Born in the 1360’s in Moscow , Andrei Rublev is widely considered the one of the greatest painters of Russian Orthodox Icons. For a large part of his life he lived in the Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra near Moscow and his spiritual teacher was St. Sergius of Radonezh. He was able to express the spiritual ideals of his time and integrate the tenets of Byzantine Iconography into his icons in a way no one has been able to do before or since.
Andrei Rublev , along with the icon painter Theophanes, painted the icons for the Cathedral of the Annunciation in Moscow. Theophanes is generally considered to have been Rublev’s teacher in icon painting and one can certainly see the similarities in their work.
The Moscow Icon painters of the early 15th century transformed the rather heavy Byzantine style of the iconostasis and Rublev was among those, along with Theophanes, who created the Russian style of the Iconostasis. This fully developed representation of the Festal Scenes along with the central figures of Saints John, Mary, and the Archangels Michael and Gabriel is often found arranged in tiers at the high altar of Orthodox churches. Many of these also include a tier of prophets as well.
Rublev and Theophanes introduced full figure saints into the Iconostasis as opposed to the Byzantine style of using half figures. This brought a much greater sense of presence to the icons, allowing the viewer to feel present with the saints as they worshipped.
The Assumption Cathedral in Vladimir was painted by both Rublev and Daniel Chorny in about 1408. They worked together also to paint the Trinity Cathedral at the Trinity Lavra between 1425-1427.
Rublev’s most famous Icon, the Trinity, now hangs at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, where it continues to stun viewers both by its great size as well as the artistic levels of excellence he was able to achieve in this work. St. Sergius of Radonezh consecrated his Monastery Cathedral to the Holy Trinity, “So that the sight of the Holy Trinity would serve to vanquish fear of the hateful strife within this world”.
Rublev’s work carries with it a luminosity and elegance of expression in the figures depicted. The harmony Rublev achieved through the use of sacred geometry in the compositions also evoked a sense of clarity and purity.
One of the key characteristics of Rublev’s works is spiritual harmony, the blending of both inner and outer beauty in the saints he depicts. This is an aspect of the Byzantine spiritual system- the harmony between beauty of body and beauty of spirit. “When the human being is wholly dissolved in Divine love, then outwardly he reflects the glow of his inner spirit.” St. John Climacus
Understanding as we do, the importance of keeping our gaze on things above, one can see that the ideals manifested so exquisitely in Rublev’s work would be good ones to bring forward to our world of today.
May God continue to bless the work of your hands, and may He guide our thoughts and actions that we could do all that is honorable and pleasing to the One we serve, Jesus Christ.
I recently gave an online Icon writing retreat where one of the main topics covered was inverse perspective. This highly important topic isn’t often covered in icon writing classes, so there was a lot of research involved.
Inverse perspective is one of the compositional elements that cause an Icon to differ from a religious painting. In addition to practical drawing information, the theological meanings of inverse perspective were also covered.
Inverse perspective is one of the six different forms of perspective used in Byzantine Iconography. Commonly you can see this in the way that buildings, chairs, tables, etc. are drawn in Byzantine icons. In these, the lines are drawn so that instead of converging on the horizon, the lines come outward and converge on the viewer. They actually form a conical shape in space that brings the events in the icon outward to envelop and engage the viewer. People are also drawn so that they appear to be coming outwards towards us, drawing them into our space to engage with us visually as well as prayerfully.
The Icon As A Window to Heaven
In a sense, perspective in the icon is the opposite of Renaissance perspective where the viewpoint converges on the horizon. The icon is a window where we have access to the Kingdom of God, God’s perspective, to His presence. In the Icon, the scene or saint shines out towards the viewer who opens himself to receive it. In inverse perspective space itself becomes active instead of the observer, who is, in fact acted upon.
According to George Kordis, author of Color As Light in Byzantine Painting, It’s customary in the tradition of Byzantine art For rhythm to be built on the foundation of intersecting axes which are usually very well hidden within the structure of the figures and landscape.
The key to understanding the Byzantine language of visual art is its approach to movement and perspective in drawing.
In the Byzantine tradition the sense of depth is less important than those of width and height here the foreground dominates.
Byzantine artists understood pictorial space as developing in front of the surface of the painting as opposed to behind it. This causes the viewer to be encountered by God’s Presence, to be drawn into engagement with the Divine.
The Byzantine artist intended for there to be a sense of relationship between the depicted figures and the viewer, as opposed to a sense of distance or detachment from the viewer, which occurs in the western tradition of naturalism. The Byzantine approach to drawing is focused on the unification of pictorial in real space. In the Byzantine tradition, pictorial space is not understood as independent or autonomous, but instead as developing and projecting in front of the surface of the painting in such a way as to be identified with the real space of the viewer.
In inversed perspective, the lines do not meet at a vanishing point behind the canvas, but at a point in front of the canvas. Thus, there is no depth, and space is reduced. In this sense the icon is the opposite of a renaissance painting. It is not a window through which the mind must go to have access to the world represented. Is rather a place where a presence is encountered. In the icon, the represented world shines out toward the person who opens himself to receive it. Inverse perspective, space itself becomes active instead of the observer who in fact is acted on. This is just a quick look into the subject. However, if you wish to learn more about it, I suggest you take the pre-recorded Icon Writing Class called “Epiphany”. During that class you will write the Epiphany icon and learn much more about how inverse perspective manifests in the art of icon writing.
Until next month, Please stay safe and remember to pray for all those suffering from Covid.
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,
During the pandemic, being isolated and shut in for months, I began to realize what the life of an anchoress must have been like! By focusing on my prayer life and the practice of icon writing, I have been able to draw near to God more frequently and with greater concentration experience the silence of my heart than would otherwise have been possible. For that reason, I have begun writing an icon of Julian of Norwich with great joy and received many discoveries in the process. I share with you here some of what I have learned about her.
Born in 1343, Julian lived in the wake of the black plague and lived as well, through the peasant’s rebellion of 1381, and the persecution of the Lollards. May 8 is the Day Dame Julian is remembered in the Church of England, the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She lived a life of seclusion as an anchoress at the Church of St. Julian in Norwich, England for most of her adult life. Through a window to the outside world in her cell, Julian was expected to be available to provide prayer and counsel to those living in the city of Norwich. Julian sought holiness of life and communion with God in order to be able to intercede more effectively for others. Aelred, the author of the Ancrene Riwle, a tract written in 1200 to guide anchorites and spiritual recluses, summarized the ideal anchoress’s prayer:
“Embrace the whole world with the arms of your love and in that act at once consider and congratulate the good, contemplate and mourn over the wicked. In that act look upon the afflicted and the oppressed and feel compassion for them…In that act, call to mind the wretchedness of the poor , the groan of the orphans, the abandonment of widows, the gloom of the sorrowful, the needs of travelers, the prayers of virgins, the perils of those at sea, the temptation of monks, the responsibilities of prelates, the labors of those waging war. In your love take them all to your heart, weep over them, offer your prayers for them.”
After a serious illness, which she prayed to receive, Julian began seeing visions of God. These visions became the source of many “showings” that is, revelations given by God to Julian. The following are some excerpts from these visions. As Julian gazed on the Crucifix, during what she thought was the end of her life, Julian received the first of her visions on the Trinity:
“in the same revelation, suddenly the Trinity filled my heart full of the greatest joy, and I understood that it will be so in heaven without end to all who will come here. For the Trinity is God, God is the Trinity. The Trinity is our maker, the Trinity is our protector, the Trinity is our everlasting lover, the Trinity is our endless joy and our bliss, by our Lord Jesus Christ and inner Lord Jesus Christ.”
And I leave you with her most famous quote: “Jesus answered with these words, saying: ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’ … This was said so tenderly, without blame of any kind toward me or anybody else”.
Excerpts from Grace Jantzen’s “Julian of Norwich” are quoted above.
I recently gave a talk at the Church of the Redeemer in Sarasota Florida on the Renaissance and Icons for an Advent series on church art. The following are excerpts from that talk:
The Reniassance was making its appearance in art as early as the 14th century in Italy with the art of Massaccio and Giotto. The art of the fourteenth century was a balance of medieval art and the new developments in art that included three point perspective.
The contemporary of Donatello, Masaccio, was the painterly descendant of Giotto and began the Early Renaissance in Italian painting in 1425, furthering the trend towards solidity of form and naturalism of face and gesture that Giotto had begun a century earlier. From 1425–1428, Masaccio completed several panel paintings but is best known for the fresco cycle that he began in the Brancacci Chapel with the older artist Masolino and which had profound influence on later painters, including Michelangelo.
The Shift from A Theistic Worldview to Humanism
Often the term Renaissance is used to describe an attitude toward life which valued Earth more than heaven, the immortality of fame rather than the immortality of the soul, self cultivation more than self effacement, the delights of the flesh more than asceticism, the striving for success more than justice, individual and intellectual freedom rather than authority, and Classical humanism more than Christianity.
The Renaissance ushered in, along with more naturalistic art forms, a humanist view of the world. It was a new dawning where man considered himself master of the world. This is a secular worldview in which God is marginalized.
Until the Renaissance, beauty and holiness were inextricably connected in art for worship, evoking the presence of God. After the rise of realism, artistic virtuosity and competitive patronage began to be the engine that drove the production of art. The previous theistic worldview of the medieval and dark ages was shattered by the desire for carnal gratification and political power especially in Rome.
Ghirlandaio was part of the so-called “third generation” of the Florentine Renaissance, along with Verrocchio, and Sandro Botticelli.
This new attitude of realism and illusionistic perspective is clearly reflected in the art of the period.
But the Renaissance is a study in contrasts because it is also true that the genius of that age has rarely been equaled and never surpassed.
Later, all of Europe, from Spain to Poland wanted to emulate the Italian example of Renaissance painting.
Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael
Leonardo da Vinci was a painter, mathematician,, engineer and inventor. Michelangelo a sculptor, painter, architect and poet. Both were passionate about learning how to represent the natural world and this included dissecting cadavers in order to accurately depict human musculature.
Standing alongside Leonardo and Michelangelo as the third great painter of the High Renaissance was the younger Raphael, His death in 1520 at age 37 is considered by many art historians to be the end of the High Renaissance period, although some individual artists continued working in the High Renaissance style for many years thereafter.
The Eastern Branch of the Church inRussia
Russian Piety differed from the west and even from other Orthodox churches. In Russia, religion stressed piety and self sacrifice. Such meekness was characteristic of the Russian ideal which encouraged the surrender of self in favor of a larger good, the family or the nation.
Salvation meant not only the attainment of individual perfection, but also the transformation of society and of all mankind into nobler and holier forms. For it was believed that the entire nation was holy and that each facet of daily life could be sanctified. Meek behavior and proper manners were a religious as well as a social \ obligation. For the Russians, Christianity reinforced and broadened the ancient Russian Traditions that had considered each individual to be profoundly responsible for the well being of his neighbors and of all humanity. The art form for churches in Russia during the Renaissance period was Icons. They avoided naturalistic and illusionistic rendering and space in their work in order to keep the focus on God’s world.
The early Church Fathers of the Ninth Century wisely decided that the iconic tradition as a visual witness to faith appeals more to the heart than the intellect. It is said that a painting offers us a window onto the world. An icon does the same, except that it offers us a window into the invisible world of God- they make manifest to us the Kingdom of heaven. They portray to us not what we encounter in everyday life, but instead they picture a transfigured world, a world that is seen by the soul and not the eyes.
In the icon we witness a world that is whole, an image of eternity. The icon has come to be regarded not only as a work of art, but also as a witness to the Christian faith in the incarnation of God. And that is why, as Iconographers, we only use models for our Icons from before the Renaissance period, ignorer to avoid the shift from a theistic world view to a humanist one.
Father God, we ask that every time humanity loses its way, you will lift us up and set us out again on the right path, your path. Beauty will save the world!
May the God of hope fill us with all joy and peace in believing through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen
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!
During this time of pandemic it’s good to think about Icons of healing and restoration. There are many that come to mind, but Saint Raphael seems particularly appropriate as he is the patron saint not only of travelers, but also of physicians, nurses, and medical workers. For this reason, I am offering an online icon painting class in September where we will write an Icon of Archangel Raphael. His feast day is September 29, and is celebrated along with Saints Michael and Archangel Gabriel.
The story of Archangel Raphael is beautifully told in the book of Tobit in the Apocrypha. Raphael means God heals. In the book of Enoch he is believed to have healed the earth when it was defiled by the sins of fallen angels. In John 5: 1-4, the Gospel speaks of the pool at Bethesda where many sick people gathered, awaiting the movement of the waters. “An angel of the Lord descended at certain times into the pond and the water was moved. And he that went down first into the water was made whole of whatsoever infirmity he was under.” Because of the healing powers associated with Raphael, he is considered to be the angel in that Scriptural story.
In the book of Tobit, Raphael appears in the form of a man who will accompany Tobias on a journey. To the recently blinded Tobit (Tobias’ father) Raphael says, “Take courage, the time is near for God to heal you. Take Courage” Tobit 5:10.
During the journey, Raphael heals Sarah of the demons that plagued her so that she could safely marry Tobias. Tobit is also healed of his blindness by Raphael. When Raphael finally reveals his identity as an angel of God the two men were afraid and fell down, but Raphael said to them ” Do not be afraid, peace be with you. Bless God forevermore…I was not acting by my own will but by the will of God. Bless Him each and every day and sing His praises….. They kept blessing God and singing His praises and they acknowledged God for these marvelous deeds of His, when an angel of the Lord had appeared to them.” Tobit 12:16
In this story and also in the meaning of the name Raphael, credit is given to God who heals, and it is to God that the angels and the saints point and direct our worship and attention.
Raphael is thought to guard travelers on their journeys and is sometimes depicted with a staff and also holding fish which relates to the healing of Tobit’s blindness with fish gall as directed by Raphael. In Europe Raphael is known as the protector of sailors and is shown in a relief on the Doge’s palace in Venice with a scroll saying “Keep the Gulf quiet.”
Raphael is sometimes thought of being one of the three angels who visited Sarah and Abraham. He, along with Archangels Michael and Gabriel were sent to fulfill God’s will concerning Sodom, Sarah and Abraham.
Flannery O’Connor is believed to have said the Saint Raphael prayer at the beginning of each day:
“O Raphael, lead us toward those we are waiting for, those who are waiting for us; Raphael, Angel of happy meeting, lead us by the hand toward those we are looking for. May all our movements be guided by Your light and transfigured with your joy.” Amen
During these difficult times of pandemic, let us pray often for those afflicted and for all those doctors, nurses and medical workers who are at the front lines of this battle. And we pray also for the speedy discovery of a vaccine cure, in Jesus name, Amen.
Reflecting on the current interest in icon painting we are experiencing in this last thirty years, it is interesting to note the many and varied styles of icon writing that are emerging. How are we able to discern what is a true Icon? By what standards do we judge the authenticity of our own work? In my early days of Icon study I often heard the words “The Canons of Iconography” referred to as our standard of comparison. However, upon closer investigation, it became clear that these Canons were more mythical than reality. There is no Bible of Icon writing.
Traditions of the Past
So, how can we carry on the valuable traditions of icon writing from the past? In the same way that artists have always learned their craft- we need to copy from the masters. In an articulate and well- researched article on just this subject, Romanian Iconographer Todor Mitrovic has written two articles for the Orthodox Arts Journal this month.
In the first article, published online, June 23, 2020, Todor Mitrovic writes about the high achievement of Byzantine art as a very high expression of European culture for its time. He speaks of the canons, or canonicity, of iconography as not sufficiently representing what great church art was in the middle ages or being able to serve the needs of iconographers today. Understandably, the need to distinguish between what is Christian and what is not was a legitimate need in the early centuries of Christianity.
“Very early, disputes arose as to what was genuinely Christian. Hence, the Church was constantly forced to set up norms, e.g., for doctrine, for life, for accepting books as Scripture, for worship. It thus felt the need for a word that would unmistakably denote what is valid and binding in the Church…” T. Mitrovic
However, slavish adherence to an imaginary canon can only limit the authentic expression of God’s Holy Spirit in Icons today.
“…the image of the list of icon-painting rules, however imaginary it might have been, hangs over the heads of contemporary iconographers, and radically defines the entire artistic production of the Orthodox Church.” T. Mitrovic
In the second installment of Mr. Mitrovic’s article in the Orthodox Arts Journal, he speaks of how the canons of the seventh ecumenical council only proclaim the need for icons to be painted, but they do not attempt to interfere with their artistic execution.
That seems that the Byzantine Church never attempted a legal codification of its artistic production, so why do we attempt to do so now?
Instructions for medieval icon painting were general canons which apply to diverse forms of artistic creation. “…in the most famous manual, compiled by Dionysius of Fourna, for example, where there is a recipe for mixing the colors for painting the face, and norms for the proportions of the human figure, the author subverts any concept of a rule, since he states that this is only one among many possibilities …we cannot find there any set of direct prescriptions on producing an icon that would be “canonical” in the narrow sense. Moreover, some clumsy attempts to codify any such prescriptions, especially with ever-advancing reproductive technology, has led to cold and sterile results in church art, which could hardly be compared with the genuine achievements of Byzantine art.” Todor Mitrovic
Language vs Canon
Could the traditional aspect of church art be designated not by the term canon, but by the term language? Mr. Mitrovic asks the question: “what would happen if the normative aspect of church art were treated in a linguistic manner?”
Linguistic structures are extremely conservative and slow to change, not because of some ideology, but because their primary purpose is to communicate and understand. Surely, good icon painting is about communicating and bringing the viewer into God’s presence through the visual image. And there are many aspects of creating icons that help to make this possible. It’s just that there are different ways to use these creative elements- the application of paint for example, or line quality, or color density, and still be within the validity of icon painting language and form.
I suggest you read these articles in order to understand the nuances and implications for your own icon writing. Mr. Mitrovic closes with;
“Although the terms canon and language have some semantic affinity, their use as paradigms, in the end, might have quite a different impact on the development of church art.”
In my lifetime, there has never been more need than that of the present for Christian artists to support one another in this quest for an authentic visual language that represents a theology that can heal and speak to our times.