Themes and Examples of Icons
The work of an iconographer is very unique in the world of art. This is especially true when icons are compared to the visual art of the west. In the West, self-expression became the ultimate goal. In the Orthodox tradition, there were serious personal and spiritual expectations for one who desired to paint icons. Self- expression was not the goal. An iconographer was not merely an artist. In fact, the Byzantines cast the artist in a priestly light.86
Icon painters “…are not considered to be religious artists but rather as persons who have a religious vocation. They are missionaries preaching visual theology. The icon, like the Word, is a revelation, not a decoration or illustration. It is theology in color. More important than being a good artist is the fact that the icon painter be a sincere Christian who prepares himself for his work through fasting, prayer, Confession, Communion and has the feeling that he is but an instrument through whom the Holy Spirit expresses Himself.”87
It was expected that the icon painter have significant spiritual maturity. Icons were not to be painted lightly. This involved long periods of preparation and contemplation. It was not a frivolous exercise.88 In sharp contrast to Western ideas of self-expression in art, the iconographer was to work in service to the church. Personal expression was not only inappropriate but actually forbidden.
86 Anthony Ugolnik. The Illuminating Icon. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1989), p. 55.
87 Coniaris, 1982, p. 177.
88 Michel Quenot. The Icon: Window on the Kingdom. (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1991), p. 84.
Iconography is “… a creative activity in which the artist has no initiative, in which he finds the problems and their solutions long since formulated, in which he conforms to a well- established hieratic canon and expresses neither his personal emotions nor the beauty of nature.”89 Icons are never painted from the imagination of the painter or from a living model.90 Rather, iconographers used existing icons as points of reference. This affirms the Orthodox commitment to tradition. However, Ouspensky suggests that to paint icons as the ancient iconographers painted them did not mean to imitate their style, but rather to imitate their lives, as Paul imitated Christ. This was accomplished not by copying gestures and words but imitating life. ”…to follow the sacred tradition, to live the tradition.”91
Icons have a unique beauty that is also significantly different to ideas of beauty in the West. Beauty in Orthodox understanding is not the beauty of the creature but the potential beauty when God will be “…all in all.”92 The icon does not represent corruptible flesh but transfigured flesh. This is divine beauty. In this way, there is a clear distinction between a portrait, which focuses on the corruptible flesh, and an icon which focuses on that which is transfigured.93
Much of this focus on the eternal is accomplished through the use of color and, especially, light. What the Gospel proclaimed by words, the icon proclaimed by color.94 Sometimes there is a darkness at the bottom of the icon representing evil and a brightness at the top representing the Divine Presence. Sometimes there is a ladder indicating the possibility of a journey into light.
89 Mircea Eliade. (Ed. by Diane Apostolos-Cappadona), Symbolism, the Sacred and the Arts. (New York, NY: Crossroad Pub. Co., 1986), p. 76.
90 Ouspensky, 1992, p. 170.
91 Ibid, p. 11.
92 Ibid, p. 160.
93 Ibid, p. 161-162.
94 Clendenin, 1994, p. 80.
Sometimes there is a hand at the top of the icon representing God.95 Light permeates the icon like light permeates heaven. There are no shadows. Often, the color gold represents the idea that “…light is called the background of the icon.”96 The body of Christ became luminous and in the same way, the bodies of the saints are portrayed as luminous in icons.97 The halo or nimbus is also used to convey the idea of the eternal. “The gold nimbus or halo around the head symbolizes the brilliance of Divine Light in the person who lives in the intimacy of God.” – more interest in soul than body.98 This is divinity brighter than the sun.99 If the icon has a square halo, it indicates that the icon was painted when the person was still alive.100
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