It has been almost a year now, that we, collectively, have been experiencing quarantine for protection from Covid-19. While this his undoubtedly changing and shaping not only the world we live in, but our approach to it as well.
Although it has been isolating, for iconographers the silver lining is that more and more online iconographical resources are available. And, of course, we have a lot more time to research, pray and paint icons! In this context, I thought I would share some thoughts on icons from one of my favorite writers in the hope of adding fresh inspiration and hope to our palettes and our spirits.
From Irina Yazykova in her brilliant book, ” Hidden and Triumphant”, published by Paraclete Press:
“… the Russian monk, Andrei Rublev faces the world with hope and light, counting on God’s mercy while striving to reveal to others that beauty which will save the world…” “Andrei Rublev. (pg. 34)
“Saint Gregory of Palamas had taught that light is an uncreated divine energy. The Greeks felt that this energy was like a scorching fire entering into the soul of the person of faith and consuming sinfulness. In contrast, the Russian Hesychasts understood this light to be a form of grace- a quiet light from within the soul that imparts love for all living things. Saint Sergius of Radoneh …taught his disciples to love every living thing and to see in all the grace and glory of God.
Andrei Rublev, as a student of Saint Sergius, used his icons and his paints to embody this love for God and the world.” (pg. 35)
“For in Him we live and move and have our being…For we, too, are His offspring.” Acts 17:28
The Artist’s Role
“Throughout the ages it is art that has served as a mirror reflecting the spiritual condition of humankind and the world in which we live. The artist, perhaps without being aware of it, witnesses to the time in which he or she lives, adjusting like a fine instrument to the movements taking place in the deepest reaches of the human heart.”
Moving to the end of the book, in Appendix B, “Beauty Saving the World, The Icon Outside of Russia”, we will conclude this essay with two more quotes:
Postrevolution Russian Emigration
“In the 1920’s and 1930’s, centers of Orthodox culture appeared in the West- centers that helped preserve Russia’s literary, scientific, and philosophical heritage at the same time that they gave rise to a new school of Iconography- the Paris School. This contact of Russian culture with the west went way beyond mere esthetic delight in the exotic. The icon was becoming an authentic presence in Western culture, initially, to be sure, in the form of an Orthodox subculture, but later becoming apart of everyday European – and, after the war , American-life.”
“And after the war, the Orthodox Christian community became more cognizant of the need for unity in the search for foundations of the faith that could be held in common by all Christians. The search was joined by the World Council of Churches, theological commissions, and international conferences on interdenominational dialogue. Activities such as these helped stem;ate Western receptivity to the traditions and cultures of their Eastern brothers and sisters.”
Quoting this book as extensively as I have, these points bring us to an awareness of how important the Russian influence has been on contemporary principles and philosophy of iconography today. I hope many of you will be inspired and possibly contribute similar articles that illuminate the path of iconographers today.
In addition to the book mentioned above, another good source for understanding Russian Icons can be found in this link.
I recently gave a talk at the Church of the Redeemer in Sarasota Florida on the Renaissance and Icons for an Advent series on church art. The following are excerpts from that talk:
The Reniassance was making its appearance in art as early as the 14th century in Italy with the art of Massaccio and Giotto. The art of the fourteenth century was a balance of medieval art and the new developments in art that included three point perspective.
The contemporary of Donatello, Masaccio, was the painterly descendant of Giotto and began the Early Renaissance in Italian painting in 1425, furthering the trend towards solidity of form and naturalism of face and gesture that Giotto had begun a century earlier. From 1425–1428, Masaccio completed several panel paintings but is best known for the fresco cycle that he began in the Brancacci Chapel with the older artist Masolino and which had profound influence on later painters, including Michelangelo.
The Shift from A Theistic Worldview to Humanism
Often the term Renaissance is used to describe an attitude toward life which valued Earth more than heaven, the immortality of fame rather than the immortality of the soul, self cultivation more than self effacement, the delights of the flesh more than asceticism, the striving for success more than justice, individual and intellectual freedom rather than authority, and Classical humanism more than Christianity.
The Renaissance ushered in, along with more naturalistic art forms, a humanist view of the world. It was a new dawning where man considered himself master of the world. This is a secular worldview in which God is marginalized.
Until the Renaissance, beauty and holiness were inextricably connected in art for worship, evoking the presence of God. After the rise of realism, artistic virtuosity and competitive patronage began to be the engine that drove the production of art. The previous theistic worldview of the medieval and dark ages was shattered by the desire for carnal gratification and political power especially in Rome.
Ghirlandaio was part of the so-called “third generation” of the Florentine Renaissance, along with Verrocchio, and Sandro Botticelli.
This new attitude of realism and illusionistic perspective is clearly reflected in the art of the period.
But the Renaissance is a study in contrasts because it is also true that the genius of that age has rarely been equaled and never surpassed.
Later, all of Europe, from Spain to Poland wanted to emulate the Italian example of Renaissance painting.
Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael
Leonardo da Vinci was a painter, mathematician,, engineer and inventor. Michelangelo a sculptor, painter, architect and poet. Both were passionate about learning how to represent the natural world and this included dissecting cadavers in order to accurately depict human musculature.
Standing alongside Leonardo and Michelangelo as the third great painter of the High Renaissance was the younger Raphael, His death in 1520 at age 37 is considered by many art historians to be the end of the High Renaissance period, although some individual artists continued working in the High Renaissance style for many years thereafter.
The Eastern Branch of the Church inRussia
Russian Piety differed from the west and even from other Orthodox churches. In Russia, religion stressed piety and self sacrifice. Such meekness was characteristic of the Russian ideal which encouraged the surrender of self in favor of a larger good, the family or the nation.
Salvation meant not only the attainment of individual perfection, but also the transformation of society and of all mankind into nobler and holier forms. For it was believed that the entire nation was holy and that each facet of daily life could be sanctified. Meek behavior and proper manners were a religious as well as a social \ obligation. For the Russians, Christianity reinforced and broadened the ancient Russian Traditions that had considered each individual to be profoundly responsible for the well being of his neighbors and of all humanity. The art form for churches in Russia during the Renaissance period was Icons. They avoided naturalistic and illusionistic rendering and space in their work in order to keep the focus on God’s world.
The early Church Fathers of the Ninth Century wisely decided that the iconic tradition as a visual witness to faith appeals more to the heart than the intellect. It is said that a painting offers us a window onto the world. An icon does the same, except that it offers us a window into the invisible world of God- they make manifest to us the Kingdom of heaven. They portray to us not what we encounter in everyday life, but instead they picture a transfigured world, a world that is seen by the soul and not the eyes.
In the icon we witness a world that is whole, an image of eternity. The icon has come to be regarded not only as a work of art, but also as a witness to the Christian faith in the incarnation of God. And that is why, as Iconographers, we only use models for our Icons from before the Renaissance period, ignorer to avoid the shift from a theistic world view to a humanist one.
Father God, we ask that every time humanity loses its way, you will lift us up and set us out again on the right path, your path. Beauty will save the world!
May the God of hope fill us with all joy and peace in believing through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen
The early Christians wished to decorate their catacombs with paintings, and these became our earliest form of Christian Iconography. They used symbolism, often taken from paganism, and Roman and Greek motifs- but the symbolism was given new meanings: Christian meanings.
Catacombs were underground passageways used for burial chambers during the Roman Empire. All Roman catacombs were located outside city walls since it was illegal to bury a dead body within the city, providing “a place…where the tombs of the martyrs could be openly marked, ” and commemorative services and feasts held safely on sacred days.
Citizens of Roman Egypt memorialized their dead by using wax and pigments to paint on wood panels portraits of their dead. These were placed on mummies at the time of burial. The style of the painting was Greco-Roman but they reflected Egyptian religious beliefs. For the first six centuries, Icon painting followed that tradition.
The style of painting that they copied was similar to popular painting of the late Roman empire. Often Christian artists of the time used animals such as the fish, the lamb, the drinking stag, the peacock and the dove to convey Christian meanings.
Old Testament and the Gospel as Inspiration for Icons
The Old Testament appeared infrequently in the catacombs, but gradually with the spread of Holy Texts and the understanding that the Old Testament stories prefigured the Gospel, those Biblical themes began to inspire icon painters. Motifs such as the salvation of the soul, or Divine Mercy were depicted in scenes like Daniel in the lion’s den, the life of Moses, Jonah and the Whale, the sacrifice of Isaac, Noah’s ark, among others.
By the second century, knowledge of the Gospels was becoming more widespread, so images from the life of Christ began to emerge. Favorite images were the adoration of the Magi, the Baptism of Jesus, the Resurrection of Lazarus and the healing of the paralytic. The simple image of the Madonna and Child was seen as early as the 2nd Century.
Third century saw the Roman Empire under attack from the East, but it survived and moved its capital to Constantinople (modern Istanbul) in 330 AD. One Constantine legalized Christianity in 313, and made it the official imperial religion, Icons and religious imagery proliferated.
THE BYZANTINE EMPIRE
The Byzantine Empire, also referred to as the Eastern Roman Empire, or Byzantium, was the continuation of the Roman Empire in its eastern provinces during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Its capital city was Constantinople. The Byzantine era flourished until it fell to the Ottoman Empire in 1453.
Although the Roman state continued and its traditions were maintained, modern historians distinguish Byzantium from ancient Rome insofar as it was centered on Constantinople and open to Eastern influences. Byzantium was also oriented towards the Greek rather than Latin culture.
It was during the Seventh Ecumenical Council, 787 AD, that the Church Fathers declared Icons to be called sacred objects and full of grace. According to St. John of Damascus, an icon is sanctified by the name of God, and by the name of the friends of God, that is, the saints, and that is why the icon receives the grace of the Divine Spirit.
This is an account of how Icons began in the early Centuries. The period following the sixth century saw turbulence and widespread destruction of Icons and that is why we have so few early Icons existing today.
I hope this article proves helpful and gives perspective that aids Iconographers today.
This month, artist and iconographer Mary Jane Miller has contributed an article about her work with contemporary icons and contemporary themes. Mary Jane lives and works in Mexico and does lovely Silver oklads for many of her icons as well. Her website is listed below.
From Artist/Iconographer Mary Jane Miller
The impact of humanity on creation has been all inclusive, both for our benefit and regretfully the suffering of the Earth entrusted to us. God’s intention was that we use all the abundance for our welfare. We have done so. However we have failed to nurture, preserve, and love her constant companionship .
On Holy Ground On Holy Ground is a collection of icons to honor the planet in a time of climate change. The collection opens with an image of Mary of Swords. The composition places the planet Earth beside Mary as she bows her head. The prophetic prayer of St. Symeon is echoed here,“ A sword will pierce your own soul too, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed . ” (Luke 2, 34-35) . She stands with her hands clasped in prayer for humanity and our hard headed attitude towards climate change all around the globe.
Mary of Sorrows
Mary tilts her head lovingly towards our planet Earth while embracing seven swords that pierce her heart. Seven swords pierce her heart; indicating the fullness and boundless sorrow, pain and “sickness of heart” that would have been experienced by Mary, the Mother of Jesus at His crucifixion.The ancient church speaks of seven deadly sins and seven holy attributes, and seven sacraments.
The number seven is associated with intuition, mysticism, inner wisdom, and a deep inward knowing. The Christian bible used the number 735 times. God created the Earth in seven days and there are seven wonders of the world. The book of Revelation mentions seven churches, seven angels, seven seals, seven trumpets, and seven stars. All music is created based on seven basic notes, and we have seven chakras in the body. The prism effect in a rainbow shows seven distinct colors of light. There are seven bones in our face, neck, ankle and there are seven holes in our head. There is a Divine message in the number Seven. To broaden the metaphor Muslim pilgrams circle the Kaaba in Mecca sevens times, and Egyptians had seven gods.
The significance of the swords and our behavior are clearly emphasized by seven attributes.
Pride is an excessive belief in one’s own abilities, a failure to see others before themselves. Pride is the sword that comes from beneath, unseen yet at the center of her being. It has been called the sin from which all others arise.
Gluttony is an inordinate desire to consume more than what one requires. The behavior manifests when we take more than your share, fail to recognize what is enough or when to stop.
Lust is an inordinate craving for bodily pleasures. The sex trade and our obsession with perverse bodily delight has become a hindrance to many otherwise healthy relationships and social structures. Lust becomes an obsession and taints the whole heart.
Anger is an uncontrolled response or rage towards government, religion,education, family or anyone acting contrary to our blinded desire. They spurn love and opt instead for fury. We cause massive destruction by undisciplined reactions and excessive outbursts of ego. We fail to listen, learn or negotiate.
Greed is the desire for material wealth or gain, ignoring the realm of the spiritual. Big industrial companies use greed to mine sand or gold. It drives the mind tol seduce others through undisciplined cravings through lies. Greed that insists on becoming bigger and better year after year is an avarice.
Sloth is the avoidance of one’s individual physical or spiritual work. It arises from a lack of self, feeling there is no point or purpose in life. On the international landscape it can look like dictators who refuse to act benevolently. Sloth is isolation from the growth in community and a negligence to participate.
Envy is wishing for the other person to not have what they want to possess. We go to extreme measures to prevent others from having what rightfully belongs to them. Personal ambition sets one on a course to do anything necessary to consume more at the expense of others..
These seven behaviors harbor a divine message for where a sword might pierce your own soul. Our planet needs a new awareness for profoundly understanding of our place in the solar system. We can change our mindset to bring about a more balanced existence between humankind and the natural order.
Earth’s climate is warming due to our negligence in having the light of compassion for the rock we live on. We did not create Earth, we do not sustain Earth but it is in our power to care and maintain the Earth. The seven swords piercing Mary’s chest represent the seven sinful human passions that cause spiritual torment for us all. Our human greed, lust, sloth, pride, envy, gluttony, and anger, are largely the components that have led to our planets ill health, imbalance and climate change.
Mary and Christ cling to one another in a loving embrace. Mary of Tenderness is a familiar and common image in classic iconography. Their loving embrace is superimposed on a map of green continents delineated by longitudinal lines. Theirs could be a final embrace or one that reminds us of how fragile our Ecosystem is. Humanity continues to abuse the natural order and balance put in place through the Creator and subsequent evolution over millenniums. Our species cannot continually take what has been freely given and disregard mother earth’s generous capacity to empty herself for our benefit. Like a mother’s love for her child, she surrenders until death without resistance.
Christ is the principal figure as the Pantocrator, “Ruler of All”. His image is superimposed on a map of the world of white colorless land masses. I wanted the transparent continents to be ghost like or a faded memory from another time. The blood lines extend out in the two principle directions from the continent of North America. These deep red lines are the air traffic routes, and shipping lanes over used for our human indulgences. Our human waste and consumption, from every imaginable kind of electronic apparatus to the innocent sand from the seafloor are in peril. The cost to our planet is enormous as we deplete its resources and damage its waterways with transport and shipping.
Mary Jane Miller delights in Large collections, The life of Christ 2005, the Mary Collection 2008, The Dialogue Art for Peace Project 2010 in response to war and violence; the US invasion of Iraq. Now she is dedicating her next collection to climate change and prayer for our future. Climate change is a real issue in many of our hearts and minds. She urges everyone to yield, step back from our past behaviors, reflect and move towards a new, more conscious and responsible lifestyle while together on this planet Earth. https://sanmiguelicons.com/ Miller’s Contemporary Icons .
On another note, iconographer Betsy Porter is hosting virtual discussions on icons broadcast from St. Gregory’s Church, San Fransisco, CA. on Sunday afternoons. Here is her contact information- ask to be put on her mailing list for the Zoom link: email@example.com
Also, my online icon painting classes continue. It takes weeks to prepare each class, but each one includes step by step video demonstrations as well as introducing a new technique with each class. It’s truly a joy to be able to share the gift of icon writing even during this pandemic. All are welcome, each class is taught using egg tempera and gold leaf gilding. Online Zoom Icon Classes
May God continue to bless your icon writing, stay well and safe,
The very first Christian Icons were memorial portraits from the Catacombs immediately following the Resurrection and continuing for three hundred years. They were created to keep alive the memory of the early Christian martyrs. Until Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in 313, Christians had to hide their faith or risk death or persecution.
For the early Christians, it was the memorial image that made the unseen world of their faith live in reality. The martyrs became invisible, but constant companions through portraiture and symbolism in the early icons.
The Byzantine system of sacred portraiture and narrative derives, in part, from the stylistic influences of the Egyptian Fayum period. A certain standardization of facial features in sixth century icons of Byzantine Saints developed that bears a striking resemblance to the Fayum portraits of the first and second centuries.
Some of the earliest surviving icons of Mary and the saints are from wall paintings and mosaics after the sixth century. The most common subjects of early memorial portraits were Christ, Mary, saints and angels.
After the period of iconoclasm, Byzantine portraits of saints began to place more emphasis on the functions and status of the saints depicted in addition to attempting a physical likeness. First, these distinctions were made, for the lesser saints, with words and inscriptions. Later, visual images symbolically represented status and function, but naming of the icon was still an important element visually. It allowed the viewer to “read” the icon and know exactly who the icon was honoring.
Early Christian legend has Saint Luke as the first Icon painter, as he was commissioned to paint a portrait of Mary and the Christ Child. This Icon of the Mother of God is called the Hodegetria.
A fourth century legend speaks of King Agbar who, in need of healing, had sent his messenger to Christ asking for an audience. When Jesus was unable to go, He put His face to the cloth and Christ’s image was miraculously transferred to the cloth. The messenger brought this image to the King who was instantly healed. This legend is attributed to the Mandylion Icon.
Acheiropoieta refers to the holy image that appeared miraculously, as in the case of the Mandylion and also to the Icon of Veronica’s veil. This type of icon is thought of as a true image, not made by human hands.
From the sixth century onwards, Icons began to be venerated in the church and some were believed to be miracle working images, validating and inspiring the faith of the early Christians.
During the Comnenian period, 1081-1185, icons proliferated as murals and mosaics as well as panel paintings for the Iconostasis. Similarly, the Paleologan period, c.1261 saw the flowering of many iconographic mosaics and murals commemorating the saints and the Gospel narrative.
Russian Byzantine Icons
Typically painted on wood, Russian Byzantine Icon portraits tend to emphasize the mystical connection between the saint and God. This is achieved through a softer, more diffused portrait with less sharp or hard edges than other styles. Two of Russia’s most famous iconographers, Andrei Rublev and Dionysius, not only continued the previous Byzantine Iconographic tradition, but they also were able to creatively add subtleties and nuances to it that appealed greatly to the people of their time.
In the words of Egon Sendler, ” Icons are images of the Invisible”. They are memorial portraits that capture visually for us the memories of the saints who went before us. They hint at their accomplishments, the intensity of the saints’ connection to God and His Gospel through symbols, words and pictures.
Making the invisible world of our faith visible has never been more important. Our world and culture are crying out for vision, a perspective, that will help to make sense of the chaos. May God inspire each of us, in the individual way He has for each of us, to reach out and make His world visible and accessible to our loved ones, our neighbors and our world.
This month the topic of our newsletter is contemplation and Icons. As I continue teaching Icon writing (painting), now online due to the pandemic, it seems important to post about the importance of linking prayer to the process of painting Icons. In order for the Icon to reflect God’s Presence, it’s very important for the iconographer to be in a state of grace and prayer while working.
Reflection on the saints being being painted and continuous prayer help to insure that the icon is an authentic expression of who the saint is when transfigured by God’s grace. This is the true likeness of the saint- his transfigured person through the light of God’s action upon him/her in their lives.
In The Eastern theological tradition, man is seen to be on a mystical journey that leads to “Theosis” or deification. Icons represent this union between God and man. The Icon is a manifestation of the presence of God. It draws and brings us into this Presence so that we can experience God in our soul. In this way we become a living icon of God.
Contemplation and Icons
In Byzantine religious culture, the purpose of meditation, prayer and contemplation was always to lead to enlightenment, that is, prayerful immersion in the rays of Divine energy as evidenced in the icon of the Transfiguration.
In Vita Consecrata we read this from Pope John Paul II, : We must confess that we all have need of this silence, filled with the presence of him who is adored : in theology, so as to exploit fully its own sapiential and spiritual soul; in prayer, so that we may never forget that seeing God means coming down the mountain with a face so radiant that we are obliged to cover it with a veil (Ex 34.33); in commitment, so that we will refuse to be locked in a struggle without love and forgiveness. All, believers and non-believers alike, need to learn a silence that allows the other to speak when and how he wishes, and allows us to understand his words”
Whereas St. Benedict, who has set the tone for the spirituality of the West, calls us, first of all, to listen, the Byzantine Fathers focus on gazing. This is especially evident in the liturgical life of the Eastern Church as the 2nd Ecumenical council in 787 makes clear, when it says : “What is communicated through the Word is revealed silently through the Image.” In Byzantine Liturgy therefore, Word and Icon complement each other.
Each of us is an Icon of God, and through prayer and contemplation, we are able to see our brothers and sisters as God sees them, and then bring this deep sense of God’s view to the process of painting Icons.
Hesychasm is a mystical form of prayer practiced by Byzantine Monks and iconographers of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Jesus‘s teaching in the Gospel of Matthew tells us that “whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you”. Hesychasm in tradition has been the process of retiring inward in order to achieve an experiential knowledge of God. The Jesus prayer, prayer of the breath, was commonly the prayer used when painting icons in this tradition.
The Jesus prayer is this, or a variation of it: “Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.”
And to finish, here is a quote from “The Message”, a treatise from fifteenth century St. Joseph of Volokolamsk:
“Wherever you may be, O Beloved, on sea or on land, at home, walking, sitting, or lying down- ceaselessly pray with a clear conscience, saying, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me,” and God will hear you.”
Equipped with prayer and contemplation, the iconographer is able to paint with God’s direction and all will be well!
Each month, we choose a topic relevant to the education of contemporary iconographers, and I invite you to make suggestions, submit possible topics, or write a guest post. Contact me!
During this time of pandemic it’s good to think about Icons of healing and restoration. There are many that come to mind, but Saint Raphael seems particularly appropriate as he is the patron saint not only of travelers, but also of physicians, nurses, and medical workers. For this reason, I am offering an online icon painting class in September where we will write an Icon of Archangel Raphael. His feast day is September 29, and is celebrated along with Saints Michael and Archangel Gabriel.
The story of Archangel Raphael is beautifully told in the book of Tobit in the Apocrypha. Raphael means God heals. In the book of Enoch he is believed to have healed the earth when it was defiled by the sins of fallen angels. In John 5: 1-4, the Gospel speaks of the pool at Bethesda where many sick people gathered, awaiting the movement of the waters. “An angel of the Lord descended at certain times into the pond and the water was moved. And he that went down first into the water was made whole of whatsoever infirmity he was under.” Because of the healing powers associated with Raphael, he is considered to be the angel in that Scriptural story.
In the book of Tobit, Raphael appears in the form of a man who will accompany Tobias on a journey. To the recently blinded Tobit (Tobias’ father) Raphael says, “Take courage, the time is near for God to heal you. Take Courage” Tobit 5:10.
During the journey, Raphael heals Sarah of the demons that plagued her so that she could safely marry Tobias. Tobit is also healed of his blindness by Raphael. When Raphael finally reveals his identity as an angel of God the two men were afraid and fell down, but Raphael said to them ” Do not be afraid, peace be with you. Bless God forevermore…I was not acting by my own will but by the will of God. Bless Him each and every day and sing His praises….. They kept blessing God and singing His praises and they acknowledged God for these marvelous deeds of His, when an angel of the Lord had appeared to them.” Tobit 12:16
In this story and also in the meaning of the name Raphael, credit is given to God who heals, and it is to God that the angels and the saints point and direct our worship and attention.
Raphael is thought to guard travelers on their journeys and is sometimes depicted with a staff and also holding fish which relates to the healing of Tobit’s blindness with fish gall as directed by Raphael. In Europe Raphael is known as the protector of sailors and is shown in a relief on the Doge’s palace in Venice with a scroll saying “Keep the Gulf quiet.”
Raphael is sometimes thought of being one of the three angels who visited Sarah and Abraham. He, along with Archangels Michael and Gabriel were sent to fulfill God’s will concerning Sodom, Sarah and Abraham.
Flannery O’Connor is believed to have said the Saint Raphael prayer at the beginning of each day:
“O Raphael, lead us toward those we are waiting for, those who are waiting for us; Raphael, Angel of happy meeting, lead us by the hand toward those we are looking for. May all our movements be guided by Your light and transfigured with your joy.” Amen
During these difficult times of pandemic, let us pray often for those afflicted and for all those doctors, nurses and medical workers who are at the front lines of this battle. And we pray also for the speedy discovery of a vaccine cure, in Jesus name, Amen.
Reflecting on the current interest in icon painting we are experiencing in this last thirty years, it is interesting to note the many and varied styles of icon writing that are emerging. How are we able to discern what is a true Icon? By what standards do we judge the authenticity of our own work? In my early days of Icon study I often heard the words “The Canons of Iconography” referred to as our standard of comparison. However, upon closer investigation, it became clear that these Canons were more mythical than reality. There is no Bible of Icon writing.
Traditions of the Past
So, how can we carry on the valuable traditions of icon writing from the past? In the same way that artists have always learned their craft- we need to copy from the masters. In an articulate and well- researched article on just this subject, Romanian Iconographer Todor Mitrovic has written two articles for the Orthodox Arts Journal this month.
In the first article, published online, June 23, 2020, Todor Mitrovic writes about the high achievement of Byzantine art as a very high expression of European culture for its time. He speaks of the canons, or canonicity, of iconography as not sufficiently representing what great church art was in the middle ages or being able to serve the needs of iconographers today. Understandably, the need to distinguish between what is Christian and what is not was a legitimate need in the early centuries of Christianity.
“Very early, disputes arose as to what was genuinely Christian. Hence, the Church was constantly forced to set up norms, e.g., for doctrine, for life, for accepting books as Scripture, for worship. It thus felt the need for a word that would unmistakably denote what is valid and binding in the Church…” T. Mitrovic
However, slavish adherence to an imaginary canon can only limit the authentic expression of God’s Holy Spirit in Icons today.
“…the image of the list of icon-painting rules, however imaginary it might have been, hangs over the heads of contemporary iconographers, and radically defines the entire artistic production of the Orthodox Church.” T. Mitrovic
In the second installment of Mr. Mitrovic’s article in the Orthodox Arts Journal, he speaks of how the canons of the seventh ecumenical council only proclaim the need for icons to be painted, but they do not attempt to interfere with their artistic execution.
That seems that the Byzantine Church never attempted a legal codification of its artistic production, so why do we attempt to do so now?
Instructions for medieval icon painting were general canons which apply to diverse forms of artistic creation. “…in the most famous manual, compiled by Dionysius of Fourna, for example, where there is a recipe for mixing the colors for painting the face, and norms for the proportions of the human figure, the author subverts any concept of a rule, since he states that this is only one among many possibilities …we cannot find there any set of direct prescriptions on producing an icon that would be “canonical” in the narrow sense. Moreover, some clumsy attempts to codify any such prescriptions, especially with ever-advancing reproductive technology, has led to cold and sterile results in church art, which could hardly be compared with the genuine achievements of Byzantine art.” Todor Mitrovic
Language vs Canon
Could the traditional aspect of church art be designated not by the term canon, but by the term language? Mr. Mitrovic asks the question: “what would happen if the normative aspect of church art were treated in a linguistic manner?”
Linguistic structures are extremely conservative and slow to change, not because of some ideology, but because their primary purpose is to communicate and understand. Surely, good icon painting is about communicating and bringing the viewer into God’s presence through the visual image. And there are many aspects of creating icons that help to make this possible. It’s just that there are different ways to use these creative elements- the application of paint for example, or line quality, or color density, and still be within the validity of icon painting language and form.
I suggest you read these articles in order to understand the nuances and implications for your own icon writing. Mr. Mitrovic closes with;
“Although the terms canon and language have some semantic affinity, their use as paradigms, in the end, might have quite a different impact on the development of church art.”
In my lifetime, there has never been more need than that of the present for Christian artists to support one another in this quest for an authentic visual language that represents a theology that can heal and speak to our times.
Last March, I was blessed to teach an Icon workshop at Mt. Calvary Monastery in Santa Barbara, California where I met many motivated and interesting iconographers. One of these is Dorothy Alexander, an Iconographer in Santa Barbara who hosts a twice monthly Icon painting group at her home. The following is an article she has written about this group. An inspiring and much needed aspect of Iconography is community!
FROM DOROTHY ALEXANDER:
“Here in Santa Barbara, California, an ecumenical group of iconography students meet for Open Icon Sessions twice a month. These sessions have been on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic and will be starting up again on June 6, 2020.
Why do we meet?
We are admonished to encourage each other throughout the scriptures. “Therefore encourage one another…” I Thess. 4:18
“But encourage one another daily,…” Heb. 3:13
We share a common bond of desiring to create icons to the glory of God, that others will be drawn closer to God through the icons, and, most importantly, to encourage each other as we work on the icon of Christ in each of us.
Some iconographers have spent years in apprenticeships, travelled to distant lands to learn in specialized schools, others are self-taught, and others have attended many weekly iconography courses. There is not just one “right” way to come into iconography. Just as in our individual journeys in faith, God leads and directs us as we need, not as our neighbor needs.
“A very good piece of advice that I received at Seminary when we were leaving was to never paint on my own. Not only is it important to check in with other painters about theology and subject matter; we also learn so much from seeing our colleagues’ work in progress and discuss their use of materials and painting techniques…”
As the Finnish iconographer, Helena Nikkanen (a student of Ouspensky), painted and restored Coptic icons in Egypt (2016) it was a team effort. She was Head Restorer for the Society for the Conservation of Ethiopian Cultural Heritage.
Their four-person team discussed a lot of icons, each with their own area of expertise. In the production of the icon project, the face of Christ was a nun of Hanuna’s paintings; Manali was responsible for small details such as Coptic texts. Nikkanen made drawings of icons and nun Martha was responsible for priming the icons.
The St. Croix Catholic Iconographers Guild has worked on icons corporately the way Nikkanen suggests. They have also worked on jointly painting iconography on the interior walls of a church on Standing Rock Indian Reservation in July of 2019. https://www.facebook.com/groups/iconography/
Three members of our Open Sessions are making diptych icons to give to our priests at St. Athanasius Antiochian Orthodox Church. They can take these with them as they bring the Eucharist to parishioners. This idea was given to us by people in the Iconography Ministry at St. Kateri (https://www.facebook.com/groups/766736060032157/).
These groups have been examples of how a guild or group of iconographers can serve others to the glory of God. We are praying together, painting alongside each other, and someday we may paint an icon together to serve our community. We exchange books/teachings, share our struggles, and lift each other up in prayer.
The Group Formation:
In 2009 I first met with a group of egg tempera artists in the home of Theresa Rohter. Here is Theresa’s description of how that group came into being.
Adult Education in the 90’s had a watercolor class and the Instructor, Rose Margret Braiden, took some instruction on how to paint an icon and incorporated it with egg tempera. I happened to hear about the class and enrolled. I was the only one doing religious paintings, and only working with egg tempera while others were mixing water color with egg tempera. As I became better at egg tempera, an opportunity arrived in Santa Barbara; The Prosopon School gave a workshop at the Old Mission.
I took a few more workshops and as I developed skills in mixing pigments and working on icons, I invited a few people to my home that were interested in iconography. The rest is history.
Over the years I have developed lasting relationships with people that I have much in common with: faith and iconography.
After the tragic Thomas Fire and Montecito debris flow, Theresa was not able to host these sessions. With the aid of family, friends, and the Montecito Bucket Brigade volunteers, the cases of pigments which Theresa lovingly prepared and maintained were found. These are the pigments which we still use today. Each person who uses them donates $10 per session to replenish the supply.
From the Group:
The best way to get a feel for what we do as a group is to hear from the group. Several participants from the last six months were asked to contribute their thoughts on these three questions:
– How have these sessions aided your iconography journey?
– What do you value in our community?
– What is an unexpected benefit of painting/drawing icons together?
Here are their reflections.
Veronica Kortz with her tryptic icon
These sessions have aided my iconography journey by getting feedback from more experienced iconographers, helpful hints of how to correct, improve, and enhance our icons.
I value our community friendship, the sharing of insights, ideas, and support.
An unexpected benefit of painting/drawing icons together is the bond of prayer and fellowship in our community.
Nancy Kazanjian, our “Cover Girl” at an icon workshop
The Open Icon Sessions in Santa Barbara have enriched my life through Icon Writing. The supportive educational and prayerful environment touches deeply while developing further skills and understanding of the processes, application, and tools. The perimeters of our study are so broad and life enhancing that it is difficult to put into words.
Through our work we deepen friendships and respect towards one another. I value the principles of Iconography, and the foundation of shared faith. I treasure the time of reflective prayerful work. I am sincerely grateful for the generosity and the opportunity to participate.
Kristine Amerson with her Christ the Good Shepherd icon
Gathering together in Open Icon Sessions has blessed me in many unexpected ways. I was drawn into the iconography world when a friend shared an icon she wrote at a retreat. The icon spoke to me and although I did not have any formal background in art she encouraged me to prayerfully consider attending an icon workshop.
What I value most about our community is the diversity, unity, and companionship it offers. All are welcome; we encourage each other and share deeply in one another’s spiritual journeys.
An unexpected benefit has been the depth of spiritual connection I have found on this sojourn.
Sandra Talmadge with her Archangel Gabriel
The Santa Barbara Open Icon Sessions have been a life-line for me for many reasons. The sessions themselves are always done in a prayerful and respectful atmosphere. The clubhouse we meet in is spacious, comfortable, and accommodating, as well as having excellent kitchen facilities for our potluck lunches.
The more experienced offer input as far as each participant needs or wants. The schedule is completed far enough ahead of time to allow for planning. The email communications always include links for further education and interest.
Many masters cannot teach or organize; yet God has blessed us with an organized time of learning together in iconography.
What is more, all of this is done for the love of God. No one pays a fee unless pigments are needed. This has allowed me to continue my love of iconography, with excellent quality, even though I struggle with limited resources.
Terry Kanowsky (Photo of Cristy Maltese and Terry, on the right, having presented icons they painted for the homebound ministry at their church.)
One of the aspects I find so rewarding about Iconography is the time I find for myself and my spiritual center. These meetings enhance the sense of peace and accomplishment my Icon writing gives me. From the comradeship we have on the car pool up to Santa Barbara through the fellowship I enjoy with all the other Icon writers at the meetings, it is truly a “soul day” for me!
I love how we all share our knowledge and in so many ways our love of God and the beauty we create through His hand. In other art forms there is often a lot of ego involved in group get-togethers. But I don’t see that at the Open Sessions. Everyone is quick to help, encourage and share tools. The experienced writers have patience with less skilled or less experienced writers too.
An unexpected benefit is all I learn at each session. How to be prayerful, all aspects of the writing process….little hints, ideas and “best practices” are all things I take away from each meeting.
Nataliya Tinyayeva at an Open Icon Session
In my opinion the iconography sessions are a beautiful part of my spiritual journey.
It is the way to deeper understanding of what an actual icon is, how it can reflect the author, the writer’s skills and the spiritual side of the author.
I personally was always thinking that the iconographer has to be perfect. I was thinking I don’t deserve to write an icon and I am still kind of thinking this way 🙂
However, I understand that there are so many ways to write the icons, we all are human and we aren’t perfect. We can’t produce the perfections, but He can. Of the majority of icons done by good masters only a few of them are done with God’s Spirit. Of course it would be the best to study Iconography at the Orthodox monastery and learn all aspects of Iconography from monks, learn different perspectives of Iconography, but today we live in such a relaxed, chaotic, and weak world that even a small particle of light can become the huge help for people to unite in God. For me, this small particle is these Iconography sessions. It is the additional opportunity to think about God and focus on the Jesus prayer.
There is a quiet environment with spiritual music. It is a good place to be in prayer and to meet other people who want to be united with God, who want to reflect the face of Jesus, Panagia, and Saints into the wood. It is the wonderful opportunity for us to exchange our experience, to get skills from more experienced Iconographers and of course it is the way to improve the skills; because, who knows…. maybe one day somebody will venerate our icon and pray to God. Such thoughts could not only be the motivation to get better at Iconography but also give some inspiration. That is why for me those sessions are very important; I receive support and the desire to continue this journey. I wouldn’t have any confidence to continue Iconography without these sessions.
In a perfect world not only adults but also kids should learn Iconography as a natural way of living and growing. And wouldn’t it be wonderful if at least one child would continue the journey of writing icons and become a good master.
Andrea Carr at an Open Icon Session
I can’t begin to express what a blessing it is and how fortunate we are to have these Open Icon Sessions. Our group, which ranges from beginners to advanced, is so supportive of one another. We each have our own work space which is very ample, and I love it when one of the other Iconographers will quietly and prayerfully come up to my table to observe and then comment on my work. Our group is so insightful and we have all learned from one another. If I ever need help, there are many there for support and the suggestions are given with love and respect.
I have never returned home from one of these sessions without gaining invaluable instruction and I feel so much zeal and joy from our community. If I ever forget any of my supplies at home, our group is so generous with lending a compass or ruler and if we need to buy pigments or supplies, they are there at a very reasonable cost.
An unexpected benefit from coming to these sessions is that we get to hear from the members the retreats and classes they have attended around the United States or even internationally. I just dream when I hear these fascinating stories and we get to learn so much about icon history. And I can’t fail to mention the pot luck dishes we bring to class for our lunch. I have never eaten so well in my life and it is always gourmet and scrumptious. I have met friends that I will have for my entire life and we always keep each other in our prayers.
Martha Helkey is working on an Our Lady of Guadalupe icon like this one made by Tina DaRos.
I appreciate the time spent together with my fellow iconographers. It is a prayerful time for me.
Asia Ballew making a chalk drawing of St. Brigid, with Dorothy Alexander
It is amazing to connect with other American iconographers. It is wonderful to know that I don’t have to go to Greece or Russia to connect with other iconographers. Talented and gifted men and women are right here!
The Open Icon meetings are so uplifting, encouraging, and insightful. As one of the only young people in this group, I’m learning so much from the older, seasoned iconographers who have been passing on to me so much knowledge about this art.
Dorothy Alexander with two of her icons
While it would be easy to stay in my little icon studio and paint on my own, I have grown in iconography through the assistance of others in this community. The kindness, gentle corrections, and challenges have all improved my icons.
Nikita Andreyev, my first icon instructor, said painting an icon is 90% prayer and 10% brushwork. This statement has stayed with me as a foundation in my journey of iconography. For me this has been a spiritual journey and I am humbled when people are glad to receive icons which are never perfect, are definitely flawed, and truly made by human hands. I continue to strive to improve and encourage others to do the same. This community has been used by God to bless me
Praying that the Holy Spirit will guide us, we meet that our “…hearts might be comforted, being knit together in love, and unto all riches of the full assurance of understanding, to the acknowledgement of the mystery of God, and of the Father, and of Christ;…” (Colossians 2:2).
If you would like to be added to our email list please contact Dorothy at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you, Dorothy, for contributing this article and for organizing your group of Iconographers. We welcome your ideas and feedback on future articles for the Association.
This month I wanted to write about the idea of an American School of Iconographers. Not a brick and mortar school, but a school in the Benedictine sense of a community of people who share values, beliefs, and common goals. A school of people who desire to learn from and support each other in the goal of painting Icons would , ideally, be comprised of diversity as well as commonality.
One of the tenets in the Iconographer’s Rules that we all learn when starting to write Icons is “Never forget the joy of spreading icons throughout the world.” Although Icon painting is often a solitary process, joining together in classes can help combat the undesirable effects of isolation and promote growth and learning.
Recently, during the stay at- home -order due to the corona virus, several online Icon classes have sprung up, and I suspect that we will see a lot more of these in the future. Will these replace the onsite icon classes taught by iconographers at colleges and monasteries? No. Live, in-person classes provide an opportunity for feedback, practice, and personal remedial direction, and that works hand in hand with on line classes at other times during the year. The on line classes provide an ongoing way to practice drawing and painting that make the in person classes a valuable source of individual instruction.
Writing Icons is no simple task, as most of you have discovered. Initially, a novice Iconographer is encouraged to copy Icons from before the sixteenth century. This usually involves tracing the Icon, then transferring the image to a board and painting. However, after a few years of this kind of practice, one can move on to learning to draw iconographically. Drawing icons freehand, and learning the basics of sacred geometry composition are tasks for intermediate level iconographers. Color theory comes next, along with practice, practice, practice. It’s good to practice on watercolor paper, do studies, learn how to draw garments, and hands. Then, drawing the face, understanding dynamic symmetry and theology of icons are tasks for advanced Icon classes.
There’s always so much to learn and it’s exciting to have such rich subject matter to explore. When you add all this to the joy of growing closer to God through prayer, contemplation, and icon writing you have an absorbing and life giving practice.
Being an active member of a Church and faith community is essential to writing icons also. Since God, theology and art are so intertwined in this process, it is important to have a spiritual director with whom to ponder and question how God wants to use this art form through your work. Iconographers need to have an active prayer life and understand how Icons are used in contemplation and liturgy.
The American Association of Iconographers is a free association of Iconographers who share a common desire to be supportive to each other and grow in faith and icon writing. We have a Face Book Group ( just search for American Association of Iconographers on Face Book) which you can join. Anyone who is a member can post their ideas, questions, useful links, etc. Because it is an Ecumenical group, we practice acceptance of both Orthodox and non Orthodox Iconography. We usually don’t publicize or promote individual Iconographers’ classes, but instructional video links are acceptable for posting.
It Takes Time to Develop
There have been many developments and changes to the world, as well as to the world of Iconography over the last twenty years. Similarly, it will take time to develop characteristics, attributes, and a standard for excellence in this field.
It will be helpful to see visual examples and hear of other Iconographers’ experiences in their locations regarding community, learning, creating a standard for quality and relevance. Perhaps in the future we could have a virtual conference or series of meetings to discuss these topics. Also, writing blogs for this group can be a way to share experience and perspective.
So far, the guiding principles are: The creation of a spiritually healthy, ecumenical, support group that promotes the practice of Icon sharing, learning, and promoting the love of Icons that can provide direction and possibly regulate a set of guidelines for future Iconographers.
Please feel free to use the contact form below with suggestions, ideas, and possible submissions for blog posts.
May God continue to bless you in all that you say and do,