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SOME WORDS ABOUT CHRISTIAN ICONS.

By Philip Davydov

Short preface.
Many times in my life I was asked certain type of questions, so I decided to publish a general answer in hope, that somebody may find it useful.

Question: As an Iconographer in the Eastern Orthodox and Russian tradition - can you point out some ideas and thoughts about what the non-orthodox should consider when looking at Icons. The concept that Icons are written and not art pieces, how to interpret this?

Answer: First I will answer about the "writing" icons. This is a classical question, and it is quiet easy to answer. I would dare to say, that interest to old icons and attempt to study them for re-introducing the medieval values back to church happened mostly in Russia. Maybe Greeks would have the same story at the same time, but - after the revolution of 1917 many Russians immigrated to the west and brought with them this interest to the icons.

And they brought with them the professional terms, especially because in the first generations of immigrants did not speak fluently local languages... And the professional verb, which woud describe activity of an artist, working with a picture, in Russian is "to write a picture". Actually, there is another one - "to draw" - to make a drawing. So, I suppose, that these immigrants insisted, that western people, wishing to learn iconography, have also to learn these terms, which, again, are just Russian artistic technical terms...

I think for these Russians it would at that time be kind of a verbal "switch" to a special language, appropriade only for iconography.

But we know, that Greek verb "graphos" is with undoubtly coinciding with english verb "painting", and both these words have very complex meanings, which would also include both Russian "write a picture" and "make a painting". So, when I have to write it down, I use "icon painted (written) by..." just to avoid any inconvenience...

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And about the meaning of icons:

Even the most general question like "What are the icons for an orthodox"? and "what is their role in the orthodox church?" I can't just answer on the spot, it's really quiet a complex question. And, of course, as for any serious question, we can start with a simple explanation, which would not mean we make long story short, but would mean we touch only the concepts, which are easiest for understanding.

In early Christian church we first meet art in the catacombs of Rome, and this art was rather a kind of conspectus of sacred subjects. We see parallel scenes from the Old Testament and the New Testament together and lots of symbols, like peacocks, fishes, vines, pigeons et cetera because they helped to imagine, what would the Kingdom of God might be like. These images are very simple, as technically, so from point of view of their material values. From the other hand, they were extremely expressive and immediate (spontaneous?), and it gives them an unbelievable power of impact. As we compare them with later ones, we see, that they weren't made for long meditations, but rather for inspiration and joy.

Second period would be the time, when the Christian church gets officially recognized by the state. So, the huge temples need different type of imagery, and artists have to develop in their profession. We see enormous mosaic decorations, we see churches, all painted with frescoes and decorated with precious marbles inside, but the main goal is still to inspire believers (and convert non-believers) with divine glory, love and power of image. Even in these very expensive works we are not forced to think, how much would this gold or these buildings cost, but we first are impressed by the images, by their impact, as it was in catacombs in a smaller and simpler environment.

And this is the time, when we first meet type of image, which in Russian we used to call icons - portable painted panels, made for personal devotion and prayer. These images can also be simple, but, being made for a long time prayer and contemplation, they are painted in an appropriate way, - a meditative and thoughtful.

For an early Christian or medieval person their difference from wall-paintings and miniatures is obvious, because their purpose is clearly different. If, as we said earlier, murals are made to tune to joyful and inspired posture, icons are rather compared to our understanding of a friend's photograph.Not exactly like that, but let's start form a simple example - if you have in your office a photograph of a friend, you will not be much happy, if someone would consciously tear it in parts, even if it is just a paper and you can print a dozen of them in a second.

Therefore, the icons, as images for prayer, are considered to posses the uncreated divine energies, which are not material, but it's them, who make the icon sacred. We look at the icon in prayer, and icon is supposed to be a reminder of what Christ or saints may look like. It's not about their realistic likeness, otherwise our mind gets distracted to think, how long was saint Paul's beard or how red was saint Mary Magdalene's hair.

Old icons mostly don't look realistic, they represent "the ideas", but this should not be confused with a common errancy about symbols. Christ on icon is represented as holding a book (or roll), and it is a "sign" of Gospel, not symbol, because we can easily guess of it's meaning by outlook. I say this because so often I hear something like "Icons are full of symbols", and it is not true at all!

Conversily, we can read in the act of the seventh Nicaea's Council, that since church no more is in persecution, painters should not confuse the believers, using symbols, because we can speak openly about our faith with no fear. Like a book, which indicates Gospel, there are other "signs" in icons, which were easily understandable for medieval Christians, because the visual language was the same all over the Oecoumena.

Example: archangels on icons often have kind of long ribbons, starting from their haircut and streaming behind their head on halo, these are "hearers" - their imaginary feature, which gives them a spossibility to hear the will of God. So, the elements of icons can be "read" and explained, but, at the same time, the image is not just a sum of details. It's like a hymn, which is not merely sum of words, but a beautiful poetry, so the icons, - poetic visual literature, made to bring our mind to a concentrated, disciplined prayer.

And concluding, I would quote the most well-known phrase, that "Through image our mind (or our internal vision) is brought to the Prototype", and it's maybe the most universal form. The icons in old dimes were never made as "art pieces", because nothing at that time was made with pure aesthetic purpose. They were made as means of Christian "visual propaganda", and since the very first centuries iconographers started to repeat certain types of images, what we call now to be "iconographic schedule". That's what connects images through 2000 years - they are all (supposingly) recognizable and can be "read". That's where the freedom of artist is limited first.

The second is more important, even if less visible, - that the image is a kind of testimony of faith, made on behalf of (possibly) all the church. It is individual, as writings of church fathers are individual, but at the same time icon is never made as a self-expression. The iconography in this case should be rather compared with a preaching process, when artists "speaks" on behalf on the Church, therefore it just has to be quiet, disciplined and very-well-studied work.

As a matter of fact, that's what makes iconography different from the secular art - iconographer is an artist, free and responsible at the same time.

And as the very last thing, which i feel I just have to write down here. I mean thoughts, I heard from my elder friend, who worked all his life in a liturgical textiles workshop: - "If there would be no limits, art looses something extremely important, like structure and contact to the reality".


September 2013,
St. Petersburg, Russia
By Philip Davydov