In teaching icon writing, there are many subtle yet important concepts that are necessary to help students to fully understand what an Icon is and how to paint them. I suspect that the revelation of iconic light is one that grows with experience both in painting icons and in our deepening spiritual development. But even for beginning iconographers, it is vital to understand that the light we portray in icons is not the light of common day, but rather the more subtle light of Christ’s resurrection.
Icon with the Forty Martyrs of Sebastia Late 13th Century
As we know, the light in which we read determines what we can see. The meaning and understanding changes according to the light we shine upon it. Like the existence of God, the meanings and symbolism of the icon are not immediately available, obvious, or revealed to the casual observer. To really see icons, we require a shift in perspective to appreciate them fully. The light in the icon is an important function to aid this process of shifting our perspective from how we see in the natural world to how we see in the world of God’s Kingdom of grace. In the words of Saint Paul:
“Now this is our boast: Our conscience testifies that we have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially in our relations with you, with integrity and godly sincerity. We have done so, relying not on worldly wisdom but on God’s grace.” 2 Corinthians 1:12
Icon with the Virgin Pelagonitissa Byzantine Early 15th Century
So, the light we depict in our icons needs to bring the viewer into this paradigm shift from the secular, natural world we live in, to the grace filled world of God’s reality. In the words of Saint John of Damascus:
“Just as words speak to the ear, so the image speaks to the sight: it brings us understanding.”…”Since the creation of the world the invisible things of God are clearly seen by means of images. We see images in the creation which, although they are only dim lights, still remind us of God.”
Color in the classical world of the Greeks and Romans that pre-date icons, fulfilled societal or symbolic roles. Earth palettes extended by bright colors made by grinding gemstones and distilled plant dyes were the norm for icons. These stable colors of the ancient earth palette provided richness and beauty in their simplicity. They also enabled a very subtle, inner light to be portrayed in icons.
Saint Anastasia the Healer Icon Byzantine Late 14th Century
In addition to the use of colors in creating an icon, a sense of interior lightness that conveys unity and harmony is achieved by limiting the amount of chiaroscuro modeling and where the composition is subordinated to the flat surface of the panel. All this aids in conveying spiritual principles by emphasizing the abstraction of represented events and objects. In the simplicity and luminosity of the compositions of Gospel scenes and figures of saints there is nothing superfluous .
Icon of Saint George with Scenes of His Passion and Miracles Early 13th Century
Thus, the transcendent world of the icon appears to us through color and light.
“Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your son, Christ, our Lord; Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who with You and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God in glory everlasting. Amen.”
May God continue to bless your icon writing and give you joyous expectation this Advent of an even deeper awareness of His Presence.