As I view FB posts and blogs about contemporary Icons there is a lot of talk about what is a “real” icon. There are as many different viewpoints as there are people! I think we all agree that icons cannot be relevant to only one denomination of Christianity . Nor can they stay stagnant in the past if icons are to be authentic to our time.
A current exhibition at the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Massachusetts, is a wonderful collection of contemporary Orthodox iconographers from around the world that addresses some of these issues. Within this collection there is wonderful diversity and creativity. It shows that even within the Orthodox community of iconographers, some icons are more painterly and less formalistic than others.
For those who are not able to go in person to the exhibition, I include here some images and text from the exhibition materials. This is an important exhibition that can also be viewed online virtually on the website: Museumofrussianicons.org
Icons For Our Time
Icons for Our Time: Orthodox Art from Around the World, is an exhibition of 15 icons by some of the most important contemporary icon painters today. New works by artists from Armenia, Belarus, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Egypt, Georgia, Greece, Japan, Montenegro, Russia, Serbia, the UK and the US have been specially commissioned for this anniversary exhibition.
“There will be pieces by artists from all over the world – some are from Orthodox countries like Greece and Bulgaria, but there will also be works from Britain and Japan. Some of the artists identify as religious believers (Eastern Orthodox or other), some do not. Few of the icons strictly follow the traditional canon. As a curator, working with some of the big names in contemporary icon painting, I wanted to leave as much freedom as possible to each artist – so long as their work could be described, experienced, and felt as an icon.” Dr. Clemena Antonova, curator.
Icons of Our Times will examine the spread of Orthodox Christian art through the medium of icons and explore three paradoxes: the icon as a living tradition, the icon as a signature feature of Orthodox Christianity, and the concept and relevance of the contemporary icon in modern culture.
“These three paradoxes pose some immediate questions and problems for contemporary icon-painters, viewers of religious images, as well as to museums that exhibit religious art. Is the icon mainly a medieval art form, which we view inspired by our interest in history, in the same way that we experience an ancient Greek temple? Or is it a living, constantly evolving artistic tradition, which has the capacity to respond to the concerns and needs of our times? Is the icon inextricably tied to Eastern Orthodox Christianity? Can one create or experience an icon without any knowledge of Orthodox culture and theology? Does the icon make sense in a context stripped of religious meaning?”
“These are not easy questions and very likely neither a conference nor the present exhibition will offer straight-forward answers,” continues Antonova. “What we aim to do with this exhibition is to create a space which provokes us to reflect on the meaning and function of icons for our times.”
On the Museum’s website are links to talks given by Dr. Antonova and also the link to the virtual exhibition. I’m so grateful for the Museum’s dedication to providing a forum for the appreciation of ancient icons as well as for the development of contemporary ones.
As we enter this New Year, let us pray for each other, for God’s grace and Holy Spirit to enable us to do His work with great love, humility and brotherly love.
During these uncertain times, I’m drawn to thinking of how to address current issues like the covid epidemic, disunity, lack of brotherly love within the context of icon writing. How can icons be miracle working? The grace of God determines what can bestow His miracles, but are there ways we can support miracle working icons as a means of increasing the faith of viewers? Perhaps by bringing to mind those icons that we know of that are considered miracle working is a beginning.
Since Icons are windows to heaven, they actually remind us of the power of God at work, either through the written images of Christ Himself or of those gone before us who have followed Him completely and became saints. It is a miracle that something so simple as a prayerfully-written icon can do so much to help us on our journey toward Him.
Mother of God icons are well known for their miracle working through the ages. Throughout history, many Icons of the Most Holy Mother of God have had miracles attributed to them. Here’s a link to some of them: Russian Icons.
Tikhvin Mother of God Icon
There are many kinds of miracles associated with icons. Some are healing miracles, where the prayers of the viewers have been answered with healings of many kinds, spiritual and physical. There are also the “weeping” icons – ones that exude an oily substance over a long period of time.
I am most interested in the healing icons. In reality, most miracle-working Russian icons are actually copies (which is what in the Orthodox tradition they call copies of the original miracle-working icons) of a venerated original. The copies are believed to inherit the original’s miraculous powers. Hundreds of the faithful have experienced miracles from even these copies and this is testified through the gifts of jewelry and flowers that abundantly decorate the icons.
The Tikhvin Icon is one of the most revered icons in Russia, and the original is reputed to have been painted by Luke the Evangelist himself. It is called the Protectress of Russia and has a long history of both saving Russia from political enemies as well as being taken to other locations for safety. Here’s a link to a more complete article on its history: Orthodox Christianity. One of the copies of the Tikhvin icon became well known for many miraculous healings of children. This icon is commemorated June26/July 9.
Here is the Troparion associated with this icon:
“Today, like the eternal sun, your icon appears in the sky, O Theotokos. With rays of mercy it enlightens the world. This land accepts the heavenly gift from above, honoring you as the Mother of God. We praise Christ our Lord, who was born of you. Pray to him, O queen and sovereign virgin, that all Christian cities and lands be guarded in safety, and that He saves those who kneel to His Divine and Your Holy Image, O unwedded bride.”
Please consider contributing articles about miracle working icons throughout the next year so that we can become more familiar and understand them through God’s grace.
Important link for Iconographers
Sacred Art & Iconography
This is a series of conversations hosted by ECVA and moderated by Mary Jane Miller, Iconographer, open to everyone.
Please join us!
WHEN: 6 Thursdays in December 2021 and January 2022 5:00pm EST, 4:00pm CST, 2:00pm PST
WHERE: Online Zoom Conference
All artists and contemporary iconographers are invited to participate in a series of 6 online conversations on Sacred Art and Iconography. We are planning six themes to discuss, with the hope of sharing our thoughts, our work, and what happens in our spiritual life. This program series is open to all and is free of charge. The series moderator is Mary Jane Miller, whose collection of contemporary sacred art are visual meditations whose root is in traditional Icon Painting.
If you are interested please sign up today by sending an email to
“O dear Disciple, you reclined on the breast of Christ at the supper of the Lord and drew ineffable mysteries from it which you were allowed to reveal. Your heavenly voice thundered out to all, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” He is Christ our God, the Saviour of our souls and the true Light who enlightens everyone who comes into the world.”
Last month I was blessed to teach an online Icon writing class painting Saint John the Theologian. We had some wonderful prayer time as we painted and learned more about this saintly man who was so beloved of Jesus. In this blog I want to share with you some of what we learned and prayed about. The following is excepted from an article on “Orthodox Christianity Then and Now”.
The Life of Saint John the Evangelist
The Holy Apostle and Evangelist John the theologian was the son of Zebedee and Salome, the daughter of Joseph. He was called away from his fisherman’s nets to preach the gospel when our Lord Jesus Christ, walking along the sea of Galilee, chose his apostles from amongst the fisherman. Jesus had already summoned two brothers, Peter and Andrew, when he caught sight of two other brothers, James and John, sons of Zebedee. They were mending their nets in a boat with their father when he called them. Immediately abandoning their boat and their father, they followed after Jesus Christ.
At the time of his calling, John was called son of Thunder by the Lord, for his theology would be heard like Thunder throughout the world. John followed Jesus, learning the wisdom that preceded from his lips. John was well loved by his Lord Jesus. The Lord honored him as the fairest of the 12 apostles, and he was one of three of Christ’s closest closest disciples. When Jesus went to raise up the daughter of Jairus, only John, Peter and James were allowed to accompany him. Also when Jesus prayed in the garden, he took Peter, James and John to pray with him. Also on Mt. Tabor, the scene of the Transfiguration it was James, John and Peter who accompanied Jesus. We also know from the Icons of the Crucifixion and the Lamentation, that John never left Jesus’ side. From the Cross, Jesus instructed John to take his mother, Mary into his home and care for her and regard her as his own mother.
Saint John on Patmos
Saint John and his scribe, Saint Prochorus, were ready to leave the isle of Patmos when there were almost none on the island of Patmos that he had not converted to Christ. The Christians learning of his intention, asked him not to leave them forever. However, the apostle did not wish to remain with them but desired to return to Ephesus. Seeing the Saint was intent on leaving, they asked him to leave behind a memorial with them – the Gospel which he had written there. For one, day having commanded all to fast, he had taken his disciple Prochorus outside the city and together the ascended a high mountain. Here they spent three days in prayer. After the third day a great clap of Thunder sounded, lightning flashed, and the mountain shook. Prochorus fell to the ground with fear. Turning to him, John raised him up and said to him , “Write what you hear from my lips”.
John Writes the Gospel
Lifting up his eyes to heaven, John began to pray again. When he had finished, he began to speak; “In the beginning was the Word…” and the Gospel of Saint John was committed to paper. Saint John agreed to leave a copy in Patmos for the Christians in accordance with their request, but the original copy he kept with himself.
On the same island, Saint John wrote also the Apocalypse, or Book of Revelation. Tradition relates that one day John and his disciple Prochorus departed from the city to a cave in the wilderness where he spent 10 days with Prochorus and another 10 days alone. These latter 10 days he ate nothing but only prayed to God, entreating him to reveal what he should do. A voice came to John from on high saying John, John! John answered “What doest Thou command, Lord? The Voice from on high said “Wait 10 days and thou shall receive a revelation of much that is great.” John remained there 10 more days without food, then something marvelous occurred. The angels of God came down to him and proclaimed much that was ineffable. When Prochorus returned, John sent him back for ink and paper, and for two days thereafter John spoke to Prechorus of the revelations he had received. John’s disciple wrote them down.
At the end of John’s life, when he was becoming very weak, he reduced his teaching to the unceasing repetition of “Little children love one another”. One day when his disciples asked him why he repeated this to them incessantly, John replied with the following words; “This is the Lord’s commandment and if you keep it, it is enough.”
When the Apostle was more than 100 years old, he left the house of Dominus with his family of disciples and after reaching a certain place, John commanded them to sit down. It was then morning and he went a stone’s throw away from them and began to pray. Afterwards his disciples dug him a cross shaped grave in accordance with his will. He ordered Prochorus to go to Jerusalem and remain there until the end of his life. John preached yet one more time to his disciples, and kissing them farewell, the apostle said; “Take the earth, my mother, and covered me with it.” He kissed his disciples and they covered him to the knees. When he had kissed them again, they covered him to his neck leaving his face uncovered. Once again they kissed him, and with great weeping, covered him entirely. Hearing of this, the bretheren came from the city and dug up the grave. But they found nothing there! They all wept greatly, then praying they returned to the city. Each year on the 8th of May a fragrant myrrh comes from the grave, and at the prayers of the holy Apostle the sick are healed thereby, to the honor of God, who is glorified in the Trinity unto the ages of ages Amen.
The small island of Patmos, part of the Dodecanese complex in the central Aegean, is known, above all, as the location where John the Apostle received his visions and recorded them in the Book of Revelation, the final book of the New Testament. An impressive monastic complex, dedicated to him, was founded there in the early 11th century.
The monastery stands on the site where Saint John is believed to have written his Gospel, including the Book of Revelation (also known as the Apocalypse); it is also located near the grotto where the apostle is said to have received his Revelation, hence called the Cave of the Apocalypse. Both the Monastery and the Cave, along with the rest of the historic centre of the island’s Chora (main town) have been declared a joint World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1999 as an “exceptional example of a traditional Greek Orthodox pilgrimage centre of outstanding architectural interest”.
The site of the revelatory visions, known as the Cave of the Apocalypse, is situated halfway along the road linking the port with the Chora (main town), which sits on top of the island’s mountain. The Holy Cave of the Apocalypse has been transformed into a place of worship, where visitors can see the dent on the wall of the cave, where the Evangelist was said to lay his head; according to tradition, the Voice of God could be heard coming from a cleft of the rock, which is also still visible today. The southern part of the cave has been turned into a church dedicated to Saint John the Theologian, while later a Chapel of Saint Anne (mother of Mary) was added, incorporating the cave, which is now entered through the chapel.
In 1091, Christodoulos began the construction of the monastery of Saint John the Theologian, over the ruins of a fourth-century basilica also dedicated to Saint John.
“O beloved apostle of Christ our God, come quickly to rescue your helpless people. The one on whose breast you leant will accept you as intercessor. O Theologian, implore Him to disperse the clouds of darkness and grant us peace and great mercy.”
May God continue to bless you with His peace and love,
In thinking about the differences between religious art and icons- the subject of one of iconographer Betsy Porter’s online discussions, I came up with the following ideas that I hope will be helpful to iconographers and artists alike.
One of the key differences between religious art and icons is the very nature of the symbolic language of icons. In icons there is no attempt to portray “reality of the natural world. Rather, the icon is all about being a sign and a symbol which points to the reality of God’s presence.
The study of semiotics can be helpful in thinking about this topic. Semiotics is a specialized language dependent upon the use of symbols for communication and created for the purpose of achieving greater exactitude.
Semiotics is often used in reference to the symbolic language of computer programming, but it applies equally here as a way of formulating thought that describes the process of how human beings reach understanding through the use of abstract symbols.
Semiotics is a key tool to ensure that intended meanings (of for instance a piece of communication or a new product) are unambiguously understood by the person on the receiving end.
Semiotics, put simply, is the study of how an idea or object communicates meaning — and what meaning it communicates.
A sign is any motion, gesture, image, sound, pattern, or event that conveys meaning. The general science of signs is called semiotics. The instinctive capacity of living organisms to produce and understand signs is known as semiosis. And, of course, this very issue is at the heart of the difference between religious art and religious icons.
Acts 2:22 – “Ye men of Israel, hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know”.
Miracle Working Icons
Theologically, all icons are considered to be sacred, and are miraculous by their very nature because they are a symbol of the incarnation. They are a means of spiritual communion between the heavenly and earthly realms. However, it is not uncommon for specific icons to be characterised as “miracle-working”. God has chosen to glorify these icons by working miracles through them. Such icons are often given particular names (especially those of the Virgin Mary), and even taken from city to city where believers gather to venerate them and pray before them.
Icons represent concrete events of sacred history and indicate the inner meanings visually. Icons are meant to be a transfigured art form, not reflecting the problems of life but answering them
The flat space in the icons remove the illusion of three dimensional space and a depiction of the natural world that our eyes see. The connection between figures and objects becomes conventionally symbolical the image is reduced to a minimum of detail at a maximum of expressiveness.
The Icon is essentially inseparable from church art because the spiritual reality it represents cannot be transmitted otherwise than through symbols.In the icon of the Trinity that was painted by Andrei rublev in the 1400s the image represents the three men in white who are shown as angels in the icon who came to Abraham and Sarah to tell them that they would have a child despite their age, and to whom the couple showed hospitality under the tree of Mamre. This is the story from Genesis Chapter 18.
This icon came to be used as the key image of the Trinity in the Orthodox tradition partly because it was believed to be the first visible revelation of divinity to man but also because it provided an image through which to represent the godhead without representing God the father. The angels were not at this stage associated with specific persons of the Trinity. This imprecision is what enabled the image to remain mystically unknowable. Rublev passes over the inessential details of the subject reducing the image to its contemplative essence- the unity and Trinity of the godhead. This icon is imbued with the contemplative spirit of Hesychasm. This icon epitomizes Russian icon painting at its most pure and intense, silently revealing the triune God to the inner eye or heart of the faithful. The theologian philosopher Pavel Florensky said of this icon that it is in itself proof of the existence of God.
I hope this article is helpful food for thought, as we move forward to creating new icons for the twenty-first century. I think many discussions on the subject would be very helpful!
Some Resources used in this article: “The Meaning of Icons” by L. Ouspensky and “The Avant Garde Icon” by Andre Spira.
Although our inspiration for painting icons comes from early Christian icons, many iconographers today realize that in order for our icons to have a connection to our modern world, we need to understand that icon painting is still a living and developing art form.
If we widen our perspective to look at Christian art as well as icons, questions develop as to what the differences are between the two. While the subject matter might be the same, the function and purpose, as well as the form of an icon, is distinctly different from those of religious art.
The needs of our contemporary churches and worshippers need to be paramount in our thoughts as we contemplate subject matter and formalistic approaches to writing icons today. Whom is this icon for, whom will it serve?
“Contemplating a piece of work, we do better to think Whom is this work for? Whom will it serve? rather than How will it serve me? Once we find a path for our work to be of service . . . then our work goes smoothly forward. It is not about “us” anymore…Whenever we take art back to the realm of the sacred, whenever we make it an act of service in any form . . . we again experience the ease of creative flow and the lessening of our creative doubts. When we ask to “listen,” we create works worthy of being heard and we ourselves hear the heartbeat of our common humanity, which is grounded in divinity.” Quote from a Richard Rohr blog post where he quotes author Julia Cameron.
As we struggle to understand and make use of the vast canons and traditions of the church as well as those of iconography we can hope to transform our understanding and hope to transform the traditions through the filter of our contemporary church. From my studies over twenty years, I have developed an deep appreciation for Byzantine art and icons. In his book, Byzantine Sacred Art, Constantine Cavarnos states:
“Byzantine art has a religious function. It seeks to express spiritual things in order thereby to help man penetrate the mysteries of the Christian religion; it seeks to help man rise to a higher level of being, to lift his soul to the blessedness of God.”
Another quote from the same book describes the thoughts of Photius Kontoglou, an influential Greek iconographer of the twentieth century:
“Secular art is concerned with external beauty, whereas spiritual art is concerned with inner beauty. Kontoglou emphatically places inner, spiritual beauty above external beauty, and spiritual art above secular art. External, physical beauty, he remarks, is shallow and perishable, while spiritual beauty is deep and imperishable. Physical beauty arouses the outer senses; spiritual beauty the inner senses- it makes us feel reverence,, humility, contrition, the “gladdening sorrow” of which John Climacos speaks.”
There are so many facets of Byzantine spirituality that are evidenced in the iconography and traditions that are incredibly important and valuable to bring forward into our contemporary icons. This would be a service to our culture in many ways. This would make an appropriate topic for many future blog posts and I welcome articles that contribute to this work of discovery and reverence for the iconographic traditions.
It is part of the creative process to be able to remain creative as an iconographer while still upholding the canons and traditions. Evelyn Underhill, in her book “The Spiritual Life” describes another condition of creativity;
“Creativity is the activity of an artist possessed by the vision of perfection; who by means of the raw material with which he works, tries to give more and more perfect expression to his idea, his inspiration or his love.”
In referring to the modern iconographers’ training that impresses the importance of copying from the established Orthodox icons of the past Irinia Yazykova states:
“Many iconographers working today allow themselves to be imprisoned by tradition. Instead of approaching tradition creatively so as to develop it, they too often more or less blindly copy tradition instead. And yet, an image that is not a product of the artist’s own inward spiritual experience cannot be received as a revelation by the viewer.” Irinia Yazykova, Hidden and Triumphant.
As such, it is a balancing act between giving form to the aesthetic tradition as well as the theological meaning of the icon. The service an authentic icon can render to one’s church and community is to express meaningful content in a form that conveys both beauty and prayer.
Today the majority of iconographers are women who have achieved professional success and have moved beyond copying of prototypes into development of new icons of their own.
If this subject is of interest to you, Iconographer Betsy Porter will be hosting an informal online discussion with other interested iconographers on the subject of “Icons and Religious Art- What’s the Difference?” Participants will share images and thoughts on Sunday, September 19, 2021, 5PM EST through Zoom. This is a group that she has been hosting through St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Fransisco for over a year. Here is a link for that meeting.
Here is a link to an article I wrote on “How to Gesso Icon Boards”– it is a description and also contains a link to an excellent video by Paul Stetsenko that demonstrates the whole process.
This month we have an article contributed By Olga Iaroslavtseva on a form of gilding that she recommends. There are many ways to gild our icons and it’s helpful to be aware of each one until an iconographer finds the way that works best for them. Thank you so much for contributing your time and experience, Olga!
Gilding Method with Water-based Glue
Gilding Is Important In Iconography
Gold in the icon is a symbol of Divine Light, Truth and Glory. Since ancient times, Byzantine iconographers have used gilding. With its help, they were able to simultaneously convey both eternity – the absence of time and space, and the holiness of the depicted. Such depth can only be conveyed with gold, colors are powerless in this. The gold background looks like the icon has no bottom. Gilding in icons is found already in the IX-XI centuries. This technique came to Rus in the 13th century. Iconographers often gave icons to professional gilders for gilding. Presently, many people can master this skill by themselves.
In my practice, I use only real gold leaf. I don’t use imitation in principle. Holiness, greatness, heavenly world – this is what the gold on the icons symbolizes. All this is absolute truth. Therefore, we should use genuine gold. This is my creed.
Various gilding techniques are known, both simple and more complex. Here, I share the simple technique, suitable for beginning iconographers as practitioners. This is gilding on water-based glue.
Preparation, Shellac and polishing
After the drawing is made on the gesso, the areas for gilding should be covered with shellac. Use a wide, flat synthetic brush for that. Apply several coats of shellac with an interval of 15-20 minutes between them. Each coat should dry before applying the next one. I make shellac myself. For this, I dissolve 5 ounces of shellac flakes in 500ml ethanol – 95%. If you use shellac from a store, I think you may need more layers. Usually, it is a less concentrated shellac than self-made. After all layers have been applied, dry the surface thoroughly. This usually takes one to three days, depending on climate. Dried shellac hardens and is easy to polish.
For polishing shellac, use sandpaper with a grain size of 800 to 2000. When polishing, please be careful not to expose the gesso. Otherwise, the applied glue will absorb during gilding and the gold will not adhere. Also, you can use wet sandpaper. Just drip some water when polishing. This will speed up the process. Eventually, the polished surface should be smooth – without scratches, because all of that will be visible after gilding. Perfectly prepared surface – perfect result of gilding. After polishing, the icon must be completely cleaned of dust. Also, clean the room from dust before gilding.
Now come for the gilding icon. For this I use a cotton pad. I usually mix 1:3 glue with water. I take 1 portion of water to 3 portions of glue. The middle icon consumes a teaspoon of the glue mix. Then I fold the cotton pad in half, dip it in the glue mix and wring it out. With quick, neat, even movements I wipe the areas for gilding. Be careful, please do not leave dry areas. I wouldn’t recommend wiping the same place several times. After the first coat, wait 20 minutes to dry out, then apply a second coat. Wait 20 minutes again and start gluing the gold leaves. You can take your time, the surface remains sticky for a long time.
For gilding, I prefer to use loose gold leaf books, but transfer leaf books can also be used. I cut the gold with a Snap-Off Blade of a common knife. To avoid damaging the gold leaf, I put it between two sheets of paper like a sandwich. Usually, I use one sheet of paper from a leaf book. I cut it to size, then gently slide one piece of paper to the right to reveal the edge of the gold leaf on the left. I apply the open edge of the leaf to the sticky area of the icon, loosen my hand and slowly continue to move my hand with the pieces of paper from left to right. Since the edge of the leaf has already caught on to the glue, the gold leaf neatly lays down in the right place. Paper helps keep the gold leaf from crumpling. Finally, I lightly clap the leaf with a squirrel brush imperfectly, because the final pressing will be after gilding of all areas.
After finishing the gilding, you should carefully examine the surface. If there are holes or cracks, you need to patch them up with small pieces of gold leafs. They usually stick well in these areas. Next, take a new cotton pad and smooth the gilded surface with high quality. Do this with gentle pressure to smooth out wrinkles. Again carefully examine the surface. If the holes remain and they no longer stick, take a toothpick and wrap some cotton wool around the tip. The tip should be like the tip of a pencil. Dip it in the glue mix and squeeze it a little on clean paper so that there is not too much glue. Apply glue with the tip of a toothpick to the holes like a restorer. Try not to go out to the gilding area. Glue pieces of gold to these places and wait 10 minutes. After, smooth these places with a new cotton pad. This is very delicate work.
Remove excess glue and gold residues from areas under painted. For that, use an ear stick and white spirits. Be careful not to damage the gilded area.
Next day, apply shellac in one or two layers with a soft synthetic brush to protect the gilding.
The advantages of this technique of gilding are
– simple application of glue;
– the ability to glue gold leaf after 20 minutes after application;
– easy to patch holes.
The disadvantage of this technique is streaks remain when applied with a cotton pad. They are visible after gilding, though this may not be noticeable to the non-expert. Looked closely, you will notice the vibration of gloss and dullness.
In summary, the gluing technique with water-based glue is fast, simple and gives a good quality gilding. I use Italian water-based glue Ferrario La Doratura Missione ad Acqua.
Iconography has been my professional occupation for 18 years. During this time, I have painted hundreds of icons in different styles and techniques. In 2017-2019, I lived in the United States with my husband, a priest in the Orthodox Christian mission. In 2019, there was an exhibition of my paintings and icons in St. Louis, Missouri. Presently, I live in Lipetsk, Russia. I am happy to share my method of gilding with the American Association of Iconographers. Hope, this will help the development of the iconographic arts in North America.
For more information about my experience in iconography, please visit my social media: @facebook.com/OlYAgallery; @instagram.com/olya_gallery. There I share my art, exhibitions and progress.
Blessing and help from God to the American Association of Iconographers and all iconographers.
May you all be blessed and safe until out next newsletter at the end of August!
If you have an article you would like to submit that would help other iconographers, please contact me below. Also, if you have any thoughts or comments for Olga, please contact me and I will pass them on to her!
During the pandemic, being isolated and shut in for months, I began to realize what the life of an anchoress must have been like! By focusing on my prayer life and the practice of icon writing, I have been able to draw near to God more frequently and with greater concentration experience the silence of my heart than would otherwise have been possible. For that reason, I have begun writing an icon of Julian of Norwich with great joy and received many discoveries in the process. I share with you here some of what I have learned about her.
Born in 1343, Julian lived in the wake of the black plague and lived as well, through the peasant’s rebellion of 1381, and the persecution of the Lollards. May 8 is the Day Dame Julian is remembered in the Church of England, the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She lived a life of seclusion as an anchoress at the Church of St. Julian in Norwich, England for most of her adult life. Through a window to the outside world in her cell, Julian was expected to be available to provide prayer and counsel to those living in the city of Norwich. Julian sought holiness of life and communion with God in order to be able to intercede more effectively for others. Aelred, the author of the Ancrene Riwle, a tract written in 1200 to guide anchorites and spiritual recluses, summarized the ideal anchoress’s prayer:
“Embrace the whole world with the arms of your love and in that act at once consider and congratulate the good, contemplate and mourn over the wicked. In that act look upon the afflicted and the oppressed and feel compassion for them…In that act, call to mind the wretchedness of the poor , the groan of the orphans, the abandonment of widows, the gloom of the sorrowful, the needs of travelers, the prayers of virgins, the perils of those at sea, the temptation of monks, the responsibilities of prelates, the labors of those waging war. In your love take them all to your heart, weep over them, offer your prayers for them.”
After a serious illness, which she prayed to receive, Julian began seeing visions of God. These visions became the source of many “showings” that is, revelations given by God to Julian. The following are some excerpts from these visions. As Julian gazed on the Crucifix, during what she thought was the end of her life, Julian received the first of her visions on the Trinity:
“in the same revelation, suddenly the Trinity filled my heart full of the greatest joy, and I understood that it will be so in heaven without end to all who will come here. For the Trinity is God, God is the Trinity. The Trinity is our maker, the Trinity is our protector, the Trinity is our everlasting lover, the Trinity is our endless joy and our bliss, by our Lord Jesus Christ and inner Lord Jesus Christ.”
And I leave you with her most famous quote: “Jesus answered with these words, saying: ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’ … This was said so tenderly, without blame of any kind toward me or anybody else”.
Excerpts from Grace Jantzen’s “Julian of Norwich” are quoted above.
I first met Sue Valentine during an extraordinary Icon workshop I taught in March, 2020, at Mt. Calvary Monastery in Santa Barbara California. It was extraordinary for several reasons- first, we all were just beginning to understand that Covid was seriously dangerous, but our worlds hadn’t changed yet to quarantine measures. Extraordinary too, because sadly, Mt. Calvary monastery is now closed forever. And then there were the students- such an interesting and dedicated group, of which Sue was one. Recently I have seen how profoundly moving her icons are and they are developing in such a wonderful way that I invited her to share about her experiences with Icon writing and here is her article:
The Suffering Servant
While new to iconography, I have appreciated from the very first icon I wrote just one year ago how God is using icons to speak to me.
I have been considering God’s call to be a servant, and learned I both significantly misunderstood how highly the Lord thinks of His servants, and also how profoundly they suffer. These days I ponder these things as I paint.
I find I am becoming used to the conventions in icons: a blue outer robe representing Christ’s divinity and a red inner robe representing Christ’s humanity. Then the Lord pointed out there is no blue robe in this icon, because as Philippians 2:5-8 tells us, Jesus voluntarily removed His blue robe when He came to earth to become one of us, to serve us, to suffer for us, and to save us. Then, in Matthew 27:28, after Jesus was arrested and convicted, the soldiers stripped Him of His humanity, removing His red robe, and mocked Him, pretending to worship Him as a king, all the while spitting on Him and beating Him.
Jesus’ servant life and suffering stripped Him of both robes.
With the icon now complete, as I gaze on it, I’m feeling the robe I have painted on Jesus is somewhat jarring. I’ve introduced alizarin crimson, a new color for me. I can’t even remember why I chose that color. Only later do I realize that when the soldiers stripped Jesus of His red robe, they put on Him a scarlet robe which is what I have painted. This icon is the picture of Jesus, not robed in humanity, but covered with the soldier’s scorn for His kingship as they dressed Him in a scarlet robe. With that realization, I see more fully what He suffered and the servant life I am invited into.
Jesus is no longer robed in scarlet, in red or even in blue, all of which I can attempt to paint as I am learning this new way to pray. What I cannot capture or even attempt is what I know is true of Jesus now and read in scripture: Jesus is finally robed not in finite colors, but in the splendor and majesty He deserves.
John the Theologian
This is John the Theologian. John is my favorite gospel, and this is the icon of the gospel writer John who had incredible revelations of the Lord later in life, and he wrote them down.
He has an ink well at the ready, and an angel whispering inspiration in his ear.
The verse written in the book is John 16:33 “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
I have been wrestling with the Lord about how to live out my calling as a teacher. The Lord has told me until those opportunities open up, I should write. But writing seems less appealing to me.
So when asking the Lord, “Why this icon of John?”, He reminded me that this type of painting is called icon writing. If this is the kind of writing the Lord wants me to do, then I’m very interested.
This is my first larger icon, 16 x 20”. I chose it because my daughter was struggling severely, and I felt I needed to sit with many faces of grief, from the demonstrative Mary Magdalene with her arms raised to the strangely peaceful woman in green, as they mourned over the body of Jesus and as I mourned.
Just the process of painting a larger icon forced me to sit with those feelings of grief longer.
This is another 16×20” icon, and a sequel to “The Lamentation.” Jesus is now risen from the dead, leaving only His graveclothes behind, so I am surprised this icon is never called “The Resurrection.” Of the many renderings of this icon, I chose this one because Jesus was still visibly present, even though only one of the women noticed He was there. Their focus was on the grave clothes, and so, largely, was mine. I was feeling a kind of desolation, but at least Jesus was with me.
I found this icon very difficult to do and the larger format made that more plain to me. There were long periods when I could not work on it at all. I didn’t even know what I was feeling, and I sought the Lord for insight. Finally, the Lord gave me a word for it: disorientation, which is how I titled this icon. That word helped me unpack what I was feeling. Things were moving very quickly in my life, I was under intense stress, deeply sad, and in shock. I was just hoping that as I painted, the Lord would keep speaking.
The turning point in completing this icon came when the Lord told me that the graveclothes were my false self. Like Jesus, I needed resurrection. I needed to arise from those graveclothes and leave them behind.
As soon as He spoke that to me, the work accelerated and was completed quickly and set in motion the courage to make other changes in my life as I embraced what gave me life.
Sue Valentine is from Chicago. She has a B.A. in Behavioral Science and an M.B.A. from the University of Chicago, has a certification in Spiritual Direction from North Park Theological Seminary, and is a licensed minister in the Vineyard Church. She is a worship leader, teacher, contemplative, practicing spiritual director and aspiring iconographer.
That’s all for this month. If you have a suggestion for an article or wish to submit one, please contact me for submission requirements- we are always looking for articles that promote the joy of icon writing!
He who works with his hands and head is a craftsman.
He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.”
Saint Francis of Assisi
One of the beautiful things about writing icons is the re-introduction of ancient materials and methods. If a modern painter makes a painting of religious imagery without observing the ancient materials and principles of iconography, the effect just isn’t the same.
I realize that many of the readers of this blog are international as well as American, so this month’s news is about materials and where to get them. There are two books that I find extremely helpful that I would like to recommend.
The first is, Living Craft, A Painter’s Process, by Tad Spurgeon. This book contains “creative methods and materials based on older practice, featuring solvent – free techniques. There are also several highly informative chapters on the grammar of color and ninety unique formulas for oils, mediums, grounds, and paint.”
Many materials and processes are explained in detail in this book. For example, there are pages describing the how and why of using cloth to cover the wood surface before gesso application. In this book there are several formulas for glue size, gesso, egg emulsion and varnishes. Even though this is not strictly an icon book, the methods and materials within are of great value to iconographers as well as painters.
Since the philosophy behind this book values the traditional materials and processes of classical painting, there are many sections that go more deeply into materials than most icon books.
“When a painting is constructed with harmonious proportions- a process with both inner and outer dimensions- the result has both beauty and strength. Proportional harmony is involved in three major areas: the color, the composition, and the materials themselves.” And another quote that I find valuable in teaching color theory for iconographers is:
Living Craft, Tad Spurgeon
“Painting light convincingly is not enhanced by color variety, nor by color identity, but by the accuracy and harmony of color relationship within the value structure. These must be finely tuned to feel natural and are far easier to access with fewer colors and mixing based on value and temperature – the logic flight- than with more colors and mixing based on guess work.”
Living Craft, Tad Spurgeon
This is not so much a textbook as a record of one painter’s process of experimentation and research into classical and pre classical materials.
The other book I highly recommend is Formulas For Painters by Robert Massey. (Available on Thriftbooks.com)
Formulas For Painters
This is a book that is easy to see and read and contains two hundred simple formulas for making paints, glazes, mediums, varnishes, grounds, fixatives, sizes and adhesives for tempera, gouache, pastel, encaustic, fresco and other painting techniques.
Here is a quote from the author’s introduction:”Since the Middle Ages- indeed as early as the thirteenth century when Theophilus, the monk of Paderborn, wrote his work, On Divers Arts, – artists and craftsmen have cooked, blended, borrowed, and stolen an amazing variety of recipes and formulas, always striving to concoct a better paint or a quicker drying varnish tonsure the permanence of their art works.”
There are recipes for hide glue solutions, synthetic resin emulsion, egg and water solution, gelatine, and casein sizes to be used in the preparation of gesso. The varnishes section is particularly helpful for iconographers, with many alternatives to the traditional olifa of linseed oil.
I hope that these books prove helpful to iconographers searching to find the methods and materials that work best in their studio, climate, and circumstances.
A couple of additional points to share: Betsy Peter, an iconographer from California has been hosting an informal discussion, on Zoom, with and for iconographers each Sunday afternoon. Different topics are introduced each week and it is an open forum for sharing links and information. For an email invitation contact me below.
Also, my next online Icon painting class will be on April 13-16th, a morning session and an afternoon session, each of the four days. The focus will be on color and the Icon and we will be painting Saint George and the Dragon in egg tempera. There is a lot of advanced information regarding color theory for the experienced iconographers as well as step by step demonstrations for complete beginners.
I hope this blog is helpful, and provides not only community but valuable resources for al iconographers. Until next month, may God continue to bless the work of your hands and keep you safe and well.
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.