It has always fascinated me that the more I study, write, and paint Icons, the more I discover further nuances and distinctions between styles and methods of icon painting. In reading Viktor Lazarev’s article “General Observations on Russian Iconography” in his book “The Russian Icons, from its Origins to the Sixteenth Century”, Lazarev delineates many distinctions between Byzantine and Russian Iconography.
For example, in the tenth century, Byzantine artistic influences began to be seen in Russian art, specifically icons. The cities of Pskov and Novgorod were the most affected, partly due to their form of government that allowed for more artistic freedom. By the time of Andrei Rublev, a distinct school of Russian Iconography could be recognized.
Rus appropriated the Byzantine iconographic types such as the Mother of God, portrayals of Gospel scenes, and similar Old Testament compositions. But in Russia, the faces become more gentle and open, colors became more intense, and highlights smaller and more intense which are sometimes barely perceptible. So, in this way, Russian iconography can be said to transform Byzantine iconography in a way that it is less severe and more open to nuances of content and expression.
Later, the creation of original prototype independent of Byzantium emerged in Russian icons. Some examples of this are the Synaxis of the Mother of God, and the Virgin of Mercy. These changes reflected the every day need for peasant life to be in communion with saints and angels. Protection for their flocks, houses, trades, and health became the subjects and content of numerous versions of Mary, local saints, and the angels.
Russians considered iconography to be the most perfect of all arts. “The art of the icon was invented by God’s very self, who adorns the sky and the stars and the earth with flowers because of their beauty. Icons were shown the utmost respect.” (V. Lazarev, p.23). They were bearers of moral authority and bearers of spiritual grace and holiness. Today icons are endlessly attractive precisely because of this moral purity that appears in icons through the fifteenth century, but begins to disappear with the sixteenth century.
Making efforts to understand distinctions between different styles of iconography, one begins to develop a real understanding of the essential elements of iconography and a to cultivate a desire to bring forward these distinctions to iconography today.
Are you an Icon collector? Collecting Icons is similar to collecting fine art in that the beauty is often times in the eye of the beholder. Icons carry meaning in addition to the esthetics we expect from visual art. That meaning, or content, might relate on a very personal level to the viewer and thus have a high degree of value, regardless of the aesthetic qualities. For example, an Icon of Saint Luke will resonate with artists, Iconographers, physicians, and bachelors because Saint Luke is their patron saint. Icons have the ability to enhance our prayer life as we venerate the saints depicted.
We use the word venerate to talk about our interactions with Icons. To venerate means to cherish, honor, exalt, be in awe of, appreciate and reverence. In old Russia, during times of religious persecution, people who could afford it would create a beautiful corner in their homes, or a small chapel. This would hold the Icons that this family particularly revered and understood as important parts of their family prayer lives.
Icons can enhance our connection to the God we adore through specific, focused prayer. Therefore, collecting Icons is a means of keeping our vision on God’s Kingdom in our homes, and sharing that with our families and friends.
Collecting Icons from Antiquity
Another aspect of collecting Icons is that of finding Icons from earlier centuries that have added value because of their age and provenance. One of the foremost Icon Galleries for ancient Icons is the Temple Gallery in London, UK. It was founded in 1959 as a center for study, restoration and exhibition of ancient Icons and sacred art. With ancient Icons, their monetary value rises in accordance with their condition, provenance, size, and age.
People often ask about the value about the icons they have discovered in their travels or have had handed down in their families. TheMuseum of Russian Icons, in Clinton, Massachusetts, will do Icon evaluations on certain dates. They will also provide conservation and appraisal services upon request. The museum has a beautiful permanent collection as well as changing exhibitions.
A Living Traditon
Iconography is a living tradition, bringing the elements of the Christian faith to believers through the centuries. Icons are often painted in the same way that they have been for hundreds of years. And, as a living Tradition, Icons painted today are bringing along the traditions of the past and marrying them to contemporary faith and art practices. Truly it is an exciting time to be collecting Icons!
May God bless your Icon creating and collecting especially this Advent Season!
Teaching Icon classes as I do in monasteries, churches and art centers, the question that always arises at the end of class: How can I continue with Icon painting? Practice is what I always say. For that reason, this month’s blog for the American Association of Iconographers is a collection of information and links to help with further studies.
Ideally, someone who is learning to write Icons will choose a style or a teacher which whom to study. But even with that, one can only realistically take one or two workshops per year. What to do in the meantime? Here are my suggestions:
Using sketch paper and pencil, draw as much as possible. Copy Icons from books, prints, or the internet. Drawing is the number one art skill needed in Icon writing, as it is in all painting. Learning to think on paper is a valuable skill. A book that I recommend to beginners is: Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. You can copy Icons in some of her exercises and you will be surprised at how quickly your drawing will improve.
Sketch of Icon
Tonal sketch of Icon
Icon to be copied
Use watercolor paper and the four basic color of Icon writing: red ochre, black, white and yellow ochre. Make color and tonal studies of Icons on water color paper. Again, this simple practice will yield large results.
Icon Retreats and Workshops
For those who choose to study with me, here is a link to upcoming classes. My teaching method is always evolving and inspired by my prayer life. I particularly enjoy helping students who have had some experience writing Icons and now want to create their own Icon (still copied from before the Renaissance). If you do sign up for one of my classes and wish to do this, please email me well before the class date so that we can prepare you for getting the most out of the retreat.
Resources for viewing Iconographic Imagery
Kolomenskaya Versta is a site selling Icon books and materials. It is based in Russia and they regularly post free images to copy as well as links to all kinds of Iconographic information. Also known as Russian Modern Orthodox Icon, here is a link to their FB page.
This month I am recommending two articles that have been published in an on-line journal- The Orthodox Arts Journal– as elements contributing to good training for Iconographers. As I go around the country teaching an “Introduction to Icon Writing Class”, I am aware of how little knowledge people in general have about Icon painting. It is impossible to gain enough knowledge of this art from a few classes to be able to make truly authentic Icons. I recommend two things: look at as much art and as many Icons as you possibly can. Books, online resources, museums, all of these will help your painting to become mature as you practice what you see. The second thing I recommend is to read as much as you can about the history as well as the technique of Icon writing. Both of these activities go hand in hand with taking workshops and practicing at home.
Two Articles for Iconographers in Training.
The first article is written by English Iconographer Aidan Hart and it is entitled, ” The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting,: A Chinese Painting Manual Offers Inspiration to Iconographers.” This article contains quotes from the Chinese manual as well as comments by Aidan Hart as to their usefulness for Iconographers. It is quite a beautiful and clear article that speaks to some of the nuances of Icon painting. Here is a quote from that article. The italics are quotes from the manual, and the regular text is Aidan Hart’s commentary:
“You must learn first to observe the rules faithfully; afterwards, modify them according to your intelligence and capacity. The end of all method is to seem to have no method. (17)
When we learn a second language, we consciously study its rules of grammar and learn its norms. But as we gain knowledge and confidence, we find our own voice. Iconography should be the same.
I have heard it said by some Orthodox thinkers that iconography is not art. I disagree. The icon is indeed more than art because it is part of the liturgy and exists for more than aesthetic delectation. But it is at least art. Although the icon’s sacred purpose means that its aesthetic categories are more extensive than those of secular art, it should nonetheless include them. The same universal colour theories and composition principles apply.”
One more quote:
“If you aim to dispense with method, learn method. If you aim at facility, work hard. If you aim for simplicity, master complexity.(19)
Hard work is the only path to the authentic abstraction. In the years that I have taught iconography I have found that drapery is the most common stumbling block for learners. Prolonged and analytical study is required to understand the drapery that the icon tradition abstracts. Drapery’s complexity needs to be mastered in order to make sense of its simplification, otherwise it becomes irrational, not supra-rational. Lines need to be understood as horizons of forms and not strings hanging in space.
The Second article is written by Anton Daineko “The Living Icon”, also published in the Orthodox Arts Journal. In this article, Anton grapples with the issue of what is the criterion used to make authentic Icons? This is not a simple or easy question to answer. He cites examples of Iconographers from the past such as Andrei Rublev, Hilandar and Panselinos in order to visually show the necessary qualities of good Icons.
In this article, he also speaks about the importance of the Iconographer’s direct experience, through prayer, with God.
Commenting on copying in iconography, Father Igor, a priest from Minsk and himself an icon painter, noted that “There are no icon copies; each icon is a REVELATION”. Naturally, this raises questions: is it even possible to define such a delicate matter as REVELATION, and what aspects should be included under the resultant definition?
It cannot be answered in a few simple words. With some icons, everything is easy: one look at the Redeemer from the Zvenigorod deesis tier, and you feel that it really is a REVELATION. But with most icons, the matter is far more complicated.
“It would be appropriate here to recall the words in the epigraph to this article, the Apostle Peter’s reply to Our Lord’s question “Who do you say that I Am?” – “YOU ARE THE CHRIST, THE SON OF THE LIVING GOD“.
Perhaps this line holds the key to understanding much about the Church, including the canonical texts: in those texts, the early Christians saw an image of the LIVING GOD, crucified and raised from the dead. And that is what is most precious in the Church. It is precisely the PRESENCE of the Living God that sets the Christian Church apart from other religions and other communities. And it is precisely this PRESENCE that we can observe in scripture as well as virtually everything else in church life. The icon is no exception in this regard.
The iconic image consists of many simple elements: strokes, stripes, and smudges, while the different colors are obtained by various combinations of minerals and egg yolk. Taken separately, none of these elements carry any artistic – let alone spiritual – meaning in and of themselves. But when these elements come together in a particular combination, a miracle occurs: the strokes, the stripes, and the smudges cease to exist, and we see the Face of the Living God looking directly at us. It is as much of a miracle as the image of the Living God emanating from the simple words of the Gospels’ narrative.”
I suggest again, reading the entire article in order to fully understand the nuances and also to see more examples of the Icons mentioned in the article. We are so blessed today to have great contemporary Iconographer who are sharing their wisdom and experience to those who are eager to learn.
Enjoy, as we come to the official close of summer, and may God bless all of your Icon writing with His Presence.
First, a thank you to all of you who have been subscribers to this blog over the last couple of years. Particularly, thank you for being patient with all the changes in format and stylistic content as I try to understand the needs and purpose of this community of Iconographers.
I have changed format again, this time getting closer to my original purpose of having a substantial list of Iconographic resources and links to help Iconographers in creating and learning about Icons. If you look at the left sidebar you will see a page of “resources” on which I have started to add links, and will continue with this throughout the year so that it becomes a valuable resource.
As it is New year’s Eve and we are on the verge of the Feast of Epiphany , here are some images of the Epiphany in different Iconographic styles, taken from a more nuanced article by Hokku about the wise men on the blog ” Icons and Their Interpretation”.
Icons for the Epiphany range in subject matter from stories of the wise men finding Jesus in a manger, to the Baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan.
Epiphany is described as the manifestation of Jesus to the Gentiles as represented by the Magi- who were not Jews but were from the East; it is also the church feast day commemorating the Epiphany on January 6; and a manifestation of a divine, supernatural being. Webster’s dictionary describes Epiphany as “ a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or experience.”
The birth of Jesus, the Son of the most high God in a manger certainly fulfills that definition. Epiphany represents the discovery that Jesus was born for not only the Jews, but also the Gentiles- for the whole world.
In the Baptism of Jesus Icon, we see in the central axis of the Icon, the God the Father, represented by the half circle at the center; The Holy Spirit, represented by the rays of gold coming from the half circle,and Jesus, the Son of God. In the Gospel, God’s audible voice announces “This is My Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Matthew 3:17
It is a revelation similar to the one of the magi- a sudden perception that transforms mundane, earthly existence into one of light, meaning, and grace.
Icons bring to our remembrance important Gospel and Old Testament stories that brighten our everyday existence. As we move into this coming week towards the celebration of Epiphany and then the Baptism of Jesus, let us pray together to receive an Epiphany of God’s grace in each of our lives today, and as Baptism makes permanent and concrete the role of God’s grace in us, may that sudden awareness be awakened and kindled as an important part of our lives in 2018.
This month has been busy with writing Icons and teaching classes. The Holy Cross Monastery Icon Retreat was wonderful, each participant wrote their own St. George Icon, and we had them blessed by Brother Roy on Sunday before Diurnum. It is a wonderful place to study Icon writing since we are able to be part of each day’s morning prayer and Eucharist and share meals with the Brothers and other guests in the octagonal dining room over looking the Hudson River. Truly a joy to teach there!
The prayer of St. George: “Obtain for us the Grace of heroic Christian courage that should mark soldiers of Christ” Amen.
As many of you know, the Icon is a kind of synthesis of the spiritual truths and values of the Church. It is much more than just a religious painting. It is a meeting point between the Divine and the human heart. It is a visible, created beauty, a place where prayer joins us to the image of God. It truly is an honor and privilege to be called to this beautiful practice of writing Icons.
Here are two new ones I am working on – one of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the other a Transfiguration Icon. Here are some work in progress photos:
The following is an important on line Iconographic Resource for those of us interested in the early Icons:
“In 1956, Professor George Forsyth, of the University of Michigan, invited Kurt Weitzmann, of Princeton University, to join him on an exploratory trip to Sinai. From 1958 to 1965, the University of Michigan, Princeton University, and the University of Alexandria carried out four research expeditions to the remote Monastery of Saint Catherine at Mount Sinai—the oldest continuously inhabited Orthodox Christian monastery in the world, with a history that can be traced back over seventeen centuries. The documentation collected by the Michigan-Princeton-Alexandria Expeditions to Mountain Sinai, under the direction of Professor George Forsyth (below, right) and Professor Kurt Weitzmann (pictured below left), is a profoundly important resource for Byzantine studies.” (Quote from the website link below.)
This website displays all the color transparencies and color slides in the possesion of the Department of Art and Archaeology at Princeton. The online images are limited to a size of 1024 pixels. These images are available to download and use for teaching and scholarly purposes.
St. Luke’s Guild of Iconographers- a group of Iconographers who pray and write Icons- many of whom have studied with me. Their primary focus is community through prayer and writing Icons. Here’s a link to their Facebook Page
Praying a blessing over your Icon writing, until we meet again!
Good question. When we speak of Greek Iconographers, or Romanian, or Russian, or English we immediately have a picture in our minds of what those “styles” look like. Even the contemporary European and Eastern Iconographers, while experimenting with new ideas, are still working from the old style. That old style consists of illustrative images, cartoonish almost, with a kind of light and form that differs from “natural” light and form, but it is varied in interpretations.
America as a country is home to people of many different national origins, so our nationality is defined more by citizenship and allegiance than by ethnicity. After many years as a “melting pot” of different cultural ideas, America has come to have its own identity, even amongst diversity.
So what does an American style of Iconography look like? Many American Iconographers I know have styles that are derived from the teachers they studied under. So much so, that one can see their Icons and immediately know whom they studied with. In part this is due to the notion that copying is the approved way of making an Icon.
In my training, I was taught that we always use models for our Icons created before the Renaissance and this is because after the Renaissance, the age of humanism dawned and people created art not to glorify God, but to glorify man’s achievements. I was and am so grateful for this awareness, for it helped to break me free from the traditional art college training I had had and allowed me to see a more ancient, God centric approach to making art.
That being said, I do however, owe a lot to some of the really good art teachers available in the art world.One of those, Arthur Wesley Dow (1857-1922) said “Good drawing results from trained judgement, not from the making of facsimiles or maps. Train the judgment and ability to draw grows naturally.” So this more experience based approach to drawing is what I use in creating my Icons. I research, find models from before the Renaissance (or just at the turning point- a time when many painters were trained first as Iconographers), then spend time praying, reading relevant Holy Scripture, the saints’ biography, listening to sacred music, and enter into a prayerful creative experience with the Creator. This last, being in a prayerful state is of the highest importance in the “writing” of an Icon.
That is the gift of the practice, it lifts us up out of our intellect into our creative selves, that discipline of getting past the chatter of the mind is facilitated by the practice of prayer and painting. (paraphrased from Tim Hawkesworth).
This being said, one would not wish to ignore the importance of Tradition in Icon writing. “Since in its essence the Icon, like the word, is a liturgic art, it never served religion, but, like the word, has always been and is an integral part of religion, one of the instruments for the knowledge of God, one of the means of communion with Him.” Leonid Ouspensky, The Meaning of Icons. It is not a question of either or, but both and.
I know that many of my students’ Icons are reflective of a deep relationship and personal experience with God. An example of one student’s faith and desire to bring others into relationship with God, is Dahlia Herring’s Icon of Jesus pulling Peter from the water. Another student, W. Michael Shirk, an Independent Catholic Priest, writes his Icons while praying constantly, and this is often reflected in attention to detail.
When I wrote my Icon of the “Entry Into Jerusalem”, I was identifying with Jesus and thinking about the human aspect of what it’s like when one goes forward to one’s destiny. His looking back seems so human, and his movement forward, Divine. As an artist I gain strength and guidance from this moment, and I keep this Icon to remind me to pray for God’s will, not mine.
This country is so vast geographically, and there are many Iconographers in each of the 50 states. I hope someday to have a list of all the American Iconographers and their contact details on this site, in order for people to contact them for commissions and classes. I do get asked if I can recommend an Iconographer in different cities and hope to be able to serve as that kind of an association for Iconographers in the future.
Please contact me if you are an Iconographer, if you’d like to be listed on this site with a link to your website.