The Christmas cards that St. Andrew’s parishioners in Carbondale are making for Veterans’ Hospital patients this year are extra special.  They will feature copies of a beautiful Madonna and Child icon created by the parish’s Senior Warden, Michael Onken. Entitled “Icon of Tenderness,” the original icon hangs in St. Andrew’s chapel. Michael is a retired art professor at Southern Illinois University.

Icons, as every computer user knows, are symbols that allow us to access new worlds.  In the case of religious icons, the prayerfully-made art opens the viewer to consider the transcendent dimensions of God.

“Michael’s icon of St. James is perhaps my favorite,” says St. Andrew’s rector, Kathryn Jeffrey. It conveys a powerful sense of presence and connection.”

St. Andrew’s parishioner Martha Angel describes Michael’s art as “awesome,” in that it “opens doors to deeper understandings of the Bible.” An EFM and FCD mentor, Martha has explored his work through theological reflections in her study groups.

Mother Jeffrey is also partial to Michael’s modern interpretations of the devotion to “Mary, Undoer of Knots,” a painting originally from the eighteenth century. “Michael’s painting of a very young Mary presides over the church secretary’s desk and seems to emanate order amidst the often-chaotic busyness of the office,” said Mother Jeffrey.

The original artist was inspired by St. Irenaeus, who wrote, “Eve, by her disobedience, tied the know of disgrace for the human race, whereas Mary, by her obedience, undid it.” Pope Francis is among the many faithful who appeal to the Undoer for intercession in simplifying their lives and in resolving knotty problems.

St. Andrew’s church happily provides other venues for Michael’s work in the nursery and even in the beautiful materials crafted for the church’s Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program. Pictured here are “Moses in the Bullrushes,” and the figures used to teach the parable of ten bridesmaids.

“St. Stephen’s, Gloucester Road, in London had poet T. S. Eliot for a warden, and St. Andrew’s is blessed in Michael’s many gifts as artist and warden,” concludes Mother Jeffrey. “It’s amazing that his faith finds expression in such diverse and beautiful channels, and we are so very grateful.

The Current thanks Professor Onken for his gracious permission to print his artwork.

The Very Rev. Kathryn G. Jeffrey is the Rector of St. Andrew’s Church in Carbondale

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