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The Tradition of Iconography

The Tradition of the Church is expressed not only though words, not only through the actions and gestures used in worship, but also through art - through the line and color of the Holy Icons.

An icon is not simply a religious picture designed to arouse appropriate emotions in the beholder; it is one of the ways whereby God is revealed to us. Through icons the Orthodox Christian receives a vision of the spiritual world. Because the icon is part of Tradition, icon painters are not free to adapt their own aesthetic sentiments, but the mind of the Church. Artistic inspiration is not excluded, but it is exercised within certain prescribed rules. It is important that icon painters should be good artists, but it is even more important that they should be sincere Christians, living within the spirit of Tradition, preparing themselves for their work by means of Confession and Holy Communion.

Not anyone can be an iconographer. One must be a member of the Orthodox Church and chosen by God. The icon is one of the many mysteries of the Orthodox Church. Imagination, personal ideas, human emotion, and the self, has no place in iconography. The iconographer, just as all Orthodox Christians, must be humble of heart. The Iconographer will have the Holy Spirit dwelling in him fully, in order to allow God to work through Him. The iconographer is merely a tool. The Holy Spirit is the conductor, the guide. The face is the central focus of the icon. There is a unique approach to it. The icon must bring to the heart and mind, to the soul and spirit, the presence of God, and His grace in a literal way.

The face, along with the subtle gestures of the body; the feet, and hands, the entire body, even the posture is significant. Even the technique of applying the paint to the drawing, which will become the icon, makes the difference between a truly beautiful icon, and one that is flawed. Byzantine iconography has a religious function. It seeks to express spiritual things in order thereby to help man rise to a higher level of being, to lift his soul to the blessedness of God." Iconography is not meant to serve the passions, but calm them, to bring the onlooker into a truer, and higher reality than secular, worldly art. When we gaze upon the icon, when we pray before the icon, we are in communion with God and His Saints. The icons intention is to bring about repentance, and to ask God to lift our minds and hearts, to a less worldly, but more pious level of spirituality. The icon should soothe the passions and calm our rage.When we look at the icon, the icon will suggest to our minds to pray, if we are spiritually opened to its message.

When we venerate the icon, when we kiss them, when we speak to Christ, or the Theotokos, and the Saints and the angels through the icon, they receive our kiss, they hear our voice. By the power of divine Grace these actions pass though the icon and are received by the prototype. When the iconographer has finished painting the icon, the last thing he/she puts on the icon is the name of the Saint. At once, as soon as the name is painted on the icon, the Saint becomes present in the icon, and at this point is what makes the icon holy, but not only the spirit of the Saint, but the Grace and mystical energy of God enters into it.

The iconographer possesses an unbelievable gift from God. He/She is able to bring the Saints, the angels, the Theotokos, and even Christ God Himself to earth. They are present with us, in their icons. They are there in a very literal way; mystically, spiritually. "In truth, how strange is God's will! He has chosen humble matter, which we despise, to make it into a vehicle of His Grace. The oil of Holy Unction, the water of Baptism, the myrrh of Holy Chrism, the bread and wine of the Holy Eucharist the bodies of the Saints, and their icons; all these material things, nevertheless, raise us to Heaven, much more than those great and sublime ideas which we men conceive with our poor minds."

The 1st Orthodox Christian Icon

A legend passed down for nearly 2000 years describes the first icon. At the time when Christ was traveling to Jerusalem where He would experience the trial and crucifixion, King Abgar of Edessa sent for Jesus. Christ could not go to the King, so instead He sent a linen cloth on which He had dried His face. The story continues that the cloth carried to the King had an impression of Christ’s face on it. The King’s illness was healed when the cloth was taken to him. This first icon, “not made by human hands”, began a tradition of portraying Christ and the saints in pictorial fashion. In the Orthodox Church an icon is a sacred image, a window into heaven. An image of another reality, of a person, time and place that is more real than here and now. More than art, icons have an important spiritual role.

The primary purpose of the icon is to help in worship and its design follows that purpose. Through lines and color the iconographer conveys the awesomeness of the invisible, divine reality(Evdokimov, 1990). The creation of an icon is defined by tradition. That is a 21st century iconographer would not decide to change the shape of Christ’s face. It is understood that a person who saw them in the flesh painted the first icon of an individual. St. Luke is accredited with painting the first icons of Christ and Mary the Blessed Virgin. Each subsequent iconographer will use the original icon as a guide. There is room for a small amount of stylistic change but tradition limits the options for that change ( Forest, 1997).


"Lord Jesus Christ our God, uncircumcised in your divine nature, having become inexpressibly incarnate for the salvation of man ultimately by the Virgin Mother of God, Mary, has become worthy of circumscription. 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 and who, through thy holy spirit brought wisdom to the holy apostle and evangelist Luke to depict the form 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'', the same, o God and master of all things, enlighten and bring wisdom to the soul and heart and mind of thy servant {name } and direct these 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 splendor and beautification of thy holy church, and the remission of the sins of those worshiping in regard to the church and devoutly kissing and so referring honor to the prototype, redeem him from all harm inflicted by the devil, as he diligently follows all the commands of the ministers of thy immaculate mother, of the holy and illustrious apostle and evangelist, Luke, and of all the saints. Amen".
******************************************From: "The painters manual of Dionysios of Fourna" St. Petersburg 1909

WHO MAY PAINT ICONS? Iconography is a calling, not a chosen profession. It is a special office of the Church. Not everyone may paint icons. No more than just anyone may be a priest. God appoints the iconographer as he appoints his priests. It is a privilege, not a right. He has the Grace to do what God has called the iconographer to do. In other words, what brings the icon to life is the Grace of God through the iconographer. Just as the icon is painted when the brush is used by the iconographer and can not become a reality without the iconographer which uses the paint and brush as his tool, the reality becomes a living thing through the iconographer [Gods tool] by Gods Grace. The icon then need not be blessed by a priest, it is a blessing. itself. The hand of the iconographer is guided by the Holy Spirit just as the iconographer guides the brush. What he produces is the Will of the Spirit. Once the name of the Saint is written on the icon the spirit of the saint enters into it. Therefore, an icon need not be blessed by a priest nor, as some do, place it on the altar for 40 days. The icon is sanctified by the very "writing" of an icon. Lastly, you must ask yourself, if the "icon" is not actually an icon, and does not possess the Grace given to it unless blessed by a priest, then what is it before a priest blesses it, and what is special, if anything, about the iconographer?

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