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,
In the creation of Icons today, I find it particularly helpful to keep looking to the past in order to understand the nuances and dynamics of Icon making through the centuries. Medieval Russian Icons and their development is particularly applicable to this task. The following is excerpted from the book, A History of Icon Painting, and this chapter was written by Angelina Smirnova; Moscow, 2005.
Early Russian Christianity
Since the adoption by Russia of Christianity in 988, Christian art was able to develop and flourish. Particularly in the metropolitan areas like Moscow and Kiev, the foundation was laid for Christianity and its art to spread through Russia, Belarus, and the Ukraine. While in these early centuries Icons were favored by Monks and used as devotional images in chapels, churches and monasteries. They were very important inRussian Orthodoxy.
The first Russian icons were heavily influenced by Byzantine culture which formed the basis of knowledge concerning the canons and painting traditions of icons.
Wealthy princes and czars commissioned spacious churches that required large painted images, resulting in clearer silhouettes and pronounced rhythm and contours that could give a compositional unity.
The themes of overcoming suffering and the hope of salvation dominated the subject matter of these icons which laid the foundation for Andrei Rublev’s painting in the fifteenth century.
“The saints on Russian icons are often endowed with a particularly forceful expressiveness in which Christian spirituality clearly demonstrates the power of saints over the cosmic forces of nature. The images on Russian icons are more open and direct compared with the refined intellectualism of Byzantine art, which drew more strongly on the Hellenistic tradition and was more remote from the sphere of everyday emotions.”
The second half of the eleventh century Russian princes built churches to establish their governments and required monumental icons to adorn them. Most of the themes repeated Byzantine icons but there were some original ones depicting the Russian saints, e.g. Boris and Gleb.
The Comnenian style, characterized by more muted expressions, light transparent colors, and the addition of a blue/azure color, developed in twelfth century Russia. By the thirteenth century, after the devastating effects of the Tartar-Mongol hordes, icons began to show expressions of strength, resolve, spiritual integrity and power.
A Russian style of icon painting was becoming clearly evident by the thirteenth century. In comparison with Byzantine art there was now a flatter picture plane and composition, rich color, and a more open yet inward expression on the figures. There were local exceptions, such as Novgorod, which retained a simplicity combined with vibrant colors.
As Moscow became the political and cultural center of Russia in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, a clearly defined style emerged. Fifteenth century Russian icons represent the ideal heavenly world and God’s grace, in contrast to the fourteenth century icons which showed believers the steps to overcoming obstacles to spiritual development. Now, ideal harmony was the theme of icons and that is perfectly expressed in Andrei Rublev’s Holy Trinity icon. Rublev’s icons exemplify Byzantine classicism and seem to combine aspects of earlier styles of Russian icon painting in a mystical and beautiful way. Later, Dionysius would elongate figures and open out towards the viewer, compositional elements and figures. (For more on Dionysius see earlier post on this blog site.)
The Paleologue period of Byzantine iconography, 1261-1453 continued to influence Russian Icons of the sixteenth century, but there was also more of a theological-didactic narrative to these icons. A western influence began to be seen in the modeling of the faces and forms and a more naturalistic rendering of space.
I hope this brief history encapsulation is helpful to
iconographers of the twenty-first century who seek to maintain the canons of Iconography and also create religious art that relates to and inspires Christians today.
A good source of images can be found in some of the digital libraries that are now being made public:
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.
This month, I wanted to share some reflections taken from reading the book, “The Avant-Garde Icon, Russian Avant-Garde Art & The Icon Painting Tradition, written by Andrew Spira.
Exploring the potential of icons in the context of the modern world, Andrew Spira speaks to the integration of the ancient spiritual truths found in Icons into modern culture.
We are looking today at just the first chapter entitled “Icons: An Introduction”, particularly focusing on the development of the Russian iconographic tradition from the seventh to the sixteenth century.
Spira gives a brief history and explanation of the iconoclast controversy that I particularly appreciate due to the information about the widely spreading religion of Islam that was iconoclastic and therefore provided some of the impetus for the negation and destruction of icons in the seventh century.
During the iconoclastic controversy, an official theology of icons was developed maintaining that, by incarnating in matter as Christ, God established a principle that it was lawful and appropriateto represent the Divine in material form.Like the Eucharist, icons were regarded as extensions of the body of Christ.It was their sacramentality that mattered, more than the artistic quality or their symbolic meaning. Therefore, The definitive characteristic of Icons lies within their mystical identity.
The effort to create a form of art that could communicate the mystery of the incarnate God took place within the Eastern church before the 10th century.
In 1453 the capital of Russia moved to Moscow from Constantinople after the fall of the Byzantine Empire.Then, from a spiritual point of view, the monastic discipline of Hesychasm, an ancient practice of unceasing prayer, led to a period of religious fervor that resulted in an increase in the development and proliferation of Icons throughout the church.Russian icon painting silently reveals God to the inner eye, or heart, of the believer.
The contrast between a rational, western, didactic approach and the more mystical, contemplative and sacramental approach to Icon writing is something that icon painters today have to come to terms with in order to develop an art that has its own artistic integrity and sacramental presence.This contrastcan be seen not necessarily astwo polarities, right and wrong, but as both and, permitting a creative synthesis of the two approaches.
Modern Icon Painting
Although the influence of the western Renaissance in 16th century Russia was largely not experienced, there was still a disintegration of the medieval interrelationship between spiritual life and popular culture.This was evident in modern Russian and Eastern Icons from the sixteenth century onwards.
In an attempt to change the course of Russian modern icon painting in the seventeenth century from secularization back to spiritual traditions,attempts were made to formalize the pure tradition of icon painting. But theseundermined the principles of insight and experience that also formed the basis of the tradition.This resulted in a westernized icon, realistic, narrative, and in a lack of feeling and spiritual depth in the icons of modern periods.
Many post sixteenth century Icons reflect the lack of depth of feeling that is characteristic of the earlier icons due to rigid adherence to copying icons and focusing on technical skills as opposed to contemplation on theology and prayer.
It is the contemplative tradition that supports the practice and principles of Icon writing from within. This is the spirit of the tradition of icon painting as a sacramental medium for the transmission of the incarnate God to the world.
The contemplative awareness that is seen in the expressions of the saints in medieval icons calls for a corresponding orientation on the part of the viewer.
I hope this article has been informative and helpful.It is my intention to present views that further the development of contemporary Icon writing and provide a sense of community by sharing my research, prayers, and work.
May you all be blessed and prosper in the art and spiritual discipline of Icon writing.
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!
Teaching Icon classes as I do in monasteries, churches and art centers, the question that always arises at the end of class: How can I continue with Icon painting? Practice is what I always say. For that reason, this month’s blog for the American Association of Iconographers is a collection of information and links to help with further studies.
Ideally, someone who is learning to write Icons will choose a style or a teacher which whom to study. But even with that, one can only realistically take one or two workshops per year. What to do in the meantime? Here are my suggestions:
Using sketch paper and pencil, draw as much as possible. Copy Icons from books, prints, or the internet. Drawing is the number one art skill needed in Icon writing, as it is in all painting. Learning to think on paper is a valuable skill. A book that I recommend to beginners is: Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. You can copy Icons in some of her exercises and you will be surprised at how quickly your drawing will improve.
Sketch of Icon
Tonal sketch of Icon
Icon to be copied
Use watercolor paper and the four basic color of Icon writing: red ochre, black, white and yellow ochre. Make color and tonal studies of Icons on water color paper. Again, this simple practice will yield large results.
Icon Retreats and Workshops
For those who choose to study with me, here is a link to upcoming classes. My teaching method is always evolving and inspired by my prayer life. I particularly enjoy helping students who have had some experience writing Icons and now want to create their own Icon (still copied from before the Renaissance). If you do sign up for one of my classes and wish to do this, please email me well before the class date so that we can prepare you for getting the most out of the retreat.
Resources for viewing Iconographic Imagery
Kolomenskaya Versta is a site selling Icon books and materials. It is based in Russia and they regularly post free images to copy as well as links to all kinds of Iconographic information. Also known as Russian Modern Orthodox Icon, here is a link to their FB page.