Is “Write” Wrong?: A Discussion of Iconology Lingo

Professor John Yiannias, Ph.D., expert in Early Christian and Byzantine Art, University of Pittsburgh, has a bold opinion on the issue of why “write” is the wrong verb to use for making an icon.

“While, on the face of it, the subject may appear only tangentially relevant to American Orthodox history, it is actually rather relevant, in that the term “icon writing” is peculiar to Americans (or, at least, English-speaking) Orthodoxy, and may very likely have originated here in North America.” [1]

In his August 3, 2011 post Is an Icon Painted or “Written?, blogger David also disparages the use of the English verb in all its conjugations (write, writing, written).

“That may seem an odd question, because as any sensible person can see, icons are painted; they are paint applied to a surface of some kind. Why, then, does such a question even arise? The answer lies in the usage by many English-speaking neo-Eastern Orthodox of a kind of affected jargon in referring to icons. They will say one ‘writes’ an icon rather than ‘paints’ it. But the reason for that peculiar usage lies in the differences between the English and the Russian languages.”[2]

Yiannias speculates that the phrase “icon writing” may be a North American invention and Blogger David calls it “neo-Eastern Orthodox … affected jargon”.

A more sympathetic approach as to how the terminology came into use by English-speakers is simply that they learned it from contact, direct or indirect, with Russian-speakers. The term originated from its use in the Russian language, mirroring its Greek antecedents, and has been transferred into English as such. [3]

But Professor Yiannias may be on to something. Not that “the term ‘icon writing’ is peculiar to Americans,” but that it is just plain peculiar in English usage, though not without basis in tradition and in logical applications for English-speakers, as we shall see.

An exploration of Russian verbs

IMG_6576To get a better understanding of the ambiguity that Blogger David says “lies in the differences between the English and the Russian languages”, I interviewed several native Russian-speakers involved in arts performance and/or art pedagogy. Their comments are seasoned with the awareness that imprecise applications may have been derived from linguistic subtleties in the Russian language, which are not precisely transported into English.

First, here is a series of explanations for Russian usage offered by respondents. The contributors are not identified because they are not speaking authoritatively as iconologists, but simply as witnesses of their own language.

Response 1: In Russian we use verb “to write” (писать), not only in reference to icons but also to any art paintings done as well. For example we say “The portrait/still life is written by …” The verb красить (to paint) in Russian refers to what we do on the walls of a house or a fence.

This is a straightforward comment: “write” is used for creating art; “paint” is used for covering fences. But there are more layers to investigate.

Response 2: Let me put a coin to the issue. For example, here are two phrases in English: “A child paints a picture, and an artist paints a picture”. But in Russian, the phrases will contain different words for the each action, thus a child “paints”, but an artist “writes”. This is a feature of the Russian language and of Old Greek (Koiné) as well, but not English.

The semantic differences are not just that Russians use one word for painting fences and another for working with paint artistically. There is even a semantic difference, as noted above, when referring to play-like activity such as that of a child or a hobbyist and the serious activity of an artist, whether the result is a work of fine art or an icon.

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Detail of a work by Serhei Vandalovskiy, National Union of Artists of Ukraine, Kiev

Response 3: The term “to write” is a part of the fine arts vocabulary in Russia. It is used to describe the process of making a painting – any painting, in fact, not just an icon. Using the word “to write” implies a degree of artistry and training. When we talk about serious artworks, a completely new vocabulary kicks in: “to write” instead of “to paint”. That is the way the Russians describe this in Russian among themselves, “This is an icon of the Holy Trinity [written] by Rublev,” or “This is the portrait of Baroness Snivelnosenko [written] by the famous Russian painter Pavel Dirtybrushnikoff.” If a person says something like “he painted a portrait”, he or she would be reprimanded for improper use of language: “One paints a house or a wall, not a portrait, you simpleton!”

 

My Russian-speaking respondents corroborated further on verb nuances that define two ways to describe the art of picture-making.

Response 4: The verb for “рисовать” (to draw) is used when done on paper with pencils, charcoal etc. The resulting artwork is “рисунок”, a drawing. But even when paint and brushes are used by a child or hobbyist, the verb “рисовать” (to draw) is used. When it comes to a work done by a trained artist, however, a different verb is used, i.e. “писать” (to write), and the product is “картина”, a painting. Thus, “писать картину” (to write a painting) should be used. [4]

Reading and writing

Inscribing the halo

Inscribing the halo

Adopting Russian expressions in their translation, where separate Russian verbs are related to the activity for which English has only one, accounts for the odd usage of “writing an icon”. That the verbal adoption is only partial, being limited to icons and not applied to all fine art, has to do with the context in which English-speakers encountered the terminology.

For Protestants, especially, and Roman Catholics to the extent they have forgotten their art history, the icon itself is an exotic import – a peculiar thing that needs explaining. A painted surface that is said by Russians to be “written” necessarily implies to English-speakers that it should be read. This may not logically follow from the verb “писать (to write) in Russian as it does when translated into English, but there are some conceptual benefits to this borrowed verbiage when used figuratively and not stressed too rigidly nor pushed too far.

Western Christians, whether “neo-Eastern Orthodox”, Roman Catholic or Protestant, need only look to their own history of ecclesial art prior to the Renaissance revolution of naturalism to dust off some of the exoticness of icons. The symbolic and analogical language in medieval art of the Roman Church was, for the most part, held in common with ecclesial art of the Orthodox Christian East. In the East this image-language persisted in icons, though not without a courageous struggle against iconoclasm – Byzantine and Soviet.

Illuminated manuscripts and other ecclesial art of the Middle Ages in western Europe employed the same pictorially language of simultaneous narrative, a horizon-less and three-tiered stage, and a system of symbols as is generally found in Orthodox icons. Modern westerners, both European and American (perhaps to greater measure), often need an interpreter, so to speak, who can “read” this strange and forgotten language that was represented on a painted surface for Christian civilization (East and West) that understood its meaning without an explainer.

 

Circa 966: Cover from Charter for the dedication of New Minster, a Benedictine Abbey in Winchester England - King Edgar in supplication before Christ in majesty

(Circa 966) Cover of the Charter for the dedication of New Minster, a Benedictine Abbey in Winchester England – King Edgar in supplication before Christ in majesty

The recent popularity of Eastern Orthodox iconographic art among westerners can be nostalgic and even “affected”, but it is also an earnest longing to become fluent in a language of images from which they have been distanced because it is no longer or barely used in western paintings of religious subjects. It is in this sense that the way Russians (and Greeks) refer to icons as “written” resonates with English-speakers as being appropriate rather than peculiar.

Response 5: Regarding “reading” the painting. During my college days in Russia, we had an instructor of fine arts who taught us how to “read” a painting. She tried to pull us away from a purely sensory perception of art. She said that if we were only to use our senses to appreciate a work of art, we could do so with an abstract painting. For representational works, however, in which images of persons, places and events are depicted, “reading” is a must. Here is the example of such reading:

_MSR8548_crucifixion cropped annaTheotokos

[ In one painting I see a man attached to a wooden pole with the beam. There is a woman standing next to him. She has a circle around her head and she is dressed in a purplish cloak. She looks sad. Who is she? Is she a relative? Perhaps, a wife? The naked man also has a round circle around his head, but with odd-looking shapes and symbols placed within the circle. In another painting I see the same woman in the same cloak and with the same circle around her head, but this time she is holding a baby. The baby also has a circle around his head with the same odd markings inside the circle as that of the naked man. She must be his mother. ]

The whole semester we did not touch on style or technique. Instead, we “read” the paintings. It was a remarkable exercise, for it allowed us to see far more than we otherwise would. Up to that point, all we had seen was the technique of “how” a painting is executed. But if all you see is the “how”, then artists would paint stills and landscapes and nothing else. The moment a human figure enters the painting, the “who”, “what” and “why” begins. And for that, “reading” the painting is a key to its understanding.

Even in the English language, “reading” is not a one-dimensional verb exclusively associated with paper and writing. Do we not speak of “reading” a person’s face or “reading” the clouds for favorable or threatening weather? Do we not also stretch our verbs when we say, “It is written on her face or it is written in the sky”? If English-speakers can take poetic liberty with their verbiage regarding faces and clouds, how is it that the use of “write” is peculiar when it comes to the careful assembly of painted images in the icon intended to convey a theological message?

Here, we leave behind the contrived necessity for adhering to Russian parlance to take on English expressions that have become accidentally useful in understanding the icon. In this context it is possible to support the terminology across linguistic divides.

Icons as statements of dogma

The icon is unlike other painted works of art in that its subject matter has an authoritative textual basis, whether Holy Scripture, accepted apocryphal writings or hagiography. This can be said of other examples of religious art, but not to the same degree of faithfulness to textual detail. Icons are, in fact, statements of dogma expressed in images that are painted on a surface. Dogma is received from the Church rather than conceived in the imagination of the artist. Thus, the images in icons should so accurately illustrate and correspond to sacred texts such that an illiterate person can see in the icons what he or she hears read in the services of the Church, i.e. language inscriptions translated into descriptive images.

Paul Gauguin (1888), “Vision after the Sermon (Jacob Wrestles with the Angel)”

Gauguin’s [vision] of Jacob wrestling with the angel is loosely based on passages found in the Book of Genesis, but without a hint of dogmatic information.

Icon from Holy Hesychasterion of John the Evangelist and Theologian in Souroti, Thessaloniki.

Icon from Holy Hesychasterion of John the Evangelist and Theologian in Souroti, Thessaloniki.

The icon from Holy Hesychasterion of John the Evangelist and Theologian in Thessaloniki, however, represents the text in minute detail: “Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!” (Genesis 28:12, 13). “So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower Jacob, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man” (Genesis 32:24, 25).

In the latter example, the images are analogous to a transcription of scriptural text expressed pictorially.  Whatever the etymological origins of the Russian verb “писать” (to write), and however inconsistently English-speakers have appropriated it as being unique to icons, it has acquired a metaphorical relevance in the rediscovery of an ecclesial language once commonly understood by all Christians.

When is “write” wrong?

Because the artistry of the icon has been widely popularized, examples of its abuse are rife. Celebrated personalities are often presented in iconesque-fashion merely to proclaim their ephemeral importance in current culture. By contrast, saying that one “writes” an icon or that an icon is “written” does little harm as long as it is used by English-speakers as a metaphorical extrapolation rather than a prescription.  ” …  as any sensible person can see, icons are painted.”

In spite of the fact that the linguistic bastard “to write” was spawned from a collision of languages, its usage has been widely established and will be difficult to abolish. Why all the fuss about an innocuous neologism that helps to explain the visual-load of theological and historical information concerning the life of the Church?

For starters, being purposely odd serves no honest purpose. Saying that one “writes” an icon can be, and sometimes is, “affected jargon” – a kind of NEON Orthodox-speak of the cognoscenti who insist upon the verbiage as the only proper way to refer to the process and the product. As has been demonstrated, Russian use of the term “to write” is a part of their fine arts vocabulary and is used “to describe the process of making a painting – any painting, not just an icon”.

The English language has none of the imbedded linguistic references that my Russian respondents have noted which would indicate a preference for the use of “write” over “paint”. A surface filled with theologically didactic-delivery can be spoken of as being either painted or written without suffering diminishment. There are no canons requiring or restricting this verbiage in English derived from Russian via Greek and possibly Italian influences (see footnote 4). As one respondent said, “In English, I prefer ‘to paint icons’ and ‘write letters’.”

At the same time, those who police the verbiage to exclude the use of “write, writing, written” in English can be equally totalitarian to the point of correcting Russians. Used metaphorically the adopted terminology (albeit having a specific Russian linguistic basis) can be revelatory to English-speakers as to the particular purpose of icons, that is to articulate through images the textual content to which icons refer. In this sense an icon can be said to be “written” for the right reasons.

The greater risk of implementing derivative iconology-lingo is in harkening to Russian/Greek imports as an opportunity for Gnostic invention. Again, one of my respondents: “The use of the word ‘write’ has absolutely no extra or esoteric connotation. That’s simply the way things are spoken in Russian, and in our language and culture it all makes sense. But when transplanted into English, such direct translations may come across as having some additional hidden meaning.”

Indeed, there is need for concern about [adding] hidden meanings. Popularized distortions of the icon, such as those mentioned above, are as common as they are dismissible. Camp iconic portraiture seeks its own celebrated ends. But concocting theological airs, using a familiar symbolic system but assigning to it a private interpretation ostensibly “written” in the icon, is as troublesome as it is tortured. Examples of this couched Gnosticism are not easily identified. And, as with many examples of esoterism, the promise of special knowledge is perennially alluring.

One signal that should arouse concern is when the meaning of the process and the product is overworked. When every material component of the icon and every technique used to accomplish it are given a special tag that purportedly reveals not only cosmic mysteries, but also the situation of one’s soul when painting/writing an icon – beware!

Herein, we have come very far from friendly bickering over whether “write” is wrong or right.

Postscript
Response 6: Here is an analogy for the use of “write” and “paint” in fine arts. Whether one “writes” an icon or “paints” it, the result is the same – an icon. It’s like the difference between a chef and a cook. After all, the result is the same – the food in front of you on the table. But many people would object to calling a chef a cook.

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[1] From an article written by John Yiannias, Ph.D. in Early Christian and Byzantine Art from the University of Pittsburgh. His remarks were originally delivered as an addendum to a talk given at the Orthodox Theological Society in America meeting in Chicago, IL, June 13, 2008.] http://orthodoxhistory.org/2010/06/08/icons-are-not-written/

[2] “Is an icon painted or written?” Blogger David, http://russianicons.wordpress.com/tag/jargon/

[3] The word iconography comes from the Greek εικονογραφία, a combination of εἰκών (“image”) and γράφειν (“to write”).

[4] It is interesting and apropos to the discussion that the Russian word for a painting is ‘kartina’, which is not etymologically Russian, but a loan word from Italian via Latin (cartina, meaning a small piece of paper). Cognates such as ‘chart’ and ‘carta’ (as in Magna Carta) are associated with paper and writing. The use of ‘kartina’, however, is a relatively recent linguistic development in Russian, no earlier than the 17th century.” Since the linguistic root of the word that Russians use for ‘painting’ is related to paper and writing, this may account for why the Russian verb ‘to write’ is used when referring to fine art, including icons.

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21 comments for “Is “Write” Wrong?: A Discussion of Iconology Lingo

  1. Father Theodore
    December 26, 2013 at 10:45 pm

    A helpful and sensible article. Thank you!

  2. December 27, 2013 at 4:46 am

    Great discussion Mary. In french we have similar linguistic differentiation, that is the verb “peindre” is for fine art and the word “peinturer” is for fences and walls, both have the same root but are distinct in usage. So in french we see more clearly the jargon use of “write” because although we have similar though not identical distinctions in the language, many Orthodox still use the word “écrire” (write) and it is clear there is some kind of elite feeling of somehow showing we know what icons are by demonstrating we are “initiated” to the special language about them. Luckily for me, I often have the opportunity to put people in uncomfortable neo-Orthodox situations. When looking at my icons, many stutter and hesitate because I can hardly be said to “write” icons in any way. I CARVE them! Problem avoided…

  3. John Auger
    December 27, 2013 at 9:10 am

    Great article. It helps to clarify the use of the term “write” when referring to “painting” an icon. I have experienced firsthand what you described when you wrote: “every material component of the icon and every technique used to accomplish it are given a special a tag that purportedly reveals not only cosmic mysteries, but also the situation of one’s soul when painting/writing an icon.” I have since learned that this is indeed Gnostic and forcibly esoteric, purportedly based upon personal Divine revelation. These so-called revelations are now being discussed openly in Russia as being truly heretical and based upon personal theology not found in authentic Orthodox teachings. Thanks again for posting this article as it was indeed helpful to understand the reason why “write” is used when describing the creation of an icon.

  4. o. David
    December 27, 2013 at 11:32 am

    If one insists that iconographers “write” iconography, I would suggest that he or she be consistent and say that photographers “write” photography, cartographers “write” maps, and pornographers “write” pornography.

    • December 27, 2013 at 11:47 am

      Really, O. David? I hardly see how that follows. But your comment is a good discussion point that I look forward to seeing others address.

  5. o. David
    December 27, 2013 at 12:02 pm

    If some will insist (and sometimes, in a very belligerent way) that the “-graphy” in “iconography” needs to be translated as “write” then why not the “-graphy” in other words? It’s the same root.

    I suppose it speaks to the penchant we Orthodox have for creating secondary and tertiary meanings that–while pious and nice–have little grounding in our real history.

    To share a personal anecdote, I was once accosted by an employee at an Episcopal cathedral’s gift shop for asking who *painted* an icon in their store. As I was being schooled by this nice old lady, I couldn’t help but think “Listen, I’m *Orthodox* and you’re not. Don’t tell me about my own tradition!” I was much more polite than that, though!

  6. December 27, 2013 at 5:41 pm

    Great article, Mary. Thanks.
    I use the word ‘make’ icons. It avoids the paint/write icon dance. However, when the technique to be used is petit lac the lines, which constrain the spread of color, are enscribed with a pointed tool. There is actual drawing, an actual type of writing going on. It may just be that a certain word defines an action appropriate to the task. Translations, or American usage, write or paint, lets be gentle with one another. “I would rather love than be right” In heaven it is how we treat people more than what we called our labors that counts.

    • December 27, 2013 at 6:54 pm

      Bess, thank you. The nudge to be gentle is why I wrote the article. As one associate told me, “I never realized these were fighting words.” Neither did I, but for some the use of “write” summons passionate opposition. My purpose in writing the article was to defuse the argument either for or against by exploring its origins and both its positive and negative implications for English-speakers. Personally, it is a non-issue, but the conversation is worth having and I welcome the engagement. BTW, I also like to say “make” an icon to avoid “fighting words”.

  7. December 28, 2013 at 4:56 pm

    As a painter (and professor), I do find these kinds of semantic discussions pointless–or, I should say, missing the point. In my art history lectures, I have a section devoted to the connection of image-making and written language. Written language began as pictures and over time became more abstract and symbolic, to the point that now in order to read the “pictures” of, say, English, one has to know how to decipher the “code.” For an example, I draw a little picture of a generic “tree” and then I write the word “tree”. Then I ask the students which is more abstract. They often say ‘the picture’–but this of course is wrong. The only reason they pick the ‘word’ is that they know the English language’s code (to anyone not knowing English, the word is incomprehensible), whereas nearly anyone who has seen a tree would understand what the picture ‘represents’. So are icons written? Yes. Are they painted? Yes. But we would say the same thing of any art, no matter how ‘realistic’ or ‘abstract’. Written language is, after all, the most abstract way to ‘re-present’ (picture) the world (notice, too, that we re-image the words in our minds as we read). I would also add that the effort to distance the icon from aesthetic considerations both diminishes the power of beauty and beauty’s connection to worship. To say the icon is primarily a ‘written’ theology is, I think, again, to miss the wholeness of the Orthodox worship experience, which is always both aesthetic and theological at once.

    • December 28, 2013 at 7:22 pm

      Excellent comment, Prof Adams! ” … the effort to distance the icon from aesthetic considerations both diminishes the power of beauty and beauty’s connection to worship. To say the icon is primarily a ‘written’ theology is, I think, again, to miss the wholeness of the Orthodox worship experience, which is always both aesthetic and theological at once.” I hope that my reference to icons “as statements of dogma” in no way “diminishes” their aesthetic role. My intention was to demonstrate that their imagery accords with Church teaching, which we receive from sacred texts. But as we know, the earliest icons actually sprung from oral tradition, and, in the case of catacomb portraiture of saints such as those of Peter, Paul, Andrew, John, etc., from contemporary witnesses of their physiognomy, which the Church preserves through Her iconographic art when depicting them. Your point is well taken, nevertheless: the “wholeness” of Orthodox theology is experienced in Beauty expressed through auditory iconography (liturgical poetry sung and the reading/chanting of sacred texts), the architectural icon of the cosmos composed of structural material, and the pictorial imagery that inhabits it. Semantic quibbling over write/paint/brick-laying/harmonics is missing the purpose of the means to Orthodox worship “both aesthetic and theological at once”. Thank you, come again.

      • December 29, 2013 at 12:30 pm

        No, insisting on the icon’s theology in no way diminishes its beauty. I certainly did not wish to imply that, but simply that you cannot–without distorting the incarnational basis of the icon–separate the two. The real problem in a lot of these kinds of discussions is in how people understand Beauty. Like you, I prefer to capitalize it. I do not see beauty as some kind of adornment that exists on the surface of things, but rather as a manifestation of Divine presence, the essence of being, a manifestation of the Kingdom of God. Beauty can, as Soloviev said when writing about Dostoevsky’s conception of Beauty, become an idol when it is artificially separated from Truth and Goodness. I think the icon, in this sense, serves as a symbol, a “binding together”, of these three ideas. The individual icons don’t do this alone, however, but exist as part of a much larger “Icon” that begins in the dome of the church with the Christ Pantocrator, down through the various hierarchies of the Apostles, saints, the iconostas, the clergy, the gathered faithful, and from there out into the world. This attraction of beauty (its power) then gathers all of reality, like a solar system, toward the center, which is Christ, the “Sun of Righteousness”.

      • January 18, 2014 at 3:25 pm

        Ah, Mary. Thank you for your gentleness and gentle way of being. It seems to me a Christly way to live.

  8. December 31, 2013 at 1:52 pm

    Marianne Poulos offers a timely comment on the discussion: “Etymology of the Greek word -graphy ‘process of writing or recording’ or “a from Greek -graphia ‘description of,’ from graphein ‘write, express by written characters,’ earlier ‘to draw, represent by lines drawn,’ originally ‘to scrape, scratch’ (on clay tablets with a stylus)

    Graphia originally related to both pictures/glyphs/lines used for both drawing and writing. [This is the reason the Greeks still use Greek in the Divine Liturgy. It’s like sacrilege to go from the original to the watered down version in translation. So much is lost!]”

    While I limited my remarks to the etymology of Russian verbs (because I hang out with Russians), Marianne Poulos has elucidated the Greek origins of the Russian construction. Thank you!

    And just a memo in defense of my objective in writing the article; it was intended to be a synthesis of both positions in the debate, not an either or partisanship for the “left” or the “right” hand. Both Andrew and Jonathan have masterfully dissected the implications of partisanship and extended the conversation to epistemological dimensions. What delightful results!

  9. Dana Ames
    January 1, 2014 at 6:19 pm

    Good article; thanks.

    No matter which word one prefers, I think the most important thing is to seek humility and avoid snobbery and condescension.

    Interestingly, the etymology of the English “write” is traced back to Old Saxon “writan,” which developed into the modern German cognate “ritzen,” to scratch, as in what a quill pen does on paper, or to carve (Ave, Jonathan…). Modern German for “write” is “schreiben,” which of course derives from the Latin “scribo,” whence we also get the English “inscribe” as to etch. So it all goes around in a circle in English, too.

    Dana

    • January 2, 2014 at 1:14 pm

      Nice! I didn’t know these etymologies. Great comment.

  10. January 8, 2014 at 2:40 pm

    My wife and I are preparing an essay on this point (stressing the Greek terms and their change over time, among other foundational matters), which we hope to finish sometime this calendar year. In the meantime, we have the various recently published essays listed here:
    http://sacredpresence.com/iconography-links.html

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