Editorial note: We have convinced Aidan Hart to post a chapter from his new book. “Techniques of Icon and Wall Painting” is being hailed as the most comprehensive book to date on practicing the art of Iconography. At 450 pages, with 460 paintings, 150 drawings and covering everything from theology and design to gilding and varnishing, it is a prized possession for anyone interested in the traditional arts. The chapter being serialized over the next weeks is called “Designing Icons”. You will see why Archimandrate Vasileos of Iviron called this book the “Confessio of a man who epitomizes the liturgical beauty of the Orthodox Church”. More details about the book on Aidan’s website.
This is part 2 of a series. Part 1 (In this section, Aidan give us resources on finding icon prototypes while doing the research in designing an icon.)
Having acquainted yourself with the saint’s life the next step is to find prints of their icons. This is where an extensive personal library proves an asset. Accruing one can be the biggest expense in the early years. Don’t omit wall paintings, mosaics and illuminated manuscripts in your search for books: often these have images of saints for whom panel icons are rare or non-existent.
In any icon of a saint what must be followed is the received “likeness”. An icon is a portrait and so needs to reflect what the person looked like, or, which is more common, the physical features that tradition has attached to him or her. With most icons there is no way we can know this side of death if the received features reflect an actual likeness, but for consistency’s sake these do need to be followed. In this way the faithful will be all the more able to recognize the saint, often even without reading the inscription. St John Chrysostom for example has sunken cheeks and wispy beard, St Basil the Great a long pointed black beard and large forehead, and St Nicholas a short white beard, double lobed at the bottom.
Here an important theological point needs to be reiterated. Ultimately what makes an icon an image of the saint and worthy of veneration is the inscription. We recall the words of St Theodore the Studite quoted above: “Christ’s image, on the other hand is called ‘Christ’ because of the signification of the name”. By bearing the saint’s name there exists a connection between icon and prototype, not by identity of nature (the icon remains wood and pigment), but by correspondence of name and person. If this were not so then venerators of an icon would be guilty of unwitting idolatry if the image was not in fact an actual physical likeness.
Some sources and reference aids to help you find icon images are given below:
- The internet. The quickest way to search for icons is through Google’s image search. A large collection can be accessed through www.iconsexplained.com and www.icon-art.info/gallery. Over 100 icons of western Orthodox saints can be found on www.aidanharticons.com. A still larger database of western saints’ icons is on www.allmercifulsavior.com/icons/Western.
- Books and exhibition catalogues. There are so many of these there is no virtue in beginning to list them.
- Iconographer’s Source Book: Contemporary Reference Works by Elizabeth L. Hudgins (Oakwood Publ. 1999). Now out of print, this useful book tells you where to find every saint and feast illustrated in the 97 icon books covered in its bibliography. Its usefulness of course depends on you having access to the books to which it refers.
- Icon cards. Collect any you can lay your hands on, and file them. If friends are visiting a site where there are likely to be cards or books of icons, then ask them to get some for you. Often such places have guides and cards that you can find nowhere else.
It may be that the saint is so recent that photographs of them exist. Such is the case for example with New Martyr Elizabeth and Saint John Maximovitch. These photographs need to be referred to because although an icon uses a degree of abstraction to indicate spiritual realities, it should nevertheless bear a recognizable likeness if the saint’s features are known
As you grow acquainted with the world of icons you will find that their quality varies. So learn to discern which icons to draw upon, or you might find yourself assiduously studying crude or decadent works. There are golden ages and stone ages. Broadly speaking, most works produced in Greek, Balkan and Slavic lands from the eighteenth – or even seventeenth century to the early twentieth century tend to be decadent or else somewhat crude. Even as early as the late fifteenth century, after the fall of Constantinople, one can see a certain rigidity entering icon painting in lands formerly part of the Byzantine empire. Although still essentially traditional in style, the works of the Cretan School for example are somewhat stiff and harsh when compared with earlier periods. At this time the mantle seems to have passed to Russia, where we find the refined works of Dionysius and his school, and of Novgorod.
What of the last one hundred years? Since the beginning of the twentieth century there has been a movement away from the sentimentalism of nineteenth century styles towards traditional forms. Some influential figures in this revival were Photius Kontiglou of Greece, Sister Yuliania (Maria Sakalova) of Russia, and Leonid Ouspensky and Gregory Krug of France.
Among just a few of the many master iconographers alive today we can mention Archimandrite Zenon (Teodor) of Russia, Father Patrick (Doulan) and Vladimir Grygorenko of the U.S., Archimandrite Alexi of Australia, and Father Lukas of Xenophontos Monastery, Mt Athos.
But despite the general revival of traditional iconography, there are plenty of modern icons with very brash pigments, badly drawn, and lacking in sensitivity. Although we can rejoice in the gradual recovery of the icon tradition, we are still in the process of rediscovery. When looking for icon models the student needs discernment, learning how to draw what is good from each model, and leaving aside that which is lacking.
If you are a beginner it is best to copy a single good example of an icon. But even in this case it is beneficial to gather a variety of icons; from a number you can then select the best, and one that most fits the commission. As you progress, you can design a variant version by drawing together elements from different icons. The face should always be based on the best available icon of that saint, but ideas for garments for example can be drawn from images of other saints, as long as their dress accords with the epoch and category of your saint. It could be that the dimensions of the board required by the commission require a redesign. It doesn’t work simply to chop off a bit from a good icon to fit it into a differently proportioned panel. Each icon is a microcosm and so all its components need to harmonize with each other and with the frame.
 An exception to this rule in Russia are the Old Believer icons. The ultra conservative bent of this group of believers meant that their iconography remained virtually untouched by changing currents elsewhere.