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Iconographer Marek Czarnecki
By Mary E. Medland
Only a few fine artists can "write" an icon. It is a calling,with its own language, rubrics and subject matter.


Incarnational Images
Iconoclasts in Our Times
His Father 'Volunteered' Him
Artist Becomes Educator
Understanding How Icons Are Written
Grappling With the Language of Icons

Send an e-greeting featuring Marek Czarnecki's icons

Icon of the Mother of God, the Life-giving Spirit by Marek Czarnecki

This icon of the Mother of God, the Life-giving Spirit was commissioned for the jubilee of the founding of Immaculate Conception Cathedral in the Diocese of Springfield, Illinois. The world's people are intentionally multiracial and the bishops wears Latin-rite vestments.

© Marek Czarnecki/2003, Photo by P. Fortune

Surrounded by religious paintings and statuary, Marek Czarnecki prepares to “write” an icon of St. Faustina Kowalska at Seraphic Restorations, his studio in rural Connecticut. Icons are, quite simply, tangible tools that Christians use when praying, he says. By no means are they merely a pious folk art.

Because the artistic language of iconography is so exact, icons are said to be “written” rather than painted. When one of his icons was unveiled at the Springfield, Illinois, cathedral, Czarnecki told the diocesan newspaper, Catholic Times: “Creating an icon doesn’t feel like painting. It feels like writing and, in fact, what is portrayed cannot contradict written Scripture.”

He added, “We can compare an icon to a carefully constructed poem. Indeed, this is why we call it icon ‘writing’ instead of ‘painting.’ Every ‘word’ or element of it fits very concisely and precisely to contribute to the overall meaning and integrity of the whole.”

The 39-year-old artist begins by mixing his pigment from ground precious or semiprecious stones, such as hematite, turquoise and lapis lazuli, with vinegar and the yolk of ordinary eggs. Working horizontally—tempera can be as runny as watercolor—with sable brushes, Czarnecki begins painting on a board, first glued with linen, then covered with gesso (a kind of paste).

Carefully, precisely, he builds up the layers of paint, working from dark hues to lighter ones, whereas the typical artist applies lighter colors first. The religious significance of this counter-intuitive approach is the transfiguring of the world from darkness into light.

“If I’m working on a blue robe, for example, I will begin with a layer of dark green paint, followed by a layer of green tempera with a bit of white mixed in and finally the blue itself,” says the unassuming iconographer, clad in plaid shirt and blue denim apron. “The layers of egg tempera give a depth to the colors that makes them almost jewel-like.”

The work is slow and painstaking. Commissioned by a Franciscan friary in Chicopee, Massachusetts, the icon of St. Faustina Kowalska, a recently canonized Polish saint, will take hundreds of hours to complete.

By the time he is ready to begin, the thoughtful and extraordinarily knowledgeable Czarnecki has done his homework on this visionary nun to whom Christ revealed himself: Czarnecki knows her history, he knows her likeness, he has visited her grave in Poland. He has already completed a prototype on paper.

Since St. Faustina died in the 1930s, he was also able to take advantage of photographic images of her. He says, “I always ask myself, ‘How would this person want to see herself portrayed?’”

Out of an artistic tradition that dates back many centuries, icons are the haunting and beautiful images that were found in homes and churches, both in the Eastern and Latin Churches. They are most often seen in Greek, Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox houses of worship. Always, they are full of religious symbolism and historic detail.

Around the seventh century, Eastern Christianity’s icons were almost obliterated when the “iconoclasts,” mixing religion and politics, set out to escort them to oblivion. Viewing icons as idolatrous, these individuals were largely successful in destroying the images themselves as well as those who created them and those who prayed with them.

The few paintings that survived did so largely as a result of being spirited away to St. Catherine’s Monastery in Mt. Sinai, Egypt. “We have very, very few icons that date prior to the sixth century,” says Czarnecki.

“In the eighth century, an ecumenical council was convened. At that time, St. John of Damascus determined that icons were not an ‘option,’ but rather a necessity in explaining the Incarnation of Christ. To not have icons would be a denial of the Incarnation itself.”

Icons also tie us to our spiritual relatives from the past, notes the Rev. Thomas Dennis, a priest at Springfield, Illinois’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. The cathedral commissioned an icon from Czarnecki.

“It’s in our nature to relate to other beings, and icons help us make that connection,” says Father Dennis. “We like to keep photographs of our loved ones around. Interestingly, I think once you pray with icons they eventually draw you more deeply into communion with the tradition from which they were born.”

Perhaps due to this venerable history, modern-day artists such as Czarnecki are happily finding a demand for their work. Indeed, he has been commissioned to write icons for Michigan’s Ave Maria College, The Franciscan University of Steubenville (Ohio) and St. Stanislaus Kostka Parish in Bristol, Connecticut, his hometown, as well as for private individuals.

“The time to complete an icon varies,” Czarnecki says. “Some icons, like that of Our Lady, the Life-giving Spring, require a lot of planning. Because of its size and complexity, that one took me three months to paint.”

The reasons are many. One practical one: The medium of egg tempera needs to cure before it can be varnished, so the icon has to rest before it can be sealed. Even a small icon takes about a month.

From Czarnecki’s viewpoint, the 1960s and 1970s saw countless American churches getting rid of their traditional artwork in an attempt to be, well, modern, if not downright trendy. “That was a terrible form of internal vandalism,” he says. “But now, as the Catholic Church becomes more ecumenical, it also finds itself looking for a return to its fundamental values.”

The Rev. William Sokolowski, pastor of St. Maria Goretti Parish in Wolcott, Connecticut, agrees. He commissioned from Czarnecki two icons—one of the church’s namesake and another of Our Lady of the Sign. Father Sokolowski says, “Spirituality is a need people have and that need is something technology and science cannot fill. Icons represent a deep connection with that reality.”

Czarnecki says, “When a client asks me to write a new icon of a recently recognized saint like Maria Goretti, I do a lot of reading and research. A new icon must satisfy three criteria: It must be semantically correct, theologically correct and aesthetically correct. I use older icons as a foundation and incorporate new faces into them.

“Even though iconography has its rubrics, it still has to be flexible and adaptable. If it is truly an eternal language (which I feel it is), it must be able to be used to talk about holiness in the contemporary Church.”

Czarnecki did not set out to become an icon writer. He does describe himself as a pious child who liked church. He spent countless hours drawing the saints from art books that his older sister brought home from the library, so his profession should come as no great surprise.

The son of Polish immigrants and a graduate of New York’s prestigious School of Visual Arts, Czarnecki was working in a rare bookstore in Manhattan, when he learned that his father had “volunteered” his son to paint an icon of the patron of Poland—Our Lady of Czestochowa. This image, perhaps better known as the Black Madonna, was for St. Stanislaus Kostka Church. The year was 1991.

At first resentful of being volunteered, Czarnecki nevertheless returned home. “I was afraid to do the work. Icons are so holy and intimidating,” says Czarnecki.

The artist’s perspective quickly changed when Czarnecki saw the very real impact his work had. “I had no idea what I was doing until I saw people praying in front of this piece. When the entire parish faced my icon, knelt in front of it and began to say the rosary, I was filled with embarrassment for my distance and aloofness,” Czarnecki says today. “I realized I had a responsibility to the Mother of God to paint her as best I could and, secondly, a responsibility to the people praying in front of her to do that as well as I could.

“I don’t want this to sound presumptuous, but I think it was the Holy Spirit working through my pastor and my father that brought me to this work. I had found the pearl of great price, but I also understood it was a terrible—and I mean that in the sense of ‘awesome’—responsibility.”

From that moment of realization, there was no turning back. Czarnecki ditched Manhattan, returned to Bristol and spent the next three years painting the 12 apostles. That ultimately led to a state Commission on the Arts Fellowship—which allowed him to undertake an apprenticeship with icon masters. This included what he describes as an ongoing, life-changing course of study with Ksenia Pokrovskaya.

Considered perhaps the premier iconographer in the United States, Pokrovskaya immigrated to this country as a political refugee. In Moscow, she was one of the founding members of “Izography,” a group of artists largely responsible for the renaissance of iconography in Russia today.

Father Dennis notes that the breakup of the Soviet Union has enabled many to have access for the first time to these treasures. “Since the fall of Communism in Russia and the Eastern bloc countries, people have become able to delve into the rich storehouse of icons and to rediscover their beauty,” he says.

In the United States, only a handful of men and women—including several master painters from Eastern Bloc countries who emigrated here after the perestroika in the mid-80s—are currently teaching and practicing this ancient art while eschewing modern shortcuts.

In addition to completing his own commissions, Czarnecki is determined to ensure the future of iconography as a form of expression. He has presented a paper titled “Sacramental Art in American Immigrant Parishes” at an annual meeting of the American Folklore Society. He teaches and gives workshops.

While nothing replaces the value of studying with a master iconographer, Czarnecki is working to make certain that the technical details of icon writing become more widely accessible. He has written a privately distributed technical manual for would-be iconographers. “You really need to study with a living teacher,” he cautions, but he’s testing his text with students, preparing illustrations and deciding whether to search out a publisher when it’s completed to his satisfaction.

“Requests for icons have increased significantly over the past dozen years that I have been writing them,” says Czarnecki. “It is amazing that we still do this. I love that an image, such as one of the Virgin nursing the Christ Child that dates to the second century, is still relevant today. People instinctively respond, and always will, to these images.”                  

To contact or commission the artist, write: Seraphic Restorations, 27 Arts Center Lane, Studio 4B, Avon, CT 06001. Or e-mail: marekstudio4b


Mary E. Medland is a widely published—and widely traveled—freelance writer with a background in academic publishing and journalism. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland.


How do you prepare yourself spiritually to write an icon?

Father Basil Pennington once said, “One cannot paint an icon by technique alone.” First, there are specific prayers that start the work. Throughout the process, we repeat the Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

I encourage my students—for whom this is a whole new world—also to say the prayer of St. Peter as he walked on the water toward Christ: “Lord, save me or I will drown!”

There are specific prayers we say in thanksgiving when we finish the work.

Our final responsibility is to be the first person to pray with the icon itself. At that point, we cease to see it as our own construction or work of art, and see it as the presence of the person or event it reveals.

Is there a certain sequence in the writing?

There is a specific order to writing the icon; from the most general space (background) to the most specific (the face). In the method I follow, the gold comes first because it is the background, the “atmosphere” of heaven in which the saint dwells. Putting the gold on first also helps the iconographer visualize that the saint exists in a state of pure light.

There is a pragmatic reason for painting the face last. Although the face is the most important part of the icon, every detail in the icon is part of the transfigured reality, and has to receive the same level of focus and attention. Experience has shown me that if I start with the face, I obsessively work on it to the detriment of the rest of the icon, and it loses its overall harmony or wholeness.

It’s best to work from the outside to the inside, giving every aspect of the work its due. Painting the face first is like having dessert before dinner. You might lose your appetite for the rest of the meal.

Is there symbolism in the colors chosen?

Yes, but I also have to add—not always. For example, in Eastern iconography, Our Lady is almost always in red or brown. Red is the color of clay, of matter. In the Incarnation, Our Lady contributed her physical matter to the Spirit.

This reinforces her first and preeminent title and role as Theotokos or “Mother of God” (literally it means “Bearer of God,” with no comfortable translation into English). But does that mean that icons of Our Lady where she is dressed in blue are invalid? Absolutely not.

The earliest icons (from the sixth century, preserved on Mt. Sinai) show her in blue. Oftentimes, the colors were the result of local availability of naturally mined colors from the earth. The only possibility for blue (until recently, when we were able to synthesize colors chemically) was from lapis, a very expensive semiprecious stone.

Theologically, it was justifiable. In the West, Our Lady is almost always in blue to emphasize her title as Queen of Heaven. There is also a pragmatic root to this tradition: When medieval and Renaissance patrons commissioned liturgical artwork, they were also responsible for supplying the pigments. Many patrons, as a votive offering, bought costly lapis to use for Our Lady’s garments. In time this became the traditional, recognizable color for her in the West.

In Eastern iconography, Jesus is always in a red robe, over which is a blue cape. This is to show he is “humanity wrapped in divinity.” Red is a symbol of his human nature, blue his heavenly nature. But some regional schools couldn’t get blue pigment, so they used green earth instead.

Martyrs are recognizable by their red capes, a sign of the blood they shed.

In general, we use the highest quality materials. It reflects the respect we owe to such important, eternal ideas and people.

Iconographers who ascribe deeper meaning to materials tend to condemn iconographers who use acrylics or wax or oil. I believe God can work through any material he chooses.

When you paint Our Lady of Czestochowa, you wouldn't change too many things, would you? Is anything variable?

The Czestochowa icon was very old already when it arrived in Poland in the 14th century. Tradition says it is one of the icons that St. Luke painted of the Virgin during her life. The icon was desecrated many times by foreign invaders who felt if they could attack the icon, it would be an attack on the very soul of the Polish people. That’s why she has scars cut into her face. Not only was the image desecrated, but ultimately it was broken apart.

When the Poles reclaimed the monastery, there was little left of the icon to restore, so the board was saved, and the image was repainted along the guidelines of the original but in a new Gothic style (as opposed to its original Byzantine style). What we venerate today is a 15th-century reconstruction of the much older prototype.

I’ve written this icon several times and intuitively I can feel the second painter’s struggles. There are some awkward parts to the icon: Our Lady’s right eye is higher than her left, there is a hump on her left shoulder, and why does the Christ child have only one foot? Usually I make these small changes.

I have compared an icon to a poem. We can also compare an icon to a piece of classical music. When we work from a traditional prototype, we are all working from the same “score.” Our job is to interpret that score as closely as possible to the composer’s intent, not necessarily our own. Yet variation is inevitable, though not intentional. It cannot be a purely mechanical process.

Sometimes you will have to move or stretch something to fit the size of your panel. This is permissible as long as the integrity of the piece is not changed.

Icons fill me with awe. You have to be either very stupid or very inspired to alter an image.

More information on Understanding How Icons Are Written


Marek Czarnecki recommends a few sources where readers can find resources on iconography. Well-illustrated references on the subject are understandably expensive, so the library is a good place to start.

St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood, New York ( This press is under the umbrella of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary and currently carries 15 titles about icons, from theology to technique to history.

Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota ( Two titles to highlight: The Glenstal Book of Icons: Praying With the Glenstal Icons, by Gregory Collins, O.S.B., and The Icon: Its Meaning and History, by Mahmoud Zibawi. While this site lists books, workshops and even supplies, its best resources are in a members-only section.

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