(from greek – image, portrayal)
by Ludmila Hashem
Christian sacred art beginning in the first century and flourished in forth A.D. You need to look at Icon not as an identifying God but as a symbol, which provides spiritual unity in one’s approach to God; penetration into supernatural world through the object of the material world.
The Icon is a window into another world, It reflects artistic knowledge and the development of the soul. The “writing”( special terminology, according of the Icon Canon (discipline) of an Icon is a spiritual discipline more akin to meditation. The Icon reveals two dimensions of reality: the outer and the inner, icons came out of the divine liturgy – their aim is the holy, Nothing of its self is to be revealed or expressed as in other forms of art. Here there is no creativity in the sense of imagination or emotion, Every detail of an Icon (from the preparation of the wood, materials and colors) has a liturgical meaning, As one improves in one’s ability to write an Icon one improves in the Spiritual life.
Iconography is the WAY to God. The holy Fathers taught not only how but why each step was necessary. Every stroke is for a purpose – like religion itself, nothing is without purpose.
This is the oldest and hardest technique of writing an Icon – because it is first and foremost a spiritual process.
According to Sacred Scripture human beings are made in the image of God -they are living icons – a mirror reflection of God. When we make an Icon we reflect ourselves. Everything found on the Icon can be found in us.
There are two ways of looking at an Icon: it can be viewed as art or allegory and it can be viewed as a spiritual or religious practice. As far as art is concerned it is based on images. Using images we reflect that which is spiritual. Allegory is an illustration of a particular truth or event that has happened. Symbol is not a story that you hear but what you actually see and immediately understand. There are no random elements in an Icon – everything, every color is placed there with purpose and meaning.
There are nine steps involved in writing an Icon: the board, gesso, the clay, the colors and so forth. Each step opens some point or center within ourselves.
Icon is a special kind of art painted on wood. It is meant to reflect the teaching of the New Testament, The Old Testament belonged to the elements of earth and stone. The New Testament begins with baptism. The wood used in an Icon symbolizes a new stage of life from water – the tree of life. The tree is also symbol of Eden or Paradise.
Gesso – linen cloth is glued to the board. Symbolically this is the shroud of Christ. After the fabric has been applied to the board layers of gesso are applied. Symbolically the gesso is the void that must be created in our lives before we can grow in the spiritual life. It is the void that existed before creation. Another way of speaking about this step is the bridal vail that will be lifted to reveal the image. Gesso symbolizes purity. In the gesso the idea or sketch exists but not fijlly realized, The sketch – God’s idea of what will be created. There is a void but there is also a scheme within the void. God is the first artist. The lines are then filled with the Spirit as the Icon progresses.
The clay – Symbol of the material earth! nature. In Hebrew there are two words with the same root: red clay and humanity. In the Scriptures man is made of clay – not earthly clay but clay of the universe. Man was created after all the other creatures. Clay possess three properties: wet without form, shaped and purified but weak, fired and strong. Trough the breath of God the human form becomes strong and the Holy Spirit is conferred upon us. This breath of God is symbolized by gold. (Gilding – the process of covering clay with a thin layer of 18 c gold), There are two natures of man: clay and gold. The red clay symbolizes the earthy nature of man. Gold – union of man with God, the heavenly nature of man. Physical nature has a tendency to grab or be greedy; the heavenly nature has a tendency to give and share. If we only take then we only fulfill our earthly (clay) nature. This interchange of earthly and heavenly natures happens on three levels.
1. We receive / we give to those in need (material assistance) – Physical level.
2. We receive talent! we share talent (music, art) – Level of the Soul.
3. We receive / we give (contemplation) – Level of the Spirit.
On each of the levels there are those from whom we need to receive and those to whom we must give.
The colors – The addition of the red line around the halo is made not with clay but with bright red color to show the life and union we have begun with God. It is the alpha – the beginning. It is the symbolic first step in our life with God. After this line has been drawn the metaphysical nature of man will be revealed. This is symbolized by the color Sankir. Sankir is a mixture of burnt sienna, gold ochre and prussian blue – symbolizing the heavenly Theos
Ochre Yellow – symbolizing anthropology or man; Burnt Sienna – symbolizing the earth / cosmos. In Sankir there is no light present. This first layer of color reflects the created universe – the cosmos. At this point in the creation of an Icon there is no light – only mystery awaiting the revelation of God – awaiting the sacrament of light. This lack of light points toward the Transfiguration. What took place in the Transfiguration of Christ is to take place in us and in the Icon, The earthly is illumined by the Divine Light, and is gradually transfigured into the restored Image and likeness of God.
The will of man, his material body /earth.
The emotions, feelings of man -his soul.
The Spiritual body of man – his intelligence.
The connection point between Cosmos and Theos.
The Holy Spirit.
The heavenly soul of Christ.
The heavenly body or the will of the Father.
The first layer of color symbolizes our emotions and feelings which need to be controlled. The lines on the Icon symbolize the ego. In an Icon the real folds of a garment are not portrayed – they are symbols of internal energies. In man, ego exists as a principle of will. There is both feminine (passive) and male (active) dimension to the will, The interaction between these two elements create life. The lines on Icon reflect the active and passive energies (wherever the lines intersect there is a power point and from the corner light is reflected),
All materials used in the creation of an Icon are natural elements (natural pigments). Pigments are mixed with an egg yolk ( where an egg symbolizes with: egg shell – a man, white – inner world, yolk – spirit).
The last two stages: oiling and firing completing the process.
Icons were first produced for use in churches and processions, As their size became smaller, so demand for them as religious household objects grew. They have remained an important feature in Russia’s orthodox religious cultures to this day.
Icons were among the first religious objects brought into Russia from Byzantium at a time when Christian art was already highly developed. Although the art of the icon (the sacred picture of the Greek Orthodox church) could be said to have reached perfection in the Byzantine world, the Russians, nevertheless, were able to give it a new, national complexion and produce some of the finest examples of the art.