By Jacqueline Grice
My interests in the techniques and mysticism of iconography have spanned many years, probably due to my training as an illustrator, and later my work as restorer of antique clock dials.
But it was moving to Canterbury some four years ago that I was — at last — able to indulge myself in the subject that had fascinated me for so long. There I found a master who taught iconography, and it wasn’t long before I became one of her pupils.
Technically speaking one does not ‘paint’ an icon, you ‘write’ an icon. The word ‘Icon’ comes from the Greek ‘Eikon’, meaning ‘image’, ‘representation’, or ‘portrait’. It has come to mean a very particular type of religious painting on a wooden panel, in the Byzantine tradition, either Greek or Russian. These days the word seems to be generally misapplied to diverse subjects.
Rather than entering into a detailed history of Icons, which is readily available from books or the internet, suffice to say that during the first centuries an early type of Christian art form evolved in the Byzantine Empire. Reaching its peak in the third and fourth centuries, it later spread to Russia. This was a time of great spiritual energy, and the art form developed a language of symbols using existing pagan images and reinterpreting them with a Christian aspect.
The Byzantine influence continued despite the end of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, and from the early 16th century Crete became the centre of Greek Icon painting. Byzantine art had a considerable influence on sacred art in Europe for many centuries, and was the basis from which early Italian painting was to develop. That this artistry had great influence on the art of the modern century — after the visit of Matisse and Picasso to Moscow — must be acknowledged.
An icon was a window into the invisible world. It did not show things in a familiar way, recognisable to everyday life. It revealed the new heaven, the Kingdom to come, Christ’s victory of good over evil, of life over death.
Icons are painted on a specially prepared wooden panel on which a ‘gesso’ surface has been applied. This brilliant white surface is rubbed down many times until it has a silk-like quality. The sides of the wooden block are painted with ‘bole’, red clay representing earth and man. The brilliant white of the gesso represents the material world infused with the Holy Spirit. The light comes to the viewer from within the image and is not just reflecting off its surface.
The prepared image is traced on to the gessoed board and the gold leaf is applied and burnished to a brilliance. The more gold there was on an icon the better, because gold represented the Divine Light. The textured background to the image represented chaos.
Colours used are important to the image as they are to help the observer to enter into a spiritual other-worldly dimension. For example yellow/gold represents Divine/Spirit, orange = soul, red = man, (Christ is often depicted in a reddish brown robe which signifies his humanity), green = Holy Spirit, blue = divine light, black = mystical depth, and so on.
The number of pigments used in icons is quite limited. Most common pigments are earthen, such as ochres, umbers, and siennas. Stones are ground for the brighter colours like lapis lazuli — blue. Burnt bones, wood, and lamp soot are common derivations for black. The making of artificial pigments is an ancient practice such as for verdigris — green and vermilion — brilliant red. Generally the darker shades are laid down first in thin transparent washes, wash upon wash, increasingly lighter with each layer. Allowing each colour to show through adds intensity and richness to the finished image.
The iconographer does not paint with shadow as in naturalistic painting but with light. Beginning with darkness and death, the ending is with light and resurrection. Icons do not depict things as they appear to the eye. There is no attempt to create a great sense of depth in three-dimensional space. Flatness gives a much greater freedom to the composition for things to be arranged in their relative spiritual importance — not from our human viewpoint, which is limited in time and space. The icon draws us in to live in divine time — Kairos in the Greek, rather that Chronos, clock time. There is no night, only eternal day. The figures do not cast shadows; the brilliant light of God shines from within the person depicted, and the icons show the saints in their present state of glory in heaven.
Saints are depicted from the viewpoint of eternity. They are free from all blemishes, physical and emotional. The Icons depict the saints in new transfigured flesh, which like the Temple bears a precious content. The Saints’ bodies are weightless; they barely touch the ground.
The face is of a dweller in paradise, never portraying emotions or passions, not of an earthly person. Transfigured remote from earthly passions, they belong to a different world, and look down to us from there. Hands are unnaturally large, ‘the hand that blesses’, depicting the importance of the Gospels they often hold. Forehead is wide and high, denoting theory and contemplation. Body is sketched lightly, so does not bring attention to anatomy. ‘The eyes are the window of the soul’, and are depicted wide open. The accent on the eyes creates the impression that, rather than you looking at the icon, the icon is looking at you.
Icons are not meant to be mysterious objects, understandable by scholars alone. They help explain the narratives in the Scriptures which are so rich in theology and spiritual insight. This is the story of the icon, which is as valid today as it ever was. The Spirit of the Eternal Light shines through now as clearly as it must have in its Beginnings.
I hope this account from an aspiring iconographer will encourage the reader to perhaps view icons with as much enthusiasm as she does.
Come little person, turn aside for a while from the tumult of your thoughts.
St Anselm of Canterbury
The completed icon, in this case a replica of an original, ‘Christ Enthroned’ by Emmanuel Tzanes, a painter from Rethymnon, Crete. The words in the book read: ‘Come to me all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls.’