Temple and Morsink on the new-found and signed Anastasis-icon of Angelos Akotantos:
"And he is unique in that we know his name and the circumstances of his life. He was the first icon painter to break the tradition of anonymity and sign his works".
These two icon traders are not well informed: In the 11th century, in Byzantine times, you have the Georgian Tohabi who signs on 6 icons in Egypt. There is also the famous Crucifixion, in a so-called Crusader Icon Style, which says ΧΕΙΡ ΠΕΤΡΟΥ, by the hand of Peter, 14th century. Furthermore, the Macedonians signed extensively from the 14th century. These are the facts. After that Angelos comes (approx. 1400-1450), but how far is that true? If the missing icons of his unknown teachers are signed, what then? If a name is left on the back of older icons on the wood (which also happens today), it will disappear sooner than a name under the varnish and it will not bite. Morsink and Temple have to blame themselves on their ignorance and it also appears in the newspaper NRC. Ridiculous! Coldery.

After the Georgians, Crusaders, Macedonians (so Serbs) and Greeks, the Russians signed. Details can be found on David Coomler's blog Icons and their Interpretation and in Irina Gorbunova's book The Icon: Truth and Fables.

And the story continues. With Simon Morsink-Temple's comment (Angelos' first signing) I still presume that they know about the Greek tradition of signing but not about the earlier worldwide signing. The signing, of course, continued, even in Russia until the 19th century, even by some Old Believers.

Many, and I suspect also the authors without mentioning, express their disapproval of this signing, and think that the icons are so sacred (they are of course) that signing is not allowed (they call it the tradition of anonymity). In our time, signing is going off. The Serbian Todor Mitrovic says: "Iconographers refrain from putting their signature on icons due to piety and fashion - not because icons have no author." The Old Believers have been saying since the 17th century that the iconpainter must remain anonymous. According to them, only men are allowed to paint icons, so you can see which unworldly ultras are. In Paris there is a priest who says that only priests can paint icons. Come on!

The Orthodox Church has made icon painters such as Rublev especially saints and did not want them to remain anonymous. The Byzantine Theophanes the Greek was known in Constantinople before he went to Russia, made a name as Feofan Grek and became the teacher of Rublev. The church has not erased or crossed out the names of the painters in the contracts of the commissions and the annals of the monasteries and churches. What is also logical is: if the patron wanted his name on the icon or on the fresco (not to be resisted), why not mention the painter? I assume in the present this is happening in Russia, but I am still waiting for information.

Where does the preoccupation with the anonymity of the icon painters come from? We have mentioned the Old Believers. Even some of their icons are signed. One can also think of an icon in a Russian icon studio in the 19th century if it was made, painted, eh sorry written by 4 or 5 men - what name should be on it? So no signature. One can also imagine in time so many signatures on the back have vanished that it seemed nothing at all was ever signed. So it should be forbidden but it wasn't as we know.
There is no tradition of anonymity. It is an idea. Idealistic people who think icons were not sold for money have this idea. People who trade icons adhere this now.

Finally, I would like to point out to the reader that it is a modest and respectful tradition of the Greeks to sign with "by the hand of", because the inspiration comes from above, right? Read more about this in my article at www.iconen.nl "Are the Greeks signing?" In Dutch.



Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
By Jan Verdonk MD

An icon is a permitted portrayal of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, the saints and biblical events.

However, legends surrounding Saint George and Saint Nicholas or traditional stories surrounding the birth of Christ may also be depicted on icons. For this reason, it is a general rule that everything that has been written down in Christian tradition and seen by human eyes may be depicted in an icon.

It must be a permitted image, however. The authority granting permission is the church. Permission may also mean toleration or implicit permission, but the final decision rests with the church.

Can a photocopy also be an icon?

Yes, it is an icon if it is, as mentioned before, an image of a holy person or a biblical event.

Seen this way, a fresco of a saint is an icon as well. In theory, an icon may also be painted in watercolours, embossed in metal or carved in ivory.

Usually only the icon painted on wood is called an icon, but in theory the concept is broader, as is clear from the preceding.

The icon on a wooden panel is the traditional icon. This is especially venerated, adulated and kissed by the faithful.

Is singer Madonna an icon?

In ordinary language, someone is called an icon who does pioneering work for an entire generation or movement, someone representing in his or her person the spirit of the era, someone who is looked up to and adulated. For this reason, celebrities like artist Andy Warhol and singer Madonna are called icons too.

What is, in brief, the history of the Greek icons?

The pagan precursors of the first icons were the funerary portraits from Fayum in Egypt, which were painted in wax technique on a wooden panel (encaustic, with liquid beeswax). After the recognition of Christianity in the fourth century, painters started painting images of saints and biblical scenes on the panels. In the seventh century icon painters turned from bee wax to egg tempera. This paint is made with pigment (colouring), egg yolk and vinegar.

The Russian icons are the best known, but the Greek (or Byzantine) icons are the oldest. Some icons have been preserved from the sixth century.

In the Byzantine Empire (325-1453) icon painting expanded enormously. Icons were given an important role in liturgy and an honoured place in church.

Various schools in the Greek style have existed, the most important being the Macedonian (1300-1500) and Cretan (1400-1600) schools.

What technique is used for Greek icons?

It begins with a wooden panel that has been coated with linen and a traditional ‘gesso’ of size and chalk. Next, the painter chooses an image of a saint or a biblical scene. He transfers the rough sketch onto the panel. Then he gilds the background with gold leaf. The paint is called egg tempera and is prepared by mixing pigments with a mixture of egg yolk and vinegar. Next come the garments, for which lighter shades are applied on top of the ground colour, e.g. dark blue. There are always three such highlights in the garments, which have angular forms. The faces, hands and feet (ta sarcomata, the flesh parts) are also set up in highlights, but more fluently and rounded. Finally, the inscriptions are applied.

An icon painter devotes a lot of time to the mixing of the colours.

What is egg tempera?

Egg tempera is a type of paint. The word derives from ‘egg’ and from the Latin word ‘temperare’ meaning mixing. In tempera paints the pigment particles (colouring particles) are held together by an emulsion. An emulsion is a mixture of two liquids that do not normally mix: for instance, oil and water. There are artificial emulsions such as gum emulsions and glue emulsions. And there is one important natural emulsion: the egg yolk. In the egg yolk oil components and water are stably mixed without falling apart.

The advantages of egg tempera paint are: it is durable; it looks crispy and fresh right from the start and remains so, no matter how many layers are applied.

Has vegetable colouring been used for icons?

Yes, some vegetable colourings have been used for icons. Some names are dragon’s blood red, red madder and vine black. But in fact, vegetable colourings have too little colouring power for painting. They are more often used for colouring cloths.

The best colouring agents for the paint of the icon painter were mineral in nature, i.e. chemical compounds found in the earth. Substances like ochres which are iron oxides.

Why is a traditional icon always painted on a wooden panel?

The first icons were painted on wood. In the fourth century, this was the method of portrait painters in the Middle East, whose work has been preserved in the Fayum portraits.

The first icons were deeply venerated. The material of the object of devotion was wood, and it has been kept that way, probably for reasons of respect. Traditional materials that were also maintained included the linen and the natural ‘gesso’ priming of animal skin glue and chalk with which the panel was coated. An important innovation occurred in the sixth century, when icon painters started using the egg tempera technique instead of the encaustic (pigment in liquid beeswax). This technique, too, has been maintained to the present day.

Why do icons often warp, and are they always convex and never concave?

Wood will inevitably warp, especially large panels. This is caused by dehydration, the process during which the wood loses its remaining water. Because of its structure, wood gives off more water in some spots than in others, and as a result will get an uneven shape.

If an icon has warped convex, it has done so as a result of a calculation. The side of the panel to be painted must be the side that is the closest to the core of the tree. In that case, the growth rings will run slantwise through the panel. Schematically: \.\.\.\././././

The evaporation of the water in the wood gives rise to a force that causes the growth rings in the panel, which are slightly bent, to become straight. As a consequence, the panel will warp and become convex.

What is the difference between Russian and Greek icons?

  • The image on the icon can be divided into fairly large colour fields. In Russian icons the ground colour of such a colour field is transparent, with the white priming visible through it. In Greek icons the ground colour of the large colour field is not painted transparently, but opaquely.
  • The colours in Russian icons are pastel tones, partly due to the transparent painting technique. They are subdued, restrained colours. Some icons have been executed almost entirely in one colour. The Greek colours are bright and radiant, often contrasting sharply. It makes one inadvertently think of the difference between the grey, misty North and the intense, magnificent display of colour of the Mediterranean.
  • In Russian icons the line drawing plays an all-important role. The shape of an over-garment, for instance, is extensively marked by a multiplicity of small lines. Colour plays a subordinate role. Greek painters, on the other hand, use the light on prominent places such as hips, knees and shoulders to indicate form. They suggest light by putting layer over layer of ever lighter shades of the ground colour. Greeks are colour mixers while Russians are draughtsmen.
  • If one would have to categorize the Russian style, one might call it expressionistic. In the Russian iconostasis Evangelists and apostolic figures bow deeply in humility before the figure of Christ in their midst. Their faces show the same expression. Greek saints resemble classical philosophers in their appearance. There is no distortion; working after nature seems to have been the motto. The Greek style is more naturalistic.
  • The Russian Christian tradition is only 1000 years old. Russia’s christening began in 988 with the baptism of the sovereign of Kyiv. Russian icon painting did not have its first hey-day before the thirteenth century, and not without the help of Byzantine masters. It is strange to realize that by that time, Greek icon painting had already existed for nine centuries.

Why do orthodox people venerate icons?

In the Orthodox Church, people venerate icons. This veneration is transferred to the holy person portrayed in the icon, even if this person is no longer with us.

The saints are in heaven singing God’s praise. Consequently, they know bliss and have a glorified, renewed body. Neither sorrow nor pain exists there, which explains the peaceful, unmoved facial expressions of the saints. In other words, what is special about an icon is that it is a window in our times, looking out on eternity on the other side. Knowing this, you will understand better why the faithful kiss and adulate icons.

There is also an important biblical aspect, on which the veneration of an icon is based. In the Bible, the word ‘eikon’ is used countless times, starting with: God created man after His image. The Greek word for image is ‘eikon’ and the word recurs over and over again throughout the Bible. Christ is the ‘eikon’ of God the Father and – a totally new but very biblical message – man is the ‘eikon’ of God! This can be read in Saint Paul’s letters. For this reason, the faithful in the Orthodox Church are incensed as well, because of their being an ‘eikon’.

What does ‘orthodox’ mean?

The Greek word ‘orthos’ means ‘straight’ and the Greek ‘doxa’ really means ‘opinion, view’, so one could translate ‘orthodox’ in English as ‘sound in the faith’.

‘True doctrine’ would also be correct.

How does one venerate an icon?

Veneration is paying respect and tribute to the saint portrayed. At the same time one can say a prayer or address the saint in another way.

Worshipping is usually done with silent gestures such as crossing oneself, touching or kissing the icon, bowing, kneeling or lighting a candle (a candle stands for prayer).

Isn’t this a violation of the second commandment?

Exodus 20 reads: ‘Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.’

In the Greek text, the word for graven image is ‘eidolion’, meaning idol. The word for likeness is ‘homoioma’, something that portrays. Sure enough, an icon is a portrayal of a living being, but because the word idol is so clearly connected with idolatry (remember the golden calf), the word likeness must also be understood in this context. The following sentence, ‘Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them’, confirms this.

Furthermore, the icons exhort people to a Christian life through the example of the saints and the biblical scenes.

What is depicted on the Easter icon?

The first icons portraying the holy days were created in the Byzantine Empire towards the tenth century – among them the traditional Easter icon.

Christ stands triumphantly in the centre. The almond-shaped aureole surrounding him is called a ‘mandorla’. The mandorla is portrayed because after his resurrection Christ was a purely divine figure and no longer a human being. As Christ appeared to the disciples in his divine form during the Glorification on the mountain, the icon of the Glorification shows the ‘mandorla’ as well.

Christ descended into hell to grant life to the people in their graves. This event is described in the apocryphal gospel of Nicodemus. The lower part of the icon shows hell, the shattered gates of hell and the dislodged hinges and locks, two empty graves and Satan turned over to the king of the underworld.

Christ raises our ancestor Adam from the grave. Eve is present, as are righteous persons such as Abel and Henoch. Also present are the ‘First Kings’ David and Solomon and prophets such as John the Baptist, Isaiah and Jeremiah.

After all, Matthew 27:52 tells us: ‘And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose’.

The icon is called ‘The Resurrection’, or sometimes ‘The Descent into Hell’.

Many icons have the inscription ‘IC XC’. What does this mean?

IC XC is the inscription accompanying Christ in all icons, as it is the name Jesus Christ abbreviated in Greek capitals (ΙεσουC ΧριστοC). There are other signs as well - abbreviations, aspirations and word accents.

Other inscriptions are:
ΜΡ ΘΥ= Mother of God
Ο ω Ν= The Being
Ο ΑΓΙΟC= the saint
Ο ΑΓ= the saint
Η ΑΝΑΣΤΑCIC= the Resurrection
Ιω= John


Summary Jan Verdonk

My name is Jan Verdonk, theologian, and icon painter by profession.

As a theologian I specialized in Byzantine church history. The dogma fascinated me. I wondered who had been right and who had been wrong during the Great Schism, and other similar questions. I know the answer now. I have become an orthodox. In 1983 I graduated on orthodoxy at Amsterdam University.

jan jongIn 1991 I met icon painter Neoklis Kolliopoulos in Athens. Round 1980 Neoklis was one of the first Greek icon painters to work skilfully and meticulously by the guidelines of the Cretan School, which had its hey-day between 1400 and 1600. Bright, warm colours, regal figures and solemn facial expressions are characteristic of this school.

atelierfoto 2I knew the Cretan school from the museums. I was fascinated. Neoklis offered to teach me and so I received my education in his studio. The technical side consisted of woodworking, priming with chalk and animal skin glue, gilding and making egg tempera paint - in a word, the entire process that has been used for 1400 years and was handed down by the monks of Athos.

Back in Amsterdam I immediately started my own practice. From of a theologian I became an icon painter. To expand my knowledge I followed workshops with Bernard Frinking for a number of years. In the 1960s Bernard Frinking was a student of one of the great innovators in Russian icon painting, Leonid Ouspensky. However, I remained faithful – very faithful – to the Cretan style.

Neoklis no longer paints. He was a very good teacher. Now I am a teacher myself.


Making visible the Invisible

Icons are portrayals of divine and holy persons from the Other World.

1. The Other World

hemelse prachtThe church fathers of the fourth century linked Christianity to antique philosophy in order to create a plausible doctrine of God that would also impress the intellectual late-Hellenistic world. The distinction between the invisible realm of ideas and the visible world was derived from Neoplatonism, a philosophical-religious renaissance.

The world of ideas becomes the Other World, the transcendental (eternal) world of Christian faith. It is heaven, where our time does not exist, it is timelessness, eternity.

God is obviously in that world, the triune God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit), as is Mary, Mother of God. Furthermore, there are tens of thousands of saints who are agreeable to God, singing God’s praise with the angels in eternal bliss. They perform an eternal divine service.

Ordinary mortals are not there; they are waiting in their graves for Judgement Day, when Christ will return. He will judge on the basis of His Gospel and then the chosen will enter into ‘Eternal Life’ as well.

2. How are Christ and the saints portrayed in icons?

God the Father and the Holy Spirit have never been seen by human eyes, and consequently can not be portrayed. God the Son, however, has become human, so he can be portrayed as a human being; the saints, too, have lived on earth and can be portrayed.

One of the essential purposes of icon painting is to record these human features. In a response to iconoclasm round 730, John of Damascus described what icons do in addition to this: they provide an up-to-date image of the saint as he is at this moment: he is with God in the Other World and has a transfigured, or, alternatively phrased, glorified body. The icon portrays transfigured persons.

Even before Neoplatonism philosophy was searching for a connection with the divine world. Today, the core of Eastern Christian spirituality is the principle that life and matter can be sanctified and earthly things can be led to heavenly and divine reality through prayer, contemplation and participation in divinity. Transfiguration occurs through participation in divinity.

3. The way of the icon painter

Christ’s transfiguration is described in the story of the Glorification on the mountain. The Bible says his face shone like the sun and his raiment was white as the light. Three disciples have seen this. Now the icon painter must portray saints from the Other World in a transfigured state.

In any case, an ideal, perfect image of the saint will be created. If the saint was blind or cripple, such ailments will not be portrayed. The facial expression will be peaceful and will not show extreme emotion. The saint will keep his own character. This follows from his transfiguration. But what follows next?

The icon painter will also receive support from the church. In eastern orthodoxy, ‘church’ does not mean the administrative staff of the church or church building, but to this day means the early Christian ‘community of the faithful’, all the living and the dead, gathered round Jesus Christ.

This church is a community and is timeless: the painter sits next to a saint from the 5th century, a patriarch from the 15th century and a painter from the 16th century. He overlooks the ages. He listens and watches and continues tradition. Fortunately, we have our tradition. From the sixth century onward icons have been preserved. Disposition and composition (arrangement and assembly) of the icon are the responsibility of the teachers of the church. For these aspects the painters’ books are consulted. The technical aspect is the domain of the painter.

In the earlier days, painters used to be giants of hardship en devotion – very strange, different people. Staretses, for instance. In Russia, the Balkan, Byzantium and in the monasteries they entered into the great ‘fast of the eyes’, to achieve the witnessing of the transcendental element through Bible study, meditation and prayer. In the 20th century father Gregory Krug was known to paint frescoes by night with the abbot reading from the church fathers, holding two candles for lighting.

4. The tradition in garments

The gospel emphasizes the garments being glorified in the Glorification. This proves once more that matter can be sanctified, having become the residence of God’s glory. Traditionally, the saints wear Greek garments, so the men wear a toga and a chiton and the women a maphorion, the hair covered with a cap. The painter constructs each piece of garment starting form a dark colour field. On the ground colour, (usually 3) lighter shades of the colour are applied layer after layer, each shade smaller in size than the previous one, and with angular forms. So in theory it will be a monochrome piece, with (for instance) a blue piece of garment having a black-blue ground colour, and highlights of blue, whitish blue and white with a hint of blue. Thus the illusion is always created of a precious, shiny fabric, which could be the reflection of a source of light in the Other World.

5. The tradition in the flesh

The faces, hands and feet are also constructed in highlights on a ground colour, but more fluently and rounded. Again, these are monochrome fields going from umber via ochre to white. They resemble the shades of bronze. The saints are illuminated from the inside by a supernatural, uncreated light.

The face is not intended to be a portrait; if it were, the saint would be posing haughtily. Instead, icons seek to show the inner life. And if one eye is different from the other, one might say that one eye is looking inward and the other outward, or that two dissimilar eyes catch our eye and retain our attention, wherever we are. The nose is long, thin and noble. The mouth is often highly stylized, as are the eyes, without loss of expressiveness. The ears are always shown; otherwise the saint cannot hear the prayers. The fingers are long and lean.

The painter must know the saint to be able to portray him. The work of an icon painter is as timeless as his subject. In this realm, slow is better than quick and waiting for inspiration (from the Holy Spirit) is better than hurrying. A good icon painter must know the Bible. In liturgy, much is explained. Prayers, directions and rules are offered to the icon painter by the Orthodox Church.

6. The iconographer’s prayer by Dionysus of Fourna (Greek)

het onzichtbare detailLord Jesus Christ our God:
Thou, possessing a divine and infinite nature, having become incarnate for the salvation of man in the womb of the Virgin Mary;
Who, having imprinted the sacred features of Thy immaculate face on the holy veil, and through healing the illness of the governor Abgar and bringing about the enlightenment of his soul into the full knowledge of our true God;
Who, through Thy holy Spirit brought wisdom to Thy holy Apostle and Evangelist Luke to depict the beauty of thy most innocent mother, who carried Thee in her arms as a child and said 'May the grace of Him who was born of me, through me be imparted to them’,
Thou, Divine Master of all things:
Enlighten and bring wisdom to my soul and heart and mind;
Direct my hands for the irreproachable and excellent depiction of the form of Thy person and of Thy immaculate Mother and of all thy Saints, to the glory and to the splendour and beautification of Thy (very) holy Church;
Forgive the sins of those who will venerate these icons and refer honour to the Prototype in Heaven by bowing before them. Redeem them from any bad influence and instruct them with good advice:
Through the prayers of Thy immaculate mother, of the holy and illustrious apostle and evangelist, Luke, and of all the saints.


7. Rules for the icon painter (16th century, Russian)

(excerpt from the rulings of a local synod)

Before setting to work, make the sign of the cross, pray in silence and forgive your enemies.

Apply yourself with love to each detail of the icon, as if you were working for the Lord Himself. Pray during the work to strengthen your inner self. Particularly avoid vain speech and remain silent.

Pray particularly in union with the Saint whose face you are painting. Keep your mind from being distracted and the Saint will be with you.

When you are choosing a colour, stretch your mental hands to the Lord and ask Him for advice.

When your icon is finished, thank the Lord, that His Mercy has bestowed you the grace of painting Holy Images.

Never forget:
The joy of spreading icons throughout the world;
The joy of the icon painter’s work itself;
The joy of providing the saint the opportunity of shining through his icon;
The joy of being in fellowship with the saint whose image you are painting.

Jan Verdonk MD
Translation: Auke van den Berg


Icon Studio Verdonk

In the Icon Studio, Jan Verdonk gives courses in icon painting. He works in Amsterdam and Haarlem. See the icon gallery, and do read the articles on icons.

 More icons (Iconen) can be seen on the Dutch pages of this site.

The artwork can be shipped around the globe.