The technique of the iconography and its religious meaning
How to become an iconographer

Being a sacred object, the icon has to be devoid of any element of arbitrariness not only for its content, but also for the figurative language and the used pictorial technique.

This attitude toward the iconography is formulated by the VII Ecumenical Council of Nicea (787 after Christ), which defined the dogma of the veneration of the icons.

During the 8th century, Costantinople could boast a flourishing and variegated artistic culture. It became the model, the canon for the iconography of the Orthodox Church. In the chapter on the veneration of the icons, the Fathers of the Council also speak about the technique of realization.

Sacred images were realized either on the liturgical furnishings (with the technique of the fusion, of the coinage and of the incision), or on the walls (mosaics, frescos and other pictorial techniques) or on the tables, the only ones that were called "icons."

Fundamental criterion for the choice of the material for the realization of the images was solidity (with the exception, naturally, for the fabrics). The icon, being itself an image on metal, on stone or on wood, didn't have to be fragile, neither easily damageable. This choice not only was justified by practical reasons (the integrity of a sacred object), but also was based on theological and aesthetical concepts. The rigid base of the icon called to mind the base of the Earth, on which the Creator of the world set his creatures, that firm earth and not subject to external influences, as the faith, the revelations and the same Orthodoxy itself.

The choice of the colours and of the material is not casual.

The Byzantine period absolutely preferred the tempera, the mineral colours and the gold and silver application, while the technical encaustic for the weak maintenance of the wax-colours had no develop. The painting in oils appeared even later. It was not successful. The brush, voluptuous, impregnate of the humours of the world, fat and greasy could not compete with the ascetic, clear and transcendent tempera.

The idea of the rigid material organically continues in the aesthetics of the background of the icon, that, metallic (with gold or silver) or coloured, is always considered the symbol of the "other world": the icon does not represent anything of the terrestrial world, but it is the image of the spiritual world of the transfigured reality. Finally we notice in the painting of the icon, whose base is represented by the line and the colour, a strong semantic value. That is the reason why the "podlinniki", the graphic models with the iconographical subject, were considered the most important material for the iconographer, a kind of primer. The sequence of the images the artist wants to realize, as an human figures, angels, architecture, landscape and objects, follow precise rules.

Now it is easy to understand how the range of the colours is subject to a metaphoric interpretation. The blue and the red of the dresses of the Mother of God symbolise for example, on one hand, her purity and virginity (blue), and from the other, the Meat and the Blood, God's Child who became incarnate in Her (red). The angels are represented with the attributes of their celestial service: the transparent sphere in the hand of the angel with the delineated Name of God is symbol of the belonging of the angels to the sphere of the divine life. The lance or the sword in the hand of the archangel Michael symbolises his imprecation against the devil. In addition, the folds of the dresses of the saints, according to the teaching of the famous Russian theologian and martyr, Father Pavels Florenskij, have a depth mystical value for the iconographer.

A particular spiritual importance is given to the gilding. The background of the icon, for an iconographer, is "Light", sign of the Divine Grace that illuminates the world and the gilded line on the dresses and on the objects transmits the bright reflex of the beneficent energies. The succession of the gilding has a really meaning. Before painting the figures and the faces, a gilded layer is stretched on the background - the light that removes the space of the icon from the world of the darkness and transfigures it in the celestial world. The technique of the assis, is used in a second time, when the images are already realized. By the way, Father Florenskij writes: "All the images of the icons rise in the sea of the Grace and they are purified by the flows of the divine light... With the gold of the creative beauty the icon begins and with the gold of the sanctified beauty the icon finishes. The writing of the icon repeats the principal events of the Divine creation: from the absolute nothing to the New Jerusalem, holy creature."

The great meaning given to the technique of the icon, the enormous spiritual significance of the iconography, burdens the iconographer with responsibilities and sets him on the same level of the theologians and the custodians of the Ecclesiastical Tradition.

The Moscow Local Council in 1551 in his propositions "On the iconographer and the icons" describes in details the indispensable moral qualities to the iconographer and the theological and technical preparation he has to have. For this study of the iconographical traditions is inevitable, the understanding of the canons, of the aesthetics and of the techniques of the iconography is very important. In 1668, the czar Aleksej Michajlovic emanated a decree, entitled "On the prohibition of the iconographic inexperience."

The persons who want to became iconographer receive the benediction during a religious ceremony.

The persecutions suffered by the Orthodox Church during the Soviet regime and the annihilation of the iconographical schools have made the preparation of the new iconographers more difficult. Nevertheless in the Seventies many young artists approached to the iconography and they offered their talent to the service of God. The rebirth of this art began in those years.

To become iconographer today is simple, because there are not more severe schools of iconography, and criterions of evaluation of the quality of the work do not exist, but it is difficult because the absence of schools and meters of judgment burdens the iconographer with responsibilities. Nevertheless there are two fundamental requirements to be an iconographer: the religiousness and the technical preparation. The religiousness, the scrupulous attitude toward his trade protects the iconographer from the unfounded and contrary to the tradition of the teaching experimentalism that has enveloped the painting of the 20th century. An orientation of faith helps to understand the necessity of the mastery of the technique and the language and the subjects of the icons. In other words, the iconographer is the person who is ready to consecrate his own talent to God ! and the Church and to escape from the conceptions and from the methods of the sensual, individualist and rebel profane art.

The enormous iconographical heritage of Russia allows the modern iconographer to study if not under the guide of eminent teachers, at least with the help of the, great models; the Byzantine, Medieval and Balkan icons can allow a creative synthesis of the orthodox iconographical traditions.

Today, after a century of silence, the Russian iconography starts a new rebirth.

Deacon Serafim 2001-2018 Moscow Icon-Painting center Russian Icon