I have been asked to give a talk to a group of artists about iconography. I decided that if I was going to take the time to prepare something, I might as well add it to my blog, so here goes. If anyone has any comments that could help me improve on this, I would be very happy to hear them. I don't know much about the religious background of anyone in the audience, so I have tried not to get really deep into theology, but I can't avoid the issue altogether or none of it will make sense, and I will have missed an opportunity to proclaim the truth. I have tried to address as many subjects as I think might be of interest to a diverse group of people.
The purpose of iconography is not to beautify Churches or homes. Icons are not meant to express the creativity of an iconographer. They are meant to glorify God, and to be a proclamation of the Gospel. This is not to say that icons can't be beautiful, or that creativity is forbidden, but rather that these are secondary to their purpose, and their intended role.
Iconography finds its basis in the Incarnation of Christ. God could not be depicted in the Old Testament because He had not been seen. Now that God has become Man, and has been seen in the flesh conversing with men, it becomes possible to depict God. However, the ability to depict God becomes an imperative as a part of the Gospel. Each icon is a proclamation that God became man, died, rose from the dead, ascended into heaven (taking our human nature with Him) and sent the Holy Spirit, and that God lives in us.
This is such an important message, and as such it must be protected from distortion. Just as the Scriptures are carefully copied, and translated into different languages, this visual preaching of the gospel must be carefully copied and translated into different languages. With rare exception, each icon is based on an older prototype. By adhering to these prototypes an iconographer ensures that they are preserving proper teaching. It is important for an iconographer to have enough humility to set aside their urge to innovate, to create from their own imagination. And yet it is inevitable that each iconographer will have their own style. This is how icons are translated for new cultures. One sees a difference between Byzantine icons and Russian icons that reflect differences in their culture. These differences are not the result of conscious effort, but rather filter into the style slowly and subtly. We believe that the Holy Spirit guides the hand of the iconographer to make each icon more than a mere copy, but a fresh translation of tradition for the modern age. True success as an iconographer requires this reliance on the Holy Spirit and on what has been handed down to us. For this reason, if an iconographer signs his/her work, it is to be signed "by the hand of..."
Icons can be made in a variety of different materials. Mosaics are commonly used from the earliest times up to this day for icons. The earliest icons were made in encaustic, a technique of painting with pigments in melted wax. This process has been lost to time. Later icons were painted with egg tempera which mixes pigment with egg yolk as a binder. Larger, monumental icons were most often done in fresco which is painted into wet plaster. Today, many iconographers are painting with acrylic paints. It is a faster, easier process and can be used for both small and monumental icons.
An icon begins with the application of the darkest colors. Layer upon layer of highlights are added to that base. This technique mirrors the way that we are brought from darkness into light in Christ. The highlights are added without reference to an external light source. Because we believe in a God who dwells in us rather than being external to us, each figure is illuminated from within. Each figure is transfigured as Christ was transfigured on Mount Tabor.
The halo is just another sign of this illumination and transfiguration. Gold was chosen for it's reflective properties, and reflects back the light that hits the panel as light from within the figure itself. The facial features of an icon are stylized and transformed to represent a spiritual reality. The Orthodox teaching is that the entire physical world around us is transfigured by God entering His creation. As a result, mountains, trees, and all background elements are transformed from what we normally see to a spiritualized form.
Buildings and architectural elements are presented in reverse perspective where the focal point is moved from within the panel itself to within the viewer. By this we are assured that the person depicted is indeed watching over us. Icons are not something to be looked at, but are a meeting point where the Kingdom of Heaven is the reality, and our world an abstraction.
Marketing icons has proven to be more challenging than I had anticipated. A big part of marketing is in selling yourself in order to sell your product. I should say that I am not a natural salesman by any means, but even if I was, this method of marketing stands at odds with what icons are supposed to be about. With icons, people are not looking for something that is mass produced, but rather is prayed over, and is the work of the Holy Spirit. For the Holy Spirit to work through you, you must empty yourself in humility. If people do not see this in you, it is much more difficult to find work. One can pretend to be humble, and I think we all do that from time to time, but most of us are pretty transparent when we do so. It is hard to try to make yourself the center of attention and appear humble at the same time. For years I struggled with this. I would take an icon to church to have it blessed, but wouldn't want to show it to people because I didn't want to appear prideful. Of course, this in and of itself is a form of pride. I wanted to preserve the image of being a humble person, so I acted a certain way so people might think better of me. What I have found most useful in marketing icons, is in making myself and my work available to people. I try to remember that my real work is in being a servant to others. If someone wants me to speak about icons, I do so. If someone wants to use an icon for their website or business, I only ask that they let people know how to contact me. I have recently started making icon cards and books available (always with my website listed), and I try to sell them for as little as possible so that people are more likely to share them. I have seen a shift in myself from selling an image of myself to customers, to sharing my icons with as many people as possible. In doing so, I have seen my business grow in ways I didn't really expect.
I an hesitant to use the word art to describe icons because of the connotations that the word has taken on. Icons arise not out of a desire to express oneself, but out of an imperative to proclaim the Gospel. They are only innovative within a boundary, and copy rather than create. Icons are not meant to draw attention to the artist, but to deflect attention from this world to the world beyond. It is my belief that this is precisely why God has given us artistic skill. As beings made in the image and likeness of God, we also are creators. But our creation is meant to be a reflection of God, not a reflection of ourselves. The highest use of our artistic skill is in giving back to God through our work, and to allow God to work through our hands so that others may come to know Him.
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