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!
Are you an Icon collector? Collecting Icons is similar to collecting fine art in that the beauty is often times in the eye of the beholder. Icons carry meaning in addition to the esthetics we expect from visual art. That meaning, or content, might relate on a very personal level to the viewer and thus have a high degree of value, regardless of the aesthetic qualities. For example, an Icon of Saint Luke will resonate with artists, Iconographers, physicians, and bachelors because Saint Luke is their patron saint. Icons have the ability to enhance our prayer life as we venerate the saints depicted.
We use the word venerate to talk about our interactions with Icons. To venerate means to cherish, honor, exalt, be in awe of, appreciate and reverence. In old Russia, during times of religious persecution, people who could afford it would create a beautiful corner in their homes, or a small chapel. This would hold the Icons that this family particularly revered and understood as important parts of their family prayer lives.
Icons can enhance our connection to the God we adore through specific, focused prayer. Therefore, collecting Icons is a means of keeping our vision on God’s Kingdom in our homes, and sharing that with our families and friends.
Collecting Icons from Antiquity
Another aspect of collecting Icons is that of finding Icons from earlier centuries that have added value because of their age and provenance. One of the foremost Icon Galleries for ancient Icons is the Temple Gallery in London, UK. It was founded in 1959 as a center for study, restoration and exhibition of ancient Icons and sacred art. With ancient Icons, their monetary value rises in accordance with their condition, provenance, size, and age.
People often ask about the value about the icons they have discovered in their travels or have had handed down in their families. TheMuseum of Russian Icons, in Clinton, Massachusetts, will do Icon evaluations on certain dates. They will also provide conservation and appraisal services upon request. The museum has a beautiful permanent collection as well as changing exhibitions.
A Living Traditon
Iconography is a living tradition, bringing the elements of the Christian faith to believers through the centuries. Icons are often painted in the same way that they have been for hundreds of years. And, as a living Tradition, Icons painted today are bringing along the traditions of the past and marrying them to contemporary faith and art practices. Truly it is an exciting time to be collecting Icons!
May God bless your Icon creating and collecting especially this Advent Season!
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.
Having just finished an Icon writing workshop where we painted the Archangel Michael, and today is the day the Episcopal Church celebrates the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels, this blog is full of information about the angels!
We celebrate the Feast Day of the Archangels each year at this time, but who are the Archangels and what do they mean to us?
The angels are known to us as ministering spirits, sent to announce or accomplish the will of God on earth.
We read in the Bible that the angelic hosts seek to defend creation against the spiritual powers which seek its ruin.
In Revelation 12:7-9 we read of the Apocalypse and the celestial war in which Archangel Michael and his angels fight against the dragon and his angels.According to L. Ouspensky in his book “The Meaning of Icons” ,this is….” a war that continues on earth in the spiritual combats in which men are assisted by angels.Hence the warrior like character that angelic apparitions often take.”
Saint Michael Prayer
Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle.Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil.May God rebuke him, we humbly pray; and do Thou, O Prince of the Heavenly Host, by the Divine Power of God, cast into hell Satan and all the evil spirits who roam throughout the world seeking the ruin of souls.Amen.
In Joshua 5:13-15 the Captain of the Host of the Lord appeared to Joshua with a sword in his hand.Again, quoting from “The Meaning of Icons” by Ouspensky “
“The Archangel Michael “chief captain ofthe host” presides over the struggle against the forces of demons: “there where thy grace appears, the power of the demons is pursued; for the fallen Lucifer cannot bear to see thy light.We pray thee then to extinguish his burning features, directed against us…and to free us from his temptations.”
The name Gabriel means God is my strength. In the Gospel of Luke, Gabriel is the angel who announces to Mary that she will give birth to a son and name him Jesus. He is known as the patron saint of communication, giving strength and helps children is many ways.
We learn about the Archangel Raphael, the heavenly guide and companion from the Book of Tobit in the Apocrypha.He is known as the healing angel, also the patron saint of travelers.
The Prayer of St. Raphael
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.
Angel, guide of Tobias, lay the request we now address to you at the feet of him on whose unveiled face you are privileged to gaze.
Lonely and tired, crushed by the separations and sorrows of life, we feel the need of calling you and pleading for the protection of your wings, so that we may not be as strangers in the province of joy, all ignorant of the concerns of our country.
Remember the weak, you who are strong, you whose home lies beyond the region of thunder, in a land that is always peaceful, always serene and bright with the resplendent glory of God.
May your prayers before the angels always be heard, and may you sleep with the angels!
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: