As I write this column, LSUA is winding up the spring semester. Our student art show is up in the University Gallery, exhibiting hand colored prints by students in the film photography class. There is both a sense of angst and relief on campus as students prepare for final exams, while the dreams of summer dance in their heads. Faculty find ourselves continuously reminding them that “it’s not over yet!”
I have taught an interesting class this semester, an independent study course in art history. These courses are designed for individual students who have a specialized area that they wish to study. In this case, it has been Early Christian and Byzantine art. My student was particularly interested in the development of art within the early Eastern and Western Church, focusing on the technique of icon painting. The happy result of this growing interest is that I will offer a course next fall, Special Studies in Painting, in which we will actually paint icons.
The word “icon” comes from the Greek “eikōn”, meaning image. The icon is painted as a sign or likeness that represents an object—either concretely or by analogy. In the Eastern Christian tradition, the icon is a flat panel, usually wood, that depicts a holy being or object. No 3-dimensional religious figures are permitted in the Eastern faith due to the belief that diamones, or benign nature spirits, inhabit sculpture. Both Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria mention the veneration of icons in their 2nd century writings. These early images were adopted by Christians from Greco-Roman models. The earliest mention of the use of icons within Christian liturgy occurred in 4th-century Gnostic writings, and by the 5th century, icons were a standard part of the Eastern worship ritual. During the 9th century, the Western church developed a preference for 3-dimensional religious sculpture, leaving the icon to the Eastern tradition.
The earliest extant icons date from the 6th century and can be found at the Monastery of St. Catherine, that magnificent Egyptian repository for early Eastern art. Certainly the Iconoclast Controversy resulted in the destruction of many ancient icons. When contemporary Eastern Orthodox scholars speak of the development of the icon, they are usually referring to the Post-Iconoclast Period, when the iconostasis, or wall of icons that separates the church nave from the sanctuary, was introduced into the Orthodox Church.
Icons are, first and foremost, archetypes of the object of veneration. One does not worship the icon itself, but rather, the icon serves as a window through which the worshiper approaches the being as object of worship. The concept of worship through the use of an icon is rooted in the theology of the Incarnation: Christ as the eikōn of God. Every part of the image has symbolic meaning. There is no artistic license in painting an icon.
Color has strong symbolic meaning in icon painting. The color white represents the uncreated light of God and can only be used for the transfigured or resurrected Christ. Gold represents heaven, and gold leaf is dominant in the icon. Red represents divine life; blue represents human life. Through the symbolism of color, the theology is proclaimed. For example, the icon painter who wishes to portray deification will paint Christ wearing a red garment with a blue outer garment. The symbolism is that God becomes human. On the other hand, the Virgin Mary will be shown wearing a blue garment with a red outer garment, signifying a human being to whom great gifts have been granted by God.
Icon painting is a meditative, prayerful, and ritualized art form. The materials and step-by-step procedures of producing an icon all have symbolic meaning in a long and involved process. An age-old motto of icon painters is that, “God’s whole creation gathers to create an icon.” Again, it is important to point out that there is no attempt at creativity, originality, or self-expression, but only to produce a faithful rendering of the image. The faces have remained unchanged throughout the long history of the icon. And while the overall style will vary from one school’s stylized and non-realistic representation to another school’s more meticulous, emotional, and realistic rendering, the image remains the same.
I am excited to explore this style of painting with my student. Throughout our travels, we have acquired some beautiful icons, coming from both the Greek and Byzantine traditions. There are subtle differences in these, primarily in the use of color. Byzantine icons tend to display brighter, more vivid colors and, of course, much more abundant use of gold leaf. One of my favorites is St. George Slaying the Dragon. This icon is Byzantine and heavily leafed with gold. St. George wears the traditional blue garment with gold chain mail. Draped across his shoulder is the red cloak symbolic of divine intervention to aid the human soul. As is traditional with all icons of saints, George wears a slender halo, his horse is white and a large red plate is being pressed down into the dragon’s body by the horse’s hoof. The horse reveals the presence of Christ who actually does more of the killing than George’s sword!
The Deёsis, representing prayer or supplication, is another favorite of mine. Our icon is from Greece; I brought it back from a trip with LSUA students. The Deёsis portrays Christ Pantocrator, enthroned and carrying a book. He is flanked by the Theotokos (God-Bearer–the Virgin Mary) on his right and John the Baptist on his left. Both have hands raised as they intercede on behalf of humanity. The Theotokos is clothed in the expected blue garment while Christ wears red and gold with a blue drapery about his shoulders. How different this is from the traditional Western representation of Christ Enthroned in Majesty, surrounded by the four evangelists or the twelve apostles. Since the Deёsis is frequently a part of Last Judgment scenes, we can readily see the difference here. In the Western tradition, a majestic Christ figure sits on the throne to judge each and all. The representation of the evangelists or the apostles brings them into the scene of the last judgment, not to plead anyone’s case, but to reinforce the theology of the Church Triumphant as the final step that began with their calling. But in the Eastern tradition, Christ, the Creator of All Things, sits between the one who heralded his coming and the one who brought him into human form. They both entreat him to be merciful toward all humanity.
An icon must be nothing more than a faithful representation of a beloved figure, a window through which the supplicant can reach God through prayer. The object is to paint with great skill, but not so much originality as to make the figure less familiar. The eikōn becomes the window, opening the soul to his God. I hope that we can achieve this lofty goal. But as is true of all icon painting, the process will be as important as the finished work itself.