Unique Symbols

What is striking at first glance about the icon of Jeanne Chézard de Matel is its circular shape. A circle is a very feminine symbol, and signifies wholeness, completeness, and union. Looking more closely at the icon of Jeanne, we see that the circle forms the basic geometry of the icon, and that there are at least seven sweeping circles that give the icon a feel of energy and movement. These circles can be traced in a continuous line, beginning with Jeanne’s left sleeve, and moving to the crown on her breast, to her right sleeve, to the circle of the Trinity, to her face, to the halo, and ending with the circular frame of the icon itself. In Scripture, seven is the perfect number. Jeanne’s desire was “to only be a lover.” This pattern of circles in her icon can symbolize the ongoing movement and action of perfect love.

Jeanne most radically saw herself as Mary at the Annunciation, called, like Mary, “to give birth in the Church to the Incarnate Word whom Mary bore in Bethlehem.” Jeanne’s posture is like that of Mary in Andrej Rublev’s Icon of the Annunciation. This posture is Jeanne’s radical stance before God. She is completely contemplative and completely active at the same time: active in her contemplation, and contemplative in her action.

Hands in an icon are a convention that tells what is happening; they tell the action of the icon, and manifest that the person is speaking. Jeanne’s right hand is open and ready to receive God, and whatever God gives, basically rendering her “fiat.” Everything in the icon is centered in the gesture of Jeanne’s outstretched and upturned right hand; all of who she is, is at one and the same time offered and received in her empty and open hand. In an icon, an outstretched hand also means that the person is speaking. Jeanne’s response is the response of Mary: “Here I am, the servant of God; let it be with me according to your word.” With Mary she says, YES!”

Her left hand holds a loaf of bread (a French baguette, indicating her French heritage). The bread that Jeanne extends to others is the gifts she has received, first and foremost the Person of the Incarnate Word, the Bread of Life. She gives what she has received to feed the hungers of the world.

Her two hands speak of the contemplative and ministerial aspects of her charism. She moves simultaneously between contemplation and activity, in a rhythm of listening and doing, in such a way that the two blend together and give her balance. In her contemplation, she reaches out in loving service; and in her service her gaze is always fixed on God.

The three-quarter bent-forward tilt of her head symbolizes an attitude of humility, adoration and contemplation. She saw that she was nothing, and yet she was joy-filled in the knowledge of her giftedness. She experienced both her woundedness and God’s mercy. In tradition, this bent forward posture also symbolizes intercession and concern for others. Jeanne brings all of us with our intentions to her intercessory prayer. She leans in to the Trinity with her heart, as if listening with the whole of her body, like a person who leans closer to catch the whispered voice that she doesn’t want to miss. She also sits, poised at the edge, ready to move, as soon as God speaks.

One of the most important images in the icon is light. When an icon is written, the darkest color is applied to the board first, and then light is gradually added. The only pure light in an icon is in the eyes. It is this light that determines the shadows and places of light cast on the features of the face. And all other light comes from the eyes, from the inside-out. Imagine two tiny beams of light shining upwards and downwards from the eyes. We say that “the eyes are the windows of the soul.” The open corners of the eyes signify the person’s openness to God, and Jeanne’s eyes are wide open. Love, the holiness of God lived through her life, cannot be contained. Through Jeanne’s eyes, light shines out on us; and in her eyes we see her soul. After completing Jeanne’s face, Nancy said, “Jeanne’s eyes cannot be any bigger or open any wider. She is a woman ‘crazy’ with love and compassion.” Her eyes are fixed in a gaze on three Persons of the Trinity. She seems to say to us, “Do not look at me; look at where I am looking.”

The neck of the person in an icon is ordinarily shown as large and puffy and out of proportion. This puffiness symbolizes that the person is filled with the breath of the Holy Spirit, and that they are ready to blow the Breath of the Spirit on us. The guimpe of Jeanne’s habit covers her neck, but if we could see it, we would see that she is filled with the Spirit of God and desires to share that Spirit with us.

The color of the skin is consistently a dark olive-green-black pigment called “sankir,” which is made up of shades of ochre and sometimes iron oxide. The artist works from dark to light, gradually building up more and more light through watered-down layers and cross-hatching. “Sankir” means suffering and symbolizes darkness. Jeanne knew darkness throughout her life, but kept her eyes fixed on the light. Sr. Nancy shares that, “Even in the writing of the icon of Jeanne, there were continual sufferings, experienced in set-backs, cracking, and experiences of waiting.” God does not destroy darkness, but transforms it. God brings light out of darkness.

The eagle, the most frequently referenced bird in the Scriptures, was repeatedly used by Jeanne to refer to saints like John the Evangelist and Augustine. Jeanne also used the image of the eagle to describe her own call to contemplative prayer, understanding that she was called to be “the little eagle of God’s heart.” She said, “I must ask for the wings and eyes of an eagle…” Eagles soar to great heights, but not without a cost. Their soaring is often filled with troubles, hard work, difficult circumstances, unpleasant environments, discouragement and failure. Though suffering was the experience of much of Jeanne’s life, she set her sights on soaring, and allowed God to take her to places few others go. An eagle also has the eyes to see what others don’t see. The eagle has a second eyelid that provides it with extra protection, so it can fly directly into the sun without blinking or being blinded. It sees farther and wider and deeper than any other bird. Jeanne saw herself as “a young eagle, gazing strongly and fixedly at the Divine Son;” and she understood that the daughters of her Order were also to be eaglets.

Gold symbolizes uncreated light. It does not rust, and is the most enduring of all metals. There is no sun or sky in the background of an icon. Rather, the person is surrounded by the Glory of God. An icon is intended to be a source of light, a source of God’s love.

A halo signifies the person’s holiness, the radiance of love. The light of the halo always breaks the border of the icon because the radiance of love cannot be contained. Jeanne’s love was “a love as strong as death, a love more insatiable than hell, a “love that never says, ‘Enough!'”

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