In the creation of Icons today, I find it particularly helpful to keep looking to the past in order to understand the nuances and dynamics of Icon making through the centuries. Medieval Russian Icons and their development is particularly applicable to this task. The following is excerpted from the book, A History of Icon Painting, and this chapter was written by Angelina Smirnova; Moscow, 2005.
Early Russian Christianity
Since the adoption by Russia of Christianity in 988, Christian art was able to develop and flourish. Particularly in the metropolitan areas like Moscow and Kiev, the foundation was laid for Christianity and its art to spread through Russia, Belarus, and the Ukraine. While in these early centuries Icons were favored by Monks and used as devotional images in chapels, churches and monasteries. They were very important inRussian Orthodoxy.
The first Russian icons were heavily influenced by Byzantine culture which formed the basis of knowledge concerning the canons and painting traditions of icons.
Wealthy princes and czars commissioned spacious churches that required large painted images, resulting in clearer silhouettes and pronounced rhythm and contours that could give a compositional unity.
The themes of overcoming suffering and the hope of salvation dominated the subject matter of these icons which laid the foundation for Andrei Rublev’s painting in the fifteenth century.
“The saints on Russian icons are often endowed with a particularly forceful expressiveness in which Christian spirituality clearly demonstrates the power of saints over the cosmic forces of nature. The images on Russian icons are more open and direct compared with the refined intellectualism of Byzantine art, which drew more strongly on the Hellenistic tradition and was more remote from the sphere of everyday emotions.”
The second half of the eleventh century Russian princes built churches to establish their governments and required monumental icons to adorn them. Most of the themes repeated Byzantine icons but there were some original ones depicting the Russian saints, e.g. Boris and Gleb.
The Comnenian style, characterized by more muted expressions, light transparent colors, and the addition of a blue/azure color, developed in twelfth century Russia. By the thirteenth century, after the devastating effects of the Tartar-Mongol hordes, icons began to show expressions of strength, resolve, spiritual integrity and power.
A Russian style of icon painting was becoming clearly evident by the thirteenth century. In comparison with Byzantine art there was now a flatter picture plane and composition, rich color, and a more open yet inward expression on the figures. There were local exceptions, such as Novgorod, which retained a simplicity combined with vibrant colors.
As Moscow became the political and cultural center of Russia in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, a clearly defined style emerged. Fifteenth century Russian icons represent the ideal heavenly world and God’s grace, in contrast to the fourteenth century icons which showed believers the steps to overcoming obstacles to spiritual development. Now, ideal harmony was the theme of icons and that is perfectly expressed in Andrei Rublev’s Holy Trinity icon. Rublev’s icons exemplify Byzantine classicism and seem to combine aspects of earlier styles of Russian icon painting in a mystical and beautiful way. Later, Dionysius would elongate figures and open out towards the viewer, compositional elements and figures. (For more on Dionysius see earlier post on this blog site.)
The Paleologue period of Byzantine iconography, 1261-1453 continued to influence Russian Icons of the sixteenth century, but there was also more of a theological-didactic narrative to these icons. A western influence began to be seen in the modeling of the faces and forms and a more naturalistic rendering of space.
I hope this brief history encapsulation is helpful to
iconographers of the twenty-first century who seek to maintain the canons of Iconography and also create religious art that relates to and inspires Christians today.
A good source of images can be found in some of the digital libraries that are now being made public:
This month, I wanted to share some reflections taken from reading the book, “The Avant-Garde Icon, Russian Avant-Garde Art & The Icon Painting Tradition, written by Andrew Spira.
Exploring the potential of icons in the context of the modern world, Andrew Spira speaks to the integration of the ancient spiritual truths found in Icons into modern culture.
We are looking today at just the first chapter entitled “Icons: An Introduction”, particularly focusing on the development of the Russian iconographic tradition from the seventh to the sixteenth century.
Spira gives a brief history and explanation of the iconoclast controversy that I particularly appreciate due to the information about the widely spreading religion of Islam that was iconoclastic and therefore provided some of the impetus for the negation and destruction of icons in the seventh century.
During the iconoclastic controversy, an official theology of icons was developed maintaining that, by incarnating in matter as Christ, God established a principle that it was lawful and appropriateto represent the Divine in material form.Like the Eucharist, icons were regarded as extensions of the body of Christ.It was their sacramentality that mattered, more than the artistic quality or their symbolic meaning. Therefore, The definitive characteristic of Icons lies within their mystical identity.
The effort to create a form of art that could communicate the mystery of the incarnate God took place within the Eastern church before the 10th century.
In 1453 the capital of Russia moved to Moscow from Constantinople after the fall of the Byzantine Empire.Then, from a spiritual point of view, the monastic discipline of Hesychasm, an ancient practice of unceasing prayer, led to a period of religious fervor that resulted in an increase in the development and proliferation of Icons throughout the church.Russian icon painting silently reveals God to the inner eye, or heart, of the believer.
The contrast between a rational, western, didactic approach and the more mystical, contemplative and sacramental approach to Icon writing is something that icon painters today have to come to terms with in order to develop an art that has its own artistic integrity and sacramental presence.This contrastcan be seen not necessarily astwo polarities, right and wrong, but as both and, permitting a creative synthesis of the two approaches.
Modern Icon Painting
Although the influence of the western Renaissance in 16th century Russia was largely not experienced, there was still a disintegration of the medieval interrelationship between spiritual life and popular culture.This was evident in modern Russian and Eastern Icons from the sixteenth century onwards.
In an attempt to change the course of Russian modern icon painting in the seventeenth century from secularization back to spiritual traditions,attempts were made to formalize the pure tradition of icon painting. But theseundermined the principles of insight and experience that also formed the basis of the tradition.This resulted in a westernized icon, realistic, narrative, and in a lack of feeling and spiritual depth in the icons of modern periods.
Many post sixteenth century Icons reflect the lack of depth of feeling that is characteristic of the earlier icons due to rigid adherence to copying icons and focusing on technical skills as opposed to contemplation on theology and prayer.
It is the contemplative tradition that supports the practice and principles of Icon writing from within. This is the spirit of the tradition of icon painting as a sacramental medium for the transmission of the incarnate God to the world.
The contemplative awareness that is seen in the expressions of the saints in medieval icons calls for a corresponding orientation on the part of the viewer.
I hope this article has been informative and helpful.It is my intention to present views that further the development of contemporary Icon writing and provide a sense of community by sharing my research, prayers, and work.
May you all be blessed and prosper in the art and spiritual discipline of Icon writing.
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.
“He who forms the mountains, who creates the wind, and who reveals His thoughts to mankind, who turns dawn to darkness, and treads on the heights of the earth– the LORD God Almighty is His name.” –Amos 4:13
Saint Patrick of Ireland
As a young boy, Patrick was kidnapped by brutal pirates and carried away to Ireland where he was sold as a slave. For the next six years he was a shepherd in Northern Ireland. This is where he learned to pray. “In a single day I would say as many as a hundred prayers, and at night only slightly fewer.”The Confession of St. Patrick.
“I arise today
in a mighty strength
calling upon the Trinity,
believing in the Three Persons
saying they are One
thanking my creator.”
In the experience of slavery and exile, the young boy discovered God . In the midst of this terrible alienation brought on by his exile from family and country, Patrick experienced a deep abiding connection that enabled him to feel strengthened by God.
He is a legend in Irish history and spirituality. Patrick’s story of being kidnapped by Irish pirates eventually gave rise to a remarkable inner transformation that led him eventually to return to Ireland, serving the Irish people by bringing God’s love to them.
Like St. Francis, Patrick chose a lifestyle of poverty, preferring to single-mindedly focus on the Divine connection within. “For I know full well that poverty and adversity suit me better than riches and delights.”
One often sees Icons of St. Patrick holding a shamrock, an illustration of how he used the humble clover leaf to illustrate the Trinity- three in one- to the largely pagan population Ireland. Pre-Christian Ireland was where God sent Patrick. His spiritual story is told in “The Confession of St. Patrick”, along with many Scriptural references that relate to his experiences.
Patrick was born in Britain about 385, and began his mission in Ireland during the early 400’s.He became fluent in the Irish dialect during his period of slavery, and despite much hostility and danger, he was very effective in bringing the Gospel to Ireland.
Saint Patrick founded many churches and monasteries across Ireland.
Holy Bishop Patrick,
Faithful shepherd of Christ’s royal flock,
You filled Ireland with the radiance of the Gospel:
The mighty strength of the Trinity!
Now that you stand before the Savior,
Pray that He may preserve us in faith and love!
Icon notes for March:
The American Association of Iconographers now has a Facebook Page which you are welcome to join. The rules of the page are that postings may be submitted by any member and the content needs to be of interest and benefit to Iconographers.
Video of Iconographer George Kordis beginning a Christ Pantocrator dome:
It is an exciting time to be writing Icons. The inspiration of Andrei Rublev writing the great “Holy Spirit” Icon as a symbol for unity – a unity that was so needed in his country at that time, is applicable to us all today. What are the Icons our culture NEEDS? What are the issues that need to be addressed in prayer and how can we make timeless images that can help to focus the prayer of a nation?
After attending the icon Workshop held at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington DC, led by Philip Davydov, I am inspired even more to explore this idea of an American Iconography. In light of the recent events in Charleston, SC. I feel an urgency to address the needs of our country in prayer and Sacred Imagery.
Dutch Sheets: “I have great hope for America because the depth of a fall never determines God’s ability to restore. I’m not afraid of the powerful strongholds because size and strength are completely irrelevant when measuring His ability to deliver. And I’m not intimidated because statistical odds, whether of success or failure, cease to be relevant when God is involved. His limitless ability negates the very concept of “odds,” and trumps all other winning hands.”
Just a short time before the Charleston shooting, a conference on painting Sacred icons the twenty-first Century was held, also in Charleston.
Here is a link to the “Living Tradition” Symposium organized by the Orthodox Arts Journal in Charleston, South Carolina. The ideas expressed are interesting ones to thoughtfully consider. It’s my opinion that it would have been good to have some American women Iconographers as well as some of the talented Romanian and other InternationaI Iconographers present to represent their views as well.
In a recent article in The New Liturgical Movement, noted Iconographer Aidan Hart wrote an article entitled “Diversity within Iconography – An Artistic Pentecost”. Here is an excerpt:
“But where does the mean lie between unspiritual innovation on the one hand and mere duplication on the other? Genuine variety in liturgical art occurs when the iconographer unites spiritual vision with artistic ability – energized with courage and the blessing of God. Vision without artistic ability produces pious daubs. Not every saint can paint icons. Although icons are more than art, but they are not less than art.”
This is a blessed time to have such great artists and Iconographers working together to create an authentic sacred art for the twenty-first century. I feel called to encourage community amongst iconographers, accepting our differences and celebrating our shared strengths. Very much like Pentecost, we can all receive the Holy Spirit but God will give each of us a language that can speak to our countries.
Locally, one of my students, and a member of the St. Luke’s Iconography Guild, Dahlia Herring, has transformed her contemplative approach to Iconography into action:
“A Refugee Art Exhibit- Resettling In Albany”
Through art work and written stories, the children from some of the most war-torn countries on earth, including Burma, Iraq and Afghanistan, express what it means to leave everything familiar and start a brand new life in the United States. These young artists eloquently and directly voice their hopes and disappointments, their fears and joys as the begin their new lives and education in Albany. The exhibit will be in the City Hall Rotunda until June 30th. You can find pictures of the Open House for this exhibit on FaceBook at https://www.facebook.com/USCRI.Albany. A Refugee Art Exhibit: Resettling in Albany was organized by the Capital Region Refugee Roundtable (co-chaired by Dahlia Herring) and the Albany Office of the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.
Also Local News: Albany Icon Writing Classes Monday nights June 22, NO CLASS June 29, . For July, Classes July 6,13, 27 ( No Class July 20.)
Also NOTE: Another member of the St. Luke’s Iconography Guild discovered a pigment company in California that has good pigments at a reasonable cost. Worth looking into! Agulis Pigments :email@example.com
Look forward to hearing from you and have a blessed summer.
The nice thing about writing icons is that whether it is “January Freeze” or “January Thaw”, you can usually manage things to be able to write icons for a few hours a day!
My new “Christ” icon study has accompanied my prayers over the last two weeks in the area of inner healing. Particularly the idea that Christ came to FORGIVE us of our sins. That call for us also to forgive has been part of the prayer journey for this icon. I really love it! It’s almost finished now.
“The degree to which art has a liturgical quality is in direct ratio to the spiritual freedom of the artist.” from The Meaning of Icons by Leonid Ouspensky
I think that making twenty first century icons has to incorporate the Traditions of the Church as well as spiritual freedom. Andrey Rublev in the Fifteenth Century being able to occupy that place of Spiritual freedom, training, and artistic skill points toward what we aspire to today.
The icon class I teach in New York is a spiritual and artistic container for the students and myself to grow in relationship to each other, God, and the icons. It’s an honor to be able to serve such a courageous group of people.
The Art Center in Troy, New York is hosting a student/faculty exhibition of our icons later this month. Here’s the description and you are invited!
Contemporary Icon January 31 – March 2, 2014 | Faculty Student Gallery Reception: Friday, January 31, 5-9PM at Troy Night Out | Artist Demonstration at 6:30PM
Master iconographer and faculty member, Christine Simoneau Hales will exhibit her icon paintings along with selected pieces from her past students. Icon writing is a traditional method of painting that dates back to the ancient Byzantine era of using egg tempera, rare natural pigments and gold leaf gilding to create beautiful works of art. Hales takes the step-by-step method of classical painting and infuses it with contemporary inspirations all while keeping with the spiritual subjects found in these works on panel.
I came across the website that offers short introductory art and business classes that looks very good. Here’s the link: Skillshare