The Art of a Priest

Rector painted an icon as his parting gift to seminary

He has always been an artist. When the Rev. Peter Christensen left the campus this summer to become pastor of Nativity Parish in St. Paul, he left behind a work of art, an icon that expresses his talents, both as artist and rector of St. John Vianney, the college-level seminary at St. Thomas.

Between classes and career, Christensen has spent almost 20 years at St. Thomas. As the first art history major at St. Thomas, he designed his own program and painted an icon — a 13th century cross — as his final project.

He became a commercial artist, working in advertising in the Twin Cities. At the age of 25 Christensen entered the seminary, and was ordained a priest in 1985 when he completed his graduate-level studies at the St. Paul Seminary.

Christensen spent 10 years at St. John Vianney, first as spiritual director and the last seven as rector. Now St. John Vianney houses 100 seminarians from 21 dioceses.

For the past six years, he also has been painting a large 5-foot by 8-foot icon, a triptych made up of three panels, to fit on the long side wall of the chapel at St. John Vianney.

"I wanted a work of art there and decided to create an icon," he said. "When I reflect back on my years at SJV, I can’t even begin to describe what a positive impact this place had on my life. These have been the best years of my life, but it was time for a change and now I look forward to being a pastor."

The icon also made an impact. In addition to finding time to work on it, "it was difficult to do one this big," Christensen said. "Now I understand why other artists warned me. Icons this large are mainly done in acrylic paints, but I went for the traditional methods used for centuries. I painted with egg yolk tempera. You mix the pigment colors with egg yolks and then have to apply them very quickly. You mix new colors constantly as you go, and it is demanding to match colors. The panels have 18 colors in various layers and have to be painted flat, since tempera, which goes on as a thin, almost transluscent film, is a very runny paint."

About 400 hours of Christensen’s work are reflected in the icon. "I began the traditional way, by priming the compressed wood surface with 12 layers of white gesso, made from gypsum, ground very finely, and rabbit-skin glue. Then the painting is done in layers, first the frame, then the gold, then the clothing, the buildings and then the flesh," he explained. The materials used ranged from 200 very thin sheets of gold to dozens of eggs.

"It’s a complex process and not very forgiving," Christensen said. "I made a mistake on Paul and had to take a rag and water and scrub it all off. You see all those layers — and hours — go off and all you can do is laugh and say, ‘There goes Paul.’ The process takes very steady hands, patience and a love of detail. I got the dexterity from my father, who is an oral surgeon, and my mother has a great sense of design and color." Actually, the process is called ‘writing’ rather than ‘painting’ an icon because you are telling a story."

The story is one of the three patrons of vocations to the priesthood and is significantly personal. "Mary, Our Lady of Tenderness, is in the center panel and is modeled on a fifteenth century Russian icon. She holds Jesus in a caring way, as God cares for the church, yet with freedom," Christensen explained. "It is a very moving image. The shirt of Jesus is decorated with fleur de lis inside shamrocks, symbolizing the Irish in St. Paul and the French of St. John Vianney. Both a cross and a flower — death and resurrection — are in the fringes of Mary’s garment in this panel.

"I made both St. Paul and St. John Vianney younger than usual, so young people can identify with what they accomplished," he said, talking about the side panels. St. Paul, of the left panel, stands in front of the Cathedral of St. Paul and holds a book of Gospels that matches the one used at the seminary. The pages are open to the quotation: "The harvest is ready, the workers are few."On the right-hand panel is St. John Vianney, also known as France’s Curé of Ars, the patron saint of parish priests. When St. John Vianney opened in 1968, it was one of very few campus-related seminaries. It has become a successful model for others in the United States. Its aim is to provide a strong liberal arts education for young men — who participate in all college activities — while they prepare for a possible commitment to the priesthood.

In the icon, then, the arches of St. Thomas stand next to the seminary building. And — reflecting the humor that is a large part of Christensen’s personality — his dog, Brophy, peers out of his owner’s window. A praying St. John wears a stole in the Tree of Life pattern — the Eucharistic stole worn at the seminary.

"St. John is a picture of contemplation," Christensen said. "He reads the soul. His eyes look inside you. His mouth and eyes show compassion as well as joy. And he invites the answer to the question: Will you do as I have done?"

The "writing" of the icon was a prayerful experience for Christensen. He blessed the brushes before he started. He prayed before he began the hours of painting he could fit into his life here and there. "I thank the seminary community for allowing me the time and space to do so," he said.

In dedicating the icon at an April 18, 1999, ceremony, Christensen recalled beginning the project on Ash Wednesday 1993. He also recalled his long road to the priesthood. "As a young adult, I’d rather have been hit over the head with a two-by-four than become a priest," he said. "Then I was teaching seventh grade CCD in Excelsior in 1978 when a student, Debbie, said, "You would make a good priest." Later, her father came by and encouraged me to enter the seminary. I began to think. Somehow my vocation began. Today, on this dedication day, Debbie died of cancer," Christensen said, speaking again of the cross and the flower, of death and the joy of resurrection.

The chapel at St. John Vianney Seminary is open to the public during the day.