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Friday, August 12, 2011

The Icon Painter

Photo: the interior of the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Jordanville,
showing the iconstasis that separates sanctuary from nave.
For more pictures of the cathedral and monastery, go here.

I find it fascinating when I encounter somebody who thinks in a way that is to some degree fresh and new to me. It is interesting to try and enter in and follow along the path of thought and belief. Probably I am an utter oddball in this, as I notice in this country and elsewhere a great deal of hatred and disgust expressed toward the political, religious, or artistic beliefs of others, often on the part of "educated" people who sometimes appear to have been indoctrinated by their learning rather than having had their heads opened up to new ways of thinking and the refreshing idea that all people do not think alike yet somehow still deserve our respect. I’ve never been able to understand why people can’t enjoy and find interest in variation more than they do (would we want to be lockstep, really?), but it is the way of the world.

Yesterday I heard an icon painter from the Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox monastery in Jordanville give a talk (and he brought loads of icons, large and small, both reproductions of icons from Russia and Bulgaria and Greece and more, as well his own originals) on icons. As I am not quite sure he would like his name mentioned, I shall not mention it!  I’ve heard an iconographer speak previously and encountered icons in college classes long ago and even have a few, but I must say I learned more from this talk than I ever have before.

This talk was part of a six-lecture series on Arts & Theology (Emily Hylden, Marly Youmans, Yolanda Sharpe, Ashley Norwood Cooper, and Roberta Rowland-Raybold were the other speakers) sponsored by Christ Church Cooperstown and Cooperstown IAM. The series has been directed by Emily Hylden.


I had forgotten that the Holy Spirit wears green when represented as an angel or personage in icons. (Back to thinking about those foliate heads on medieval churches again…) The icon painter referred to the famous Andrei Rublev icon in which Father, Son, and Holy Spirit appear as three unified figures, referring to the visit of three angels to Abraham and Sarah (Abraham refers to the three in the singular, illuminating the visit as one from God.)

On Orthodox church murals that run from floor to apex, the Pantokrator (God the judge of all) is at the top and the saints are at the bottom level because the church is founded on the blood of the saints.

The icon painter is constantly aware that human beings are icons of Christ; that is, they bear the image of Christ. This is a gift because before Christ, we had no image of God, and to see God in any form was felt to be fearsome.

Coming to have the likeness of God is the struggle. Because we bear the image (no matter how wretched our behavior), even the worst sort of murderer is owed some sort of homage—he may have nothing of the likeness of Christ, yet he bears the image. This idea is interesting, no? It gives a reason to pay a sort of obeisance and respect to the very least and the most degraded among us.The more naturalistic the icon, the less desirable to the Orthodox because the divine aspect is lost or obscured. 

The Orthodox icon is not meant to be prettified.

Traditional tempera paint is composed of egg yolk (and eggs are linked to the resurrection of Christ and new life) and crushed pigments, suggestive of brokenness. (Here I am thinking of a painter friend—Makoto Fujimura and his nihongan paintings that use crushed jewels, and his focus on brokenness and the broken jar of ointment for Christ’s anointing.)

Continued here...


  1. Ooh, splendid and fascinating, I'll come back for those links.

  2. Lots of interesting pictures in those links...

    Shall post more notes tomorrow. Some elements are rather wild. But interesting.

    Back to polishing a ms.!

  3. I've had just enough contact with the Tibetan traditions of sacred painting to have a huge respect for what their work and their aims. (And to be intensely irritated by seeing them used as pretty, exotic decorations.)

  4. Dale, that reminds me of something related to your comment and this post--that once for a very brief period I had a young maid (wish!) to help me with the three-child mess and my need for time to write. She worked at the monastery guest house in Jordanville, and she told me that she had tried to explain to a well-educated woman for whom she also cleaned that the wall in her bathroom covered with traditional icons was highly offensive to her--that it was wrong to hang them there. I guess it was impossible to convey...

    Of course, I have some souvenirs from Thailand and Cambodia that mean something to me in an entirely different way than they would to a native of the place, so I probably don't have a proper stance worked out! One succumbs to adorable little children selling trinkets and ends up with pockets full of brass Ganeshes and so forth. And then there is the question of ancient temple art that feels almost as alien to them as to a visitor... If you bring home a reproduction, what does that mean? You found it fascinating, liked the design and sense of history? Is that wrong?

    Okay, millions of questions there and I must ignore them and polish my manuscript. By!

  5. Fascinating, looking forward to more. I'm no recalling the lovely Icons in the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Helsinki and the Valamo Monastery in eastern Finland's Lake region (also Russian Orthodox). The latter was rescued and moved there from Russia during the war. There were icon painters amongst the monks (is that what they are called in that faith?. Lovely work there, even for sale as I recall, along with their own pottery, fruit wines, etc.

  6. Yes, monks!

    One of the links is to the Jordanville studio where they make reproduction-on-board icons, but there's not anything about the original ones painted there... They have a shop as well. I have not been there for a long time, but I do remember lots of icons and books and candles.

  7. :-) Well, of course they *are* curious and compelling, when you view them from outside the tradition. And sometimes beautiful and deeply moving, even if you don't know why. And I mostly get irritated out of a wholly ridiculous sense of ownership ("that's *my* iconography, how dare you!") But there's also a sense of loss and waste, that someone took a spiritual tickle and turned it into an accent for their interior decorating.

  8. Dale: agreed. There are all sorts of interesting problems and issues there. And of course the tourism business all over the world loves converting the meaningful into the meaningless.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.