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.
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.
What is it that makes one saint more popular that others? Why do so many of the icons we paint tend to be of the same saints? Certainly there are many answers to those questions, but also, there are some saints who exist powerfully in the imagination of many people and thus are frequently used to focus prayers and our understanding of God’s power . Saint George is one of those, and since we recently painted his icon in the recent color theory and icons class I taught on line, I share with you some of the important aspects of Saint George that we discovered.
Saint George was one of the saints most highly regarded in ancient Russia. He was venerated not only as a warrior but also as a protector of agriculture. His feast day is April 23, which coincides with the beginning of the agricultural season. The icon we painted is Saint George and the Dragon. This one shows Saint George with his spear ready to pierce the dragon, who symbolizes evil. The hand of God in the upper corner completes the meaning that man, with God’s help, conquers evil in the world.
Both Catholics and Protestants maintained fidelity to St. George through the Reformation and its aftermath. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, England’s Catholics observed his feast each year as a holy day of obligation.
In Henry V, Shakespeare has the title character invoke St. George at Harfleur before the battle of Agincourt: “Follow your spirit, and upon this charge cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!'” And of course, Saint George is the patron saint of England.
In French, the word “cheval” means horse, and so it happens, as Chesterton once observed, that in the concept of chivalry, the very name of the horse has been given to the highest mood and moment of man. The combination of man and horse, he continues, evokes feelings of so high an order that earlier ages happily portrayed in their art Christian heroes on winged stallions. The most famous of these images was that of St. George, the mounted knight, defender of the good, piercing with his lance the dragon, that representation of evil rampant in the world. Some of this material is excerpted from ( Fr. James’ Newsletter, April 21, 2021, St. Procopious Abbey).
George’s real importance in the lives of Slavic peasants was as the mythical hero “Yegoriy the Brave,” the militant protector of cattle from wolves and bears, associated not only with the well being of horses but also with the greening of the grass after winter and the pasturing of the cattle. St. George became a kind of nature god, like the Prophet Elijah, whose chariot rolling across the heavens made the thunder. George was, in Russian peasant lore, the one who brought the spring. (Icons and their Interpretation)
The Significance of Saint George Today
Yet another reason for Saint George’s popularity with people today is that he symbolizes a spiritual truth which places the power of God firmly on the throne. It is only with God’s help that victory is achieved. Just as David, in 2 Samuel 5:6-6:23, asked God before he went into battle if he should go forth or not, giving God’s will preference over his own, here Saint George’s message is similar. He doesn’t trust in his own strength, but in God’s Strength. And this message is in contradiction to the message of humanism that our culture has inherited from the cultural developments after the Renaissance. Before the 1300’s, the world was defined with a theistic world view. As part of that world view, every creature as well as heaven had a clearly defined place in the hierarchy established by the laws of God. The good of all required devotion, community and cooperation with one’s neighbor. Humanism cultivated the reliance of man upon his own strength and abilities for answers and salvation from life’s problems. So, Saint George is a visual reminder to us to always seek our help for above, from God himself, and then our victory is assured.
May God bless the work of your hands and protect you from all that is not of Him,
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!
The following article was submitted by educator and iconographer, Jeannie Furlong. Thank you Jeannie, I’m sure these book reviews will be very helpful, and help to spread the joy of icon writing around the world!
Icon Books, from Jeannie Furlong:
My interest in Icons seems to have been with me for as long as I can remember. It was their stillness and austere beauty that caught my eye, initially! My artist background couldn’t keep me from analyzing what I was seeing. Each new Icon fed my embers of interest and before long a small fire had ignited. I needed to know more!
I purchased my first Icon reproduction, Holy Trinity by St. Andrei Rublev. I then found two intriguing books, Icons andSpiritual Geometry,to read.I also purchased a set of egg tempera pigments to use in the future. Gradually, I realized I was being guided into a steady path centered on learning about and creating icons.
Next, what I really needed was a teacher with the patience of Job. Where? in the midst of a raging Covid pandemic would I find one? Many, many prayers (plus Google) brought me the answer, when a ‘search’ popped up Christine Hales Iconographer! And, she was offering a Virtual Icon class. My learning curve has been straight up; an amazing beginning, and I have learned an unbelievable amount about Icons under her instruction. Now, I am pleased to accept her invitation to share with you a few of the books I found useful on my journey, especially if you are a neophyte, like myself!
I’ve listed sources alphabetically by author. Each has unique information! Enjoy!
Praying with Icons by Jim Forest. Orbis Books, 1997. (Available from Amazon.com on Kindle). The author begins with retelling a personal journey early on with Icons. The interesting aspect, surprisingly enough, is that he is NOT an Iconographer, but his story is very ‘hands-on’ sharing his experiences with Icons. In addition to Icon information and interviews, the author delves into Learning to Pray. He surprises the reader in his section on prayers, with his inclusion of two specific prayers for the Iconographer which are The Rules for the Icon Painter and An Iconographer’s Prayer.
Eyes of Fire How Icons Saved My Life by Christine Hales. Christine Hales 2018. (Available from Amazon.com) The author uses a conversational voice taking the reader on a journey beginning with life discoveries that ‘saved her life’ and continues to chat along the way discussing the values found in many periods of art. Throughout the pages are beautiful color illustrations that spur the reader on. Building this background of information she creates a deeper understanding of Icons that as an art form wields spirituality by virtue of being an art form. Christine’s book is “about” writing Icons explaining foundational processes used for creating icons. It confirms that Icons are a window the artist speaks through, “With this method of art practice, the next step is to combine that with prayer, and in doing so, the Holy Spirit will lift up the space between hand, brush and board, and the reflection of Grace will manifest in your Icon, to be read by any receptive heart.”
Drawing Closer to CHRIST A Self-Guided Icon Retreat by Joseph Malham. Ave Maria Press. 2017. (Available from Amazon.com). The author takes the reader on a very defined study of Icons that includes study and painting. A self-directed “guide into the act of iconography, which is an act of prayer. It has been divided into seven chapters, which not only measure the days it will take to create your icon but also an approximation of the days in which God created everything from nothing.” The study and painting focus on the Icon Pantocrator. These seven chapters use a biblical passage to introduce the Day with the authors’ comments, proceeds to Theological Reflections and continues with Painting the Icon. In the Guidelines, the author encourages the participant, “Remember this is a retreat and not a work project with a deadline. Your seven-day retreat will be a fluid motion of prayer centered on the rhythm you set.”
Sacred Doorways A Beginner’s Guide To Icons by Linette Martin. Paraclete Press, 2002. (Available from Thriftbooks.com). As mentioned in the Preface by Dr Nicholas Gendle, Editor, this book is practical and by no means technical but purposely authored to appeal to the beginner seeking information about Icons. It is written in a very ‘conversational’ voice that carries the reader smoothly from chapter to chapter while delivering a great amount of information carefully crafted without overwhelming the reader. This wealth of information does whet the readers’ appetite to want more information. It could certainly fit the bill as a resource for a study group seeking to know about Icons or an individual preparing to take an Icon class. Chapter 8, God, Angels and People, extends a sense of familiarity about a few icons and terminology used in Christian settings sometimes ‘taken for granted’. This chapter expands the meaning of familiar terminology and explains how it relates within the church.
Icon Painting Technique: A Meditative Guide to Egg Tempera Painting by Mary Jane Miller. Mary Jane Miller, 2013. (Available from Amazon.com-Kindle) The author prepares the reader in the Introduction: “The book is about the subtle relationship between the icon painting and how it reflects and enriches ones spiritual life”.
Silence, plays a major role in the process of creating an icon as an “extraordinary kind of prayer” from beginning to end. “Icons are not portraits; they are a windows on a world that call us to be still, to look and reflect, to be at peace with ourselves, and to rest in a place of thankfulness with God.” The author substitutes the terminology of ‘painting’ for ‘writing’ in her discussion and explains why in the History Chapter. In the Chapter Technique & Materials, she author provides an extensive discussion about her special philosophy while painting with egg tempera. She also provides various ratios she uses in her painting. Painting the Icon is broken into 12 Steps. Each simplifies the painting of each icon to enhance listening to God.
Techniques of Traditional Icon Painting by Giles Weissman, Search Press, 2012. (Available on Amazon.com). A very sturdy paperback that focuses in great detail on the “processes” of writing Icons. It also contains beautiful full color illustrations including a ‘bird’s eye glimpse’ of the detailing for a reference for painting. Chapter 5 – Byzantine Drawing points out “the elements of the composition are positioned for balanced and harmony”. The author continues using detailed step by step information clarified by the narrative while beautiful pictures identify what your work will look like at each phase. Chapter 8 – Inscriptionsexplainsthe importance of an inscription, how to paint it, and includes many inscriptions with an interpretation and origin for them.
Article contributed by Jeannie Furlong:
Jeannie Furlong, Ed.D. Episcopalian, Wife, Mother, Grandmother of 11, Texan, Business Owner, Former Educator, Professor and future Iconographer! Conversation welcomed at email@example.com
Useful Links For Iconographers:
Greek Iconographer, Antonis with instruction on the Cretan style of iconography. It is a simple study which can help with dry brush technique:
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.