I’ve been studying and painting Icons for almost thirty years! Since I first began, the field of iconography has changed so much! There are so many more books on the subject, both “how to”, books about the history of icons, and how to pray with them. This is great news for all of us, I’m sure.
New Gilding Materials
At the same time, many, many, new products used for icon writing have come on the market. I invite any of my readers who has experience with these new products to please write about it so it can be shared and published here. Only in this way of sharing our experience can we hope to add the best quality to our icons and I know that we all want to bless the Lord with our most excellent work.
With this in mind, I’m currently preparing to teach an online icon writing class that, in addition to teaching how to paint an icon using egg tempera, will focus on how to gild using the Kolner Instacoll Gilding System. Many iconographers love this method because of its relative ease in application but particularly for its very shiny surface when it’s finished. I have experimented extensively with it and am happy to share some of the technical information I have observed.
First, applying one or two coats of shellac to the area to be gilded is most beneficial. The natural gesso is a porous surface, and even for other gilding methods, it is suggested to coat the surface with shellac thinned with denatured alcohol. I used a mixture that is 1 part blonde shellac flakes to 4 parts denatured alcohol. (This mixture can be stored in a cool dry place for several weeks only, so only mix the amount you think you will need.) You will find technical articles about this on the web- here is one.
Kölner Instacoll System
Next, I applied the Kolner Instacoll System BASE in two thinned layers. I thinned it a little with a drop or two of distilled water. This needs to dry completely- 1-3 hours between coats. It’s really important to avoid making brushstrokes if you want a very smooth gold surface. (You can clean your brushes with soap and water). The first coat must be completely dry before applying the second coat.
Next, I applied the Kolner Instacoll System ACTIVATOR. You can use a brush or a soft cloth to apply this to the base when it’s dry. You want a thin, even film over the base and it needs to dry before applying the gold leaf.
You can use either patent gold or loose gold with this system. I used patent gold leaf and a cotton ball to firmly push the gold leaf onto the surface. This takes some practice. Overlapping the gold leaf when applying it helps to give a smooth seamless look to the finished gold. After the whole surface to be gilded is covered, press down firmly again all the gold, using cotton balls- never touching the surface with your fingers.
Now for some gratification! When it’s all applied and pushed firmly into the surface, take a cotton ball or soft cloth and burnish gently to remove all the loose gold bits. As you do so, the most beautiful gold leaf shine appears !
As a note, I also experimented with the Kolner KGGG System FOND and Colnasize, but I prefer the above method as it is slightly easier and doesn’t require sanding.
Of course there are many other methods of gilding for icons- the oil method with different application and drying times, the water gilding method and The Dux water based size method. With experience, each of us arrives at our preferred method of gold leaf application. I hope this article has been helpful. Feel free to register for my online class in October to see this demonstrated!
This is a very good and short (7 1/2 minutes) talk on “Why Icons Look The Way They Do” by Archimandrite Maximos Constas, interviewed by Fr. Josiah Trenham.
THAT’S ALL FOR THIS MONTH. Be blessed and bless others,
This month I am presenting some writings and images from a beautiful exhibition of Eastern European icons dating from the nineteenth to sixteenth centuries that is hosted by a non-profit gallery of icons located in Žilina (Slovakia). The Gallery of Icons (OZ IKONY) in Žilina is found at: https://ikony.hour.sk/en/
Gallery of Icons – OZ IKONY
The gallery was established in 2015 as the result of a private collection of East Christian icons. During the last 7 years of existence, the gallery has collected about 300 icons from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, North Macedonia or Albania. The icons are dated from the 14th until the beginning of the 20th century. Among the main activities of the gallery, I can name the presentation of the icons from various regions of Eastern Christian cultures, the conduct of research on icons and providing space for and organizing of conferences, lectures and concerts. The aim of the exhibition is to present the spiritual and artistic beauty of Eastern Christian icons and to create a living bridge between the East and the West.
In March 2021 the gallery celebrated its 5th anniversary. The current exhibition called The Mysterious Face of Jesus Christ is the fifth in a row after the exhibitions dedicated to the themes of The Old Testament Prophets, The Church Feasts, The Icons of the Mother of God, and Wisdom Hidden in Icons.
The 5th exhibition is opened from the 15th of September 2020 until June 2023. There are 25 artistically and historically valuable icons on display. Most of them are exhibited in Slovakia for the first time. There are Russian and Greek icons, one Romanian, Macedonian, and Albanian icon, and one icon from Mount Athos among the exhibits.
American Association of Iconographers’ Goals
Even as this is a newsletter to foster the development of American iconographers, we all owe a debt of gratitude to our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters who, through the centuries have produced so many beautiful and deeply spiritual icons worth imitating and learning from. The aim of this exhibition is to create a living bridge between the East and the West, which is closely aligned with the goals of the American Association of Iconographers.
Membership to the American Association of Iconographers is without financial obligation to its members and is open to all friends and lovers of icons around the world. It is an ecumenical, primarily Christian group of icon collectors, scholars, icon writers and those whose mandate is education in the liturgical arts.
We invite members to contribute educational articles that might benefit all who love icons. Email: email@example.com for submission details.
Quotes from Milan Lach SJ, Bishop of the Eparchy of Parma, Ohio
“St John of Damascus (+749) once said: “When someone asks you about your faith, take him to church and show him the icons.” … Icons are liturgical objects. They speak- communicate. Persons depicted on icons are already in the Heavenly Kingdom. They are transformed by uncreated light and participate in the life of the Most Holy Trinity.
Icons are not merely art, as Western culture would perceive it. They are more than art. Through an encounter with the person of Jesus Christ, the Most Holy Theotokos, and the saints depicted on the icon, we can have a personal experience with the living God.
The icon is a tool of evangelization, through which the Church proclaims the living Jesus Christ. To His person is dedicated this exhibition of twenty five beautiful icons, here at the Gallery of Icons in Zilina.”
I hope this virtual exhibition enriches your understanding and scope of possible models for future icons. Sending prayers for God to bless the work of your hands and minds, to the service of His Holy Church.
Recently I have been reading a book by Sister Gabriela about Father Sophrony that includes many of his drawings and icons. I’m inspired by his approach and work and want to share that with you here.
While attending art school in Russia in the 1920’s, one of his teachers was Vassily Kandinsky. Soon after, Sophrony moved to Paris where he exhibited his paintings and was not interested in pursuing a Christian life. This changed drastically and in 1926 he entered the Monastery of Panteleimon on Mt Athos where he remained until finally settling in Essex, UK at the Monastery of Saint John the Baptist.
To learn more about Father Sophrony, please read Sister Gabriela’s excellent books: “Being, The Art and Life of Father Sophrony”, or “Seeking Perfection in the World of Art”, or “Painting As Prayer: The Art of A. Sophrony Sakharov.”
I include here several quotes from the “Painting as Prayer” book that I know will be inspiring to all of you as well:
“An artist is a person who believes with deep conviction in the rightness of what he creates; who devotes his entire life to art for mankind. Only in such people does the Divine spark burn, brightly an unquenchably. And this is what’s most important in art.”
This is a quote in the book attributed to Kandinsky: ” the artist must not consider himself master of the situation, but the servant of nobler aims- a servant whose obligations are majestic, distinctive, and sacred. He must nurture himself and plumb the depths of his inner life, he must conserve his inner life and develop it lest his outer talent becomes empty, like a lost glove, the empty and vain likeness of a hand.”
Painting as Prayer, Book by Sister Gabriela
“The Icon is an art which expresses the spiritual world in form and color. It is made with a stylistic language of its own which introduces the person looking at it into another sphere of being, another world of perception. Intentionally it follows a different logic of perspective and reality, placing emphasis on the inner life because its main purpose is either to depict the face of God or convey the soul of the saint or the essence of the scene being depicted. Deliberately this makes it somewhat abstract. The artist seeks divine inspiration for their work and in order to receive this, rather than some other influence, he needs a humble and prayerful attitude, recognizing that he is not master of the situation.
Inspiration from on high depends to a considerable extent on us- whether we open our heart so that the Lord- The Holy Spirit Who ‘stands at the door and knocks’ does not have to enter forcibly.
The iconographer will try to free himself from all that hinders or is contrary to the action of Divine Inspiration. This requires both humility and asceticism, but as ascetic feats may lead to pride, and thus deter grace, it is humility that is the essential part. This keeps him both open to others and their suggestions and open to grace. It preserves a rigorous questioning and checking in prayer with his conscience and with the ideal which is the humble example of Christ.”
Orthodox Journal Article
I first learned about Father Sophrony’s work from an excellent article on the Orthodox Journal. Here is the link .
“For me, the most fascinating part of the study was the subject of Father Sophrony as an iconographer. His approach to iconographic practice is described and this section is rich in quotations and comments of great interest. Sister Gabriela writes that by having “absorbed the iconographic tradition through observation and living with it, while leading a strict ascetical life…one’s understanding goes deeper, beyond the external aesthetic aspect.” “…he understood iconography in its essential form, as an inspiration for prayer, and a “springboard”, as he called it himself, to eternity. In this sense he was free from any attachment to any specific school or iconographic movement. His sole interest was to render the icon as authentically as possible.” As a result of this it is apparent that “One cannot classify his icons into any particular style or school. He took what he found best from each. His only concern was the icon itself, how best to express the given situation.”
In summation Sister Gabriela writes of Father Sophrony’s life that “This is the search for Christ, the yearning for close contact with Him and, within this, striving to portray His face in a correct and worthy manner, both in the inner life and in iconographic panting.”
Additional Link to Icon Gallery in Slovakia
I have recently seen a lovely online exhibition of Eastern European Icons at The Gallery of Icons. Here is the link.
That’s all for this month. Please email me with suggestions for future articles on understanding and appreciating icons.
What is so special about Novgorod Icons? In addition to being known for their beautiful colors and lively compositions, Novgorod Icons offer a rich history and background to the study of icon writing.
Novgorod is one of the oldest cities in Russia, dating from about 859 AD. The period from the 12th to the 17th centuries was especially bountiful in producing many beautiful icons. This period of time is sometimes referred to as “the Proto- Renaissance” because it still embraced the union of religious and aesthetic ideas.
The Effects of the Western Renaissance on Icon Writing
The Proto- Renaissance that was operational in Russia was able to encompass all the cultural phenomena of its time within the context of religion and produce icons of spiritual depth without being overly influenced by Humanism.
In the West from the 14th to 16th centuries, the Renaissance moved art, even religious art, more toward man’s interests and became more human, less religious. Even Christianity in the West at this time became more rational and scholastic and emphasized the emotional experiences of the subject.
In the practice of writing icons, we tend to strongly favor copying icons from before the Renaissance for this very reason. Iconographers agree that imagery from before the Renaissance is preferred because we want our icons to reflect a culture that placed God as the center of the universe, not human reason.
Fourteenth Century Russian Culture
Russian culture of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries developed strong ties with Byzantium, particularly in Novgorod and Pskov. The great iconographer, Andrei Rublev was part of this cultural and spiritual movement. The famous Byzantine master Theophanes the Greek worked in Novgorod in 1378. His magnificent frescoes in the Church of Our Savior in Ilyina Street formed a bridge between the art of Novgorod and Byzantium.
The Artistic Language of the Novgorodian icon is simple, laconic and precise; the composition is based on large contrasting shapes. The rhythm and coloring are tense and mobile, the drawing energetic. Colors are especially important and tend to be simple and bright. Faces, while classical. Tend to have large, expressive eyes. They are painted in a gentle manner with subtle gradations of value. The linear design of the hair, lips, nose and eyes is in contrast to the subtle tonal gradations. In the earlier icons, the minimal color scheme of olive and yellow prevails.
Saint Nicholas Icon
In the thirteenth century icon of Saint Nicholas from the Novgorodian monastery of the Holy Spirit, we see clearly the simplicity of composition, the harsh linear forms, and sparse contrasting colors that complement the restraint of the image. This icon, as well as the is very characteristic of Novgorodian twelfth and thirteenth century painting.
Presentation of the Virgin Icon and Boris and Gleb Icon
In these icons of the late thirteenth, early fourteenth centuries we see the qualities of simplicity of composition combined with monumental, flat graphic qualities balanced by relative depth of form. The colors show an abundance of cinnabar, white, ochre, brown and green.
At this time, Novgorodian painting came closer to Byzantine icons of the Palaeologus period. Icons became monumental and soon were given to freer and more complex compositions. Here we find images with inner tension, power and a classical simplicity. We also see the beginnings of interest in man and his feelings and this affects both color and composition.
I need to end this here, but will pick it up again in a subsequent blog in order to continue the historical development of icons in this most important period of icon history. For further reading I suggest the book: Novgorod Icons, 12-17th Century by Aurora Art Publishers, Leningrad.
Some of the best characteristics of Novgorodian icons are their rational yet popular imagery, economy of means, and a brilliant use of color. Definitely a period of icon writing worth exploring for every aspiring iconographer!
The next icon class that I teach online we are painting an Icon of Mary Magdalene. In order to make an accurate copy of the prototype, I am researching the relatively scant information available about her and want to share some of that with you here.
The questions to ask are: “Who was this woman, what does she represent to us today?” I rely heavily on Wikipedia for this article, and I include the following:
“Mary Magdalene is considered to be a saint by the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran churches. In 2016 Pope Francis raised the level of liturgical memory on July 22 from memorial to feast, and for her to be referred as the “Apostle of the apostles”. Other Protestant churches honor her as a heroine of the faith. The Eastern Orthodox churches also commemorate her on the Sunday of the Myrrhbearers, the Orthodox equivalent of one of the Western Three Marys traditions.” Wikipedia
Early Materials: Who Was Mary Magdalene
“The earliest materials that refer to Mary Magdalene appear from two very different sources: the canonical Gospels of the New Testament, and a group of fringe materials that have come to be known as the Gnostic Gospels, which were rejected by the Catholic Church.” The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, by Jean-Yves Leloup.
I share Leloup’s thoughts that the path of Mary Magdalene emphasizes inner preparation, introspection, and inner transformation. “As one who has been cleansed from sin, who remains with Christ throughout his death on the cross; and who first witnesses, understands, and believes in Christ’s resurrection, she represents a human being who is open and available to true “inner knowing” and can see in deeper, clearer ways through a unique spiritual connection to both earthly death and the Divine.”
“Mary Magdalene, sometimes called Mary of Magdala, or simply the Magdalene or the Madeleine, was a woman who, according to the four canonical gospels, traveled with Jesus as one of his followers and was a witness to his crucifixion and resurrection. She is mentioned by name twelve times in the canonical gospels, more than most of the apostles and more than any other woman in the gospels, other than Jesus’s family. Mary’s epithet Magdalene may mean that she came from the town of Magdala, a fishing town on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee in Roman Judea.” Wikipedia
“Mary Magdalene’s epithet Magdalene (ἡ Μαγδαληνή; literally “the Magdalene”) most likely means that she came from Magdala, a village on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee that was primarily known in antiquity as a fishing town. Mary was, by far, the most common Jewish given name for females during the first century, so it was necessary for the authors of the gospels to call her Magdalene in order to distinguish her from the other women named Mary who followed Jesus. Although the Gospel of Mark, reputed by scholars to be the earliest surviving gospel, does not mention Mary Magdalene until Jesus’s crucifixion,]the Gospel of Luke 8:2–3 provides a brief summary of her role during his ministry: “Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.” Wikipedia
There Is No Direct Evidence to Support The Notion of Her As a Prostitute.
“The portrayal of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute began in 591 when Pope Gregory I conflated Mary Magdalene, who was introduced in Luke 8:2, with Mary of Bethany (Luke 10:39) and the unnamed “sinful woman” who anointed Jesus’s feet in Luke 7:36–50. Pope Gregory’s Easter sermon resulted in a widespread belief that Mary Magdalene was a repentant prostitute or promiscuous woman. Then elaborate medieval legends from western Europe emerged which told exaggerated tales of Mary Magdalene’s wealth and beauty, as well as of her alleged journey to southern Gaul (modern-day France.) The identification of Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany and the unnamed “sinful woman” was still a major controversy in the years leading up to the Reformation, and some Protestant leaders rejected it. During the Counter-Reformation, the Catholic Church emphasized Mary Magdalene as a symbol of penance. In 1969, Pope Paul VI removed the identification of Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany and the “sinful woman” from the General Roman Calendar, but the view of her as a former prostitute has persisted in popular culture. …
Mary Magdalene Was Probably From a Wealthy Family
The Gospel of Luke 8:2–3 lists Mary Magdalene as one of the women who traveled with Jesus and helped support his ministry “out of their resources”, indicating that she was probably wealthy. The same passage also states that seven demons had been driven out of her, a statement which is repeated in Mark 16. In all the four canonical gospels, Mary Magdalene was a witness to the crucifixion of Jesus and, in the Synoptic Gospels, she was also present at his burial. All the four gospels identified her, either alone or as a member of a larger group of women which includes Jesus’s mother, as the first to witness the empty tomb, and, either alone or as a member of a group, as the first to witness Jesus’s resurrection… Because Mary is listed as one of the women who were supporting Jesus’s ministry financially, she must have been relatively wealthy. The places where she and the other women are mentioned throughout the gospels strongly indicate that they were vital to Jesus’s ministry and the fact that Mary Magdalene always appears first, whenever she is listed in the Synoptic Gospels as a member of a group of women, indicates that she was seen as the most important out of all of them. Carla Ricci notes that, in lists of the disciples, Mary Magdalene occupies a similar position among Jesus’s female followers as Simon Peter does among the male apostles.”Wikipedia
Mary Magdalene is the only woman besides Mother Mary who is mentioned by name in all four texts., and her name is always listed first when the presence of women is noted.
Healed By Jesus of Seven Demons
Jesus heals Mary by freeing her from seven demons. Mark 16:9 and Luke 8:2. She is mentioned also as one of the three, along with Mother Mary and John the apostle who wait at the foot of Christ’s cross at the Crucifixion. John 19:25
And importantly we know that she is the first to see Jesus resurrected from the tomb: John 20:11-18, Mark 16:9, Matthew 28:9-10. It is because of this that she is considered to be the apostle of the apostles.
Because Mary was the first to witness the Resurrection, she was considered by the Apostle John as the founder of Christianity. This was long before Saint Paul had his vision on the road to Damascus.
Women at the Tomb
According to Matthew 28:1–10, Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” went to the tomb. An earthquake occurred and an angel dressed in white descended from Heaven and rolled aside the stone as the women were watching. The angel told them that Jesus had risen from the dead. Then the risen Jesus himself appeared to the women as they were leaving the tomb and told them to tell the other disciples that he would meet them in Galilee. According to Luke 24:1–12, a group of unnamed women went to the tomb and found the stone already rolled away, as in Mark. They went inside and saw two young men dressed in white who told them that Jesus had risen from the dead. Then they went and told the eleven remaining apostles, who dismissed their story as nonsense. In Luke’s account, Jesus never appears to the women, but instead makes his first appearance to Cleopas and an unnamed “disciple” on the road to Emmaus. Luke’s narrative also removes the injunction for the women to tell the disciples to return to Galilee and instead has Jesus tell the disciples not to return to Galilee, but rather to stay in the precincts of Jerusalem.
Another Account of Mary Magdalene and the Resurrection
Mary Magdalene’s role in the resurrection narrative is greatly increased in the account from the Gospel of John. According to John 20:1–10, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb alone when it was still dark and saw that the stone had already been rolled away. She did not see anyone, but immediately ran to tell Peter and the “beloved disciple”, who came with her to the tomb and confirmed that it was empty, but returned home without seeing the risen Jesus. According to John 20:11–18, Mary, now alone in the garden outside the tomb, saw two angels sitting where Jesus’s body had been. Then the risen Jesus approached her. She at first mistook him for the gardener, but, after she heard him say her name, she recognized him and cried out “Rabbouni!” of the grammar (negated present imperative: stop doing something already in progress) as well as Jesus’ challenge to Thomas a week later (see John 20:24–29). Jesus then sent her to tell the other apostles the good news of his resurrection. The Gospel of John therefore portrays Mary Magdalene as the first apostle, the apostle to the apostles.
The relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene shows us that Jesus did not reject women, but loved and welcomed women, sinners, and the weak.
The Relevance of Mary Magdalene for Christianity Today.
Another interesting book on the subject is Cynthia Bourgeault “The Meaning of Mary Magdalene, Discovering the Woman at the heart of Christianity”. In this book, Bourgeault re -examines both the Traditional and liturgical meanings of Mary’s role in the Gospels in the light of today’s hunger for personal spiritual understanding and meaning.
“ In the liturgy for the great vigil of Easter, one of the readings comes from the Old Testament book of Ezekiel:’I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.’ Ezekiel 36:26 It seems to me that this promise captures the essence of Mary’s Magdalen’s healing vocation to contemporary Christianity…”
Legends and Creative Imaginings
There remain many stories, legends and creative imaginings surrounding the person of Mary of Magdala. I close this article with a lovely quote from the Leloup book:
“Each morning, according to another legend, a group of angels lifted Mary Magdalene above the summit of the cliffs where she could listed to the entire choir of angelic hosts, the divine sounds of original and continuing creation.”
Until next month, be blessed and do your best to help and be kind to others. 🙏❤️
“Come then, let us run with him as he presses on to his passion. Let us imitate those who have gone out to meet him, not scattering olive branches or palms in his path, but spreading ourselves before him as best we can, with humility of soul and upright purpose. So may we welcome the Word as he comes, so may God who cannot be contained within any bounds, be contained within us...
Today let us too give voice with the children to that sacred chant, as we wave the spiritual branches of our soul: ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, the King of Israel. “ Saint Andrew of Crete
This month, as we all observe Lent in our prayer lives and churches, I have gathered a collection of Icons related to this season that encompasses the mystery and Passion of our Lord. If any of you readers have written icons on this theme, please send them in and I will post them on the FB page for the American Association of Iconographers.
Entry Into Jerusalem
“Seated in heaven upon Thy throne and on earth upon a foal, O Christ our God, Thou hast accepted the praise of the angels and the songs of the children who cried out to Thee: Blessed art thou that comest to call back Adam”. From the Kontakion for the Feast
The Holy Washing of the Feet, Icon
Peter, the Apostle is seated on a bench, on the floor is a basin with water, Jesus has his mantle pulled up to keep it dry, Jesus is wiping the with a towel Peter’s right foot.
The other disciples are grouped on the right and left sides, some are loosening their sandals, Christ is the only figure shown with a halo. Only two are shown without a beard, because of their youth.
This was a lesson in humility. Christ says that he gave them an example to be imitated by them.
The Mystical Supper
“As a mystical event, the “Supper takes place at every Divine Liturgy or Eucharistic Feast. “ Of Thy Mystical Supper, O Son Of God, receive me today as a communicant, for I will not speak of the mystery to thine enemies.”
A long table inside a house, usually Christ is seen in the center, his head inclines slightly to the right and with his right hand he blesses. Peter is seated on the right side and John on His left side- Jesus rests his hand on John’s shoulder. This is depicted in John’s Gospel, 13:23-24. Judas is stretching out his hand in order to dip his bread in the dish. Matthew 26:23
All the disciples are shown without halos. Halos are not proper before Pentecost. The disciples should not have their backs to the viewer.
The D shaped table was first seen in the 6th century Ravenna mosaics. Psychological perspective calls for Christ to be at the center of the table. ” ( Guide to Byzantine Iconography, Constantine Cavarnos)
The Crucifixion Icon
The Bridegroom of the Church is transfixed with nails. The Son of the Virgin is pierced with a spear. We venerate Thy Passion, O Christ. Show us also Thy Gkorious Resurrection.
“The traditional Crucifixion icon is a hand-painted icon with the scene of Jesus Christ’s Crucifixion in the center of the composition. Christ is usually surrounded by the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, St. John the Apostle, Longinus the Centurion, and several other onlookers. All the figures depicted in the Crucifixion icon show emotions associated with grief, but nothing suggests sound. Their mouths are not open, and the icon holds silence. Christ Himself is depicted with His eyes closed and His head bowed as if showing His last minutes of life on earth.
The composition of the Crucifixion icon also often includes an open cave with the skull and bones of Adam right at the bottom of the Cross. According to the legend, Adam’s bones, which had been buried under Golgotha by the descendants of Noah, appeared on the surface at the moment of Christ’s death due to a great earthquake that split apart the rocks. Christ’s blood flowed down from the Cross and on to Adam’s bones, bringing the redemption to the First Man and the whole human race.” to read more follow this link for The Russian Icon Blog.
Descent From the Cross Icon
The Descent from the Cross Icon, sometimes called “The Deposition”, shows Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus taking Christ down from the cross after his crucifixion. The Gospel mentions women attending, probably Mary Magdalene, Mary, the Mother of Christ and Mary Salome alongside St.John.
The aim of this icon is to impart the mystical, spiritual truth of the lamentation. The colors, the composition, and even the lines of the figures all lead the viewer upward, they raise our thoughts beyond the crucifixion to the upward movement of Christ himself and the Ascension. It’s a sacred and divinely inspired icon, full of truth and transcendence of emotions to the spiritual realm of faith and hope.
The Resurrection Icon
The Icon of the Resurrection evokes the fragrance of immortality and the fulfillment of the reclamation of Adam and all who have come after. The simple truths are depicted without theatricality.
“Though Thou didst descend into the grave, O Immortal One, yet didst Thou destroy the power of hades, and didst arise as victor, O Christ God, calling to the Myrrh bearing women, Rejoice, and giving peace unto Thine apostles, O Thou who does grant resurrection to the fallen. ” Kontakion for Easter
The Resurrection brings light and joy to all creation. May Pascha, Easter, and Lent be Holy and blessed times for you all and bring joy to your hearts.
Born in the 1360’s in Moscow , Andrei Rublev is widely considered the one of the greatest painters of Russian Orthodox Icons. For a large part of his life he lived in the Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra near Moscow and his spiritual teacher was St. Sergius of Radonezh. He was able to express the spiritual ideals of his time and integrate the tenets of Byzantine Iconography into his icons in a way no one has been able to do before or since.
Andrei Rublev , along with the icon painter Theophanes, painted the icons for the Cathedral of the Annunciation in Moscow. Theophanes is generally considered to have been Rublev’s teacher in icon painting and one can certainly see the similarities in their work.
The Moscow Icon painters of the early 15th century transformed the rather heavy Byzantine style of the iconostasis and Rublev was among those, along with Theophanes, who created the Russian style of the Iconostasis. This fully developed representation of the Festal Scenes along with the central figures of Saints John, Mary, and the Archangels Michael and Gabriel is often found arranged in tiers at the high altar of Orthodox churches. Many of these also include a tier of prophets as well.
Rublev and Theophanes introduced full figure saints into the Iconostasis as opposed to the Byzantine style of using half figures. This brought a much greater sense of presence to the icons, allowing the viewer to feel present with the saints as they worshipped.
The Assumption Cathedral in Vladimir was painted by both Rublev and Daniel Chorny in about 1408. They worked together also to paint the Trinity Cathedral at the Trinity Lavra between 1425-1427.
Rublev’s most famous Icon, the Trinity, now hangs at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, where it continues to stun viewers both by its great size as well as the artistic levels of excellence he was able to achieve in this work. St. Sergius of Radonezh consecrated his Monastery Cathedral to the Holy Trinity, “So that the sight of the Holy Trinity would serve to vanquish fear of the hateful strife within this world”.
Rublev’s work carries with it a luminosity and elegance of expression in the figures depicted. The harmony Rublev achieved through the use of sacred geometry in the compositions also evoked a sense of clarity and purity.
One of the key characteristics of Rublev’s works is spiritual harmony, the blending of both inner and outer beauty in the saints he depicts. This is an aspect of the Byzantine spiritual system- the harmony between beauty of body and beauty of spirit. “When the human being is wholly dissolved in Divine love, then outwardly he reflects the glow of his inner spirit.” St. John Climacus
Understanding as we do, the importance of keeping our gaze on things above, one can see that the ideals manifested so exquisitely in Rublev’s work would be good ones to bring forward to our world of today.
May God continue to bless the work of your hands, and may He guide our thoughts and actions that we could do all that is honorable and pleasing to the One we serve, Jesus Christ.
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.
“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.