"Windows into Heaven: The Icons of Susan Kelly vonMedicus"

Glencairn Museum News | Number 9, 2012


The Unsleeping Eye shows Mary and an angel watching over the sleeping Christ. His eyes are open, signaling His watchfulness over the world even in sleep. In the corners of the icon’s raised frame appear the symbols of the four authors of the Gospels. These symbols were common in medieval art, with each author assigned his own winged emblem: Matthew, a man, Mark, a lion, Luke, an ox, and John, an eagle. The icon of the Unsleeping Eye has a long history in Russia. 


Figure 1: Hodigitria "She Who Shows the Way."


Religious icons hold an important place in the prayer life of many Christians. In the creation of sacred images, vonMedicus works in an unbroken tradition developed during the earliest centuries of Christianity. Icons translate the Word of God into visual form, and the characterization of icon creation as icon writing, rather than painting, expresses this idea most eloquently. The process of icon writing is itself an act of devotion; the creation of an icon calls for the careful layering of luminous pigments and gold over precise drawings, and the experience honors the icon’s subject as it inspires the artist’s meditation.


Figure 2: "Jacob Wrestling with the Angel" (Genesis 32:26, 30).


In Greek, the word “eikon” simply means “image.” In Byzantine culture, which was based on the Orthodox tradition of Christianity developed in the eastern Mediterranean, the term came to refer to all sacred images. Over the course of time, “icon” began to take on an additional, special meaning, describing holy images methodically rendered on wooden panels. All such icons are created in the same continuous tradition. As a result, they are considered to be timeless representations of the central mysteries of Christianity.


Figure 3: Installation of the exhibition.


Windows into Heaven was co-curated by Ed Gyllenhaal and Julia Perratore. According to Perratore, an art historian at the University of Pennsylvania, “This exhibition of contemporary icons presents an exciting opportunity to explore an artistic practice that has endured since the earliest, formative period of Christian art. The vivid tones, striking figures and high emotional content of Susan Kelly vonMedicus’ work eloquently testify to icon writing as a ‘living tradition,’ as affecting today as it was in centuries past.”


Figure 4: Mary from "Extreme Humility."


Perratore continues, “As a medievalist, I feel strongly that the icons allow us to see the past in the present, offering a window into the beliefs and practices of the Byzantine world—much as the icons themselves are believed to form windows into heaven. In drawing parallels between the icons and medieval artworks from Glencairn’s collection, we seek to highlight the many correspondences between historical moments, demonstrating how the past reaches forward into the present, and vice versa.”


Figure 5: Susan Kelly vonMedicus.


Born into a prominent Philadelphia family, vonMedicus is the daughter of Olympic athletes John B. Kelly and Mary Freeman, and niece of the late Grace Kelly, a movie star who later married Prince Ranier III of Monaco and became Grace, Princess of Monaco. The iconographer recently completed an icon commissioned by her cousin Prince Albert II. It was gifted to the Cathedral of Saint Nicholas in Monaco to celebrate the 700th anniversary of the archdiocese of Monaco.

Iconography is not the personal expression of an artistic idea. According to vonMedicus, “The images are ancient and do not belong to the iconographer. An icon invites one to spend quiet time in front of holiness, mystery and beauty, and then it becomes a place of prayer. The common metaphor for icons is a door or window or gate—a way.”

The iconographer attended Mater Misericordiae Academy, Baldwin School in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia and the Prosopon School of Iconology, founded by master iconographer Vladislav Andrejev. In 2013, she will be artist-in-residence at the Burren College of Art on the west coast of Ireland near where the Kelly family emigrated from in the late 19th century. She is the mother of three sons and resides in the Philadelphia area.

Windows into Heaven: The Icons of Susan Kelly vonMedicus runs through Nov. 10. Hours are 1 to 4:30 p.m. Saturdays, and weekdays with a museum tour or by appointment. Exhibition admission is by donation.

Heavenly Windows: Icons and Their Symbolic Language, an illustrated talk by Susan Kelly vonMedicus at 3:00 p.m. Sept. 23. Admission is $10, free for museum members.

A complete archive of past issues of Glencairn Museum News is available online here.