It has always fascinated me that the more I study, write, and paint Icons, the more I discover further nuances and distinctions between styles and methods of icon painting. In reading Viktor Lazarev’s article “General Observations on Russian Iconography” in his book “The Russian Icons, from its Origins to the Sixteenth Century”, Lazarev delineates many distinctions between Byzantine and Russian Iconography.
For example, in the tenth century, Byzantine artistic influences began to be seen in Russian art, specifically icons. The cities of Pskov and Novgorod were the most affected, partly due to their form of government that allowed for more artistic freedom. By the time of Andrei Rublev, a distinct school of Russian Iconography could be recognized.
Rus appropriated the Byzantine iconographic types such as the Mother of God, portrayals of Gospel scenes, and similar Old Testament compositions. But in Russia, the faces become more gentle and open, colors became more intense, and highlights smaller and more intense which are sometimes barely perceptible. So, in this way, Russian iconography can be said to transform Byzantine iconography in a way that it is less severe and more open to nuances of content and expression.
Later, the creation of original prototype independent of Byzantium emerged in Russian icons. Some examples of this are the Synaxis of the Mother of God, and the Virgin of Mercy. These changes reflected the every day need for peasant life to be in communion with saints and angels. Protection for their flocks, houses, trades, and health became the subjects and content of numerous versions of Mary, local saints, and the angels.
Russians considered iconography to be the most perfect of all arts. “The art of the icon was invented by God’s very self, who adorns the sky and the stars and the earth with flowers because of their beauty. Icons were shown the utmost respect.” (V. Lazarev, p.23). They were bearers of moral authority and bearers of spiritual grace and holiness. Today icons are endlessly attractive precisely because of this moral purity that appears in icons through the fifteenth century, but begins to disappear with the sixteenth century.
Making efforts to understand distinctions between different styles of iconography, one begins to develop a real understanding of the essential elements of iconography and a to cultivate a desire to bring forward these distinctions to iconography today.
Have you ever wondered about the symbolic nature of Icons? It is the very source of their power as Holy images that convey the many faceted religion of Christianity. One dictionary definition of “symbolic language” reads: ” a specialized language dependent on the use of symbols for communication and created for the purpose of achieving greater exactitude…”
Symbols allow us to bring our spiritual awareness out of the church and into our secular world. Communion with God through the Icon is achieved through a symbolic language where gestures, clothing, and style of drawing are precise and fixed. There are only a few gestures that Christ’s right hand will take, and the drawing of the faces and human form fall within a canon of proportion and scale that relates to the theme and subject matter.
C.S. Lewis, when asked to write another book for his adult audience replied that he now preferred to write in symbols and metaphors for a younger audience (The Chronicles of Narnia), in order to intrigue readers with Christianity unawares. Similarly, Icons can bring the presence of God to people’s hearts whether or not they are Christians at all.
Icons are based on a Greek notion of proportion and symmetry applied to facial features and bodies. Even color has great significance for understanding the mysteries of our faith. The light emanating from an Icon must be indicative of the uncreated light of God’s Presence and the divine light of grace. Through contemplation on these symbolic images, Icons, we can pray for the Holy Spirit to help us become more like Christ in our everyday lives.
The very nature of Icon writing is that, following the principles of ancient art, we seek to make a sign which will convey religious meaning specific to the subject matter of that particular Icon.
Ancient Egyptian design is at the heart of the Icon. You can see this in the Fayum portraits, and also in the flat linear depictions of people and religious symbols found in the pyramids. These influences combined with early Greek flexibility of line and brushstroke form the basis of all early Iconographic composition.
Today, as we Iconographers research, ready, and study to be able to encompass the path to writing authentic Icons that speak to God’s people today, we must still look to the ancients in order to fully grasp the complexity of those seemingly simple designs and processes.
Below are some links to resources to inspire and resource your Icon writing in the new decade! Wishing you all a blessed and joyous New Year!
This month of May, we celebrate Mary, Mother of God, with our prayers and special Icons. This month, Mary Jane Miller, a member of the American Association of Iconographers, has written an article expressing her views of Mary and how perceptions of Mary have changed through the centuries. Here at AAI we are open to informative articles about Iconography from our members, and will publish them from time to time. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information if you are interested in writing or publishing an article about Icons that would benefit the Icon writing community.
Mary Icons: a New Contemporary Trinity by Mary Jane Miller
There are three classic prototypes of Mary Icons. Their collective messages point towards a new contemporary trinity of interconnections. As our society has changed, the concept of Mary and her message brings to light provocative and meaningful perspectives on loving. It has been through contemplating her image, and painting icons of her that I have come to realize a deeper mystical message. Her popular iconography may have the keys to how we are to care for creation and one another in the world.
Mary looks directly at the viewer, beckoning us towards poised stillness and constant prayer with palms extended outward in total surrender to what she receives. She contains the Creator of the Universe in her womb.
Mary Icons of the Theotokos
Mary is portrayed as the feminine energy which tenderly nurtures Jesus to become a teacher, rabbi, master and lord. She is the icon which reminds us to love one another, to love life, and to love creation.
Mary Icons of the Hodegitria
Mary becomes a mystical location, she is the challis that holds the “Way” in her lap. She offers us an example of one who can show us what is necessary to give ourselves to God and one another. We like Mary are called to release to the world what we most love and cherish.
The image of Mary has mutated many times throughout centuries of iconography. From the mother of creation Diva, to a Mother of God gazing into the unknown, to a weeping, anguished mother of Jesus she has changed as our society changes. The Renaissance painters in the 16th century changed her image into a more human mother, one of pain or of joy. Mary’s identity has given rise to many doctrinal wars, decrees and debates but her image is more than cult, idol, mystery or divine. She is a fountain of motherhood image, triggering great reflection and contemplation, and she has triggered a wonderful epiphany in me.
Mary Icons Defined Through History
Theologians of the Middle Ages deliberated in detail the Forever Virgin condition of Mary. They had to answer how it could be that Christ was born to someone as common as one of us? Since ‘ Christ is All man and All God ‘ , His mother would have to be, in some way, all divine. The Roman Catholic Church fashioned the idea of the Immaculate Conception. The concept of Mary being miraculously conceived was declared doctrine in 1854. It was a theological creation which became dogma at considerable expense to women. It made her more perfect and exhausted than any women’s capacity to achieve. Ironically, Mary was lifted to the highest place among men, yet somehow, though she was seemingly divine, she had no voice and no ability to act in any other way but constant surrender.
Nearly 100 years later another detail of her divinity needed clarification. Since Mary was immaculately conceived then where would her divine body go at her death? The Orthodox Church specifically teaches that Mary died a natural death, that her soul was received by Christ upon her death, and that her body was resurrected. On the third day after her ‘ repose ‘ her body was taken up into heaven. It was decided Mary did not die but rather “slept”. This statement became an Article of Faith in 1950. The Roman Catholic institution needed an example of undefiled sexuality, perfected womanhood with divine meekness and they found it in the Virgin Mary, from beginning to end.
We are now living in 2019. Where is Mary’s message and identity now? Has it changed or will the theologians of this age allow a change?
I have painted many images of Mary and I believe she continues to send messages to us today. The wisdom that women have learned through years of service and observation have undoubtedly helped shape society. I believe one critical message we have yet to understand is that humanity does not own anything, we have been lousy stewards of creation. In actuality we share our common energy and common space on the planet. Mary is the queen of teaching us to love. Over time, I have become increasingly aware of all that we have been given. How have we nurtured it? Will we one day be able to Give It Back to the world? Mary gave away the very thing she loved the most. It takes enormous selfless love to do such a thing.
I find it ironic that Christian mystics, mostly men, have spoken and expanded the spiritual understanding of God for nearly two thousand years. In doing so, they have controlled and shaped our society. Mary has not spoken, making our understanding of her elusive. Mary is a woman who, by her human act, gave birth to the most transcendent truth which is love, a love completed in offering. This is by far the very thing the world needs for its healing.
The next three icons illustrate a new teaching and trinity: to receive, nurture and release. The interconnection between these three states of being are precisely the clue we have to discover a new future. It is found in the value of being loved and loving another with no ownership. The idea is not only Christian, it teaches a new attitude towards creation. It is obvious to everyone how much humans are creating. It is obvious how much we love what we create. Will we come to a time when we have the wisdom to give away to the world what we have created? Nothing is truly ours, it never has been. It is all the potential of Love that has been given by God that makes any of this make sense.
Mary Jane Miller
Author Bio. Mary Jane Miller is a self-taught Byzantine style iconographer with over 28 years of experience. For the first 15 years she produced unique and unorthodox collections of sacred art and continues to have them exhibited in Museums and churches in both the United States and Mexico. Miller writes luxuriously, blending historical content, and personal insights to arrive at contemporary conclusions about faith. The author of 4 self-published books include Icon Painting Revealed, The Mary Collection, In light of Women and The Stations. Miller has been published online and in publications such as Divine Temple Russian Orthodox Journal, Faith and Forum Magazine, Liturgy Today and Profiles of Catholicism. She teaches 4 courses annually, 5 day immersion workshops throughout the US and Mexico. website: www.sanmiguelicons.com and http://sacrediconretreat.com/
Thank you so much, Mary Jane, for your thoughts and images of Mary. Next month, the blog will be on the topic of Light and Color in the Icon.
This month the focus is on the fifteenth century Iconographer, Dionysus.
Born sometime in the 1440’s near Borovsk, a small town southwest of Moscow, Dionysus’ earliest works are wall paintings at the Parfuntiev Monastery. Throughout his life, he was attracted to the beautiful and colorful Novgorodian style of Iconography. Dionysius’ colors were delicate and transparent and his elongated figures increased the elements of elegance and symbolism in his work.
Certainly he must have been aware of the work of Andrei Rublev (c.1360-1430), who painted in the old Iconographic tradition. However, Dionysus’ work reflected a new development in compositional style that increased the energy and vitality of the Icon.
One of the Last of the Old Master Iconographers
Dionysius’ style was called “Muscovite Mannerism” and it bridged the gap between Novgorodian Icon painting and the later Stroganov school. His best frescoes are in the Ferapontov Monastery, which include the beautiful “The Meeting of Mary and Elizabeth”. Dionysus and his sons completed all the frescoes on the Virgin and scenes from her life at this monastery. In addition to egg tempera, he was a master of encaustic painting as well.
Dionysus ‘ color palette was strongly influenced by a group of early Renaissance artists from Italy who arrived in Moscow. This can be seen in the delicately blended and balanced soft pigment colors such as pink, lilac and turquoise, creating harmonious chords of color in his frescoes and Icons. The lyrical effect of his style of coloration affected much of the Iconography of the 16th century.
In 1482 Dionysus was called to Moscow to paint the Deesis on the Iconostasis in the Cathedral of the Dormition. After also painting murals in two of the chapels, he and his sons were asked to paint one hundred Icons for the Volokolamsky Monastery. With this, Dionysus devoted the remainder his life to icon panel painting, but today many of those Icons are either lost or un-restored.
Joseph-Volokolamsk was a wealthy patron who commissioned Dionysius to paint over ninety Icons. But the most comprehensive collection of his work is to be found at the Ferapontov Monastery. It is a series of frescoes depicting the life of Mary.
Dionysus Fresco, Mary
Christ Fresco, Dionysus
When writing(painting) Icons, it is always helpful to study from the great Iconographers of the past. Although their work speaks specifically to their time, these early Masters used principles of composition, color, and space in harmonious ways, and that kind of perspective has been largely missing in the art of our time. Copying these works helps educate Iconographers and helps bring valuable knowledge forward into today’s Icons.
This blog is created to share valuable ideas and information with Iconographers around the world. Below are some useful links for Iconographic materials. Until next month:
This month is a continuation of last month’s article on Hesychasm and Icons. There is an interesting book that was produced in fifteenth century Russia called, “Message to an Iconographer.” Message to an Iconographer is believed to have been written by St. Joseph of Volokolamsk. It is helpful in explaining the role and meaning of sacred art and Iconography. It is believed that this book was put together at the request of the famous Iconographer, Dionysius for the purpose of training future Iconographers.
Part of the reason for creating Message to an Iconographer was a concern that after Andrei Rublev’s Icons, there was a progressive lack of focus on the spiritual depth and meaning of the Icon in favor of beauty of artistic form. Message to an Iconographer provides an answer to the prevailing heresy of the time and is a defense of the Icon and its veneration. It is also a positive contribution that explains its spiritual content. Here is a quote from “Theology of the Icon, Volume II” by Leonid Ouspensky:
“How much more appropriate is it then, in this new time of grace, to venerate and bow down before the image of our Lord Jesus Christ painted on the Icon by human hands…and to adore His deified humanity taken up into heaven. This also holds true for His All Pure Mother. Likewise, to paint images of all the saints on icons, to venerate and bow before them is equally appropriate. By painting images of the saints on Icons, we do not venerate an object but, starting from this visible object, our mind and spirit ascend toward the love of God, object of our desire.” This statement echoes the defense of Icons by Gregory of Palamas. Taboric light and the divine energies form the basis of this treatise.
The Jesus Prayer
Here is another quote from the Message to an Iconographer: “When adoring your Lord and God…let your whole heart, spirit, and mind be lifted toward a contemplation of the holy, consubstantial and life giving Trinity, in purity of thought and heart…Let your bodily eyes ascend to the divine …venerate them spiritually in your soul and visibly with your body. Be completely turned toward the heavens.”
“The Message” is about a lifestyle of asceticism and inner prayer that is appropriate to an Iconographer.
“Wherever you may be, O beloved, on sea or on land, at home, walking, sitting or lying down-ceaselessly pray with a pure conscience, saying, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.’, and God will hear you. ” “Close your eyes to the visible and look at the future with your inner eye.” These are instructions to an Iconographer from The Message. They are intended to create a platform of prayer and faith from which to work on the Icon.”
I would suggest reading this chapter in its entirety to fully understand the context and intent of the author. It is from Chapter 13 Hesychasm and the flowering of Russian Art, in Theology of the Icon, Volume II, Leonid Ouspensky. There is a great deal of value in the rest of the book also, and I highly recommend it for Iconographers.
One last quote that is a gem:
“The painter must be acutely aware of the responsibility that rests upon him when creating an Icon. His work must be informed by the prototype it represents in order for its message to become a living, active force, shaping man’s disposition, his view of the world and of life. A true Iconographer must commune with the prototype he represents, not merely because he belongs to the body of the Church, but also on account of his own experience of sanctification. He must be a creative painter who perceives and discloses another’s holiness through his own spiritual experience. It is upon this experience of communing with the archetype that the operative power of an Iconographers work depends.”
May God bless your Icons, as you grow in wisdom and understanding in the practice of writing the Holy Image. Next month will be an article on the fifteenth century Iconographer Dionysus.
This article is extrapolated from the chapter, Hesychasm, the Flowering of Russian Art in Leonid Ouspensky’s Theology of the Icon, Volume II. I’ve chosen to share this particular material because of the understanding common to most Iconographers that Andrei Rublev is one of the greatest Iconographers and his work is fruit of the Hesychast period in Russia. Since this article points to some of the conditions present that contributed to Rublev’s ability to create Icons that spoke to his time we can discern important truths to apply to modern Icon writing. Hesychasm and Russian Icons are a unique combination that had a powerful effect on the art of its day.
Message To An Iconographer
Next month, part two of this article will give a synopsis of the “Message to an Iconographer”. This was a document widely circulated for and amongst Iconographers of that day. It attempts to set standards of Iconographic practice and is worth reading and understanding forts bearing on creating Icons today.
Thirteenth. Fourteenth and Fifteenth Century Russia
During the thirteenth century, an original artistic language specific to Russia began to appear. It reflected the spiritual life of the people, their holiness and their way of assimilating Christianity. Russian sacred arts from this time are inspired by a direct, living knowledge and experience of Revelation.
In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the spiritual leader, Sergius of Radonezh, consecrated his church to the Holy Trinity, “so that contemplation of the Holy Trinity might conquer the fear of this world’s detestable discord”. It was a time of feudal wars, Mongol raids, and general unrest, but Radonezh was confident of the power of the sacred image to influence his world.
Revival in Russia
Russia, through its own suffering of the Tartar invasion, experienced the Gospel intensely. There was widespread understanding that the power of Christ was participating actively in the lives of the Russian people, helping them in time of need. From this intensity of faith, Russia’s pictorial art reached its highest expression. Today we appreciate these examples of Iconography for their intense and joyful colors, expressive form and their freedom and spontaneity.
During this period, hesychasm and Orthodox Christianity were closely linked. St Sergius’ monastery became the spiritual center of Russia and the hesychast influence. The theology of hesychasm is reflected in the spiritual content and character of the Icons of that period. Zealous in the life of prayer and fasting, the famous iconographers, Daniel and Andrei Rublev were able to receive divine grace and perceive the divine, immaterial light that we see in the colors of their Icons.
Master Iconographer Dionysius was also guided by hesychasm and the teaching of inner prayer. These great Iconographers were not concerned with earthly things but always prayed to raise their spirits and thoughts toward the divine, immaterial light.
As Iconographers today, may we always seek to keep prayer as the central focus of our praxis, and learn from those who went before us.
Links to Books on Russian Icons
Here are a few links to websites that have books on Russian Icons:
The Month of February Calendar Saints from the book: “Masterpieces of Early Christian Art”, Richard Temple Gallery, London, UK
Writing Icons is a challenging task in many different ways. Learning from the past, incorporating the Traditions of the Church, and still being attentive to the spiritual ethos of our time in order to make Icons that are relevant to people today is a tall order. Icons are more than a spiritual painting
“The Icon is a kind of synthesis of the Spiritual truths and values of Eastern Christianity. It is much more than a religious painting, or a didactic aid. It is a sacramental medium, a meeting point between the Divine uncreated light and the human heart. Its visible, created beauty is aluminous epiphany, a ‘place’ of manifestation, where prayer gains access to the uncreated beauty of God’s grace and truth.” The Glenstal Book of Icons, Praying with the Glenstal Icons, Gregory Collins, OSB, the Liturgical Press
Theophanis the Cretan
As part of an ongoing series of looking at ancient Iconographers, this month the focus is on the Iconographer Theophanis , who painted many of the frescoes and Icons of the Holy Monastery of Stavronikita, Mt. Athos, Greece in the sixteenth Century.
A major source for this article is the book “The Cretan Painter Theophanis, the Wall Paintings of the Holy Monastery of Stavronikita” by Manolis Chatzidakis, Published by the Holy Monastery of Stavronikita, Mount Athos, 1986.
Theophanis was an Icon painter, trained in the Cretan tradition of wall and Icon painting. This style of Icon painting is considered to be a continuation of Palaeologan painting. However, the mature work of Theophanis encompassed both the Byzantine tradition and certain motifs from Venetian painting of the period. This contact with foreign Italian models of the 15th Century served to freshen the traditional compositions and add an emotional element without detracting from the essential dogma of the content.
“Theophanis lives within the eternal, changeless mystery of the liturgical life and experience of the Church and at the same time is a sensitive man of his own times. It is clear that he continues the Iconographic tradition that has passed through the splendor of the Palaeologan revival.” Archimandrite Vasileios, Abbot of the Holy Monastery of Stavronikita.
At times, the frescoes are painterly in execution, with less bold lines and rendered by brush strokes. In these works, the transitions of light are more gradual and subtle
In the handling of drapery, the accurate rendering of volume and movement through the interplay of light and dark tones. This creates a sense of rhythm that prevents the drawing from appearing mechanical.
In the Nativity of the Mother of God Theophanis renews the Iconographic type and style in his preference for Palaeologic models.
Icons help us remember the presence of the Trinity is always available to us. They serve as visual reminders that God’s light is perpetually shining on us.
Each Iconographer responds to the needs and dictates of his time, while simultaneously brining forward the Traditions of the Early Church. Theophanis is a wonderful example of an Iconographer who created a particular style of Iconography, authentic to his place and time.
May your Icons be blessed, there will be more articles next month.
Revered amongst Iconographers as the most gifted Iconographer of all time, Andrei Rublev stands out amongst Iconographers for his ability to convey a subtle sense of spirituality with a highly expert ability to compose and paint Icons that address the issues of his time.
Born in medieval times, sometime in the 1360’s, not much is known about his life. He is generally thought to have lived at the Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra near Moscow. Rublev’s spiritual teacher, Saint Sergius of Radoneh, was the head of this Lavra until his death in 1392.
In 1405, Rublev decorated the Cathedral of the Annunciation in Moscow with frescoes and Icons along with Theophanes the Greek, who was Rublev’s teacher.
Holy Trinity Cathedral
The Assumption Cathedral in Vladimir and Holy Trinity Cathedral are thought to have been decorated by Rublev and Daniil Cherni at about 1425.
Rublev’s great masterpiece, The Icon of the Holy Trinity, is the only work definitely attributed to him. It was only discovered in the early 1900’s when an art restorer in Russia began to clean away the soot and grime that had blackened the surface for centuries.
Rublev’s art combined asceticism with the classic harmony of Byzantine mannerism. His Icons are seen today as ideals of Eastern Orthodox Iconography.
If you’d like to read more about the Byzantine approach to painting Icons with egg tempera, this is covered in the book, Eyes of Fire, in the Appendix.
In 1966 a now classic film was made by the Russian film maker, Andrei Tarkovsky, called “Andrei Rublev”. It’s a dark Russian drama that conveys a sense of the medieval times of Rublev and is in black and white.
Rublev died in 1430, clothed as a Russian Monk and canonized by the Orthodox Church in 1988.