Hand-painted icons on wood using the traditional technique of egg-tempera painting and gold leafing


The word “icon” is a Greek word meaning image. It is the same word used in the Bible in Genesis 1:27: ‘God created man in His image’.  The icon is an integral part of the liturgy of the Orthodox churches. Its beauty is much more than what we see. It is the visual Word of God, and, like a sacrament, invites us to open ourselves to an experience beyond words, which touches the innermost depths of our being. It awakens in us a sense of inner world which is permeated by a divine light.

The Egyptian Fayum portraits are the immediate forerunners of icons. These naturalistic portraits were painted in wax encaustic and placed over the face of the dead person. The earliest icons from St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mt. Sinai, dating from the  5th and 6th centuries, are similar in technique, a technique which continued to be used up to the 8th century.

Iconography, as an integral part of Christian life, was subject to great controversy in the seventh and eighth centuries. The Iconoclasts (“icon-smashers”) were suspicious of any sacred art which represented human beings or God, and demanded the destruction of icons. The Iconodules (venerators of icons) vigorously defended the place of icons in the life of the Church. Iconoclasm may have been influenced by Jewish and Moslem ideas, and also reflected a “puritan” outlook in Christianity which saw in all images a latent idolatry. The icon known as the mandylion -the image of Christ impressed on the cloth by Christ himself- was the first and principal source of defence for the use of icons. This has been the inspiration for icons of the Holy Face –the image not made by human hands. St. John Damascene in defence of icons, taught that icons tell us in pictures what the gospels tell us in words.

Even after the fall of the Byzantine Empire, the influence of its art continued, and spread to Russia where the monk Andrei Rublev (1360-1430) brought the art to a high point, and was held up as an example to other icon painters.

Icon painters today use many of the early prototypes, or draw inspiration from them for a modern version of a traditional icon.

Since icons are theology in pictures, they do not follow a naturalistic style. Hence, icons are said to be “written” rather than painted.

From the 8th century onwards, icon painters used egg yolk instead of wax as a boding agent for the pigments. This technique is still used today on wooden panel which has been coated with a smooth, absorbent white gesso.

Traditionally the Eastern Orthodox Christians believe the first icons of Christ and the Virgin Mary to have been painted by St. Luke.

In creating an icon, nothing is done at random or by guesswork; all the elements of the process are linked together and form a complete unity. The surfaces of the icon are carefully, even subtly, proportioned for drawing; in fact, geometric lines discovered during restorations of iconographic frescoes leave no doubt as to the minute preliminary elaborations and studies involved.

In iconography, only people who have not attained holiness are seen in profile. The holy state is symbolized by the halo surrounding the head, and their frontality. As the visual center of the body, the face dominates everything else. Frontality and eye contact indicate closeness and concentrated attention. Figures in ancient icons stare at eternity with their large eyes, very often opened in an exaggerated manner. The forehead is often rather convex and quite high, expressing both the power of the Spirit and of wisdom, which are inseparable from love. The nose is thin and elongated, giving nobility to the face. It no longer detects the scents of this world, but only the sweet odor of Christ and the life-giving breath of the Spirit gushing from a throat and neck, which are disproportionately large. The mouth, being an extremely sensual organ, is always drawn finely and geometrically, eliminating its sensuality. The lips remain closed, because true contemplation demands silence. The ears, created to hear the commandments of the Lord, have become interiorized, and they no longer hear or listen to the sounds of this world. They are attentive only to the interior voice. Yet certain details are at times surprising: for instance, lusterless eyes, deformed or funny looking ears. This absence of naturalism, which is a non-conformity to nature as we see it, only reminds us that these transfigured bodies already perceive more, and even something else, than the majority of us do: they see the spiritual and not just the physical world.

While the classical canon for physical beauty gives the proportion of five heads for the length of the body, it is accorded up to ten heads in iconography. The size of a person is usually determined by his or her importance and significance. The positioning of the person also becomes a factor; for instance, a person standing in the background can be larger than the person in the foreground.

The refusal of depth is illustrated and demonstrated very well by figures, which generally stand out against a plain gold-leaf background, with neither decoration nor background scenery. Viewed in such a way outside of either time or space, they command our attention by their spiritual presence.

Drawn in defiance of human logic, architecture in iconography creates an evident denial of all constructional functionality. Correct proportions are not only completely ignored, but they do not correspond at all to the height of human figures pictured in the icon. The same is true of doors and windows, which are drawn strangely with whimsical measurements. A curtain draped between buildings suffices to symbolize that the scene is taking place inside. The laws of gravity have no place at all in this world.

Perspective is most often ignored due to the fact that it simply imitates natured by employing pure technique. When used, iconic perspective is frequently “reversed.” The vanishing point of reversed perspective is not situated behind the picture but rather in front of it. It cannot be found within the picture because it converges in front of the icon, toward the viewer.

Light is presented in manners that underline the supernatural character of the icon. There is no sharply outlined shadow on the icon, only a certain degree of object shadow. The face, robes, hills and buildings are modeled by giving them lighter or darker shades of the local color. It is the gold leaf in particular which gives the impression that the icon is luminous. In addition, the highlighted parts on the face and robes, the landscape and buildings show that the motif is not lighted from a certain angle, but completely surrounded and permeated with light.

The icon is not complete – or legitimate as a holy image – before the name of the motif has been written on it. The inscription identifies the motif and also expresses the close association between name and person; between word and image. To mark the historic origin of a mode, most inscriptions are given in Greek or Old Church Slavonic, but considering the universal character of the church, there is nothing to hinder theuse of English in titles.


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