09 July 2019
Angel-voices ever singing
round thy throne of light
The opening hymn at Freddie McKeown’s Requiem Mass in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin yesterday [8 July 2019] was ‘Angel-voices ever singing.’ Later, I had my first opportunity see the icons of the seven archangels written by the Revd Olive Donohoe and presented to the cathedral earlier this year.
The icons, mounted in the South Ambulatory at the East End of the cathedral, are written in the Romanian tradition and are the work of by the Revd Olive Donohoe, Rector of the Athy, Kilberry and Kilkea group of parishes in the Diocese of Glendalough.
Olive wrote these icons during her annual retreats over seven years, with each icon representing a year’s retreat. She was trained in icon writing by the renowned Romanian icon writer Michai Cucu, who some years ago presented the cathedral with five icons in Lady Chapel.
At the time, Dean Dermot Dunne paid tribute to Olive for donating her work: ‘I am truly grateful to Olive for her decision to donate the icons to the cathedral.’
Olive began writing her icons at her retreats with the ‘Red Nuns’ – the Redemptoristine Sisters – in Drumcondra. She chose the Seven Archangels having seen an icon of the Archangel Michael in the Carmelite Convent in Delgany, Co Wicklow.
‘I saw an icon of Michael and really liked it and as I was doing it, the iconographer Michai Cucu began to talk about the Seven Archangels and I didn’t even know that there were seven, I thought of four, at a push, Michael, Gabriel, Raphael and I heard somewhere of Uriel. That was it. And as the week went by, I became more and more interested and was inspired I think, to say that I wouldn’t mind doing all seven, you know.
‘Of course, I wasn’t thinking straight because when you consider it, what on earth do you do with Seven Archangels in the house? So five years later here we are,’ Olive said.
During that first retreat, Michai explained the place of the Archangels in the Orthodox tradition, in which each has a role and a place in the hierarchy in Heaven.
The process of writing an icon is complicated and symbolic and done in an atmosphere of prayer and contemplation. Michai brings the ‘gessoed’ boards and gold leaf from Romania and the writing technique, a medium called tempera, involves using egg-wash and mineral paints to give a glowing lasting colour.
Mihai Cucu is a long-time resident of Ireland but comes from Suceava in Romania. From an early age, he was drawn to art and to religion, leading him naturally to his interest in icons which he calls an invitation to the divine. His university training deepened his understanding of the tradition as he learned how to conserve and restore old icons as well as generating new ones.
‘Orthodox Christians use icons of saints to focus their minds on meditation or prayer; they believe the icons are filled with the spirit of the person they represent,’ Olive said recently. ‘The theological significance of the icon is that it speaks in the language of art and the visual of deeper spiritual truths. Icons also lift up our minds from earthly things to the heavenly.’
‘Icons are a prayer. They are not an end in themselves, not a collectable, not a decoration although they are decorative, but they are ultimately a way into prayer,’ Olive said when she presented her icons of the Seven Archangels to the cathedral recently.
The cathedral has produced a booklet giving the background to each icon and offering themes for prayer. The seven Archangels in these icons are: Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, Uriel, Selaphiel, Jehudiel and Barachiel.
Saint Michael is traditionally known as the defender of the Faith. The name Michael means, ‘Who is like unto God?’ The Archangel Michael is a warrior and commander of the heavenly army, and appears in prophetic texts that speak of the cosmic battle at the end of time (see Daniel 12: 1).
Saint Gabriel is the messenger of God. The name Gabriel means, ‘God is my strength.’ In the Hebrew Scriptures, the Archangel Gabriel appears to Daniel to bring an explanation of the prophetic vision he has received.
Gabriel also appears as God’s messenger in the Gospels, appearing to Zechariah to foretell the birth of Saint John the Baptist, and to the Virgin Mary to announce that she will conceive and give birth to the Son of God.
Saint Raphael provides healing to the earth and its inhabitants. The name Raphael means, ‘The Healing of God.’
Raphael is mentioned in the Book of Tobit, performing miraculous works of healing (see Tobit 3: 17).
The Archangel Uriel … the fourth of seven icons of the archangels by Olive Donohoe in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)
Saint Uriel is the light or fire of God. The name Uriel means, ‘God is my light.’ Uriel is mentioned in II Esdras as a messenger who speaks to the priest Ezra. In later tradition and iconography, Uriel came to be closely associated with the sun, light and beauty.
Saint Selaphiel is the patron saint of prayer and worship. The name Selaphiel means, ‘Prayer of God.’ In some Christian traditions, Selaphiel is considered the patron saint of prayer, and is associated with an anonymous angel referred to in the Book of Revelation (see Revelation 8: 3).
Saint Jehudiel is depicted holding a crown and whip, symbolising reward from God for the righteous and punishment for the sinners. The name Jehudiel means ‘Laudation of God,’ and Jehudiel symbolises labour in whatever field or profession and at whatever level of responsibility that is devoted to the glory of God.
Saint Barachiel entreats the mercy of God for people. The name Barachiel means, ‘Blessing of God.’ Barachiel is often portrayed holding a rose, or with scattered rose petals, symbolising the abundance of God’s blessings.
With the proper, appropriate liturgical decorum at Freddie’s funeral yesterday, where one of his chosen readings was Revelation 7, I think he would have been pleasantly surprised with the association of the Archangel Selaphiel with the anonymous angel referred to in the Book of Revelation:
‘Another angel with a golden censer came and stood at the altar; he was given a great quantity of incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar that is before the throne’ (Revelation 8: 3).
Angel-voices ever singing
round thy throne of light,
angel-harps, for ever ringing,
rest not day nor night;
Thousands only live to bless thee
and confess thee
Lord of might.