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Sunday, 18 December 2011

Writing an Icon - an unusual art

I was reading in our free Parish Magazine that one of the nuns from our local monastery has been commissioned to write an icon for the local church. Of course it is a painting, but the terminology for producing a religious icon is to "write" it. I wondered why the word "writing" was used, so I did a little investigation.

An icon (from the Greek eikon - an image) is like a picture, but is not supposed to be an actual representation of the person, more like a window into our understanding of the qualities that the saint or holy person represents, and a window into our own soul and relationship with God. An icon can be compared to a carefully constructed poem. Every element, like a word in a poem, fits very concisely and precisely to add to the overall meaning and harmony of the whole.

Each icon is supposed to be unique and written with a prayerful attitude, requiring many hours of painstaking work, including contemplating the symbolism of that particular saint.

"It's very important to be at peace with yourself and with the world around you. Writing an icon is a form of prayer. Each brushstroke is like a form of meditation. You have to have that inner peace. Otherwise, you can't do it." Maria Leontovitsh Manley, icon painter.

Not all icons are portraits, although this is the most common form. Above - a 12th Century Icon showing monks ascending a ladder to a welcoming Jesus. Note the devils trying to pull them off!

Nothing artificial is used in the production of an icon, which is usually painted on a wood panel that represents the Tree of Life or the Tree of Knowledge, and sometimes it is called an ark to recall the Ark of the Covenant.

The board is covered with linen cloth which represents the shroud of Jesus and then the whole thing is painted with gesso and egg tempera in the required design. On the right is the earliest known icon of Christ from the 6th century.

Colour plays an important role in the design. Red represents divine life, and blue human life, whilst white is the pure essence of God, only used in resurrection and transmigration scenes. If you look at icons of Jesus and Mary, often Jesus wears red undergarments with a blue outer (God become human) and Mary wears a blue undergarment with a red overgarment (human granted holy gift by God).

Often elaborate gilding is used, made from real 24 carat gold leaf. Gold, which does not tarnish is supposed to represent the Holy Spirit, or breath of life, because you have to breathe on the fine gold leaf to get it to settle into the glue before it can be burnished to a high shine.

There is a specific order to writing the icon: from the most general space (background) to the most specific (the face).

In an  interview with iconographer Marek Csarnecki he says:

"There is a pragmatic reason for painting the face last. Although the face is the most important part of the icon, every detail in the icon is part of the transfigured reality, and has to receive the same level of focus and attention. Experience has shown me that if I start with the face, I obsessively work on it to the detriment of the rest of the icon, and it loses its overall harmony or wholeness and develops lopsided.
It’s best to work from the outside to the inside, giving every aspect of the work its due. Painting the face first is like having dessert before dinner. You might lose your appetite for the rest of the meal."

I had no idea icons were so complex, or that they had such a rich history and tradition. I am looking forward to seeing what Sister Mary Stella writes for our local church. Apparently her icon will be of Saint Oswald and St Aidan (The patron saint of the local church and St Aidan has links to the North of England.) 
Pictures are from wikipedia commons.


  1. I am utterly blown away, entranced by this post. I had no idea but have spent time in Russia and in Greece and once had Russian icons explained. They are in three layres I think. It was a long time ago. I love the notion of 'writing an icon.'
    Thank you for posting.

  2. Hello Carol, yes I found it absolutely fascinating. All the materials have symbolic significance even though they end up so embedded in the icon so they can't properly be distinguished. I love that, and it does seem to have parallels with making a poem or writing a novel.

  3. Beautiful. I loved the images you selected to enhance the details you'd discovered. You have added another layer of depths to one of the clues in my wip. Thank you.

  4. Great opinios includes here. i had more things and there and i will have to reconsider for my exams and actually i don konw how i work using these tips as well. thanks for your kind of knowledgeable parts shared with us.
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