Making visible the Invisible
Icons are portrayals of divine and holy persons from the Other World.
1. The Other World
The 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)
Lord 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.
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