One of the great difficulties that I believe the Orthodox Church has always had is control over her iconographers. More than ever, especially today, icons are being painted without understanding, that people who are not steeped in the Orthodox iconographic tradition are taking over our sacred art, teaching and painting, and these icons are ending up on our altars to be blessed, or worse, in our churches to be venerated and prayed before. While the Church has attempted to deal with this situation, for example, the Hundred Chapters council suggested that Bishops and Metropolitans appoint someone to be an overseer of icon studios and iconographers to make sure that the images being produced adhered to the iconographic tradition; in the 21st Century, the situation is worse than ever. Pretty much anyone can become an iconographer, regardless of talent, religious affiliation, or belief: all one really needs now is an Internet connection and access to a couple of books, the Technique of Icon Painting or A Brush with God and suddenly, one is an iconographer. Or take a course: one or two week courses in iconography are offered in many places in North America, or in many of the lay academies and iconography clubs in Finland, not to mention the New Valamo Lay Academy. Granted, these courses do a great service, but one course does not an iconographer make, and we do a great disservice to the church and her tradition by not being more concerned with what is being produced.
Let me give an illustration of what I mean. In 2008, while I was having an extended visit in New Valamo Monastery in Finland, a woman from the city of Tampere brought a suitcase load of icons to the monastery to be blessed. I am not sure if all the icons were painted by her, or if she was bringing them on behalf of her iconography club, but she brought 12 icons with her. Somehow, in Finland, it has come about that having the New Valamo Monastery stamp, saying that the icon was blessed on the altar of New Valamo Monastery, is the sign that you have arrived as an iconographer, that you have become an iconographer. It is the “seal of approval”. Unfortunately, when all of the icons were laid out and scrutinized, with much discussion between Archimandrite Sergei and myself, four of the 12 icons were deemed blessable. The remaining icons were not blessed, for various reasons. Some were rejected because of incorrect inscriptions, some were rejected because of composition, some were icons of saints not recognized by the Orthodox Church, some had misspellings. It was truly sad to see, as the iconographer had a budding talent, but to bless these works and confer upon them the seal of blessing would be wrong, would have not done the church or the iconographer any service. For each icon that was rejected, we sent back a note with an explanation of why the work could not be blessed, not wanting to quench the spirit, but to encourage.
Where we run into a problem today is that there is not the mechanism in our church to judge what is being produced and reproduced. The priest in the church today has the final say as to what is blessable and what is not, and this leads to problems as well. Our priests are not educated in iconology. When many of us were in Seminary(I am speaking specifically about my time in St. Vladimir’s Seminary in Crestwood, New York, 1992-1995), there were no classes offered on iconology. The basic instructions on what an icon is and what constitutes an icon are not taught to our seminarians, and these graduates are being priested and they in turn are left to instruct and to judge what is blessable and what is not. No matter how hard they try, Archbishops, Metropolitans and Bishops cannot be everywhere present and filling all things, and, unfortunately, not all are aware of what makes an icon. How can we change the situation?
First and foremost, our priests must be educated in iconology. There is no excuse for this not being a main component in our seminaries. And they need to be educated by an iconologist who is also an iconographer, knowledgeable in the tradition, and who is more worried about being an iconographer than being an artist.
Second, courses on iconology need to be given in our parishes. I make the distinction between iconography and iconology: it is not necessary that the technique of icon painting be taught, but it is necessary that the meaning of icons be taught to everyone. Far too often our parishioners, cradle-born Orthodox and converts, are left in the dark and left to their own devices as to understanding our sacred art. Too many times have I heard spurious explanations for the simplest elements that are in icons. And unfortunately in the church, we have a tendency to over-mystify our sacred art as opposed to explaining what it truly is.
Third, barring the overall education of clergy and laity, is to use the following checklist. It was developed while I was in New Valamo Monastery with the help of one of the best known iconographers in Finland, Bishop Arseni of Joensuu. This checklist has all of the reasons why an icon would be considered unblessable by the church. This checklist is meant to be photocopied or typed up, and brought to our altars for the priest to use, or conversely, it is meant to be used by all iconographers to make sure that their icons meet the standards of the Orthodox Church. When an icon that causes pause is brought to the altar, the priest can then go through the checklist and check off which boxes are appropriate, and return the unblessed icon to the iconographer. I was asked once how many of the categories would need to be checked off for an icon to not be blessed, and the answer is “only one”.
Tätä ei voi siunata eikä pitää ikonina koska:
This work cannot be blessed and is not considered an icon because:
- Se on vain ikonin osa, ei kokonainen ikoni.// It is a fragment of an icon, not a whole icon.
- Se on osa seinämaalausta. Se on osa freskoa.//It is a fragment of a wall painting.
- Sillä ei ole omaa juhlapäivää tai muistopäivää.// It does not have a feast day particular to it.
- Siinä ei ole nimeä tai nimen symboleja.//It does not have a name or the symbols of the name on it.
- Tämä on ikonin luonnos eikä varsinainen ikoni.// This is a sketch for an icon and not an actual icon.
- Tekstissä on kirjoitusvirhe.//There is a misspelling in the text.
- Ikoniin maalattu pyhä ei ole Ortodoksinen pyhä.// The saint in the icon is not an Orthodox saint.
- Ikonin otsikko on värää. //The inscription on this icon is incorrect.
- Tämä ei ole kanoninen ikoni.// This is not a canonical icon.
These points need some explanation. It is marvelous that we live in a society and a culture where we have so much print media available to us. I have many books on icons, from many different places in the world. I can take a book down and look at all the photographs and details of photographs of icons, and if I am not careful, I can mistake a detail for an appropriate model to paint. Unfortunately, this happens: either iconographers paint or those who make print icons print only details of icons and not the whole thing. A detail cannot be considered an icon, just as a photograph of a left eye cannot be considered a portrait of a person. The same is true for life icons: when we have reproductions of the life of a saint, say for example, the familiar icon of St. Herman of Alaska and the details of his life; if we take one part of that life icon, for example, St. Herman stopping the tidal wave, or his body’s being taken from Spruce Island on a helicopter,those details cannot stand by themselves as icons. In the context of the life icon, they are perfectly acceptable, but taken out of context, they cannot be considered icons.
Similarly, again blaming print media, fragments of wall paintings do not make panel icons. There are things that are represented on the walls of churches that in the context of the church decoration, in the context of the church’s iconographic program, are correct, as the decoration of the church proclaims the whole history of our salvation. Taking a detail from the wall painting out of context causes that image to cease being an icon.
One simple definition of an icon is that it is a religious painting, in a variety of media, that has a feast day particular to it. There are events that are represented in wall paintings, for example, Adam naming the animals, or Christ rebuking the wind and the waves that do not have a feast day. Or again, citing life icons, there is no feast day of St. Herman stopping the tidal wave, just as there is no feast day of St. George being tortured. Again, taking these elements out of context causes them to cease to be icons. The one exception to this point is icons of Christ. As far as I know, there is only one feast day on our calendar that is dedicated to an icon of Christ, and that is for the icon of the Face Made without Hands, on August 16. All other icons of Christ, to the best of my knowledge, are without feast days.
To further clarify my definition of an icon, I usually add that the figures, or the main figures have halos, and that there are their names, or symbols of the names on the icon. So, if an icon of Christ or the Virgin Mary comes to the altar without their names, or Christ without a cross in his halo; or if a feast is represented without the name of the feast, and the main characters without haloes or their names, the icon is unblessable. There are exceptions: most event icons that contain all 12 apostles do not give them all haloes and names, only the “stars” of the icon have them, to borrow from television terminology. Those in supporting roles are typically represented without haloes and names.
The fifth point is something that is necessary, as I have seen in my time in New Valamo Monastery, framed drawings for icons come across the altar to be blessed. Granted, they have the potential to inspire an icon, they are not icons themselves. Many times simple line drawings are inscribed on wood using a laser: does the fact that the drawing is now on wood make it an icon? Pardon the pun, but we have to draw the line somewhere.
The sixth point is one that I experienced many times in my vocation as an iconographer. I have painted icons for people whose language of prayer wasn’t English. I have painted icons with inscriptions in Finnish, Swedish, German, Slavonic, English, Danish….I could go on. And several icons I have had sent back from the altar to have the inscriptions corrected. If an icon is a proclamation of the truth of our faith, then it is not too much to expect that the spelling be correct.
The seventh point is a contentious one. So many people today, of different faiths, paint icons. And many people bring them to Orthodox Churches to have them blessed. Unfortunately, not all of the saints represented are Orthodox Saints. There is also a great danger to using the Internet if you are looking for models to use: so-called iconographers have painted in iconographic styles saints of all different faiths, and people that no church has recognized as saints. Even though an image may be done in a Byzantine iconographic style, it does not mean that it is an icon that is blessable on an Orthodox altar. The date 1054 AD is our cut off mark for sharing saints with the Roman Catholic Church, or among some historians, 1204 AD(the Fourth Crusade), or even 1453 AD(the fall of Constantinople) is cited as the official date of the schism between East and West, and those dates need to be respected, no matter how fond we are of various holy people of other traditions. This is not to say that we cannot have devotion to these saints, or even sacred images of these saints, but what it does say is that these icons cannot and should not be blessed on Orthodox altars. This icon of St. Birgitta is an example of one that I painted which I did not have blessed on our altar in Valamo, but the person who received it had it blessed in their Catholic church.
Point eight is an interesting one. One of the icons that was brought to the New Valamo Monastery altar, mentioned above, was an icon of the Nativity. What the iconographer had written as the inscription for the icon was not “The Nativity of Christ” but “Christ is Born, Glorify”. What the iconographer had used as the model for the icon was a Christmas card. Therefore, this point is present. Iconographers must use the traditional inscriptions for their icons, be it event icons or the epithets used for saints. The amount of research that one sometimes must do to make sure the epithet is correct can be enormous, but like making sure your model is within the iconographic tradition, it is something each iconographer must do.
The last point is one that is hard to explain. As was pointed out to me by Bishop Arseni of Joensuu, points one to eight are tangible points: one can pretty much show on the panel itself what it is that prevents the icon from being blessed. The last point is intangible. Again, I will blame print media(just because it is printed in a book of icons doesn’t mean it is a canonical icon), and those iconographers who have gone before us, more concerned with being artists than iconographers. Over time, icons have been produced that do not conform to the canon of iconography. For example, an icon of Christ the Blessed Silence. It is an image of Christ shown as an angel. It fits into the realm of the dogmatic icon, and yet it is not technically an icon. Another type of icon that fits into this category are icons of God the Father. Even though the Hundred Chapters Council condemned the image, at one time, one could find an icon of God the Father over the Royal Doors in New Valamo Monastery—although this is no longer the case in the new iconostasis. You can find an image of the Paternity inside the main gates of the Sergeiv-Trinity Lavra in Sergeiv Posad, home of the Moscow Spiritual Academy and its School of Iconography. These are just two examples of hundreds of icons out there: we must be discerning in how best to judge what is canonical.
At the same time we also must be careful, as iconography is a living tradition. The Orthodox Church is not a museum of all that is ancient but it is a living vibrant church. So too is our iconography: new saints are being canonized all the time, and new iconography is being created all the time to express the truth of the faith. One rallying cry for iconographers is that we are to imitate, not innovate, and for the most part, it is something I agree with whole-heartedly. But that doesn’t mean there is no creativity in the bounds of the iconographic tradition. The Church does recognize new iconography: it just takes time. What is not canonical or accepted by the church eventually disappears—or so it did once, before the advent of the Internet and mass media publications.
This list does not say anything about style. It is difficult as a teacher of iconography, especially in this day and age, to criticize anyone’s work. Perhaps that is why I did not teach iconography classes for several years. However, one must be willing to say what is good and what is not. Otherwise, the iconographer will not learn and grow. Unfortunately, when it comes down to matters of taste, or if all the elements of this checklist are present, it needs to be up to the priest to say something. From my own experience, I am thankful for my parish priest’s admonishments, no matter how hard it was to hear at the time, that I should stop painting icons and get some proper instruction, as he could see that my work was going down the wrong path, and not being done for the glory of God.
I hope that this article is a help to iconographers and clergy alike. For the sake of the Church and her sacred art, we must educate ourselves and be diligent in the preservation of her Traditions. This is simply a beginning: as I study and paint, I realize how little I truly know and how much more there is to know about iconography. Just as being a Christian is a life long journey, so too is the discovery of our Church’s sacred art.
(originally published in the Canadian Orthodox Messenger, New Series, 20:1. Winter: 2008-2009. Revised and updated, March 2013)