Have you ever wondered about the symbolic nature of Icons? It is the very source of their power as Holy images that convey the many faceted religion of Christianity. One dictionary definition of “symbolic language” reads: ” a specialized language dependent on the use of symbols for communication and created for the purpose of achieving greater exactitude…”
Symbols allow us to bring our spiritual awareness out of the church and into our secular world. Communion with God through the Icon is achieved through a symbolic language where gestures, clothing, and style of drawing are precise and fixed. There are only a few gestures that Christ’s right hand will take, and the drawing of the faces and human form fall within a canon of proportion and scale that relates to the theme and subject matter.
C.S. Lewis, when asked to write another book for his adult audience replied that he now preferred to write in symbols and metaphors for a younger audience (The Chronicles of Narnia), in order to intrigue readers with Christianity unawares. Similarly, Icons can bring the presence of God to people’s hearts whether or not they are Christians at all.
Icons are based on a Greek notion of proportion and symmetry applied to facial features and bodies. Even color has great significance for understanding the mysteries of our faith. The light emanating from an Icon must be indicative of the uncreated light of God’s Presence and the divine light of grace. Through contemplation on these symbolic images, Icons, we can pray for the Holy Spirit to help us become more like Christ in our everyday lives.
The very nature of Icon writing is that, following the principles of ancient art, we seek to make a sign which will convey religious meaning specific to the subject matter of that particular Icon.
Ancient Egyptian design is at the heart of the Icon. You can see this in the Fayum portraits, and also in the flat linear depictions of people and religious symbols found in the pyramids. These influences combined with early Greek flexibility of line and brushstroke form the basis of all early Iconographic composition.
Today, as we Iconographers research, ready, and study to be able to encompass the path to writing authentic Icons that speak to God’s people today, we must still look to the ancients in order to fully grasp the complexity of those seemingly simple designs and processes.
Below are some links to resources to inspire and resource your Icon writing in the new decade! Wishing you all a blessed and joyous New Year!
Are you an Icon collector? Collecting Icons is similar to collecting fine art in that the beauty is often times in the eye of the beholder. Icons carry meaning in addition to the esthetics we expect from visual art. That meaning, or content, might relate on a very personal level to the viewer and thus have a high degree of value, regardless of the aesthetic qualities. For example, an Icon of Saint Luke will resonate with artists, Iconographers, physicians, and bachelors because Saint Luke is their patron saint. Icons have the ability to enhance our prayer life as we venerate the saints depicted.
We use the word venerate to talk about our interactions with Icons. To venerate means to cherish, honor, exalt, be in awe of, appreciate and reverence. In old Russia, during times of religious persecution, people who could afford it would create a beautiful corner in their homes, or a small chapel. This would hold the Icons that this family particularly revered and understood as important parts of their family prayer lives.
Icons can enhance our connection to the God we adore through specific, focused prayer. Therefore, collecting Icons is a means of keeping our vision on God’s Kingdom in our homes, and sharing that with our families and friends.
Collecting Icons from Antiquity
Another aspect of collecting Icons is that of finding Icons from earlier centuries that have added value because of their age and provenance. One of the foremost Icon Galleries for ancient Icons is the Temple Gallery in London, UK. It was founded in 1959 as a center for study, restoration and exhibition of ancient Icons and sacred art. With ancient Icons, their monetary value rises in accordance with their condition, provenance, size, and age.
People often ask about the value about the icons they have discovered in their travels or have had handed down in their families. TheMuseum of Russian Icons, in Clinton, Massachusetts, will do Icon evaluations on certain dates. They will also provide conservation and appraisal services upon request. The museum has a beautiful permanent collection as well as changing exhibitions.
A Living Traditon
Iconography is a living tradition, bringing the elements of the Christian faith to believers through the centuries. Icons are often painted in the same way that they have been for hundreds of years. And, as a living Tradition, Icons painted today are bringing along the traditions of the past and marrying them to contemporary faith and art practices. Truly it is an exciting time to be collecting Icons!
May God bless your Icon creating and collecting especially this Advent Season!
Teaching Icon classes as I do in monasteries, churches and art centers, the question that always arises at the end of class: How can I continue with Icon painting? Practice is what I always say. For that reason, this month’s blog for the American Association of Iconographers is a collection of information and links to help with further studies.
Ideally, someone who is learning to write Icons will choose a style or a teacher which whom to study. But even with that, one can only realistically take one or two workshops per year. What to do in the meantime? Here are my suggestions:
Using sketch paper and pencil, draw as much as possible. Copy Icons from books, prints, or the internet. Drawing is the number one art skill needed in Icon writing, as it is in all painting. Learning to think on paper is a valuable skill. A book that I recommend to beginners is: Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. You can copy Icons in some of her exercises and you will be surprised at how quickly your drawing will improve.
Sketch of Icon
Tonal sketch of Icon
Icon to be copied
Use watercolor paper and the four basic color of Icon writing: red ochre, black, white and yellow ochre. Make color and tonal studies of Icons on water color paper. Again, this simple practice will yield large results.
Icon Retreats and Workshops
For those who choose to study with me, here is a link to upcoming classes. My teaching method is always evolving and inspired by my prayer life. I particularly enjoy helping students who have had some experience writing Icons and now want to create their own Icon (still copied from before the Renaissance). If you do sign up for one of my classes and wish to do this, please email me well before the class date so that we can prepare you for getting the most out of the retreat.
Resources for viewing Iconographic Imagery
Kolomenskaya Versta is a site selling Icon books and materials. It is based in Russia and they regularly post free images to copy as well as links to all kinds of Iconographic information. Also known as Russian Modern Orthodox Icon, here is a link to their FB page.
Having just finished an Icon writing workshop where we painted the Archangel Michael, and today is the day the Episcopal Church celebrates the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels, this blog is full of information about the angels!
We celebrate the Feast Day of the Archangels each year at this time, but who are the Archangels and what do they mean to us?
The angels are known to us as ministering spirits, sent to announce or accomplish the will of God on earth.
We read in the Bible that the angelic hosts seek to defend creation against the spiritual powers which seek its ruin.
In Revelation 12:7-9 we read of the Apocalypse and the celestial war in which Archangel Michael and his angels fight against the dragon and his angels.According to L. Ouspensky in his book “The Meaning of Icons” ,this is….” a war that continues on earth in the spiritual combats in which men are assisted by angels.Hence the warrior like character that angelic apparitions often take.”
Saint Michael Prayer
Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle.Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil.May God rebuke him, we humbly pray; and do Thou, O Prince of the Heavenly Host, by the Divine Power of God, cast into hell Satan and all the evil spirits who roam throughout the world seeking the ruin of souls.Amen.
In Joshua 5:13-15 the Captain of the Host of the Lord appeared to Joshua with a sword in his hand.Again, quoting from “The Meaning of Icons” by Ouspensky “
“The Archangel Michael “chief captain ofthe host” presides over the struggle against the forces of demons: “there where thy grace appears, the power of the demons is pursued; for the fallen Lucifer cannot bear to see thy light.We pray thee then to extinguish his burning features, directed against us…and to free us from his temptations.”
The name Gabriel means God is my strength. In the Gospel of Luke, Gabriel is the angel who announces to Mary that she will give birth to a son and name him Jesus. He is known as the patron saint of communication, giving strength and helps children is many ways.
We learn about the Archangel Raphael, the heavenly guide and companion from the Book of Tobit in the Apocrypha.He is known as the healing angel, also the patron saint of travelers.
The Prayer of St. Raphael
O Raphael, lead us toward those we are waiting for, those who are waiting for us;
Raphael, angel of happy meeting, lead us by the hand toward those we are looking for.
May all our movements be guided by your light and transfigured with your joy.
Angel, guide of Tobias, lay the request we now address to you at the feet of him on whose unveiled face you are privileged to gaze.
Lonely and tired, crushed by the separations and sorrows of life, we feel the need of calling you and pleading for the protection of your wings, so that we may not be as strangers in the province of joy, all ignorant of the concerns of our country.
Remember the weak, you who are strong, you whose home lies beyond the region of thunder, in a land that is always peaceful, always serene and bright with the resplendent glory of God.
May your prayers before the angels always be heard, and may you sleep with the angels!
This month I am recommending two articles that have been published in an on-line journal- The Orthodox Arts Journal– as elements contributing to good training for Iconographers. As I go around the country teaching an “Introduction to Icon Writing Class”, I am aware of how little knowledge people in general have about Icon painting. It is impossible to gain enough knowledge of this art from a few classes to be able to make truly authentic Icons. I recommend two things: look at as much art and as many Icons as you possibly can. Books, online resources, museums, all of these will help your painting to become mature as you practice what you see. The second thing I recommend is to read as much as you can about the history as well as the technique of Icon writing. Both of these activities go hand in hand with taking workshops and practicing at home.
Two Articles for Iconographers in Training.
The first article is written by English Iconographer Aidan Hart and it is entitled, ” The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting,: A Chinese Painting Manual Offers Inspiration to Iconographers.” This article contains quotes from the Chinese manual as well as comments by Aidan Hart as to their usefulness for Iconographers. It is quite a beautiful and clear article that speaks to some of the nuances of Icon painting. Here is a quote from that article. The italics are quotes from the manual, and the regular text is Aidan Hart’s commentary:
“You must learn first to observe the rules faithfully; afterwards, modify them according to your intelligence and capacity. The end of all method is to seem to have no method. (17)
When we learn a second language, we consciously study its rules of grammar and learn its norms. But as we gain knowledge and confidence, we find our own voice. Iconography should be the same.
I have heard it said by some Orthodox thinkers that iconography is not art. I disagree. The icon is indeed more than art because it is part of the liturgy and exists for more than aesthetic delectation. But it is at least art. Although the icon’s sacred purpose means that its aesthetic categories are more extensive than those of secular art, it should nonetheless include them. The same universal colour theories and composition principles apply.”
One more quote:
“If you aim to dispense with method, learn method. If you aim at facility, work hard. If you aim for simplicity, master complexity.(19)
Hard work is the only path to the authentic abstraction. In the years that I have taught iconography I have found that drapery is the most common stumbling block for learners. Prolonged and analytical study is required to understand the drapery that the icon tradition abstracts. Drapery’s complexity needs to be mastered in order to make sense of its simplification, otherwise it becomes irrational, not supra-rational. Lines need to be understood as horizons of forms and not strings hanging in space.
The Second article is written by Anton Daineko “The Living Icon”, also published in the Orthodox Arts Journal. In this article, Anton grapples with the issue of what is the criterion used to make authentic Icons? This is not a simple or easy question to answer. He cites examples of Iconographers from the past such as Andrei Rublev, Hilandar and Panselinos in order to visually show the necessary qualities of good Icons.
In this article, he also speaks about the importance of the Iconographer’s direct experience, through prayer, with God.
Commenting on copying in iconography, Father Igor, a priest from Minsk and himself an icon painter, noted that “There are no icon copies; each icon is a REVELATION”. Naturally, this raises questions: is it even possible to define such a delicate matter as REVELATION, and what aspects should be included under the resultant definition?
It cannot be answered in a few simple words. With some icons, everything is easy: one look at the Redeemer from the Zvenigorod deesis tier, and you feel that it really is a REVELATION. But with most icons, the matter is far more complicated.
“It would be appropriate here to recall the words in the epigraph to this article, the Apostle Peter’s reply to Our Lord’s question “Who do you say that I Am?” – “YOU ARE THE CHRIST, THE SON OF THE LIVING GOD“.
Perhaps this line holds the key to understanding much about the Church, including the canonical texts: in those texts, the early Christians saw an image of the LIVING GOD, crucified and raised from the dead. And that is what is most precious in the Church. It is precisely the PRESENCE of the Living God that sets the Christian Church apart from other religions and other communities. And it is precisely this PRESENCE that we can observe in scripture as well as virtually everything else in church life. The icon is no exception in this regard.
The iconic image consists of many simple elements: strokes, stripes, and smudges, while the different colors are obtained by various combinations of minerals and egg yolk. Taken separately, none of these elements carry any artistic – let alone spiritual – meaning in and of themselves. But when these elements come together in a particular combination, a miracle occurs: the strokes, the stripes, and the smudges cease to exist, and we see the Face of the Living God looking directly at us. It is as much of a miracle as the image of the Living God emanating from the simple words of the Gospels’ narrative.”
I suggest again, reading the entire article in order to fully understand the nuances and also to see more examples of the Icons mentioned in the article. We are so blessed today to have great contemporary Iconographer who are sharing their wisdom and experience to those who are eager to learn.
Enjoy, as we come to the official close of summer, and may God bless all of your Icon writing with His Presence.
This month the focus is on the fifteenth century Iconographer, Dionysus.
Born sometime in the 1440’s near Borovsk, a small town southwest of Moscow, Dionysus’ earliest works are wall paintings at the Parfuntiev Monastery. Throughout his life, he was attracted to the beautiful and colorful Novgorodian style of Iconography. Dionysius’ colors were delicate and transparent and his elongated figures increased the elements of elegance and symbolism in his work.
Certainly he must have been aware of the work of Andrei Rublev (c.1360-1430), who painted in the old Iconographic tradition. However, Dionysus’ work reflected a new development in compositional style that increased the energy and vitality of the Icon.
One of the Last of the Old Master Iconographers
Dionysius’ style was called “Muscovite Mannerism” and it bridged the gap between Novgorodian Icon painting and the later Stroganov school. His best frescoes are in the Ferapontov Monastery, which include the beautiful “The Meeting of Mary and Elizabeth”. Dionysus and his sons completed all the frescoes on the Virgin and scenes from her life at this monastery. In addition to egg tempera, he was a master of encaustic painting as well.
Dionysus ‘ color palette was strongly influenced by a group of early Renaissance artists from Italy who arrived in Moscow. This can be seen in the delicately blended and balanced soft pigment colors such as pink, lilac and turquoise, creating harmonious chords of color in his frescoes and Icons. The lyrical effect of his style of coloration affected much of the Iconography of the 16th century.
In 1482 Dionysus was called to Moscow to paint the Deesis on the Iconostasis in the Cathedral of the Dormition. After also painting murals in two of the chapels, he and his sons were asked to paint one hundred Icons for the Volokolamsky Monastery. With this, Dionysus devoted the remainder his life to icon panel painting, but today many of those Icons are either lost or un-restored.
Joseph-Volokolamsk was a wealthy patron who commissioned Dionysius to paint over ninety Icons. But the most comprehensive collection of his work is to be found at the Ferapontov Monastery. It is a series of frescoes depicting the life of Mary.
Dionysus Fresco, Mary
Christ Fresco, Dionysus
When writing(painting) Icons, it is always helpful to study from the great Iconographers of the past. Although their work speaks specifically to their time, these early Masters used principles of composition, color, and space in harmonious ways, and that kind of perspective has been largely missing in the art of our time. Copying these works helps educate Iconographers and helps bring valuable knowledge forward into today’s Icons.
This blog is created to share valuable ideas and information with Iconographers around the world. Below are some useful links for Iconographic materials. Until next month:
This month is a continuation of last month’s article on Hesychasm and Icons. There is an interesting book that was produced in fifteenth century Russia called, “Message to an Iconographer.” Message to an Iconographer is believed to have been written by St. Joseph of Volokolamsk. It is helpful in explaining the role and meaning of sacred art and Iconography. It is believed that this book was put together at the request of the famous Iconographer, Dionysius for the purpose of training future Iconographers.
Part of the reason for creating Message to an Iconographer was a concern that after Andrei Rublev’s Icons, there was a progressive lack of focus on the spiritual depth and meaning of the Icon in favor of beauty of artistic form. Message to an Iconographer provides an answer to the prevailing heresy of the time and is a defense of the Icon and its veneration. It is also a positive contribution that explains its spiritual content. Here is a quote from “Theology of the Icon, Volume II” by Leonid Ouspensky:
“How much more appropriate is it then, in this new time of grace, to venerate and bow down before the image of our Lord Jesus Christ painted on the Icon by human hands…and to adore His deified humanity taken up into heaven. This also holds true for His All Pure Mother. Likewise, to paint images of all the saints on icons, to venerate and bow before them is equally appropriate. By painting images of the saints on Icons, we do not venerate an object but, starting from this visible object, our mind and spirit ascend toward the love of God, object of our desire.” This statement echoes the defense of Icons by Gregory of Palamas. Taboric light and the divine energies form the basis of this treatise.
The Jesus Prayer
Here is another quote from the Message to an Iconographer: “When adoring your Lord and God…let your whole heart, spirit, and mind be lifted toward a contemplation of the holy, consubstantial and life giving Trinity, in purity of thought and heart…Let your bodily eyes ascend to the divine …venerate them spiritually in your soul and visibly with your body. Be completely turned toward the heavens.”
“The Message” is about a lifestyle of asceticism and inner prayer that is appropriate to an Iconographer.
“Wherever you may be, O beloved, on sea or on land, at home, walking, sitting or lying down-ceaselessly pray with a pure conscience, saying, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.’, and God will hear you. ” “Close your eyes to the visible and look at the future with your inner eye.” These are instructions to an Iconographer from The Message. They are intended to create a platform of prayer and faith from which to work on the Icon.”
I would suggest reading this chapter in its entirety to fully understand the context and intent of the author. It is from Chapter 13 Hesychasm and the flowering of Russian Art, in Theology of the Icon, Volume II, Leonid Ouspensky. There is a great deal of value in the rest of the book also, and I highly recommend it for Iconographers.
One last quote that is a gem:
“The painter must be acutely aware of the responsibility that rests upon him when creating an Icon. His work must be informed by the prototype it represents in order for its message to become a living, active force, shaping man’s disposition, his view of the world and of life. A true Iconographer must commune with the prototype he represents, not merely because he belongs to the body of the Church, but also on account of his own experience of sanctification. He must be a creative painter who perceives and discloses another’s holiness through his own spiritual experience. It is upon this experience of communing with the archetype that the operative power of an Iconographers work depends.”
May God bless your Icons, as you grow in wisdom and understanding in the practice of writing the Holy Image. Next month will be an article on the fifteenth century Iconographer Dionysus.
January 6, 2019 is the day most of us will celebrate Epiphany this year. The twelfth day of Christmas, Epiphany commemorates the Star of Bethlehem leading the wise meant to the baby Jesus, as well as the Baptism of Jesus. The manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, (Matthew 2: 1-2).
The word Epiphany today has entered our contemporary secular world with the meaning of “awakening, a moment of sudden revelation or insight”.
This concept of an abrupt change of thought, perception or awareness is what I would call a paradigm shift. A clear change from one perception of reality to another, more enlightened one. And this idea is one that can be said to characterize the difference between a secular view of reality and a Christian one. And to take this thought one step further, it can help to make clear the difference between an Icon and a religious painting.
Religious Painting vs Icon Writing
A religious painting is usually an attempt to depict reality as it exists here on earth, in nature, as perceived by our earthly and secular eyes. It does convey a spiritual theme, and quite beautifully sometimes, as in the case of many painters and sculptors, notably Michelangelo, and Raphael. While these works of art serve a purpose to bring the Gospel, or a sense of Christian spirituality to our eyes, they often don’t create that paradigm shift of moving distinctly from one reality to another.
Icons do this in a variety of ways, often using inverse perspective, composition and color to bring the viewer into the same time and space as the person or scene depicted. Icons have a discernible lineage and a historical set of precedents that ensure a continuity and language that transcends our modern sense of time. There is a sense of reverence, holiness and sacredness that Icons impart because they are conceived and executed with one purpose in mind- to make visible God ‘s world here on earth.
Self Expression vs Iconographic Tradition
The difference between self expression – in religious paintings- and adherence to Iconographic traditions that span centuries is a distinction every Iconographer must learn to make for themselves. By following the models of early Icons from before the Renaissance period, we can learn to paint and raw with understanding of the principles we are trying to integrate. In this way, we begin to read the theology of the Icon we are depicting. Through our further research on the topic, we make every effort to understand a deep level who this saint was, or how this Biblical scene can be understood on more than just a surface level. Through prayer, research, and meditation we are then able to approach the creation of an Icon. At this point the Iconographer becomes thoroughly engaged with the creation of an Icon and this prayerful action of painting is what helps the Icon be the bearer of that shift of perception for the viewer. The goal is to have an Icon that reaches out to the viewer and brings them in to a deeper communion with God. This is a different goal than a religious painting. Both are valuable, they are just not the same thing and do not serve the same purpose.
So this year, as we approach Epiphany, I pray God’s blessing of a major, life changing, holy revelation that brings joy and peace to your life forever.
Blessings and Happy New Year,
Christine Simoneau Hales
Contribute Articles to the American Association of Iconographers Blog
For 2019 I am accepting articles by Iconographers, and writers who have material or thoughts that will advance the training of future Iconographers. It could be insights about a particular theme, or materials, or experience in the field that will be helpful for others. Please email me with your articles for this blog, a word document is fine, and include some images that support the article.
December 2, we enter into that period of Advent that is so full of excitement and anticipation. How appropriate that it comes for us in the Americas at a time of profound seasonal change- the end of summer and the beginning of winter. Advent marks the end of all that we know belonging to the old Testament and the beginning of the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophesies with the birth of Christ, our Redeemer.
Advent is a journey into the heart of promise and fulfillment with the Birth of Christ.
We share the hope of the Archangel Gabriel and Mary and witness the incredible faith journey that began the earthly life of Jesus Christ. Mary models for us the essence of spiritual preparedness, the willingness of a faith filled acceptance of God’s will manifesting in her life. Her surety and preparedness for this miracle is again a model for us to develop such a surety and willingness for all that God has for us.
Byzantine Iconography and Advent
And there is a similarity between Byzantine Iconography and Advent. Canon Edward West, in his article on Byzantine Religious Art said that an Icon is “notably the reflection of something which exists, but in its own way, it conveys something which actually exists and conveys it really….Byzantine religious art is concerned with conveying truth, witnessing to the truth, and indeed, making it possible for the sensitive and aware Christian to have some part in that truth…”. The birth of Christ 2000 years ago allows us to be in the present tense with God today, to experience His love, protection and guidance. One could also say that Icons share in that ability to bring us into God’s presence, as symbols of the incarnation.
Canon West, who was a noted Iconographer in addition to serving at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City for over forty years, goes on to say that what makes an Icon important is, “that it is a meeting point of this continuum from the past with the vertical thrust of the Spirit of God at the right moment- in terms which the individual Christian can understand. It is essential that we remember this attitude about Tradition. The Byzantines were concerned in Witnessing to the Truth.”
Icons in 2019
May we all be blessed with Mary’s patience, devotion, and willingness to carry out God’s plan in the coming year. May our Icons be bearers of God’s Grace and Presence as we move towards a world where Holy Scripture is made visual through the sacred imagery of Icons and made available to all those who seek Him.
Revered amongst Iconographers as the most gifted Iconographer of all time, Andrei Rublev stands out amongst Iconographers for his ability to convey a subtle sense of spirituality with a highly expert ability to compose and paint Icons that address the issues of his time.
Born in medieval times, sometime in the 1360’s, not much is known about his life. He is generally thought to have lived at the Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra near Moscow. Rublev’s spiritual teacher, Saint Sergius of Radoneh, was the head of this Lavra until his death in 1392.
In 1405, Rublev decorated the Cathedral of the Annunciation in Moscow with frescoes and Icons along with Theophanes the Greek, who was Rublev’s teacher.
Holy Trinity Cathedral
The Assumption Cathedral in Vladimir and Holy Trinity Cathedral are thought to have been decorated by Rublev and Daniil Cherni at about 1425.
Rublev’s great masterpiece, The Icon of the Holy Trinity, is the only work definitely attributed to him. It was only discovered in the early 1900’s when an art restorer in Russia began to clean away the soot and grime that had blackened the surface for centuries.
Rublev’s art combined asceticism with the classic harmony of Byzantine mannerism. His Icons are seen today as ideals of Eastern Orthodox Iconography.
If you’d like to read more about the Byzantine approach to painting Icons with egg tempera, this is covered in the book, Eyes of Fire, in the Appendix.
In 1966 a now classic film was made by the Russian film maker, Andrei Tarkovsky, called “Andrei Rublev”. It’s a dark Russian drama that conveys a sense of the medieval times of Rublev and is in black and white.
Rublev died in 1430, clothed as a Russian Monk and canonized by the Orthodox Church in 1988.