By Lady Grainne Rudha (formerly Miklos Magdolna)
Etymology: Latin, from Greek eikOn, from eikenai – “to resemble”
- a usually pictorial representation: image
- [Late Greek eikOn, from Greek]: a conventional religious image typically painted on a small wooden panel and used in the devotions of Eastern Christians
- an object of uncritical devotion : idol
- emblem, symbol <the house became an icon of 1860’s residential architecture — Paul Goldberger>
- (a) a sign (as a word or graphic symbol) whose form suggests its meaning (b) a graphic symbol on a computer display screen that suggests the purpose of an available function
This very bland definition from the Merriam Webster Online Dictionary led me to wonder about this facet of church art in the early part of the Byzantium. I had run across references to icons and their symbolism during my research of triptychs and diptychs. In the readings, icons seemed rather dry and didn’t quite answer my basic questions regarding why their style never progressed like the other works of religious art work did with the advent of the Renaissance.
Then, serendipity happened. I found a business card on a corkboard at an art supply store for Darya Carney, Traditional Orthodox Iconography in Egg Tempera. This was the break I had been looking for; it turned out that Mrs. Carney was the wife of a Russian orthodox priest and had been painting icons for more than 10 years, all less than a mile from my house. When I met her, Darya showed me her work. That’s when I discovered that icons are a venerated object used for meditation and prayer. She showed me all the aspects of mixing the tempera, gesso, and gilding.
The icon makers feel that the work is God moving their hands with every stroke and that the icon is imbued with the sacred spirit. So, although she didn’t feel comfortable making an icon for someone who was not orthodox, she readily agreed to answer my questions so I could write an article on the subject; she and her husband were thrilled to share the information and allow me to use their extensive library.
It was while I spent time with this couple that I saw how important the art is to them and how invaluable it must have been to people all through the period we attempt to recreate. Our ancestors believed the icon was the embodiment of the spirit talking to the artist to open a window of God’s grace.
Where do icons come from?
Praying With Icons offers this origin: “The first icon was made when King Abgar of Osrone, dying of Leprosy, sent a message begging Jesus to visit him in Edessa and cure him. Hurrying to Jerusalem and his crucifixion, Christ sent a healing gift, instead. He pressed his face against a linen cloth, causing the square of fabric to bear his image. The miraculous icon remained in Edessa until the tenth century until when it was brought to Constantinople. After the city was sacked by the Crusaders in 1204, it disappeared altogether. Known as ‘not made by human hands’ or the ‘Holy Face,’ the icon has been reproduced over and over until today.”
This legend was intriguing but I had suspicions that the icon might have had its life in a pre-Christian history. This bore out when I remembered a three-paneled triptych that had a goddess and two gods from Romanised Egypt.
The concept of a sacred image to aid in prayer was around before the Byzantine Empire. This theory was confirmed in Origins of Christian Art:
“Another form of painting, especially associated with the Eastern Church, was that of the icon. The icon may well have originated in Egypt, where the common pagan practice to adorn mummy cases with portraits of the dead, or to affix wooden plaques painted with their likeness over the shrouds of the less wealthy.
“For those portraits, the encaustic process of burning colored wax into the surface of the wood was used; a technique that which had the advantage of producing a very tough finish which, combined with the climate of Egypt, made the portraits well nigh indestructible.
“The earliest known Christian icons are examples from St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai, so it seems not unlikely that the pagan Egyptians’ veneration of the likeness’ of there dead was later transferred to Christ and the Virgin.”
The author follows up later with this statement, “The earliest icon, of the sixth century, represents the Virgin, enthroned and wearing the imperial purple, as a young mother of highly individual features and positive personality.”
I confirmed this idea, in Byzantine Painting, which discusses the 6th century icons in Sinai and their resemblance to the wax funeral effigies in Egypt, and by consulting Dr. Alexander Boguslawski’s website on Russian art work (see References below).
So we have its origins and what it was used for, but why did the icon remain a stilted, unchanging style?
To sum it up, I offer this quote from, E. H. Gombrich’s The Story Of Art:
“The Egyptians had largely drawn what they knew to exist, the Greeks what they saw: in the Middle Ages, the artist also learned to express in his pictures what he felt.”
The artist didn’t feel the need to show the reality of a portrait, but instead the mystery and symbolism of the saint or religious figure — the feeling of the holy and the miraculous.
When I inquired to my resident icon maker regarding the unchanging nature of the art, Mrs. Carney said that the people who painted icons in the Middle Ages and earlier are closer to the time when the venerated walked this earth. To deviate from those images would be to go away from what the image is supposed to look like. The icon is to be meditated upon and, when combined with prayer, should cause you to reflect on that person’s work on this earth and the message of the kingdom of heaven. Icons are simple and unchanging; nothing to distract or to take focus away from their primary objective. The faces, while kind and somewhat stoic, are never to be sensual or beautiful enough to distract your mind from worship.
What happened to so many of the early icons?
I wondered why there were so few icons from the 10th century; why was there a gap in their history? Once again, Mrs. Carney had the answer and explained that they were ordered to be destroyed when they where thought to be too close to idol worshiping. I went to the library and learned that between 726 and 843 AD, the Byzantine Empire was caught in a huge debate on whether the icon was a venerated object or an idol.
One side of the fence was the Iconoclasm: this word comes from the Greek eikon (icon) and klao (destroy). This group felt that icons and images of God, the saints, and apostles were idols. They felt that when God said to Moses, “Thou shalt not make an idol, thou shalt not bow down to (idols) nor serve them” (Exodus 40-4-5), that these icons were in violation of that decree and had to be destroyed.
The Iconophiles, or lovers of these images, were the ones who argued in support of their use. They formulated rules of icon painting and the prayers to govern their use. They cited stories of icons healing people in times of need and making wells run with water. “They must be blessed by God, if the miracles happen,” they argued.
In 725, this argument came to a head when Emperor Leo III began to write a document, Legos, to condemn the holy images. He had serious problems with the new Arabic religion, Islam, rising at his back door. In 726, during the turmoil after an earthquake, the image of Christ was removed from the gates. It was said that a group of iconophiles killed the guards. Leo had had enough problems and he finally ordered all the icons removed from the churches in 730. He believed their use was angering God and the Moslems were God’s punishment. Strangely enough, the Moslem faith had restrictions on the human body in religious art as well.
The icon would have died out completely had it not been for Empress Irene, who convinced the Council of Nicaea to call the removal of icons a “detestable error” in 787. By 843, her son Emperor Michael III had the face of Christ replaced on the gates to the palace.
How are icons made?
When most people think of icons, they picture a wooden slab-like board with gesso and tempera paint. The truth is that the very early icons were made using a colored wax burned into wood. We also see icons made of frescos applied directly on walls, as well as cloisonné glass in a frame. There are even remnants of mosaic icons made with tiny ceramic tiles.
During the 10th century, the icon settled into the style we now generally consider its typical form: a slab of wood; sanded and squared; sized in an animal hide glue (sealed and making a base for the gesso to adhere); gessoed with a mixture of white alabaster or plaster and size (animal hide glues); painted with a mixture of tempera (a pigment suspended in egg yolk); and sealed with a copal resin varnish.
Why is Russia connected to icons?
The early Russian people, called “Rus,” were Vikings settlers. They began visiting Constantinople in 838. In 860, they attempted an aborted attack on the city. The Emperor negotiated monies for protection but it wasn’t until 988 that Emperor Bales listed his Rus troops at 6,000 (Prince Vladimir of Kiev).
The Rus had contact with the Byzantine Empire as the Varangian Guard. We know that Vladimir (ruler from 980 to 1015) converted to Orthodox Christianity. This was accomplished through his sister Anna’s marriage to the Emperor Basil II around 989. The event was marked in the settlement of Kiev by a church being built, dedicated to the Holy Mother of God. Craftsmen from the Byzantine Empire were sent to build and decorate it.
This convergence of craftsmen was to continue as more churches where built. But when the Byzantine Empire became more riddled with civil war in 1321, the throne was eventually abdicated in 1328. The Empire was crumbling and the artists and crafts men could see the writing on the wall. In 1453, the Byzantine artists (particularly the icon makers) fled to Christian lands that would accept their icons. They knew the Moslem religion with its prohibitions on recreating the image of holy figures would not take kindly to them.
Stable and entrenched in the Orthodox Church, the Russians welcomed them in, as did Greece. By this time, the Church in Europe had moved to portable altar work for personal uses, such as triptychs and diptychs, and had left behind the stilted look of the Byzantine icons.
In Russia and Greece, the reproduction of icons never deviating from the original was respected and kept alive until modern times. Even today, you can purchase an icon made by a Russian icon maker with the appropriate prayers said over the work as it is painted, bearing the approved subject matter and symbols.
Merriam Webster Online Dictionary, http://www.m-w.com/cgi-bin/dictionary
Boguslawski, Alexander, PhD (2002) Russian painting web site, www.rollins.edu/foreign_lang/Russian/ruspaint.html
Forest, Jim (1977) “Praying With Icons” ISBN 1-57075-112-9
Gilbert, Stuart (1979) “Byzantine Painting” ISBN 0-8478-0225-6
Gombrich, E.H. (1979) “The Story Of Art” ISBN 071481208
Gough, Michael (1972) “The Origins of Christian Art” LCC 73-8233
Lowden, John (1997) “Early Christian & Byzantine Art” ISBN 0-7148-3168-9
Appendix: Prayers for the Iconographer
This was supplied to me by my resident icon maker. I do not know the age or history around this set of prayers. It has been established that, even in period, no icon was considered holy until prayers where performed for consecration and guidance of the iconographer’s hand.
A Prayer for Consecrating an Iconographer
from Mt. Athos
Thou Who hast so admirably imprinted Thy features on the cloth sent to King Abgar of Edessa, and hast so wonderfully inspired Luke Thy Evangelist: Enlighten my soul and that of Thy servant; Guide his hand that he may reproduce Thy features, those of the Holy Virgin and of all Thy saints, for the glory and peace of Thy Holy Church. Spare him from temptations and diabolical imaginations in the name of Thy Mother, St. Luke, and all the Saints. Amen.
Prayer Before Beginning an Icon
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 has been born of me is spread throught 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 all evil and instruct them with good counsel. This I ask through the intercession of Thy most Holy Mother, the Apostle Luke, and all the Saints. Amen.
Prayer After Completing an Icon
Thou, Thyself, O LORD, art the fulfillment and completion of all good things. Fill my soul with joy and gladness, for Thou alone art the Lover of mankind. Let Thy grace sanctify and dwell within this icon, that it may edify and inspire those who gaze upon it and venerate it; that in glorifying the one depicted, they may be repentant of their sins and strengthened against every attack of the adversary. Through the prayers of the Theotokos, the holy Apostle and Evangelist Luke, and all the Saints, O Savior, save us! Amen
Excellent Internet Sites
- http://www.rollins.edu/Foreign_Lang/Russian/ruspaint.html – This is a great site dealing with Russian art by a professor.
- http://www.utoronto.ca/stmikes/courses/christianity/content.html – Christian Imagination Course (SMC 200Y) at the University of Toronto.
- http://www.iconboards.com – To purchase an icon made in the methods of the Middle Ages.