In thinking about the differences between religious art and icons- the subject of one of iconographer Betsy Porter’s online discussions, I came up with the following ideas that I hope will be helpful to iconographers and artists alike.
One of the key differences between religious art and icons is the very nature of the symbolic language of icons. In icons there is no attempt to portray “reality of the natural world. Rather, the icon is all about being a sign and a symbol which points to the reality of God’s presence.
The study of semiotics can be helpful in thinking about this topic. Semiotics is a specialized language dependent upon the use of symbols for communication and created for the purpose of achieving greater exactitude.
Semiotics is often used in reference to the symbolic language of computer programming, but it applies equally here as a way of formulating thought that describes the process of how human beings reach understanding through the use of abstract symbols.
Semiotics is a key tool to ensure that intended meanings (of for instance a piece of communication or a new product) are unambiguously understood by the person on the receiving end.
Semiotics, put simply, is the study of how an idea or object communicates meaning — and what meaning it communicates.
A sign is any motion, gesture, image, sound, pattern, or event that conveys meaning. The general science of signs is called semiotics. The instinctive capacity of living organisms to produce and understand signs is known as semiosis. And, of course, this very issue is at the heart of the difference between religious art and religious icons.
Acts 2:22 – “Ye men of Israel, hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know”.
Miracle Working Icons
Theologically, all icons are considered to be sacred, and are miraculous by their very nature because they are a symbol of the incarnation. They are a means of spiritual communion between the heavenly and earthly realms. However, it is not uncommon for specific icons to be characterised as “miracle-working”. God has chosen to glorify these icons by working miracles through them. Such icons are often given particular names (especially those of the Virgin Mary), and even taken from city to city where believers gather to venerate them and pray before them.
Icons represent concrete events of sacred history and indicate the inner meanings visually. Icons are meant to be a transfigured art form, not reflecting the problems of life but answering them
The flat space in the icons remove the illusion of three dimensional space and a depiction of the natural world that our eyes see. The connection between figures and objects becomes conventionally symbolical the image is reduced to a minimum of detail at a maximum of expressiveness.
The Icon is essentially inseparable from church art because the spiritual reality it represents cannot be transmitted otherwise than through symbols.In the icon of the Trinity that was painted by Andrei rublev in the 1400s the image represents the three men in white who are shown as angels in the icon who came to Abraham and Sarah to tell them that they would have a child despite their age, and to whom the couple showed hospitality under the tree of Mamre. This is the story from Genesis Chapter 18.
This icon came to be used as the key image of the Trinity in the Orthodox tradition partly because it was believed to be the first visible revelation of divinity to man but also because it provided an image through which to represent the godhead without representing God the father. The angels were not at this stage associated with specific persons of the Trinity. This imprecision is what enabled the image to remain mystically unknowable. Rublev passes over the inessential details of the subject reducing the image to its contemplative essence- the unity and Trinity of the godhead. This icon is imbued with the contemplative spirit of Hesychasm. This icon epitomizes Russian icon painting at its most pure and intense, silently revealing the triune God to the inner eye or heart of the faithful. The theologian philosopher Pavel Florensky said of this icon that it is in itself proof of the existence of God.
I hope this article is helpful food for thought, as we move forward to creating new icons for the twenty-first century. I think many discussions on the subject would be very helpful!
Some Resources used in this article: “The Meaning of Icons” by L. Ouspensky and “The Avant Garde Icon” by Andre Spira.
Although our inspiration for painting icons comes from early Christian icons, many iconographers today realize that in order for our icons to have a connection to our modern world, we need to understand that icon painting is still a living and developing art form.
If we widen our perspective to look at Christian art as well as icons, questions develop as to what the differences are between the two. While the subject matter might be the same, the function and purpose, as well as the form of an icon, is distinctly different from those of religious art.
The needs of our contemporary churches and worshippers need to be paramount in our thoughts as we contemplate subject matter and formalistic approaches to writing icons today. Whom is this icon for, whom will it serve?
“Contemplating a piece of work, we do better to think Whom is this work for? Whom will it serve? rather than How will it serve me? Once we find a path for our work to be of service . . . then our work goes smoothly forward. It is not about “us” anymore…Whenever we take art back to the realm of the sacred, whenever we make it an act of service in any form . . . we again experience the ease of creative flow and the lessening of our creative doubts. When we ask to “listen,” we create works worthy of being heard and we ourselves hear the heartbeat of our common humanity, which is grounded in divinity.” Quote from a Richard Rohr blog post where he quotes author Julia Cameron.
As we struggle to understand and make use of the vast canons and traditions of the church as well as those of iconography we can hope to transform our understanding and hope to transform the traditions through the filter of our contemporary church. From my studies over twenty years, I have developed an deep appreciation for Byzantine art and icons. In his book, Byzantine Sacred Art, Constantine Cavarnos states:
“Byzantine art has a religious function. It seeks to express spiritual things in order thereby to help man penetrate the mysteries of the Christian religion; it seeks to help man rise to a higher level of being, to lift his soul to the blessedness of God.”
Another quote from the same book describes the thoughts of Photius Kontoglou, an influential Greek iconographer of the twentieth century:
“Secular art is concerned with external beauty, whereas spiritual art is concerned with inner beauty. Kontoglou emphatically places inner, spiritual beauty above external beauty, and spiritual art above secular art. External, physical beauty, he remarks, is shallow and perishable, while spiritual beauty is deep and imperishable. Physical beauty arouses the outer senses; spiritual beauty the inner senses- it makes us feel reverence,, humility, contrition, the “gladdening sorrow” of which John Climacos speaks.”
There are so many facets of Byzantine spirituality that are evidenced in the iconography and traditions that are incredibly important and valuable to bring forward into our contemporary icons. This would be a service to our culture in many ways. This would make an appropriate topic for many future blog posts and I welcome articles that contribute to this work of discovery and reverence for the iconographic traditions.
It is part of the creative process to be able to remain creative as an iconographer while still upholding the canons and traditions. Evelyn Underhill, in her book “The Spiritual Life” describes another condition of creativity;
“Creativity is the activity of an artist possessed by the vision of perfection; who by means of the raw material with which he works, tries to give more and more perfect expression to his idea, his inspiration or his love.”
In referring to the modern iconographers’ training that impresses the importance of copying from the established Orthodox icons of the past Irinia Yazykova states:
“Many iconographers working today allow themselves to be imprisoned by tradition. Instead of approaching tradition creatively so as to develop it, they too often more or less blindly copy tradition instead. And yet, an image that is not a product of the artist’s own inward spiritual experience cannot be received as a revelation by the viewer.” Irinia Yazykova, Hidden and Triumphant.
As such, it is a balancing act between giving form to the aesthetic tradition as well as the theological meaning of the icon. The service an authentic icon can render to one’s church and community is to express meaningful content in a form that conveys both beauty and prayer.
Today the majority of iconographers are women who have achieved professional success and have moved beyond copying of prototypes into development of new icons of their own.
If this subject is of interest to you, Iconographer Betsy Porter will be hosting an informal online discussion with other interested iconographers on the subject of “Icons and Religious Art- What’s the Difference?” Participants will share images and thoughts on Sunday, September 19, 2021, 5PM EST through Zoom. This is a group that she has been hosting through St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Fransisco for over a year. Here is a link for that meeting.
Here is a link to an article I wrote on “How to Gesso Icon Boards”– it is a description and also contains a link to an excellent video by Paul Stetsenko that demonstrates the whole process.
This month we have an article contributed By Olga Iaroslavtseva on a form of gilding that she recommends. There are many ways to gild our icons and it’s helpful to be aware of each one until an iconographer finds the way that works best for them. Thank you so much for contributing your time and experience, Olga!
Gilding Method with Water-based Glue
Gilding Is Important In Iconography
Gold in the icon is a symbol of Divine Light, Truth and Glory. Since ancient times, Byzantine iconographers have used gilding. With its help, they were able to simultaneously convey both eternity – the absence of time and space, and the holiness of the depicted. Such depth can only be conveyed with gold, colors are powerless in this. The gold background looks like the icon has no bottom. Gilding in icons is found already in the IX-XI centuries. This technique came to Rus in the 13th century. Iconographers often gave icons to professional gilders for gilding. Presently, many people can master this skill by themselves.
In my practice, I use only real gold leaf. I don’t use imitation in principle. Holiness, greatness, heavenly world – this is what the gold on the icons symbolizes. All this is absolute truth. Therefore, we should use genuine gold. This is my creed.
Various gilding techniques are known, both simple and more complex. Here, I share the simple technique, suitable for beginning iconographers as practitioners. This is gilding on water-based glue.
Preparation, Shellac and polishing
After the drawing is made on the gesso, the areas for gilding should be covered with shellac. Use a wide, flat synthetic brush for that. Apply several coats of shellac with an interval of 15-20 minutes between them. Each coat should dry before applying the next one. I make shellac myself. For this, I dissolve 5 ounces of shellac flakes in 500ml ethanol – 95%. If you use shellac from a store, I think you may need more layers. Usually, it is a less concentrated shellac than self-made. After all layers have been applied, dry the surface thoroughly. This usually takes one to three days, depending on climate. Dried shellac hardens and is easy to polish.
For polishing shellac, use sandpaper with a grain size of 800 to 2000. When polishing, please be careful not to expose the gesso. Otherwise, the applied glue will absorb during gilding and the gold will not adhere. Also, you can use wet sandpaper. Just drip some water when polishing. This will speed up the process. Eventually, the polished surface should be smooth – without scratches, because all of that will be visible after gilding. Perfectly prepared surface – perfect result of gilding. After polishing, the icon must be completely cleaned of dust. Also, clean the room from dust before gilding.
Now come for the gilding icon. For this I use a cotton pad. I usually mix 1:3 glue with water. I take 1 portion of water to 3 portions of glue. The middle icon consumes a teaspoon of the glue mix. Then I fold the cotton pad in half, dip it in the glue mix and wring it out. With quick, neat, even movements I wipe the areas for gilding. Be careful, please do not leave dry areas. I wouldn’t recommend wiping the same place several times. After the first coat, wait 20 minutes to dry out, then apply a second coat. Wait 20 minutes again and start gluing the gold leaves. You can take your time, the surface remains sticky for a long time.
For gilding, I prefer to use loose gold leaf books, but transfer leaf books can also be used. I cut the gold with a Snap-Off Blade of a common knife. To avoid damaging the gold leaf, I put it between two sheets of paper like a sandwich. Usually, I use one sheet of paper from a leaf book. I cut it to size, then gently slide one piece of paper to the right to reveal the edge of the gold leaf on the left. I apply the open edge of the leaf to the sticky area of the icon, loosen my hand and slowly continue to move my hand with the pieces of paper from left to right. Since the edge of the leaf has already caught on to the glue, the gold leaf neatly lays down in the right place. Paper helps keep the gold leaf from crumpling. Finally, I lightly clap the leaf with a squirrel brush imperfectly, because the final pressing will be after gilding of all areas.
After finishing the gilding, you should carefully examine the surface. If there are holes or cracks, you need to patch them up with small pieces of gold leafs. They usually stick well in these areas. Next, take a new cotton pad and smooth the gilded surface with high quality. Do this with gentle pressure to smooth out wrinkles. Again carefully examine the surface. If the holes remain and they no longer stick, take a toothpick and wrap some cotton wool around the tip. The tip should be like the tip of a pencil. Dip it in the glue mix and squeeze it a little on clean paper so that there is not too much glue. Apply glue with the tip of a toothpick to the holes like a restorer. Try not to go out to the gilding area. Glue pieces of gold to these places and wait 10 minutes. After, smooth these places with a new cotton pad. This is very delicate work.
Remove excess glue and gold residues from areas under painted. For that, use an ear stick and white spirits. Be careful not to damage the gilded area.
Next day, apply shellac in one or two layers with a soft synthetic brush to protect the gilding.
The advantages of this technique of gilding are
– simple application of glue;
– the ability to glue gold leaf after 20 minutes after application;
– easy to patch holes.
The disadvantage of this technique is streaks remain when applied with a cotton pad. They are visible after gilding, though this may not be noticeable to the non-expert. Looked closely, you will notice the vibration of gloss and dullness.
In summary, the gluing technique with water-based glue is fast, simple and gives a good quality gilding. I use Italian water-based glue Ferrario La Doratura Missione ad Acqua.
Iconography has been my professional occupation for 18 years. During this time, I have painted hundreds of icons in different styles and techniques. In 2017-2019, I lived in the United States with my husband, a priest in the Orthodox Christian mission. In 2019, there was an exhibition of my paintings and icons in St. Louis, Missouri. Presently, I live in Lipetsk, Russia. I am happy to share my method of gilding with the American Association of Iconographers. Hope, this will help the development of the iconographic arts in North America.
For more information about my experience in iconography, please visit my social media: @facebook.com/OlYAgallery; @instagram.com/olya_gallery. There I share my art, exhibitions and progress.
Blessing and help from God to the American Association of Iconographers and all iconographers.
May you all be blessed and safe until out next newsletter at the end of August!
If you have an article you would like to submit that would help other iconographers, please contact me below. Also, if you have any thoughts or comments for Olga, please contact me and I will pass them on to her!
During the pandemic, being isolated and shut in for months, I began to realize what the life of an anchoress must have been like! By focusing on my prayer life and the practice of icon writing, I have been able to draw near to God more frequently and with greater concentration experience the silence of my heart than would otherwise have been possible. For that reason, I have begun writing an icon of Julian of Norwich with great joy and received many discoveries in the process. I share with you here some of what I have learned about her.
Born in 1343, Julian lived in the wake of the black plague and lived as well, through the peasant’s rebellion of 1381, and the persecution of the Lollards. May 8 is the Day Dame Julian is remembered in the Church of England, the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She lived a life of seclusion as an anchoress at the Church of St. Julian in Norwich, England for most of her adult life. Through a window to the outside world in her cell, Julian was expected to be available to provide prayer and counsel to those living in the city of Norwich. Julian sought holiness of life and communion with God in order to be able to intercede more effectively for others. Aelred, the author of the Ancrene Riwle, a tract written in 1200 to guide anchorites and spiritual recluses, summarized the ideal anchoress’s prayer:
“Embrace the whole world with the arms of your love and in that act at once consider and congratulate the good, contemplate and mourn over the wicked. In that act look upon the afflicted and the oppressed and feel compassion for them…In that act, call to mind the wretchedness of the poor , the groan of the orphans, the abandonment of widows, the gloom of the sorrowful, the needs of travelers, the prayers of virgins, the perils of those at sea, the temptation of monks, the responsibilities of prelates, the labors of those waging war. In your love take them all to your heart, weep over them, offer your prayers for them.”
After a serious illness, which she prayed to receive, Julian began seeing visions of God. These visions became the source of many “showings” that is, revelations given by God to Julian. The following are some excerpts from these visions. As Julian gazed on the Crucifix, during what she thought was the end of her life, Julian received the first of her visions on the Trinity:
“in the same revelation, suddenly the Trinity filled my heart full of the greatest joy, and I understood that it will be so in heaven without end to all who will come here. For the Trinity is God, God is the Trinity. The Trinity is our maker, the Trinity is our protector, the Trinity is our everlasting lover, the Trinity is our endless joy and our bliss, by our Lord Jesus Christ and inner Lord Jesus Christ.”
And I leave you with her most famous quote: “Jesus answered with these words, saying: ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’ … This was said so tenderly, without blame of any kind toward me or anybody else”.
Excerpts from Grace Jantzen’s “Julian of Norwich” are quoted above.
The following article was submitted by educator and iconographer, Jeannie Furlong. Thank you Jeannie, I’m sure these book reviews will be very helpful, and help to spread the joy of icon writing around the world!
Icon Books, from Jeannie Furlong:
My interest in Icons seems to have been with me for as long as I can remember. It was their stillness and austere beauty that caught my eye, initially! My artist background couldn’t keep me from analyzing what I was seeing. Each new Icon fed my embers of interest and before long a small fire had ignited. I needed to know more!
I purchased my first Icon reproduction, Holy Trinity by St. Andrei Rublev. I then found two intriguing books, Icons andSpiritual Geometry,to read.I also purchased a set of egg tempera pigments to use in the future. Gradually, I realized I was being guided into a steady path centered on learning about and creating icons.
Next, what I really needed was a teacher with the patience of Job. Where? in the midst of a raging Covid pandemic would I find one? Many, many prayers (plus Google) brought me the answer, when a ‘search’ popped up Christine Hales Iconographer! And, she was offering a Virtual Icon class. My learning curve has been straight up; an amazing beginning, and I have learned an unbelievable amount about Icons under her instruction. Now, I am pleased to accept her invitation to share with you a few of the books I found useful on my journey, especially if you are a neophyte, like myself!
I’ve listed sources alphabetically by author. Each has unique information! Enjoy!
Praying with Icons by Jim Forest. Orbis Books, 1997. (Available from Amazon.com on Kindle). The author begins with retelling a personal journey early on with Icons. The interesting aspect, surprisingly enough, is that he is NOT an Iconographer, but his story is very ‘hands-on’ sharing his experiences with Icons. In addition to Icon information and interviews, the author delves into Learning to Pray. He surprises the reader in his section on prayers, with his inclusion of two specific prayers for the Iconographer which are The Rules for the Icon Painter and An Iconographer’s Prayer.
Eyes of Fire How Icons Saved My Life by Christine Hales. Christine Hales 2018. (Available from Amazon.com) The author uses a conversational voice taking the reader on a journey beginning with life discoveries that ‘saved her life’ and continues to chat along the way discussing the values found in many periods of art. Throughout the pages are beautiful color illustrations that spur the reader on. Building this background of information she creates a deeper understanding of Icons that as an art form wields spirituality by virtue of being an art form. Christine’s book is “about” writing Icons explaining foundational processes used for creating icons. It confirms that Icons are a window the artist speaks through, “With this method of art practice, the next step is to combine that with prayer, and in doing so, the Holy Spirit will lift up the space between hand, brush and board, and the reflection of Grace will manifest in your Icon, to be read by any receptive heart.”
Drawing Closer to CHRIST A Self-Guided Icon Retreat by Joseph Malham. Ave Maria Press. 2017. (Available from Amazon.com). The author takes the reader on a very defined study of Icons that includes study and painting. A self-directed “guide into the act of iconography, which is an act of prayer. It has been divided into seven chapters, which not only measure the days it will take to create your icon but also an approximation of the days in which God created everything from nothing.” The study and painting focus on the Icon Pantocrator. These seven chapters use a biblical passage to introduce the Day with the authors’ comments, proceeds to Theological Reflections and continues with Painting the Icon. In the Guidelines, the author encourages the participant, “Remember this is a retreat and not a work project with a deadline. Your seven-day retreat will be a fluid motion of prayer centered on the rhythm you set.”
Sacred Doorways A Beginner’s Guide To Icons by Linette Martin. Paraclete Press, 2002. (Available from Thriftbooks.com). As mentioned in the Preface by Dr Nicholas Gendle, Editor, this book is practical and by no means technical but purposely authored to appeal to the beginner seeking information about Icons. It is written in a very ‘conversational’ voice that carries the reader smoothly from chapter to chapter while delivering a great amount of information carefully crafted without overwhelming the reader. This wealth of information does whet the readers’ appetite to want more information. It could certainly fit the bill as a resource for a study group seeking to know about Icons or an individual preparing to take an Icon class. Chapter 8, God, Angels and People, extends a sense of familiarity about a few icons and terminology used in Christian settings sometimes ‘taken for granted’. This chapter expands the meaning of familiar terminology and explains how it relates within the church.
Icon Painting Technique: A Meditative Guide to Egg Tempera Painting by Mary Jane Miller. Mary Jane Miller, 2013. (Available from Amazon.com-Kindle) The author prepares the reader in the Introduction: “The book is about the subtle relationship between the icon painting and how it reflects and enriches ones spiritual life”.
Silence, plays a major role in the process of creating an icon as an “extraordinary kind of prayer” from beginning to end. “Icons are not portraits; they are a windows on a world that call us to be still, to look and reflect, to be at peace with ourselves, and to rest in a place of thankfulness with God.” The author substitutes the terminology of ‘painting’ for ‘writing’ in her discussion and explains why in the History Chapter. In the Chapter Technique & Materials, she author provides an extensive discussion about her special philosophy while painting with egg tempera. She also provides various ratios she uses in her painting. Painting the Icon is broken into 12 Steps. Each simplifies the painting of each icon to enhance listening to God.
Techniques of Traditional Icon Painting by Giles Weissman, Search Press, 2012. (Available on Amazon.com). A very sturdy paperback that focuses in great detail on the “processes” of writing Icons. It also contains beautiful full color illustrations including a ‘bird’s eye glimpse’ of the detailing for a reference for painting. Chapter 5 – Byzantine Drawing points out “the elements of the composition are positioned for balanced and harmony”. The author continues using detailed step by step information clarified by the narrative while beautiful pictures identify what your work will look like at each phase. Chapter 8 – Inscriptionsexplainsthe importance of an inscription, how to paint it, and includes many inscriptions with an interpretation and origin for them.
Article contributed by Jeannie Furlong:
Jeannie Furlong, Ed.D. Episcopalian, Wife, Mother, Grandmother of 11, Texan, Business Owner, Former Educator, Professor and future Iconographer! Conversation welcomed at firstname.lastname@example.org
Useful Links For Iconographers:
Greek Iconographer, Antonis with instruction on the Cretan style of iconography. It is a simple study which can help with dry brush technique:
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.
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 email@example.com.
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,