Friday, January 22, 2010

The Painting and Praying of an Icon

The following is taken from a talk given to an Episcopal Clergy Retreat in Jerome, ID recently:

In his manual for icon painters, Dionysius of Fourna, an 18th century monk on Mount Athos speaks to the Mother of God about his desire to be an iconographer like the Apostle Luke whom tradition credits with painting the first icon of the Virgin. He writes:

“I wished to become his unworthy imitator, and started the art of painting icons, thinking that the desire to fulfill my duty to your most high and laudable magnificence was the same as the ability. However, in my arrogance I failed greatly, as nature did not assist me sufficiently or accompany my intentions and wishes.”

Our natural artistic abilities are inadequate to the task of depicting the incarnate God, His mother, and the saints. What is needed above all else is humility, prayer and God's guidance. If an Athonite monk was unworthy and incapable of such a task, how much less equipped am I?

The rules for an iconographer, as handed down to me by my teacher read:

“Before starting work, make the sign of the Cross; pray in silence, and pardon your enemies”


“During work, pray in order to strengthen yourself physically and spiritually; avoid above all useless words, and keep silence.”

And so, I have structured this essay around the Prayer Before Beginning an Icon, taken from Dionysius' Painter's Manual:

“O Divine Lord of all that exists, Thou hast illumined the Apostle and Evangelist Luke with Thy Holy Spirit, thereby enabling him to represent thy most holy mother, the one who held Thee in her arms and said: “the grace of Him who was born of me is spread throughout the world.”

Enlighten and direct my soul, my heart and my spirit. Guide the hands of Thine unworthy servant so that I may worthily and perfectly portray Thine icon, that of Thy mother and all the Saints, for the glory, joy and adornment of Thy holy Church.

Forgive my sins and the sins of those who will venerate these icons and who, kneeling devoutly before them give homage to those they represent. Protect them from evil and instruct them with good counsel.

This I ask, through the intercessions of Thy most holy mother, the Apostle Luke and all the Saints. Amen.”

“O Divine Lord of all that exists”

An icon is meant to be primarily the work of God rather than the work of man. Before picking up a brush, the iconographer asks God to guide the process, calling on Him as “Lord of all that exists.” All that we have has been given to us by God and rightly belongs to Him. The wood, cloth, pigments, and gold are meant for God's glory. So too, any artistic skill or talent, time or energy, all find their source in him and ought to be invested, as in the Parable of the Talents, to be given back to Him with increase.

The icon begins with these raw materials, to be put together for God's glory, but long before the painting begins, the board must be prepared using a healthy portion of time and effort to produce a smooth, stable, long-lasting surface on which to produce this heavenly image.

Each board begins with 3/4” plywood. Older icons were, of course, painted on solid wood. Slats of wood were placed in the back of the icon panel across the grain to prevent the panel from warping. With the plies in plywood alternating directions, ideally warping should be kept to a minimum.

The board is sealed with two layers of acrylic gesso. After sealing the board, a piece of cloth is embedded between two wet layers of gesso. The cloth is not meant to give texture, but stabilizes the paint. Even the best prepared panel will expand with heat and humidity, shrink in the cold and in dry conditions, and will warp a little from time to time. As it does, the paint will have a tendency to crack, and so the cloth gives the paint something to adhere to that has greater flexibility than bare wood. Several more layers are applied on top until the cloth is no longer visible. This surface is then sanded smooth so that the icon board has no texture.

“Thou hast illumined the Apostle and Evangelist Luke with thy Holy Spirit, thereby enabling him to represent thy most holy Mother.”

St. Luke is said to have painted the original Hodegetria icon (She Who Shows the Way). But before this, tradition says that Christ Himself created an icon by pressing his face to a cloth. An artist was sent by King Abgar of Edessa to paint a portrait of Christ. The king suffered from leprosy and sought the portrait as a means of healing. The artist was unable to capture a good likeness of the Lord, so Jesus created one miraculously. This image was returned to the king who was healed. But even before this God created the first icon by making man in His own image. As such, man is himself a creator, and the drive to make images, far from being sinful, is in fact inherently good and to be given back to God.

But the ideal is for each icon to emulate that icon “Not Made by Hands.” My mark as an artist should be secondary to the work of God, of the Holy Spirit, as we believe was the case with that first icon by St. Luke.

This is why we adhere to ancient prototypes, setting aside our own desire to innovate. This is why we pray during the process, and this is why we don't sign our work, but rather acknowledge the Holy Spirit as the source of an icon. Primarily this adherence to an ancient prototype begins with the drawing.

Though there are many instructions on how to properly proportion a figure in an icon, iconography is on of the few forms of art where copying is encouraged. In most cases drawings are made by tracing or carefully copying an older icon. Adjustments can be made when necessary, but as the point is not to innovate, often adjustments are not necessary.

“The one who held thee in her arms and said: 'The grace of Him who was born of me is spread throughout the world.”

This prayer clearly references the Incarnation of Christ, the justification and source for this holy art. The creation of icons is a means of proclaiming visually the incarnation and making God present to the eyes. These words are given as the words the Mother of God spoke upon seeing the icon that St. Luke had painted.

Through the creation of icons, the gospel is spread, and the grace of God is communicated throughout the world to all who would look upon them and recognize the incarnate God who makes these images possible.

The rules for the icon painter demonstrate the continuing role of icons in the spreading of this grace throughout the world:

“Never forget:

The joy of spreading icons in the world.

The joy of the work of icon painting.

The joy of giving the Saint the possibility to shine through his/her icon.

The joy of being in union with the saint whose face you are painting.”

We make Christ and His Saints present to the world, not incarnate – but visible. They are often referred to as windows to Heaven. They are not themselves incarnations of those depicted, but a means of gazing into the Kingdom of God.

“Enlighten and direct my soul, my heart and my spirit.”

The icon begins , not in the mind of an iconographer, not in the imagination, but in the heart, the soul and the spirit. If our hearts are not pure, if we are unrepentant or unforgiving, if we are greedy or prideful, our work will suffer for it. When choosing a prototype, deciding on compositions and colors, we seek direction and guidance from God. If our hearts are hardened like Pharaoh, we will always choose what we want, that which is aesthetically pleasing to us, or will bring us honor and esteem from others, rather than what will give honor and esteem and glory to God and His Saints.

Like our souls, the icon is a process of enlightening or illumination. The painting of the icon begins with the application of the base colors for each of the robes and the flesh. These are the darkest colors in the icon. Unlike many other forms of art, there are no cast shadows in icons, as the light source for an icon is the light of Christ shining through the figure. The way that this is accomplished is by beginning the painting with the darkest colors and gradually illuminating the figure with successive layers of highlight. This process mirrors the gradual transformation of salvation from darkness into the light that is a life in Christ.

“Guide the hands of thine unworthy servant”

Once our spirit is set right, we seek guidance for our hands. Once again, the focus is not on imagination, creativity, or artistic tastes, as these will only lead us astray from the truth. Our hands are given to God for His purposes.

One of the most profound moments in my time as an iconographer was when a priest who has dedicated his life to serving the least among us in his ministry to homeless and runaways kissed my hand after blessing an icon I had painted for his Church. For him, it was a recognition of God's work through my hand, and yet for me it was so humbling because I feel so unworthy to be seen as the means for God's work.

Iconographers use other icons for models rather than working from real life models. Compositions are based on older prototypes rather than being drawn from imagination.

Much is made of the symbolic meaning of the colors used in icons. The colors in the icon of the Theotokos show her to be a human being showered with the grace of God, while the colors in the icons of her son show Him as the eternal God who took on flesh for our salvation. Black can signify death, hades, and the abyss; white can signify life, resurrection and purity; red can signify martyrdom and sacrifice; purple can signify wealth or royalty; gold too can signify royalty, even divinity. And yet, color does not always carry deep meaning, and it is important not to try to read into icons meanings and symbolism that are not there. An iconographer has more freedom than is sometimes assumed. And yet this freedom can be a place for the Holy Spirit to work in and through the iconographer.

In the rules for an icon painter, the fifth rule reads:

“When you have to choose a color, stretch out your hands interiorly to the Lord and ask His counsel.”

When I first took notice of this particular rule, I had been an iconographer for many years, and I was taken aback by these words. One of the most frequent compliments I received is that people like my colors. My teacher would often ask about my color combinations because he was so impressed. And yet I knew that I could not take credit for the colors used since I am red-green colorblind, and often can't even see some of what I have done.

I used to think it was my knowledge of color theory, but I couldn't tell why I tried some combinations except that God works through us, and knowing that God shows His strength in our weakness. I find it so fitting that God would guide my hand in choosing colors rather than me simply using my eyes.

“So that I may worthily and perfectly portray thine icon, that of Thy mother and all the Saints”

Perfection is seen as faithfully continuing tradition. It is in tradition that we find the truth. Perfection is also in the proper communication of the gospel message. There is a strong tie between the hymnography of the Church and the iconography of the Church. Icons teach theology visually in the same way that our hymns teach theology verbally. As such, it is important for an iconographer to know the hymns and theology of the Church.

In deciding on a prototype for an icon of a feast of the Church, the hymns for that feast will help an iconographer to determine which prototype best presents the eternal truths of the celebration.

There is remarkable continuity in how the Saints are depicted, solely because iconographers for centuries have set aside their egos, studied icons of the past, lived the liturgical life of the Church, where they are steeped in its theology, and allowed the Holy Spirit to guide them to create icons that are both relevant and contemporary, but still deeply rooted in ancient truth.

With the painting of the face, our Lord, His mother, and His Saints become even more present to our senses. The highlighting of the face is accomplished with thousands of small brush strokes. It is an intensely repetitive activity, giving great opportunity for prayer and meditation on the divine. It is especially moving as the face slowly emerges from darkness. To see the Lord and His Saints beginning to look out from the board is a great privilege and an inducement to repentance.

For this reason, many iconographers begin with the face rather than the robes. This way, the Lord and His Saints are present while the robes are being painted. I most often wait until after the robes are done to paint the faces because I would never want to accidentally mar the face through a moment of carelesness.

The rules for an icon painter tell us of the reverence we ought to have for this process:

“Work with care on every detail of your icon as if you were working in front of the Lord Himself”


“Pray in particular to the Saint whose face you are painting. Keep your mind from distractions, and the Saint will be close to you.”

“For the glory, joy and adornment of Thy holy Church.”

It is important that the work is done for the glory of God and His Church. Dionysius of Fourna writes:

“Furthermore, those who do this work with devotion and diligence receive grace and blessing from God; but whoever from rapaciousness and love of money undertakes this work without respect and diligence, may they reflect well and repent before their end, fearing the punishment of Judas, whom they resemble in their love of money.”

In addition each Orthodox Church is meant to be an icon of the Kingdom of Heaven, and so the arrangement of icons and their compositions also help to teach. The adornment of an Orthodox Church is an integral part of the way that Orthodox Christians give glory to God.

The use of gold leaf is a means of expressing the glory and splendor of God. It represents the uncreated light of Heaven itself. This is why the halos are created using gold leaf (23K). Gold was traditionally used both for its value, and because it can be burnished to a highly reflective surface. This then reflects light as though it was coming from within the figure itself.

The gold is adhered using a gold size which is a glue that is painted anywhere the gold will go. As with the acrylic paints I use, this gold size is a slight departure into modern materials. The materials have changed over the years from encaustic painting which uses melted wax to bind the pigments, to egg tempera which uses egg yolk instead of wax. Apart from these, icons are often made with mosaic or fresco for more monumental work. Now most iconographers in this country are using acrylic paints which bind the pigments with an acrylic polymer. Even iconographers who work in egg tempera often use acrylics for some of their work for the ease of use and quick drying and preparation times. The materials really are in service to the theology and the technique.

“Forgive my sins and the sins of those who will venerate these icons and who, kneeling devoutly before them, give homage to those they represent.”

We ask God for forgiveness of our sins that we might be in communion with God without hindrance in the creation of an icon. So too we ask God to forgive the sins of those who will venerate the icons. Icons are made to make present Christ and His Saints, and in that sense they are made to be venerated. In order to approach holiness, we must be purified of our sins. So in order for us to properly venerate and contemplate icons, we must seek forgiveness.

The veneration given to an icon passes through to the person depicted. An icon ought to resemble the person insofar as that is possible. That requires the use of prototypes. In some cases when Saints are more recent, photographs can serve as a prototype. Icons are not meant to be realistic, but rather depictions of both the physical and spiritual. So even when a photograph is used as a prototype, it will end up being stylized. The noses are made long and thin to show that the person has moved beyond this world. They smell only the incense that accompanies our prayers rather than the scents of this world. The mouth is made smaller, and is closed. The Saints refrain from idle talk and are made to sing praises to God. The eyes are usually slightly enlarged as they behold the glory and splendor of God. The ears listen only to the prayers and hymns rather than the cacophony that surrounds us. Signs of infirmity or disease are removed from the depiction of their glorified bodies. Clothing and hand gestures are all symbolic of position, role in this world, and the life they lived.

In cases when no prototype can be found for an icon of an obscure saint, these methods of stylization allow us to depict the Saint based solely on whatever information is available.

“Protect them from all evil and instruct them with good counsel.”

Icons, in that they connect us with the Kingdom of Heaven, protect us from evil. As St. Paul says in his letter to the Hebrews,

“Therefore since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which does so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us.”

Icons serve as a reminder of those who have already run the race, but serve as a point of contact with them.

The lettering in the icon is an important step in the painting process. It has been said that an icon is not completed until the name has been inscribed on the icon, thus definitively linking the icon with the person it represents. The style of lettering I use borrows heavily from the Slavic tradition. Letters are made with long, thin verticals, and even thinner horizontal lines. The letters are often stacked and nested together. The lettering is as much a part of beautifying the icon as an other part of the icon.

“This I ask through the intercessions of Thy most holy mother, the Apostle Luke and all the Saints. Amen.”

Asking for the intercessions of the Mother of God, St. Luke and all the other Saints, especially those we are about to paint, it is then possible to begin God's work.

When the painting is completed, the icon is varnished to seal and protect the icon from any damage. It also enlivens the icon. As the paint dries, it becomes more of a matte finish. Varnishing it makes it look like it did when it was still wet. This is one of my favorite moments in the whole process. Having completed all this work and allowed the varnish to dry, the icon is nearly ready for use. And icons are meant to be used. The rules for an iconographer specify what is to follow:

“When your icon is finished, thank God that His mercy granted you the grace to paint the holy images.”


“Have your icon blessed by putting it on the altar. Be the first to pray before it, before giving it to others.”


Emily H. said...

Thanks for the study on the iconographer's prayer and the peak inside the painting of an icon!

In the Slavic tradition of lettering is there a guide to the placement of the letters? i.e. How do you know if the name Gregory should be written as
or some other way? Is it mainly left to the hand of the iconographer?

Matthew said...

The Slavic tradition most often has all the letters in a name on one line. All the stacking and nesting fits on one line. So you might make the R with a space between the loop at the top and the straight line at the bottom and fit the E in that space. Or you might put the E over the G where both of the letters are just half the height. The Greek style will often stack letters in the way that you mentioned. All of it is left to the discretion of the iconographer.

enkela stratoberdha said...

Thank you for the info. God bless you!

enkela stratoberdha said...

Is there any videos of yours where we can see the process step by step? Also the materials used like brushes etc and the mixing of colours
Thank you