Bridge to the Divine

By Jeremy Langford, Director of Communications

When Meltem Aktas makes her way down the path from her northside Chicago home to the converted garage that serves as her studio, she is greeted by a sign that reads, Sanctuario. “My studio is my sanctuary,” she explains. “When I begin my work day creating religious icons and art, the sign reminds me that I am about to enter sacred space.” 

In this space, Aktas has created a remarkable body of religious art that has earned her and her company, Imago Sacred Images, widespread recognition and commissions from churches and religious orders, most notably the Jesuits. “I have a very personal connection with St. Ignatius, whose faith journey and spiritual wisdom speak to people across time, cultures, and traditions,” she says.

Meltem_Aktas_ST-IGNATIUS.jpg
 
St. Ignatius by Meltem Aktas

 
Born in Turkey near the Syrian border, Aktas grew up in the shadow of mosques and Orthodox monasteries that left a profound impression on her. After earning undergraduate and graduate degrees from Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University in Istanbul, she furthered her studies at the Art Institute of Chicago, where she fell in love with medieval and Flemish painting techniques. Eventually she focused her artistic talents and love of Eastern and Western spirituality into becoming one of the finest religious iconographers working in the medium today. While she employs ancient methods to create her icons, using specially prepared wood, gesso, gold leaf, and up to 50 layers of transparent oils, Aktas favors softer, more human facial expressions over the severe look of traditional Byzantine icons.   

In 2005, Loyola Academy in Wilmette, Ill., commissioned Aktas to create for its chapel a gallery of Jesuit saints and blessed, including St. Paul Miki, St. Alphonsus Rodriguez, St. Francis Xavier, St. Alberto Hurtado, Rutilio Grande, and, of course, St. Ignatius of Loyola. “I’m so grateful to Fr. Ted Munz for commissioning me and to Fr. Pat McGrath for working with me to complete the gallery,” says Aktas. “Both of these Jesuits appreciate the power of sacred art to draw people into deeper relationship with God. That is the goal of everything I do.”

In early 2006, Loyola University Chicago asked Aktas to serve as chief artist for the renovation of the historic Madonna della Strada chapel. After extensive research, the school’s then president, Fr. Michael Garanzini, SJ, and the director of the Loyola University Museum of Art, Pamela Ambrose, independently determined that Aktas was the best choice for the job. “For me, it was a very special sign that I was meant to work on this project,” recalls Aktas. The project took five years to complete.


Madonna della Strada chapel Tabernacle Doors

Meltem Aktas, with the Madonna della Strada chapel tabernacle doors
In addition to the daunting task of adding four angels to the intricate mural above the main altar that was completed in 1947, Aktas wanted to create something extra special for the renovation. After prayer and contemplation, she came up with the idea of creating Art Deco tabernacle doors featuring angels in the enamel style known as Cloisonné (see inset image). To execute her vision, Aktas traveled to the Beijing China Factory, which specializes in the medieval craft of Cloisonné, whereby thin wire partitions are affixed to a tin or brass base and filled with enamel paste, before being baked, polished, and gold plated. After six arduous weeks of work in China, Aktas transported the doors back to Chicago. She then took another six months to create the casement.

Meltem Aktas at work in her studio
Sacred artist Meltem Aktas in her studio

Given that “writing” icons and creating sacred art takes Aktas months, even years, to complete, many people ask her how she lets her art go. “For me, the reward is the process of prayerfully creating the art,” she says. Deep beneath the layers of her creations, Aktas handwrites a relevant Scripture passage or prayer that flows through the work. Under the very floor of her studio is a poem by St. John of the Cross.

“Sharing my art with the world is a profound privilege,” says the artist. “Sometimes I go into churches where my work is displayed and sit in the pew anonymously to watch people pray, cry, give thanks, light a candle, leave a flower.

“My ultimate prayer is that people will connect with my art as a bridge to the divine, to the sacred.”

More about Meltem Aktas:

Sacred Art: Meltem Aktas's story on Chicago PBS Station WTTW

Video: Making of Cloisonné Tabernacle Doors

Video: IMAGO ICONS


See Meltem Aktas's work at www.imagoicons.com.

Click here for the Fall-Winter 2016 Jesuits magazine index.

New Superior General
On Retreat with the Jesuits
Lent 2017
Hope Springs Eternal



Publications

Jesuits Spring 2017

Jesuits Fall-Winter 2016

Jesuits Summer 2016





Jesuit Retreat House of Cleveland
Nestled in the urban landscape of Parma, Ohio, the Jesuit Retreat House of Cleveland is “a place of peace in the forest.”