Icon Explanation

iconI want to say a few things about the iconography class I participated in last week. Some of you have asked a few questions so maybe some of what I write below will help out. I took some observational notes during the six days – Mon through Sat – and will share a few with you.

1. There were 12 of us in attendance including Fr. Igumen Mefodii, our teacher and master iconographer. Two of the students – including me – were male. Two of us – me and a lady sitting by me – were novices. The rest were intermediate or advanced students back for a second or third workshop. The session was hosted (as it has been in the past) by the St. Herman of Alaska Orthodox Church here in Stafford. (Traditional Orthodoxy is explained briefly here.) A session is already scheduled for next year on Sep 7-12, 2015.

2. We started each morning with a liturgical prayer with candles and incense in the background.

3. When one writes an icon, it is more about a person’s relationship with God and less about artistic ability. After observing my icon style after a day or two, Fr. Mefodii noted that I appear impatient, unsettled, and too opaque for me to see God clearly. (He’s probably right.) Another student, for example, was writing too light – a meaning that she is frivolous and somewhat detached in her relationship with God. (She agreed, too.)

4. Everything in our icons is natural. Egg, pigment from rocks or plants, preservation. Not only is this God’s way, but tempera preserves colors and images for centuries. There is not any oil-based substance used in the traditional Byzantine-Russian icon-writing method of the Prosopon School of Iconology. From Wikipedia: “The art technique [tempera] was known from the classical world, where it appears to have taken over from encaustic painting and was the main medium used for panel painting and illuminated manuscripts in the Byzantine world and Medieval and Early renaissance Europe. Tempera painting was the primary panel painting medium for nearly every painter in the European Medieval and Early renaissance period up to 1500. For example, every surviving panel painting by Michelangelo is egg tempera.”

5. A new student in the Prosopon School almost always will write St. Michael first, as I have done. The second icon is almost always Gabriel. Gabriel is familiar to Michael in color and texture but is sitting and looking the opposite direction.

6. Writing an icon is as much about waiting on the icon as it is about creating the icon. Each layer of paint must be dry before proceeding to the next step. In our case, the weather was rainy and very humid. Unfortunately, and due to the moisture in the air, we all didn’t finish our icons simply because they were very slow in drying between steps.

7. In iconography, each layer (tempera, clay), color, accent, highlight, line, and texture (like the gold leaf) symbolizes something spiritual. In fact and as one is writing the icon, one is to be in prayer during the entire session. This being the case, our class was very quiet (a few whispers here and there) throughout. We did have some quiet, traditional chanting playing in the background. It was very pleasant. As was explained to us, some people will fast during the times they are physically writing. Paul, a friend of mine in Romania, tells that some will fast for three days prior to beginning the writing of an icon. (He suggests that the three day fast might be meant to wash out the less motivated…)

8. One of the most amazing and meaningful procedures associated with writing is the affixing of the gold to the clay that ultimately forms the halo of the icon character. It involves pulling deeply from within and then breathing closely (an inch or two!) onto the clay. After 3-5 deep breaths on the clay, one quickly places the gold leaf on the clay. If the moisture is correct, one can peel back the paper holding the gold leaf and the gold will remain placed perfectly on the clay. It is a beautiful thing to do and see. And it’s quite a sound to hear a room of students breathing on their icons.

9. Each morning and after our prayer, Fr. Mefodii would open with a short sermon or reflection. Very interesting. And he would always tie his words in with our personal relationships with God and with our icons. It was good and very interesting to hear him speak.

10. For the first few days, Fr. Mefodii would walk around the room and encourage students with a “good” or “excellent.” As the week went by, however, he began to “uh huh” or would even comment such as “but that is too dark” or “that needs to be smoother” or “that isn’t letting the light from within shine through.” Some of his previous students noted how nice and kind he is but he truly is a master working with apprentices and he never holds back when something is wrong or beginning to go in the wrong direction. I have never actually worked in a master -apprentice environment where each step is being watched and evaluated.

11. A final note – we were warned to not let animals get near the icons. Cats, especially, seem to like to lick icons. No one is sure why unless its the egg or perhaps there is a salty flavor. Anyway, animals like to lick icons so beware. Also, icons are water and egg based so until they are sealed (this can be up to six months after completion) any drips of water or moisture can stain or even damage the work so it’s best to keep the new icons covered and away from moisture. I need to travel to Fr. Medofii’s studio in the next few weeks and finish my icon – some more writing and preparation for preservation. I look forward to completing it so it can dry and season in order to cover it with linseed oil to finally protect it and bring out the deep colors. I also plan to attend, at least, a few iconography guild meetings in the next few months. I’m not sure if this will become a full-time effort or not – I may not be suited for the arts – but I want to give this a few months out of my desire to become familiar enough with it to understand it and appreciate it.

All in all, an interesting and rewarding experience. Kind people, interesting religious connotations, beautiful icons, and a week of contemplative quiet. How nice.

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