My friend Rhonda and I were at the Knights of Columbus Museum in New Haven to see “Windows of Heaven,” an exhibit showcasing 225 examples of Russian Orthodox iconography, along with other devotional items including crosses and reliquaries.
According to the Museum’s website, “icons are often called windows into heaven because they are said to give the viewer a glimpse of the eternal realm…Traditionally, icons were painted in egg tempera on wood and often accented with gold leaf or covered with ornately gilt metal covers called rizas.” The breathtaking collection on display was full of sacred images — Christ, Mary, saints, archangels, scenes from the Bible — and embellished with stunning, bright colors, three-dimensional accents, and elaborate beadwork.
Rich in symbolism, icons are still used extensively in Orthodox churches and monasteries, and many Russian homes have icons hanging on the wall in a prayer corner.
A small, take-away prayer card reminded visitors that “Praying with icons is an ancient practice that involves using natural and ‘spiritual’ eyes, seeing what the image communicates in both your mind and soul.” Be unassuming, it explained, become aware of the truths the icon opens to your mind, meditate, listen, and be grateful. “Offer your needs and aspirations, trusting that they are received and understood.”
Our need had simply been to get out of the house, as neither Rhonda nor I had enjoyed a walk outdoors or each other’s company since the “polar vortex” set in weeks ago. We typically meet for weekend walks in the woods, but agreed a visit with art would have to substitute for visit with nature this time around.
We left the museum a couple hours later and found ourselves driving in a snow squall. I’m not sure which one of us saw it first, but as I was saying “LOOK!” she was pulling over.
There, outside the window, on a city street alongside the highway, a magnificent Peregrine Falcon! It was busy surveying its supper—a seagull lying in the snow beneath its talons—but looked up to survey us for a moment too. And so we stayed that way for a while, it cautiously dismantling its prey, us alternating between taking photos and attempting to identify this remarkable bird of prey with gray-blue wings, black teardrop eyes and a brown striated underbelly.
As an animal totem, the falcon is said to awaken visionary power, and lead you to your life purpose. It carries with it a message of transition and change, and is associated with spirit, light, power, freedom, aspiration, and determination — very often the subjects of Rhonda and my walks in the woods.
“Adopt a sense of humility and respect for the holiness revealed,” the prayer card reminded us. It was hard not to see the blessing in this sighting — a first for both of us!
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IMAGE: The image above is a Russian icon (not included in the Windows of Heaven exhibit), depicting Saint Tryphon and a falcon. According to popular legend, Tryphon once saved the lives of a group of falconers about to die at the hands of Ivan the Terrible. Courtesy of www.pravoslavie.ru/english.
Additional images from the “Windows of Heaven” exhibit and a great article can be seen here.