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What is Iconography?

Introduction

Many of our customers, family, and friends have asked us about icons and iconography. Everyone desired to know more about this beautiful and spirit filled art form. While much information about icons and iconography is provided here, this information is not intended to be a 'class' in either reading or writing icons.

Skill in reading icons should be learned, in the context of the Church, from those skilled in reading icons, in consultation with one's spiritual advisor, and of course, perhaps the greatest help of all is to stand in quietness in the presence of your icons, and open your heart to God.

Skill in writing icons should be learned under the guidance of a skilled iconographer and with the blessing of one's spiritual advisor.

Iconography

Icons are the traditional art form of the Early Church. During the early years of the Christian Church, a new art form was created to help reveal this new faith to the world. This art's chief goal was to express the view of the world held by the Church -- God's interaction with man, man's calling to be a new creation, ...the breath, and the look of holiness. An icon at its very root is a portrayal of Christ's image and imprint on the world, thus helping us better understand who God is and what He is like. Icons can be small paintings on a wood panel, an illumination on paper no bigger than a penny, or an icon can be painted on a large wall with the figures being larger than life-sized. Traditionally, fresco was the technique for wall painting and egg tempera was the preferred medium for smaller "easel" works. It is not the size or medium that makes an icon be an "icon" but the subject matter (its content) and how it is portrayed.

The constancy of the Christian faith is reflected in its art. The icon is steeped in tradition. We all can imagine the ancient scribe carefully copying letter by letter the ancient religious texts. In a similar way the iconographer follows that which was before him. In fact, the act of painting an icon is often referred to as "writing." The artist's creativity comes in to play not through creating the "novel", but in the freedom to manipulate line, color, and form for a directed purpose: the expression of the truth and vision of the Church. With these specific goals in mind the icon over the centuries took on its own particular style. The ochre skin tones, the unnatural folds of clothing, the flatter spaces and odd perspective, are all examples of this.

The vision of the icon is spiritual. The aim of this art is to capture through the choice of color, facial expression, and composition not the natural look of the person or things depicted, but their spiritual essence. Saints are portrayed in an icon because in the Saint the image of Christ is portrayed. Through his or her actions (the example of piously responding to life's challenges as Christ himself would) the Christian faith is fleshed out. This is an art with a vision. A quiet, peaceful, otherworldly view of God's grace at work… a heavenly vision.

Basic components of an icon:

Support

The support is the object which the iconographer will paint on, such as paper or wood. The goal is to have a permanent and pleasing surface for work. Historically hard woods were used. Today, with the development of high quality plywood and pressed boards, these alternatives are becoming commonly used. In traditional iconography the center image area of the panel is carved out to about 1/8th of an inch. The outside area acts as a separator between the "holy space" of the icon and the world of the viewer. This can also be represented by a drawn line or decorative pattern as well (especially if one is painting on paper). When using paper two areas of concern are the flexibility of the paint media and the lack of acid in the paper itself. Both issues have to be considered.

Gesso

The gesso provides a smooth and white surface on which to gild, draw, and paint. Gesso consists of an inert white agent and glue. Different recipes go back through the centuries. Although basically simple, a good gesso is affected by many factors such as humidity, temperature, and of course following the measurements and procedures correctly. After the gesso is made it is applied in layers. Sanding and scraping is needed to achieve the ivory-like surface desired. It is the gesso that reflects the light to illuminate the pigments on its surface. Creating a good gessoed panel is a time consuming procedure which adds to the length of time needed to produce a traditional icon.

Gold Leaf & Gilding

The gold used in an icon is of a high quality. For ease of use it is often of the double weight variety. Gold leaf comes in small little "books" that contain many very thin sheets of gold. They are so thin that an ill directed breath could blow the leaf off a table. The process of working with gold leaf is called gilding. The two basic ways of gilding are water gilding and oil gilding (or mordant gilding). With water gilding the procedure is to take a treated glider's clay called "bole" and spread it smoothly on the surface where placing the gold. Each piece of gold leaf is laid carefully on the dampened bole which will cement the gold to the surface. This technique then requires burnishing which is time consuming but enhances the beauty of the hold. In older times a well shaped wolf's tooth came in handy for this. Today any fine art store that handles gilding supplies will offer many shaped agate burnishers for this purpose. Oil or mordant gilding is a simpler process. With this technique one paints the oil size on the areas to be gilded and waits for the proper tackiness to develop. Then similarly, the artist will lay the gold leaf down on the surface. This can be lightly buffed for a variety of effects, but not burnished like the water gilding technique. Both techniques take some practice and experience.

Painting

Egg tempera is the preferred medium for creating traditional icons because of the mediums greater luminosity and brilliance…. ideal for the unique characteristics of the icon. Egg tempera painting goes back hundreds of years. Add egg yolk, a little water and fine pigment and start painting. Egg yolk acts as a glue that suspends and holds together the pigments in water -- the "binder". After the yolk dries it looses its cloudy and yellow color. Layers of washes can be added on top of each other to create beautiful effects. The delicacy of the mixture of egg and water makes it possible to create very fine lines and superb detail. Centuries ago when oil painting was first developed, due to the bold value contrasts and luscious surfaces this medium could create, it became the most popular medium to use -- all of Europe was painting in oils. Today one can add acrylic paints to the list of possible choices. Acrylics, with all the convenience of a quick drying and flexible material, are popular amongst some iconographers. The artist has to weigh what is most important to him.

Related Books

  • The Technique of Icon Painting. By Guillem Ramos- Poqui.
    Good pictures and clear descriptions.
  • The Icon Image of the Invisible. By Egon Senler.
    Theology, aesthetics and technique.
  • On the Divine Images. By Saint John of Damascus.
    Theology. Excellent.
  • On the Holy Icons. By Saint Theodore the Studite.
    Theology. Excellent.
  • Guide to Byzantine Iconography. By Constantine Cavarnos.
    History, their use, placement in Churches.
  • Theology of the Icon. By Leonid Ouspensky.
    Good history, theology of iconography.
  • Orthodox Iconography. By Constantine Kalokyris.
    Theology of the icon. depiction, form, style, natural reality vs...
  • The Meaning of Icons. By Leonid Ouspensky, and Vladimir Lossky.
    Discussions: icon types, meaning, and language.

Quotes

"Christ says to His apostles: "I am the way, the truth and the life" (John 14:6). The correct question is not "What is truth?" but rather "Who is the truth?" Truth is a person, and it has an image. This is why the Church not only speaks of the truth, but also shows the truth: the image of Jesus Christ."
Ouspensky, Leonid, Theology of the Icon, Crestwood, N.Y., 1978. p. 117.

"But when the Invisible, having clothed Himself in the flesh, becomes visible, then represent the likeness of Him who has appeared... When He who having been the con substantial Image of the Father, emptied Himself by taking the form of a servant (Phil. 2:6-7), thus becoming bound in quantity and quality, having taken on the carnal image, paint and make visible to everyone Him who desired to become visible. Paint His birth from the Virgin, His baptism in the Jordan, Histransfiguration on Mount Tabor... Paint everything with words and with colors, in books and on boards."
First Treatise, cap, 8. Pg 94: 1237D - 1240A: and Third Treatise, cap. 8 94: 1328D. By Saint John of Damascus.

"No one could describe the Word of the Father But when He took flesh from you, O Theotokos, He consented to be described, And restored the fallen image to its former state by uniting it to divine beauty. We confess and proclaim our salvation in word and images."
By Saint Theophanes.

As Michelangelo was painting his Sistine Chapel ceiling, iconographers were quietly painting.

During the era of Rembrandt and Vermeer the icon painters kept their course.

As cubism and abstract expressionism gained acceptance, the next generation of iconographers faithfully kept the tradition alive. 
                                                                                         

Why?

The Early Church

The early Church established a service on the first Sunday of Great Lent when all the Christians would celebrate the victory of the Church over its enemies. This is the "Feast of Orthodoxy." During this service, hymns are sung declaring the victory over those who were trying to take the icons out of the Church. The use of icons in the Church was not a mere choice of aesthetics, but of deep theological conviction. For the icon reveals the history of our faith, it is dogmatic and sublime. In the world of the icon, the goal is not to portray the superficial look of the world, its objects and inhabitants, but rather, their place and true meaning in the world according to the views held by the Church. Here you will see events in Sacred History, martyrs facing death with peace and hope in the world to come, the look of love and strength in the face on an apostle, and the unchanging image of Jesus Christ. Through these heavenly visions, we learn about, and are drawn ...to the divine.

"..that which was looked at and our hands have touched ...we proclaim concerning the Word of life." 1 John1:1 "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today, and forever." Hebrews 13:8.

The Icon And The Bible

In declaring and preserving the Christian faith personal expression does not play a role.

"We must pay attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. For if the message spoken by angels is binding, ...how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?" Hebrews 2:1-3.

The Byzantine iconographer knew this well. Just like a scribe writing and recopying the Bible so that nothing will be changed or lost, so the artist takes up his brush and faithfully "writes" the icon. The same motivation applies to both. What is most important is being faithful to the truths of the Christian faith. The icon is not meant merely to decorate a home or Church, but like the Bible, to bring to the heart and mind of the viewer the historical events and unchanging truths of the faith. The same life, the same truth, and the same spirit should be in an icon as in the Bible. The Christian message and vision of life and hope does not change with each new era and fad, nor does the vision of the icon. The goal is always the same, the message is always the same... Gods love for man and mans need to respond to that love. This is why no matter what century, no matter what other artistic styles are prevalent, you will find the iconographer quietly going about his work -- fleshing out that unchanging message and sublime vision.

John Snogren 1998.