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!
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.
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.
“The Lord will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your Glory.” Isaiah 60:19
The summer stretches out before us with plenty of opportunity for good reading. This past month I have been reading Francoise Gilot’s “Life with Picasso”. While I am surely not a fan of Picasso’s, I believe that the creative output of that era has many important facets worth gleaning for art practice today. You may be surprised, as I was, with the following quote of Picasso’s, as related by Gilot in the book:
” You have to go all the way back to the Greeks and the Egyptians. Today we are in the unfortunate position of having no order or canon whereby all artistic production ism submitted to rules. They- the Greeks, the Romans, the Egyptians – did. Their canon was inescapable because beauty, so-called, was, by definition, contained in those rules. But as soon as art had lost all link with tradition, and the kind of liberation that came in with Impressionism permitted every painter to do what he wanted to do, painting was finished. When they decided it was a painters sensations and emotions that mattered, and every man could recreate painting as he understood it from any basis whatever, then there was no more painting; there were only individuals….what the artist gains in the way of liberty he loses in the way of order, and when you’re no longer able to attach yourself to an order, basically that’s very bad.”
The Value of Order in Icon Writing
Surprising as this quote is coming from Picasso, it underscores what we as Iconographers have been blessed to experience, i.e., the order and beauty of Icons brings with it a sense of peace and fulfillment that can be found in no other form of art. If you’ve read my book, Eyes of Fire, you know that I have made the correlation between contemporary art making and Icons. The reason for this is that Icon writing is a living art form for today. While we seek to incorporate the canons of Iconography into our work today, we also need to allow God to speak to our hearts as we work. We need this practice of praying and painting in order for the Icons we create today to be authentic to our time.
Icon Writing Retreats
Order was very apparent in the recent Icon writing retreat at Holy Cross, an Episcopal Benedictine Monastery in West Park, NY. Here we were able to participate in the Monk’s reciting of the daily hours: Morning prayer at 7AM, Breakfast at 7:45, Eucharist at 9AM, then Icon writing until Diurnum at noon. After lunch we had more Icon writing until Vespers at 5, then supper, and at 8pm, Compline. Great Silence was observed from 8PM until 8AM. We were able to fit these intervals of prayer and silence in between Icon writing sessions and experience the refreshment this practice gives. Painting and praying all through each day, being part of a living community of praying people allows us to experience the lift and support needed to practice the spiritual discipline of Icon writing.
In a community of Iconographers, people share their experience, knowledge and good ideas! Iconography, like almost any worthwhile activity, benefits from cultivating a sense of community amongst practitioners, admirers, patrons, and students.
We all love and participate in the larger community of Christ’s Church – worldwide. Within this context, there is astonishing variety of practice and interpretation amongst Iconographers. Some of this is culturally determined, and some of the variety comes from different approaches to the Traditions of the Church.
Tolerance is the buzz word of today. Since Icon writers (painters) need to avoid egotism and reactionism in order to be authentic Iconographers, it naturally follows that the love of Christ extends to each person, regardless of their “style” of painting Icons.
Icon writers are humble servants who are able to keep their eyes on God’s purpose with sacred and Holy images, inviting creativity to partner with prayer to create images that inspire the viewer to a closer relationship with God.
Today, while there is a hint of interest in the renewal of sacred art, there is a need for education and training for sacred artists. I think it would be useful to create a place on the RESOURCE page on this blog, that lists credentialed degree programs of sacred art that will be helpful for future Iconographers. Please email me with suggestions or links that might be included. In this way, we can work together to insure the future and quality of sacred art development.
SUMMER OF 2020
This summer my goal for my own Icon writing is to approach the drawing of Icons from a more creative place. Reading Aidan Hart’s book “Beauty, Spirit, Matter, Icons in the Modern World”, I found this quote from Paul Evdokimov “ …the icon painters’ community needs to rediscover the creative power of the ancient iconographers and find an exit from the static immobility of the “copyists” art.
I still love copying from the great master Iconographers, and so I am using them as my models, just as the secular artist uses nature as her model. I am also studying from books like George Kordis’ “Icons as Communion” book the concept of rhythm, movement and dynamic flow in Byzantine Iconography. It’s not an easy task!! But I am getting help from Sister Petra Clare’s tutoring in her online course for Iconographers. She has created a closed Facebook Group where she posts exercise and examples, and we post our sketches and drawings for her comments. So, it’s an online community and we are learning together- it’s a lot of good creative fun! Her website is: eastxwest Online Studies, and she might have room for one or two more students.
The first is September 26-28 at St. Patrick’s Church, Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, and the second is October 24-26 at Saints Peter and Paul Church in Bradenton, Florida. Please email me if you’d like me to save a space for you.
That’s all the news for June, 2019.
May God bless your Eyes, Mind, and hearts, and hands, that all that you say, do or think will be honorable and pleasing to Him!
This month of May, we celebrate Mary, Mother of God, with our prayers and special Icons. This month, Mary Jane Miller, a member of the American Association of Iconographers, has written an article expressing her views of Mary and how perceptions of Mary have changed through the centuries. Here at AAI we are open to informative articles about Iconography from our members, and will publish them from time to time. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information if you are interested in writing or publishing an article about Icons that would benefit the Icon writing community.
Mary Icons: a New Contemporary Trinity by Mary Jane Miller
There are three classic prototypes of Mary Icons. Their collective messages point towards a new contemporary trinity of interconnections. As our society has changed, the concept of Mary and her message brings to light provocative and meaningful perspectives on loving. It has been through contemplating her image, and painting icons of her that I have come to realize a deeper mystical message. Her popular iconography may have the keys to how we are to care for creation and one another in the world.
Mary looks directly at the viewer, beckoning us towards poised stillness and constant prayer with palms extended outward in total surrender to what she receives. She contains the Creator of the Universe in her womb.
Mary Icons of the Theotokos
Mary is portrayed as the feminine energy which tenderly nurtures Jesus to become a teacher, rabbi, master and lord. She is the icon which reminds us to love one another, to love life, and to love creation.
Mary Icons of the Hodegitria
Mary becomes a mystical location, she is the challis that holds the “Way” in her lap. She offers us an example of one who can show us what is necessary to give ourselves to God and one another. We like Mary are called to release to the world what we most love and cherish.
The image of Mary has mutated many times throughout centuries of iconography. From the mother of creation Diva, to a Mother of God gazing into the unknown, to a weeping, anguished mother of Jesus she has changed as our society changes. The Renaissance painters in the 16th century changed her image into a more human mother, one of pain or of joy. Mary’s identity has given rise to many doctrinal wars, decrees and debates but her image is more than cult, idol, mystery or divine. She is a fountain of motherhood image, triggering great reflection and contemplation, and she has triggered a wonderful epiphany in me.
Mary Icons Defined Through History
Theologians of the Middle Ages deliberated in detail the Forever Virgin condition of Mary. They had to answer how it could be that Christ was born to someone as common as one of us? Since ‘ Christ is All man and All God ‘ , His mother would have to be, in some way, all divine. The Roman Catholic Church fashioned the idea of the Immaculate Conception. The concept of Mary being miraculously conceived was declared doctrine in 1854. It was a theological creation which became dogma at considerable expense to women. It made her more perfect and exhausted than any women’s capacity to achieve. Ironically, Mary was lifted to the highest place among men, yet somehow, though she was seemingly divine, she had no voice and no ability to act in any other way but constant surrender.
Nearly 100 years later another detail of her divinity needed clarification. Since Mary was immaculately conceived then where would her divine body go at her death? The Orthodox Church specifically teaches that Mary died a natural death, that her soul was received by Christ upon her death, and that her body was resurrected. On the third day after her ‘ repose ‘ her body was taken up into heaven. It was decided Mary did not die but rather “slept”. This statement became an Article of Faith in 1950. The Roman Catholic institution needed an example of undefiled sexuality, perfected womanhood with divine meekness and they found it in the Virgin Mary, from beginning to end.
We are now living in 2019. Where is Mary’s message and identity now? Has it changed or will the theologians of this age allow a change?
I have painted many images of Mary and I believe she continues to send messages to us today. The wisdom that women have learned through years of service and observation have undoubtedly helped shape society. I believe one critical message we have yet to understand is that humanity does not own anything, we have been lousy stewards of creation. In actuality we share our common energy and common space on the planet. Mary is the queen of teaching us to love. Over time, I have become increasingly aware of all that we have been given. How have we nurtured it? Will we one day be able to Give It Back to the world? Mary gave away the very thing she loved the most. It takes enormous selfless love to do such a thing.
I find it ironic that Christian mystics, mostly men, have spoken and expanded the spiritual understanding of God for nearly two thousand years. In doing so, they have controlled and shaped our society. Mary has not spoken, making our understanding of her elusive. Mary is a woman who, by her human act, gave birth to the most transcendent truth which is love, a love completed in offering. This is by far the very thing the world needs for its healing.
The next three icons illustrate a new teaching and trinity: to receive, nurture and release. The interconnection between these three states of being are precisely the clue we have to discover a new future. It is found in the value of being loved and loving another with no ownership. The idea is not only Christian, it teaches a new attitude towards creation. It is obvious to everyone how much humans are creating. It is obvious how much we love what we create. Will we come to a time when we have the wisdom to give away to the world what we have created? Nothing is truly ours, it never has been. It is all the potential of Love that has been given by God that makes any of this make sense.
Mary Jane Miller
Author Bio. Mary Jane Miller is a self-taught Byzantine style iconographer with over 28 years of experience. For the first 15 years she produced unique and unorthodox collections of sacred art and continues to have them exhibited in Museums and churches in both the United States and Mexico. Miller writes luxuriously, blending historical content, and personal insights to arrive at contemporary conclusions about faith. The author of 4 self-published books include Icon Painting Revealed, The Mary Collection, In light of Women and The Stations. Miller has been published online and in publications such as Divine Temple Russian Orthodox Journal, Faith and Forum Magazine, Liturgy Today and Profiles of Catholicism. She teaches 4 courses annually, 5 day immersion workshops throughout the US and Mexico. website: www.sanmiguelicons.com and http://sacrediconretreat.com/
Thank you so much, Mary Jane, for your thoughts and images of Mary. Next month, the blog will be on the topic of Light and Color in the Icon.
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.
When we open our eyes to see the sacred geometry inherent not only in nature, but also in Iconographic composition we enter into the world of sacred symbolic language. The Byzantine culture understood that it is essential to understand and use abstract symbolic representation. The primary reason is that we are depicting God’s universe, that heavenly realm that operates differently from our humanistic, materialistic world. We want to convey this God centered point of view in Icons and the best way to do that is to understand and implement sacred geometry within our compositions.
Shapes and Patterns
Identifying shapes and patterns helps us understand principles of symmetry, balance, and motion within the Icon. When we cooperate with and work in agreement with universal principles handed down through the centuries, we can participate in creating a universal visual language that can speak the truth of God, the Bible, and the Gospels, bringing our everyday lives into this sense of harmony and cooperation.
Simple Geometric Constructs
A simple geometric composition for single figure Icons is the triangle which is set upon a plinth. By measuring the height and width of the Icon composition, finding the vertical and horizontal axis, and drawing the diagonals from each corner of the base to the central axis point at the top of the composition, one can create an Icon using sacred geometry.
One of the most famous Icons using sacred geometry is the Rublev Holy Trinity Icon. With this drawing, you can see the figures are arranged in relationship to the circle and contained within the square. The circle is the symbol of unity, and God, in that it has no beginning and no end, but is energy in eternal motion. Rublev had been asked by Saint Sergius of Radoneh to create an Icon of unity and harmony which the community could pray with. This now famous Icon was lost to the world until the early 1900’s when a resurgence of interest in Russian Icons caused an art restorer to clean the centuries of black soot and dirt from the icon, revealing a true masterpiece.
May 9-12, 2019 Sacred Geometry retreat
Sacred Geometry is a foundational concept for Iconographers who wish to paint in the Byzantine Tradition. The next Sacred Geometry Retreat at Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY, will be May 9-12, 2019.
New Icon Book
“Eyes of Fire, How Icons Saved my Life as an Artist” by Christine Simoneau Hales is an in-depth study on the evolution of religious arts and iconography, this book is about spiritual strength, timeless artistry , and groundbreaking personal transformation achieved through experiencing Icons. The power of religious images is well documented in this book, as well as their influence on contemporary art. There is an appendix containing valuable information to creating sacred art for the twenty-first century.
This book will be available on Amazon and a Kindle version will be available for a short period of time at no cost during the book launch in early October . Email to receive a link for the free Kindle book (available during the book launch in early October only).
This month, teaching the “Color and Light in Icons” class at the Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, NY was truly a Holy experience. With such a beautiful monastery, warm and gracious hospitality of Abbot Bernard and all the Brothers, and wonderful people enrolled in the class, how could it not be amazing?
We painted the icon of the Good Shepherd and read aloud Psalm 23 and meditated on it day and night, while writing the icon.
Sine icons are theology in picture form, there is a deep relationship between Holy Scripture and the icon. The icon is the symbolic picture that the words of scripture describe, enhanced by the prayers and love of God the iconographer brings to the process.
Through the act of creation we enter into a relationship with God the creator that is enhanced with the addition of His word in Holy Scripture. The resulting icon from this co- creative process becomes a vessel containing God’s presence through His imagery and the iconographer’s prayers.
Meditating on Scripture, and/or on the life of the saint being depicted in the icon is of primary importance in icon writing. It’s important to make oneself ready to receive divine revelation and then translate that into the painting process with the icon.
In teaching icon writing/painting classes, I like to emphasize our shared Christian faith that is being made visible in the revelation and shared spiritual knowledge that is being made available through the process of icon writing. Each student has their own unique conversation with God during the icon writing process, and sharing that communion with others in the class increases the level of revelation available to the group as a whole. We have a strong belief in the intrinsic value of the icons being created and understand that they affect both the maker and the viewer. Icon writing is a powerful ministry!
Membership in the American Association of Iconographers
Membership in the American Association of Iconographers is now open to all iconographers who have a sincere desire to “spread the joy icons throughout the world”.
Email Christine with your name, website and any additional information. Volunteers to help by being on the steering committee are appreciated.