ, the Mother of God, saints and martyrs. They function as windows, or perhaps doors. The practice of gazing at icons allows one to communicate with them, to allow them to touch us with their spirit in a way that is transforming."

Referring to one icon depicting the Mother of God holding the Christ child, Fr. McNichols pointed out her gentle yet beseeching face, with eyes which seem to directly engage the viewer.

"She asks you for compassion for her child, she is trying to reach you," he said. "In essence, then, we become the child providing comfort to her."

Fr. McNichols credits as his major influence the Russian-American artist Robert Lentz, with whom he studied while in New Mexico. Lentz incorporates contemporary influences into his icons, using recent figures like Martin Luther King Jr., Archbishop Oscar Romero and Dorothy Day as his subjects. While his approach has caused some controversy, Fr. McNichols said, Lentz is regarded as one of the foremost authorities on icons today, and one of his works hangs in the St. Mary's lobby.

Fr. McNichols saw in Lentz's icons a way of expanding upon the religious and spiritual imagery in his own artwork. In addition to more classical icons, many of Fr. McNichols' contain modern elements in the manner of Lentz. Some express compassion for AIDS patients or abused children, for example, reflecting Fr. McNichols' experiences in New York City during the 1980s, which included working in an AIDS hospice. He also designed icons honoring martyrs of Nazi Germany and latter-day Central America, Poland and Russia.

But some of Fr. McNichols' innovations are subtler: In "Mother of God Rejoicing," for instance, the Christ child appears restless and active, rather than lying quietly in His mother's arms as in most renderings.

"It just seemed to me a realistic interpretation," Fr. McNichols explained. "Children, after all, often squirm when they are in their mothers' arms. I found creating this icon a joyous experience, very expressive and affirming of life."

Fr. McNichols' first icon for St. Mary's, based on an image of Mary and the Child near St. Basilica in Rome, will be hung in the main chapel shortly, Fr. O'Brien said.

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