Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Iconography -- Seminar on Spirituality and Symbolism

St. Luke's Theotokos

My husband and I really like icons and own many different Saint icons. The theology behind iconography is an amazing subject. I was fortunate to be able to attend a seminar at Church last night given by three women -- one is an expert on prayer and works for the Archdiocese, one is an artist who writes icons for her hobby, and one who is an iconographer. These ladies gave a wonderful talk that I thought I would summarize here:
Iconography Seminar (1) – Tuesday, November 13, 2007

When JP2 wrote the apostolic letter to accompany the Catechism he specifically mentioned the “patriarchs” in the salutation. A sign that he was very serious about the Church breathing out of both lungs.

The Eastern tradition is that the focus of all spirituality is on the heart. Paragraph 2563 of the Catechism mentions that “heart is the dwelling place”.

Eastern orthodox and Byzantines constantly pray: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”

Before starting, an iconographer examines her heart, must reconcile with whomever over whatever. Then, a prayer is said before work starts. All iconographers use the same prayer:

Prayer Before Writing an Icon
Glory to Thee O God, Glory to Thee.
O Heavenly King, Comforter, Spirit of Truth, Who art everywhere present and fillest all things, Treasury of Blessings and Giver of Life, come and abide in us, and cleanse us from every impurity, and save our souls, O Good One.

Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us.

Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us.

Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us.

Glory to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

All-Holy Trinity, have mercy on us.

Lord, cleanse us of our sins.

Master, pardon our iniquities.

Holy One, visit and heal our infirmities, for Thy Name's sake.

Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy.

Glory to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit,

now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Our Father, Who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy Name. Thy Kingdom come, Thy Will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. Amen.

O Divine Lord of all that exists, You have illuminated the Apostle and Evangelist Luke with Your Most Holy Spirit, thereby enabling him to represent the Most Holy Mother, the one who held You in her arms and said: The Grace of Him Who has been born of me is spread throughout the world.

Enlighten and direct our souls, our hearts, and our spirits. Guide the hands of your unworthy servant so that we may worthily and perfectly portray Your Icon, that of Your Holy Mother, and of all the saints, for the glory, joy, and adornment of Your Holy Church.

Forigve our sins and the sins of those who will venerate these icons, and who, standing devoutly before them, give homage to those they represent. Protect them from all evil and instruct them with good counsel.

This we ask through the prayers of the Most Holy Theotokos, the Apostle Luke, and all the saints, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Icons – are written, not painted. As bible is the written word of God, so too the icons are written by the Holy Spirit thru the hand of the iconographer.

Icons are meant to transform us, bring us closer into communion with God. Icons are usually displayed in an icon corner (so there are no distractions, all focus is on the corner), positioned slightly above eye level, lit by a candle/oil glow. The icon is not hung on the wall passively; the icon is standing on a shelf in an active position for us to respond to, make us ready to go forth.

Icons are not written for the eye; they are written for the soul. They are not meant to be physical images of the saint but are to be symbolic representations of the inner life of the saints. If you really study an icon -- really look into the eyes of the Theotokos or Jesus -- you lose the external and begin to see things internally, God's truth and beauty shine through.

Russian spirituality, tied up with icons, is best illustrated in the book, The Way of the Pilgrim. Another book is the Philokalia.

For Mary alone there are more than 400 titles/icons. Tradition says that St. Luke was the first iconographer, writing an icon of Mary.

Icons are reproductions, not original works of art. There is a “canon of iconography” as the belief is that each of these images was revealed by the Holy Spirit to the original iconographer. It is pure truth, so don’t change. These images have brought centuries of people to prayer, produced good works. Therefore, all iconographers replicate the original images. Changing even one single line is like changing a sentence of scripture – it’s not done lightly!

Another book to read: Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying with Icons by Henri Nouwen.


  • Icons are always created on something strong, stable, long-lived: fresco on an interior wall, thick planks of birch or ash to remind us of the permanency of God.
  • Grain of wood is always on the vertical – reminds us to lift our eyes upward, Heavenward
  • One single board is used, with an inset area carved into the wood – the inset area is the inner life, draws us into contemplation; the outer frame/rim is the secular life. Often a saint’s halo will go beyond the inset area to the outer rim – to show that we can/should live holy lives in the secular world; grace comes from the internal to the external.
  • A veil covers the front of the wood completely – linen or 100% unbleached cotton to represent Christ’s burial shroud and the torn curtain at the crucifixion. This veil is glued to the board with rabbit-skin glue to remind us that the Cross is ALWAYS present.
  • Gesso covers the veil – 10-12 coats to make the veil-covered board as white and smooth as our souls in Heaven. As iconographer paints the gesso on, he/she is purifying his soul.
  • Garlic juice and a charred stick are used to mark the thick/thin lines to copy the icon. The lines are etched all the way thru the veil to the wood – reminded us of the Cross and that we’re all carved on God’s hand. The black lines remind us of sin – when we brush them off later, that’s our redemption. The thick and thin lines remind us of our walk thru life – thick lines = growing in faith; thin lines = times we’re not growing in faith. Straight lines symbolize God piercing our souls to get to our heart.
  • Red clay mixed with hide-glue is put on the edge to remind us of the Old Testament and that God was watching over us even before Jesus came to save us.
  • Halos are made by breathing gently on the board; breath condenses and the gold leaf sticks; our breath reminds us that we are all called to holiness
  • Pigments used are ground earth or ground minerals only
  • Red is the first color put on as a sign of self-martyring; dying to self so that God’s glory may shine. [Iconographers never sign the front of their work; IF they sign it at all, it’s on the back “through the hand of Cecilia, a sinner” – ego is gone to allow God to take over]
  • Dark green symbolizes earth and man
  • When done, icon is oiled – a reminder of our baptism, chrism of the icon
  • Light in an icon is key – essence of our experience of God.

Second half of the seminar will be Tuesday, November 27, 2007 at 7 p.m.


Marisa said...

I love icons. This post is wonderful. Thanks for sharing. I can't wait for part 2.

Theresa said...

That is fascinating!!! Thank you so much for sharing this for those of us who are not so lucky as to be able to attend that wonderful seminar! I look forward to the rest of the series!