Word Magazine January 1987 Page 5


by Father Alexander Jasiukowicz

In a series of upcoming articles it is intended to guide the reader into the world of iconography and to explain the fundamental significance of this sacred art.

Following the feast of the Theophany of our Lord, a priest, according to the tradition of the Orthodox Church, blesses homes of his parishioners. For this occasion, a family is to prepare a table covered with a clean tablecloth where the icon of the feast, that of our Lord, Mother of God or a saint, along with a candle and holy water are placed.

It is to be noted that the true icon is still misread, misunderstood and disregarded and, therefore, it seems to be the last item on the priority list. A priest will find few well handwritten icons in the homes of his church members. Mostly he will observe the, so called, decoupaged icons, a loose-leaf image or no image at all. Let us draw a few examples:


Riza (metal mounting on icons) was an innovation of the 18th century, when icons began to be enhanced with shiny metallic vestments. The icon of the prototype (Christ, Virgin Mary, an angel or a saint) is the light in itself and needs no such enhancement. Even worse. When the color lithography was developed the profiteers appeared in the icon-field. The rizas were machine pressed, thin, as aluminum foil, with openings for faces and hands. Then faces and hands were cut out, pasted on the back of the vestment holes and sold to peasants at every market place. What would common people know about the icon? The upper class people however knew how to distinguish a real icon from a fake one and, therefore, commissioned hand-written icons.


Thanks to the widespread color reproduction of old icons in the form of books and single prints we are reintroduced to the golden age of iconography of various schools. These reproductions help us to understand the old masters spiritually, artistically and stylistically. A great variety of such prints are enhanced by mounting them on panels, covering them with varnish and are made available to people by a number of religious institutions at a low cost. It is beneficial to have good prints whether in a book or displayed on a wall, in whatever manner, but they should not be confused with the nature of the real icon. A print, no matter how well it may be augmented, will always remain a copy and cannot be a substitute for the icon. In comparison with the real icon a print is like a rubber stamp, a by-product distributed by the thousands. Just like by-product food, sold at some supermarkets, it cannot substitute the real product.


Since the icon and the Divine Liturgy are closely interrelated, let us examine one more example. Most of us have at least one phonograph record of the Liturgy. As pleasant and inspiring as it may be to listen to the chanting and singing, it is only a copy of the Divine Liturgy. No matter how often we play the record, no matter how old a copy of an icon may be they will always remain copies. The real Divine Banquet of our Lord is when bread and wine are transformed into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ during the celebration of the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.


Iconography is a spiritual implement, a pictorial expression and teaching of the Church, corresponding with the biblical, liturgical, that of the Holy Tradition and patristic texts, governed by dogmatic and canon laws. Icon is prayer. Icon is sacramental and is raised to the level of the Holy Scriptures. Icon is a spiritual implement and an inseparable part of our worship. It must be written by a skillful, experienced, knowledgeable and devoted person to the Orthodox Faith. One does not go for sacramental needs outside of the Church. Not by a casual, indifferent artist outside of the Faith, nor by a spiritless machine the true icon is created, but through fasting and prayer when the words of one of the greatest defenders of the icon do coincide: “The saints were filled with the Holy Spirit even in their lifetime. After their death, too, the grace of the Holy Spirit inexhaustibly dwells in their souls and in their bodies lying in their graves, in their countenances and in their holy images” (St. John of Damascus).


In the last two decades the icon made its comeback overwhelmingly. Through lectures and literature the icon has been understood much better than ever in the last three centuries. But more education, in the form of teaching the language of the icon, should be directed to both theological students and lay people. Lack of knowledge creates a problem in reading of the content of the icon theologically, symbolically and in relating it to the spiritual growth. The icon is simply taken for granted. Whatever is sold is good enough – a print framed, a print mounted on a panel or even a Christmas card with a “holy picture.”

Most people tend to say that they cannot afford a handmade icon which may cost a few hundred dollars. What they really mean to say is that they will not pay the price. The icon does not happen to be on their “want list”.

What is your priority? A car, for example. We shop for it, get carried away by attractive gadgets and pay much more than necessary. To finance a car it will cost anywhere from three to seven thousand dollars in interest alone, not to mention insurance, gasoline and maintenance. We spend hundreds of dollars on Christmas, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, birthday, anniversary and somewhere in-between presents. We hold parties. We invite friends or relatives out to dinner and think nothing about costs. How about vacations? We even buy things we do not need – they just happened to be on sale. All of this is fine. We work for our needs, convenience and relaxation, but give the icon an equal chance to enter your home. It should be ascribed long-deserved attention. Start a family prayer corner with at least one real icon. After all, this is a one time investment and does not need any maintenance.


Finally, an icon-production is meant to be “eternal”, i.e. the best of materials and skill should be considered. A poor foundation of a house may cause irreparable damage to the structure. The same is true with the icon. Compare two examples:

1. The icon seems to be done in good taste – good choice of wood board, smooth surface, but not canvas of the face nor dowels on the back of the panel to prevent the icon from warping and cracking. A coat of gesso was applied or, worse, a coat of spackling paste, or merely a piece of dry wall. Imitation gold was used on the background and covered with varnish to protect from oxidation (from turning green). An icon is ready for a customer overnight at a “reasonable price.”

2. An icon panel secured with dowels or good ply is selected, canvas mounted and several coats of gesso applied. It is then brought to a smooth surface, 24 ct. gold background, finished edges, stained and varnished back. The production takes several weeks to complete and costs more, but will last for generations to come.

A person who is ready to commission an icon should find a reliable iconographer and ask how the icon will be executed. What about cost? If a lower price sounds more attractive, allow enough room for a second thought. This is your decision, this is your investment, this is your relationship with the depicted and you want the icon to abide in your home for a long time.

Father Alexander is an iconographer living in Winter Park, Florida. We thank him for his contribution to The Word.