What is iconography?

In spite of contemporary usage an icon is not a person of fame or note, or an ideal representative of a sport or any other field of human endeavour!

In its correct usage it refers to a holy picture of Christ, of his Mother, of a saint, or a scene from the lives of any of these.

A correctly written icon is produced using traditional materials and according to traditional patterns. Strictly speaking an icon is said to have been “written” because the primary icon, Jesus Christ is an icon of the Father. Jesus is, according to St John, the Divine Word, and words are written. However, they are often spoken of as having been painted, and the present author was once told never to speak of icons as “written” because, although strictly speaking correct, it would show him up as a convert! (Something about converts being more catholic than the pope!).

The first icons

The first Christian icons can perhaps be traced back to the scenes painted on the walls and ceilings of the Roman catacombs in the early centuries of Christianity. These developed into the frescoes characteristic of many Orthodox churches, which themselves were based on the rules of iconography.

According to an ancient tradition, St Luke, a companion of St Paul, and writer of the third Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles was also a painter. To him are attributed a number of ancient icons of the Virgin Mary which are preserved mainly in monasteries in traditional Orthodox countries. In general it is difficult to see these because they are covered with a protective silver facing called a ritza. However, there is an icon attributed to St Luke which can be seen in the Syrian Orthodox Church of St Mark in Jerusalem, and we have a photograph of this in St Edwards.

Icons are painted on panels, usually of wood. The earliest icons were made using encaustic technique which originated in classical times, probably in Egypt. This involves using wax and pigments. There are very few produced by this method that have survived, due to the destruction of icons on a massive scale during the iconoclast controversy in the 8th and 9th centuries. Some of the oldest surviving icons are to be seen in the desert monastery of St Catherine at the foot of Mt Sinai.

The encaustic method went out of use relatively early, and the present accepted, or “correct” technique is to prepare a board with gesso, which gives a good, reflective, white base. A number of coats are applied, and each is ground down to give a perfectly smooth surface. If the icon is to be gilded, the design of the icon is marked out on the gesso, and gold leaf is applied to the areas to be gilded before applying any paint

The next stage involves the application of the first layer of colour, using egg tempera and natural pigments. With each succeeding layer, more detail is added. The final stage the painting is of the hands and face, the face in particular giving detail to the icon which makes it recognisable as the person it represents.

The final stage is the writing in of the name of the subject of the icon, or of the event.

According to some it is the naming of the icon that gives it its identity, and no further blessing is necessary, but in practice icons are normally blessed, often by keeping them within the Altar of the church for a period of at least 40 days after which it may be further blessed by the priest.  Alternatively the figures depicted may be anointed with the Holy Chrism.

Some characteristics of icons

An icon, once blessed, conveys something of the person that it represents. A skilled iconographer is able to represent an element of the unworldly which may attract even some who would not claim to be religious in any sense. It takes us out of, and beyond, ourselves, and one way in which it does this is by the subtle reversal of perspective in the composition.

To take just one example, one of the best known icons is the Trinity, based upon the Hospitality of Abraham, by St Andrei Rublev, a Russian iconographer of the late 14th and early 15th centuries. The scene is of three angels seated at a table, but the perspective of to the table is reversed. Instead of the front being wider, and the back narrower, the reverse is the case. The same applies when a saint is depicted holding a book or, e.g. Christ is seated with his feet on a footstool. The perspective of the footstool is reversed. This has the effect of tending to draw us into the scene.

Specialists on the subject will also show diagrams of the basic geometry of the design of an icon, and how the different figures are related to one another by this means.

Purpose built Orthodox churches will usually have walls covered by frescos, painted according to the traditional principles of iconography. Perhaps the most impressive will be the Christ Pantocrator (Ruler of All) in the dome of the church, and another of the Virgin Mary, or Theotokos (Mother of God) in the semi-dome of the apse at the east end of the church, behind the Holy Table. There are also particular icons associated with different parts of the church. For instance, behind the Prothesis (the table to the left of the Holy Table, where the bread and wine for the Liturgy are prepared before the Liturgy, there is usually an icon of the Nativity (birth) of Christ.

The Iconostasis

Often, the first thing that strikes people on entering an Orthodox church is the iconostasis, or icon screen, which completely separates the space of the church into two parts. The area beyond the screen is known as the Altar, in the centre of which is the Holy Table. Someone who passes through the screen is said to hove “gone into the Altar”. It Is the part of the church which is reserved to the clergy, and where they serve the Divine Liturgy. Those below the order of Deacon (acolytes, readers etc.) may enter the altar only with the blessing of the priest. Women are not normally permitted to enter.

In the early centuries, when the first permanent churches were built, there was normally a rail of maybe no more than three feet in height. This separated the Altar from the Nave. In some places there was a curtain that could be drawn across to veil the Holy Table at certain times, It became the custom to place icons on this structure. Then it was only a matter of time before these were incorporated into a permanent screen.

Our iconostasis follows the conventional pattern. In the centre are the Royal Doors, through which only the clergy may pass, and on either side are the doors through which processions pass, usually from the left to the right. The left hand door is known as the Deacon’s Door because it is from this door that the deacon comes out for the various litanies, for which he is responsible. The lower icons, at eye level are, on the right Christ; on the left the Mother of God; to the right of Christ is John the Baptist; and to the left of the Mother of God, the patron Saint of the church. In larger churches, where there is more space there may be other saints e.g. 55. Peter and Paul; the Archangels, Michael and Gabriel. On the Royal Doors themselves, there may be icons of the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; or there may be icons of the Annunciation, with the Archangel Gabriel on the left hand door, and the Theotokos on the right. If the doors are large, there may be space for the four evangelists, and for the Annunciation as wtIl.

On the level above the doors, in the centre, there is an icon of the last supper with Jesus and the Apostles.

To either side of this are the feasts of the Lord, and of the Theotokos, as many as there is space to display. These are arranged in the order that they are celebrated throughout the year, commencing on the 15‘ September, the beginning of the Orthodox year.

The iconostasis in a Russian church is often more elaborate, with further levels of saints and prophets above the ones that we have mentioned.

The Iconoclast Controversy

Although Icons have been a part of Christian life and devotion almost from the beginning, they have not been accepted everywhere without controversy. The controversy within the Orthodox Church came to a head during the 8th and 9th centuries.

The iconoclasts with the support of the Byzantine emperor gained the upper hand and not only was the display of icons in churches, in homes, and in public places forbidden, but they were destroyed and the iconodules (those who used icons) were persecuted. This controversy continued, with one or other party briefly gaining the upper hand until the matter was officially settled in 787 at a Council held in the city of Nicaea. This Council declared that the making and devotional uses of icon was legitimate. It took a further century for the Council’s decision to be accepted throughout the Orthodox Church. The position of icons has never since been questioned.

Today icons are to be found not only in Orthodox churches, but in both Roman Catholic churches and Protestant churches too, although in the case of the latter their use is mainly decorative.

Text:  With thanks to St Edward’s Orthodox Church, Athelhampton, Dorset, England.