What is so special about Novgorod Icons? In addition to being known for their beautiful colors and lively compositions, Novgorod Icons offer a rich history and background to the study of icon writing.
Novgorod is one of the oldest cities in Russia, dating from about 859 AD. The period from the 12th to the 17th centuries was especially bountiful in producing many beautiful icons. This period of time is sometimes referred to as “the Proto- Renaissance” because it still embraced the union of religious and aesthetic ideas.
The Effects of the Western Renaissance on Icon Writing
The Proto- Renaissance that was operational in Russia was able to encompass all the cultural phenomena of its time within the context of religion and produce icons of spiritual depth without being overly influenced by Humanism.
In the West from the 14th to 16th centuries, the Renaissance moved art, even religious art, more toward man’s interests and became more human, less religious. Even Christianity in the West at this time became more rational and scholastic and emphasized the emotional experiences of the subject.
In the practice of writing icons, we tend to strongly favor copying icons from before the Renaissance for this very reason. Iconographers agree that imagery from before the Renaissance is preferred because we want our icons to reflect a culture that placed God as the center of the universe, not human reason.
Fourteenth Century Russian Culture
Russian culture of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries developed strong ties with Byzantium, particularly in Novgorod and Pskov. The great iconographer, Andrei Rublev was part of this cultural and spiritual movement. The famous Byzantine master Theophanes the Greek worked in Novgorod in 1378. His magnificent frescoes in the Church of Our Savior in Ilyina Street formed a bridge between the art of Novgorod and Byzantium.
The Artistic Language of the Novgorodian icon is simple, laconic and precise; the composition is based on large contrasting shapes. The rhythm and coloring are tense and mobile, the drawing energetic. Colors are especially important and tend to be simple and bright. Faces, while classical. Tend to have large, expressive eyes. They are painted in a gentle manner with subtle gradations of value. The linear design of the hair, lips, nose and eyes is in contrast to the subtle tonal gradations. In the earlier icons, the minimal color scheme of olive and yellow prevails.
Saint Nicholas Icon
In the thirteenth century icon of Saint Nicholas from the Novgorodian monastery of the Holy Spirit, we see clearly the simplicity of composition, the harsh linear forms, and sparse contrasting colors that complement the restraint of the image. This icon, as well as the is very characteristic of Novgorodian twelfth and thirteenth century painting.
Presentation of the Virgin Icon and Boris and Gleb Icon
In these icons of the late thirteenth, early fourteenth centuries we see the qualities of simplicity of composition combined with monumental, flat graphic qualities balanced by relative depth of form. The colors show an abundance of cinnabar, white, ochre, brown and green.
At this time, Novgorodian painting came closer to Byzantine icons of the Palaeologus period. Icons became monumental and soon were given to freer and more complex compositions. Here we find images with inner tension, power and a classical simplicity. We also see the beginnings of interest in man and his feelings and this affects both color and composition.
I need to end this here, but will pick it up again in a subsequent blog in order to continue the historical development of icons in this most important period of icon history. For further reading I suggest the book: Novgorod Icons, 12-17th Century by Aurora Art Publishers, Leningrad.
Some of the best characteristics of Novgorodian icons are their rational yet popular imagery, economy of means, and a brilliant use of color. Definitely a period of icon writing worth exploring for every aspiring iconographer!
“Come then, let us run with him as he presses on to his passion. Let us imitate those who have gone out to meet him, not scattering olive branches or palms in his path, but spreading ourselves before him as best we can, with humility of soul and upright purpose. So may we welcome the Word as he comes, so may God who cannot be contained within any bounds, be contained within us...
Today let us too give voice with the children to that sacred chant, as we wave the spiritual branches of our soul: ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, the King of Israel. “ Saint Andrew of Crete
This month, as we all observe Lent in our prayer lives and churches, I have gathered a collection of Icons related to this season that encompasses the mystery and Passion of our Lord. If any of you readers have written icons on this theme, please send them in and I will post them on the FB page for the American Association of Iconographers.
Entry Into Jerusalem
“Seated in heaven upon Thy throne and on earth upon a foal, O Christ our God, Thou hast accepted the praise of the angels and the songs of the children who cried out to Thee: Blessed art thou that comest to call back Adam”. From the Kontakion for the Feast
The Holy Washing of the Feet, Icon
Peter, the Apostle is seated on a bench, on the floor is a basin with water, Jesus has his mantle pulled up to keep it dry, Jesus is wiping the with a towel Peter’s right foot.
The other disciples are grouped on the right and left sides, some are loosening their sandals, Christ is the only figure shown with a halo. Only two are shown without a beard, because of their youth.
This was a lesson in humility. Christ says that he gave them an example to be imitated by them.
The Mystical Supper
“As a mystical event, the “Supper takes place at every Divine Liturgy or Eucharistic Feast. “ Of Thy Mystical Supper, O Son Of God, receive me today as a communicant, for I will not speak of the mystery to thine enemies.”
A long table inside a house, usually Christ is seen in the center, his head inclines slightly to the right and with his right hand he blesses. Peter is seated on the right side and John on His left side- Jesus rests his hand on John’s shoulder. This is depicted in John’s Gospel, 13:23-24. Judas is stretching out his hand in order to dip his bread in the dish. Matthew 26:23
All the disciples are shown without halos. Halos are not proper before Pentecost. The disciples should not have their backs to the viewer.
The D shaped table was first seen in the 6th century Ravenna mosaics. Psychological perspective calls for Christ to be at the center of the table. ” ( Guide to Byzantine Iconography, Constantine Cavarnos)
The Crucifixion Icon
The Bridegroom of the Church is transfixed with nails. The Son of the Virgin is pierced with a spear. We venerate Thy Passion, O Christ. Show us also Thy Gkorious Resurrection.
“The traditional Crucifixion icon is a hand-painted icon with the scene of Jesus Christ’s Crucifixion in the center of the composition. Christ is usually surrounded by the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, St. John the Apostle, Longinus the Centurion, and several other onlookers. All the figures depicted in the Crucifixion icon show emotions associated with grief, but nothing suggests sound. Their mouths are not open, and the icon holds silence. Christ Himself is depicted with His eyes closed and His head bowed as if showing His last minutes of life on earth.
The composition of the Crucifixion icon also often includes an open cave with the skull and bones of Adam right at the bottom of the Cross. According to the legend, Adam’s bones, which had been buried under Golgotha by the descendants of Noah, appeared on the surface at the moment of Christ’s death due to a great earthquake that split apart the rocks. Christ’s blood flowed down from the Cross and on to Adam’s bones, bringing the redemption to the First Man and the whole human race.” to read more follow this link for The Russian Icon Blog.
Descent From the Cross Icon
The Descent from the Cross Icon, sometimes called “The Deposition”, shows Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus taking Christ down from the cross after his crucifixion. The Gospel mentions women attending, probably Mary Magdalene, Mary, the Mother of Christ and Mary Salome alongside St.John.
The aim of this icon is to impart the mystical, spiritual truth of the lamentation. The colors, the composition, and even the lines of the figures all lead the viewer upward, they raise our thoughts beyond the crucifixion to the upward movement of Christ himself and the Ascension. It’s a sacred and divinely inspired icon, full of truth and transcendence of emotions to the spiritual realm of faith and hope.
The Resurrection Icon
The Icon of the Resurrection evokes the fragrance of immortality and the fulfillment of the reclamation of Adam and all who have come after. The simple truths are depicted without theatricality.
“Though Thou didst descend into the grave, O Immortal One, yet didst Thou destroy the power of hades, and didst arise as victor, O Christ God, calling to the Myrrh bearing women, Rejoice, and giving peace unto Thine apostles, O Thou who does grant resurrection to the fallen. ” Kontakion for Easter
The Resurrection brings light and joy to all creation. May Pascha, Easter, and Lent be Holy and blessed times for you all and bring joy to your hearts.
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.
This month we have an article contributed By Olga Iaroslavtseva on a form of gilding that she recommends. There are many ways to gild our icons and it’s helpful to be aware of each one until an iconographer finds the way that works best for them. Thank you so much for contributing your time and experience, Olga!
Gilding Method with Water-based Glue
Gilding Is Important In Iconography
Gold in the icon is a symbol of Divine Light, Truth and Glory. Since ancient times, Byzantine iconographers have used gilding. With its help, they were able to simultaneously convey both eternity – the absence of time and space, and the holiness of the depicted. Such depth can only be conveyed with gold, colors are powerless in this. The gold background looks like the icon has no bottom. Gilding in icons is found already in the IX-XI centuries. This technique came to Rus in the 13th century. Iconographers often gave icons to professional gilders for gilding. Presently, many people can master this skill by themselves.
In my practice, I use only real gold leaf. I don’t use imitation in principle. Holiness, greatness, heavenly world – this is what the gold on the icons symbolizes. All this is absolute truth. Therefore, we should use genuine gold. This is my creed.
Various gilding techniques are known, both simple and more complex. Here, I share the simple technique, suitable for beginning iconographers as practitioners. This is gilding on water-based glue.
Preparation, Shellac and polishing
After the drawing is made on the gesso, the areas for gilding should be covered with shellac. Use a wide, flat synthetic brush for that. Apply several coats of shellac with an interval of 15-20 minutes between them. Each coat should dry before applying the next one. I make shellac myself. For this, I dissolve 5 ounces of shellac flakes in 500ml ethanol – 95%. If you use shellac from a store, I think you may need more layers. Usually, it is a less concentrated shellac than self-made. After all layers have been applied, dry the surface thoroughly. This usually takes one to three days, depending on climate. Dried shellac hardens and is easy to polish.
For polishing shellac, use sandpaper with a grain size of 800 to 2000. When polishing, please be careful not to expose the gesso. Otherwise, the applied glue will absorb during gilding and the gold will not adhere. Also, you can use wet sandpaper. Just drip some water when polishing. This will speed up the process. Eventually, the polished surface should be smooth – without scratches, because all of that will be visible after gilding. Perfectly prepared surface – perfect result of gilding. After polishing, the icon must be completely cleaned of dust. Also, clean the room from dust before gilding.
Now come for the gilding icon. For this I use a cotton pad. I usually mix 1:3 glue with water. I take 1 portion of water to 3 portions of glue. The middle icon consumes a teaspoon of the glue mix. Then I fold the cotton pad in half, dip it in the glue mix and wring it out. With quick, neat, even movements I wipe the areas for gilding. Be careful, please do not leave dry areas. I wouldn’t recommend wiping the same place several times. After the first coat, wait 20 minutes to dry out, then apply a second coat. Wait 20 minutes again and start gluing the gold leaves. You can take your time, the surface remains sticky for a long time.
For gilding, I prefer to use loose gold leaf books, but transfer leaf books can also be used. I cut the gold with a Snap-Off Blade of a common knife. To avoid damaging the gold leaf, I put it between two sheets of paper like a sandwich. Usually, I use one sheet of paper from a leaf book. I cut it to size, then gently slide one piece of paper to the right to reveal the edge of the gold leaf on the left. I apply the open edge of the leaf to the sticky area of the icon, loosen my hand and slowly continue to move my hand with the pieces of paper from left to right. Since the edge of the leaf has already caught on to the glue, the gold leaf neatly lays down in the right place. Paper helps keep the gold leaf from crumpling. Finally, I lightly clap the leaf with a squirrel brush imperfectly, because the final pressing will be after gilding of all areas.
After finishing the gilding, you should carefully examine the surface. If there are holes or cracks, you need to patch them up with small pieces of gold leafs. They usually stick well in these areas. Next, take a new cotton pad and smooth the gilded surface with high quality. Do this with gentle pressure to smooth out wrinkles. Again carefully examine the surface. If the holes remain and they no longer stick, take a toothpick and wrap some cotton wool around the tip. The tip should be like the tip of a pencil. Dip it in the glue mix and squeeze it a little on clean paper so that there is not too much glue. Apply glue with the tip of a toothpick to the holes like a restorer. Try not to go out to the gilding area. Glue pieces of gold to these places and wait 10 minutes. After, smooth these places with a new cotton pad. This is very delicate work.
Remove excess glue and gold residues from areas under painted. For that, use an ear stick and white spirits. Be careful not to damage the gilded area.
Next day, apply shellac in one or two layers with a soft synthetic brush to protect the gilding.
The advantages of this technique of gilding are
– simple application of glue;
– the ability to glue gold leaf after 20 minutes after application;
– easy to patch holes.
The disadvantage of this technique is streaks remain when applied with a cotton pad. They are visible after gilding, though this may not be noticeable to the non-expert. Looked closely, you will notice the vibration of gloss and dullness.
In summary, the gluing technique with water-based glue is fast, simple and gives a good quality gilding. I use Italian water-based glue Ferrario La Doratura Missione ad Acqua.
Iconography has been my professional occupation for 18 years. During this time, I have painted hundreds of icons in different styles and techniques. In 2017-2019, I lived in the United States with my husband, a priest in the Orthodox Christian mission. In 2019, there was an exhibition of my paintings and icons in St. Louis, Missouri. Presently, I live in Lipetsk, Russia. I am happy to share my method of gilding with the American Association of Iconographers. Hope, this will help the development of the iconographic arts in North America.
For more information about my experience in iconography, please visit my social media: @facebook.com/OlYAgallery; @instagram.com/olya_gallery. There I share my art, exhibitions and progress.
Blessing and help from God to the American Association of Iconographers and all iconographers.
May you all be blessed and safe until out next newsletter at the end of August!
If you have an article you would like to submit that would help other iconographers, please contact me below. Also, if you have any thoughts or comments for Olga, please contact me and I will pass them on to her!
The very first Christian Icons were memorial portraits from the Catacombs immediately following the Resurrection and continuing for three hundred years. They were created to keep alive the memory of the early Christian martyrs. Until Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in 313, Christians had to hide their faith or risk death or persecution.
For the early Christians, it was the memorial image that made the unseen world of their faith live in reality. The martyrs became invisible, but constant companions through portraiture and symbolism in the early icons.
The Byzantine system of sacred portraiture and narrative derives, in part, from the stylistic influences of the Egyptian Fayum period. A certain standardization of facial features in sixth century icons of Byzantine Saints developed that bears a striking resemblance to the Fayum portraits of the first and second centuries.
Some of the earliest surviving icons of Mary and the saints are from wall paintings and mosaics after the sixth century. The most common subjects of early memorial portraits were Christ, Mary, saints and angels.
After the period of iconoclasm, Byzantine portraits of saints began to place more emphasis on the functions and status of the saints depicted in addition to attempting a physical likeness. First, these distinctions were made, for the lesser saints, with words and inscriptions. Later, visual images symbolically represented status and function, but naming of the icon was still an important element visually. It allowed the viewer to “read” the icon and know exactly who the icon was honoring.
Early Christian legend has Saint Luke as the first Icon painter, as he was commissioned to paint a portrait of Mary and the Christ Child. This Icon of the Mother of God is called the Hodegetria.
A fourth century legend speaks of King Agbar who, in need of healing, had sent his messenger to Christ asking for an audience. When Jesus was unable to go, He put His face to the cloth and Christ’s image was miraculously transferred to the cloth. The messenger brought this image to the King who was instantly healed. This legend is attributed to the Mandylion Icon.
Acheiropoieta refers to the holy image that appeared miraculously, as in the case of the Mandylion and also to the Icon of Veronica’s veil. This type of icon is thought of as a true image, not made by human hands.
From the sixth century onwards, Icons began to be venerated in the church and some were believed to be miracle working images, validating and inspiring the faith of the early Christians.
During the Comnenian period, 1081-1185, icons proliferated as murals and mosaics as well as panel paintings for the Iconostasis. Similarly, the Paleologan period, c.1261 saw the flowering of many iconographic mosaics and murals commemorating the saints and the Gospel narrative.
Russian Byzantine Icons
Typically painted on wood, Russian Byzantine Icon portraits tend to emphasize the mystical connection between the saint and God. This is achieved through a softer, more diffused portrait with less sharp or hard edges than other styles. Two of Russia’s most famous iconographers, Andrei Rublev and Dionysius, not only continued the previous Byzantine Iconographic tradition, but they also were able to creatively add subtleties and nuances to it that appealed greatly to the people of their time.
In the words of Egon Sendler, ” Icons are images of the Invisible”. They are memorial portraits that capture visually for us the memories of the saints who went before us. They hint at their accomplishments, the intensity of the saints’ connection to God and His Gospel through symbols, words and pictures.
Making the invisible world of our faith visible has never been more important. Our world and culture are crying out for vision, a perspective, that will help to make sense of the chaos. May God inspire each of us, in the individual way He has for each of us, to reach out and make His world visible and accessible to our loved ones, our neighbors and our world.
This month the topic of our newsletter is contemplation and Icons. As I continue teaching Icon writing (painting), now online due to the pandemic, it seems important to post about the importance of linking prayer to the process of painting Icons. In order for the Icon to reflect God’s Presence, it’s very important for the iconographer to be in a state of grace and prayer while working.
Reflection on the saints being being painted and continuous prayer help to insure that the icon is an authentic expression of who the saint is when transfigured by God’s grace. This is the true likeness of the saint- his transfigured person through the light of God’s action upon him/her in their lives.
In The Eastern theological tradition, man is seen to be on a mystical journey that leads to “Theosis” or deification. Icons represent this union between God and man. The Icon is a manifestation of the presence of God. It draws and brings us into this Presence so that we can experience God in our soul. In this way we become a living icon of God.
Contemplation and Icons
In Byzantine religious culture, the purpose of meditation, prayer and contemplation was always to lead to enlightenment, that is, prayerful immersion in the rays of Divine energy as evidenced in the icon of the Transfiguration.
In Vita Consecrata we read this from Pope John Paul II, : We must confess that we all have need of this silence, filled with the presence of him who is adored : in theology, so as to exploit fully its own sapiential and spiritual soul; in prayer, so that we may never forget that seeing God means coming down the mountain with a face so radiant that we are obliged to cover it with a veil (Ex 34.33); in commitment, so that we will refuse to be locked in a struggle without love and forgiveness. All, believers and non-believers alike, need to learn a silence that allows the other to speak when and how he wishes, and allows us to understand his words”
Whereas St. Benedict, who has set the tone for the spirituality of the West, calls us, first of all, to listen, the Byzantine Fathers focus on gazing. This is especially evident in the liturgical life of the Eastern Church as the 2nd Ecumenical council in 787 makes clear, when it says : “What is communicated through the Word is revealed silently through the Image.” In Byzantine Liturgy therefore, Word and Icon complement each other.
Each of us is an Icon of God, and through prayer and contemplation, we are able to see our brothers and sisters as God sees them, and then bring this deep sense of God’s view to the process of painting Icons.
Hesychasm is a mystical form of prayer practiced by Byzantine Monks and iconographers of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Jesus‘s teaching in the Gospel of Matthew tells us that “whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you”. Hesychasm in tradition has been the process of retiring inward in order to achieve an experiential knowledge of God. The Jesus prayer, prayer of the breath, was commonly the prayer used when painting icons in this tradition.
The Jesus prayer is this, or a variation of it: “Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.”
And to finish, here is a quote from “The Message”, a treatise from fifteenth century St. Joseph of Volokolamsk:
“Wherever you may be, O Beloved, on sea or on land, at home, walking, sitting, or lying down- ceaselessly pray with a clear conscience, saying, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me,” and God will hear you.”
Equipped with prayer and contemplation, the iconographer is able to paint with God’s direction and all will be well!
Each month, we choose a topic relevant to the education of contemporary iconographers, and I invite you to make suggestions, submit possible topics, or write a guest post. Contact me!