do you prepare yourself spiritually to write an icon?
Father Basil Pennington once said, "One cannot paint an icon by technique alone." One
prepares through prayer and through the way one lives one's life.
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 studentsfor whom this is a whole new worldto also 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.
Writing an icon is such an ongoing process and part of my life that there is rarely a
span of time when I am not writing an icon. Preparation is more of a constant state of
mind and overall healthy spiritual life and practice into which iconography fits. I read
a tremendous amount on the history and theology of iconography, but also I read the lives
of the saints. If the subject of the icon is someone with whom I am not familiar, I have
to read the life of that saint and learn as much as I can about him or her. I have to understand
the saintor the eventas if the person(s) were sitting next to me, or I was
Everyone asks me if I fast. If you saw me, you would know the answer is "obviously
not." I fast during Lent. If I fasted during "writing," I would be fasting
every day of the year. Fasting is more of a tradition among monastic iconographers, or
those who write icons on retreat.
there a certain sequence in the writing? If so, why?
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. It is just applied on the background areas and is not under the colors or painted
areas. It represents the space of heaven and situates the figure.
Not all icons use gold. Some iconographers refuse to, on the principle that the icon should
be intrinsically asceticthat is, sparse and essentialas well as in reaction
to the very decorative, materialistic way gold was used in 19th-century iconography. In
those instances, a light color is used in the background to suggest the eternal space of
Because I paint in egg tempera, it is somewhat greasy. It is very difficult to gild at
the end: The gold sticks over all the greasy painted parts as well as the parts I needed
to gild. Iconographers who work in acrylic can gild at the very end, because the dry quality
of the paint allows them that.
As part of the artistic process, I think it makes more sense to use the gold first. It
better integrates the background field into the painted part because you can paint over
any overlapping areas, instead of having to pick up the gold laboriously later and potentially
ruining your painted work.
Putting the gold on first also helps the iconographer visualize that the saint exists
in a state of pure light. It is easier to write the image in a palette of colors and develop
the lighting on the figure with that background as a standard and starting point.
If it is a feast-day or narrative icon, we next paint in the setting: architecture, natural
features like cliffs or trees and the ground, then garments, hands and finally the face.
Again, the movement is from the general to the specific.
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 and develops lopsided.
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.
there symbolism in the colors chosen?
Yes, but I also have to addnot 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 Mount 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 semi-precious stone. (Even today, 10
grams of lapis pigment costs around $140.) When artists could use it, they did. If they
couldn’t, they used what was available: browns and reds.
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.
Dozens of books have attempted to codify iconography, including the interpretation of
colors. There is only a general agreement and the precedent of tradition.
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
My very first iconography teacher had developed a very personal, elaborate, intricate
and esoteric understanding of colors that reduced icons to basically some kind of symbolic
map, minimizing the actual characteristic garbs that the saint may have worn in life. For
example, if a saint wore a black habit (like St. Dominic), he would have him in red and
green, because he refused to acknowledge black as a legitimate color of the palette of
iconography. (Black is the absence of light and therefore has no place in the transfigured
reality.) But these particular saints looked absurd. So we have to be flexible.
I just wrote icons of Sts. Maximilian Kolbe and Faustina Kowalska. Both wore black habits
By keeping those colors, it doesn’t mean they are damned souls or clothed in the absence
of God. Rather, the emphasis in that particular icon is more on the portrait of the saint
and his or her historical reality. It is important that the icon never break with reality.
Otherwise, the saint is misrepresented and unrecognizable.
I knew one nun who wrote icons who insisted that all the saints be dressed in white, like
the vision of the multitude in Revelation. At the Transfiguration, Christ’s robes turned
white; she felt her saints should be in white. My initial reaction was that they looked
unfinished and too general and did not reflect the historical reality of the saint’s life.
We will discuss the bigger issue of the rubrics or “canon” of iconography later.
there other symbols in the wood, the linen covering and other media you use?
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 fits very concisely and precisely
to contribute to the overall meaning and integrity of the whole. But it is not all symbolism.
There are very important pragmatic reasons as wellwhich most people ignorebecause
of a tendency to over-mystify the icon.
In general, we use the highest quality materials. It reflects the respect we owe to such
important, eternal ideas and people. The materials should be stable and permanent, as are
the saints and events we paint, and as is the understanding of the Church.
It is silly to think we can ever create anything materially suitable for God. We will
always fall short. Still, we try as an act of respect and prayer. If we write an icon with
flimsy or ephemeral materials, it is a reflection of our own carelessness.
We use gold not to make the icon more valuable, but because it is the correct “word” to
use for the space of heaven. It is regarded as beautiful and heaven is called the “beatific
vision.” It is eternal, will never rust or tarnish or fade and is like pure light.
It is also wrong to use too much gold. It was a popular custom in the 18th and 19th centuries
to cover the icon with a gold cover or “riza,” which made the icon very materialistic or
a luxurious work of art. Although the intent was honorable, some of the results were disastrous
and confusing. [More about this later.]
We use only natural materials mostly because they have stood the test of time. One of
the reasons we have so many old icons is because the materials are so durable. They are
also eminently practical and actually much easier to use than acrylics or oils. I say that
from experience because I have tried those mediums as well. We know which pigments will
remain colorfast, which woods will not warp, what combinations will make the best primer.
When I use the traditional mediums, I also feel that I am working in the continuity of
the tradition. Too, I can understand the older prototypes better, because I understand
Some iconographers see deeper symbols in the materials. It’s possible but speculative
and often ignores the more grounded reason for using them: They work best.
Iconographers who ascribe deeper meaning to materials tend to condemn other iconographers
who use acrylics or wax or oil to write icons. I refuse to be divisive like that because
God can work through any material he chooses.
The true mystical dimension and meaning of the icon will only be revealed to us on the
other side. From this side, in this physical world, we can only hope and speculate about
its deeper dimensions. Sometimes we get a peek at that other side in prayer or when grace
works in us through the image. But oftentimes, this has little to do with the materials
or even the iconographer. It’s at God’s discretion.
explain the term riza, as it relates to icons.
A riza (also called an "oklad") is a gold or silver metal cover put on
top of an icon. Usually all the riza leaves visible is the face and hands of the icon.
Rizas are sometimes embellished even more with pearls and gems. They make the icon into
a very beautiful, but materialistic object.
Originally, the tradition of putting rizas on icons began with wonder-working icons. Grateful
clients whose prayers were answered returned to the icon and would leave it an ex voto [offering
or remembrance] of silver or gold or something else that was precious. Sometimes they would
leave a tablet relating the story of their healing.
Eventually, the precious metals were melted down and made into the elaborate rizas that
would cover the icon. This showed that the saint in front of whose image you were praying
was particularly effective at answering prayers at this site.
One of the most beautiful rizas covers the icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa. The gold trim
is made from the wedding rings of grateful wives and mothers of Poland.
In time, rizas became an affectation. The icon, with its riza, became a status symbol
and reduced the icon from a spiritual tool to an ostentatious, pious trophy. It was also
a cost-cutting tool. It was cheaper to mass-produce and stamp out rizas and just paint
in the faces and hands (and nothing else) than to paint a whole icon.
As well as misrepresenting the icon, it almost destroyed the tradition. Also, many beautifully
painted icons were hidden for centuries under rizas. Often mildew and mold grew under them.
They also left lots of nail holes when they were removed.
Sothey're good and bad. I have a soft spot for peasant rizas, made in the imitation
of the gold and silver ones, but done with beads on fabric. They're not materialistic and,
despite their clumsiness, just pure love for the saint.
you paint Our Lady of Czestachowa, a traditional icon, you wouldn't change too many
things, would you? Is anything variable? Why is this?
Earlier, I 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 our
own. Yet variation is inevitable, though not intentional.
For instance, I wrote the icon of the Holy Trinity that was originally written by Andrei
Rublev in the 15th century. It is one of the greatest icons ever written. I mean this not
only aesthetically. Theologically, it has such a deep understanding of the subject that
it would be hubris for me to think I have either the artistic or spiritual means to jump
higher than Andrei Rublev.
So all I can hope for is to make a competent copy. But when you look at the icon, you
can see some parts are ruined and scraped off. Because it wore an elaborate gold cover,
there are hundreds of nail holes in it where the riza was hammered over the icon. I had
to restore these parts and I added deeper colors. In my icon, I made the tree a little
larger to emphasize the compositional circle that subliminally unites all three figures.
But that's all. Nothing I did changed the intent of the prototype.
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. Only with years of
copying and familiarizing yourself with rubrics of iconography do you finally feel the
authority to move or alter things. Why mess with perfection? Icons fill me with awe. You
have to be very stupid or very inspired to alter an image.
It cannot be a purely mechanical process nor should it be. When I first began to write
icons, I thought all I needed was to be a good copyist. Was I wrong!
First, on an artistic level, they are not easy to copy. Copying means you stay on the
surface. To really penetrate, you need a much deeper understanding, as its construction
is often subliminal and not explicit. Just copying is also very boring: You make little
contact with the part of the icon that needs prayer to reveal itself as something alive.
If you really want to be an iconographer and have the work be second nature, copying is
only the first step into understanding. As in playing classical music, knowing where to
put your fingers and which notes to strike is not enough. You really have to feel the music
to play it competently and with complete consciousness.
It was suitable for me that my first icon was Our Lady of Czestochowa. I grew up praying
in front of her icon every morning. My curiosity about icons was opened by my curiosity
to know everything about that image. That icon had sustained my homeland, my ancestors
and my family.
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 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. Otherwise I just try to make a literal copy, with every
fleur-de-lis in its place.
is more possible in contemporary icons, it seemsfor instance, Maria Goretti or
Thérèse. What aspects are fixed then?
We know what some saints looked like. We have third-century coins with Sts. Peter and
Paul on them and we keep that third-century likeness intact. It is an objective document.
The same is true of many saintsBasil and John Chrysostom come to mind. So we have
to be very careful to maintain that likeness. It would be like you commissioning me to
paint a portrait of you and I decide to do it either out of my head or according to what
I think you should look like.
We have to find the actual documents and precedent if they exist and keep it intact. Otherwise,
we alter that truth for the generations of iconographers who come after us. What a terrible
disservice! Like monks who copied the Scriptures and changed, edited or misunderstood words,
that approach casts doubt on the credibility of the actual people, events and tradition
and is ultimately destructive, regardless of the scribe's intent.
Iconography is a living art and the Church continues to recognize saints and will until
the end of time. Iconography provides a format that we can depict saints in until the end
When a client asks me to write a new icon of a recently recognized saint, I have to do
a lot of reading and research. For contemporary saints, I usually work from photographs
taken during their lives and incorporate their individual features into the icon, albeit
idealized and stylized to fit the compositional rubrics of the icon.
A new icon must satisfy three criteria: Correctness of semantics, theology and aesthetics.
I use older icons as a foundation and incorporate new faces into them. When I wrote the
icon of St. Maria Goretti, I wrote to her shrine to ask for photos. Since her family was
so poor, they had none. They offered just a general physical description and some painting
other artists had done of her.
My solution was to paint her as an idealized young girl, with long blond hair, pulling
her shawl over her shoulders. Her right hand is on her heart, her left is in the airas
if speakingand under the icon, I wrote her words of absolution to her murderer: "Out
of Love for Jesus I forgive."
For Maximilian Kolbe and Faustina, a wealth of photographic material exists. You see,
even thought 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.
I have a very good friend who is also an iconographer and he has just written an icon
of the apparition of Our Lady at Fatima. I was so stunned and moved by his work. To my
knowledge it was the first time this subject was tackled as an icon and it was so authentic.
It told the story so beautifully, clearly, logically and loyally. We can say this with
new icons that we add to the canon for other iconographers to use.
there other rules to be aware of?
Iconography is called, rightly so, a liturgical art. Just like a priest has a rite for
saying Mass, so we also have our guidelines. Yet within those guidelines, there is some
There is no definitive canon or rubrics for iconography, just the consensus and example
of tradition. Added to this, there are many different schools of iconography, all with
their own characteristics and methods. The best way to learn this canon or rubrics is from
the living example of a teacher. I am lucky to have found one here in the United States,
whose teachers taught her the same way in Moscow.
Iconography is a living art and can't be learned or taught in a book. My teacher, in addition
to giving me practical, hands-on lessons, gives me criteria. She sets a standard for me
in her own work as well.
I never sign an icon. Never. I mark the back of the panel with a cross, the inscription "IC
XC NIKA" ("Jesus Christ Victorious") and the year. Nothing else.
The icon is a window, not a picture. It is first and foremost a sacramental, then a work
of art. Signing makes the icon a self-conscious work of art, rather than a portal where
one can meet the saint.
Our job as iconographers is to be mediums through which that manifestation can happen,
and then disappear.
It is especially wrong to sign icons of traditional prototypes. After all, it is neither
your idea nor your composition nor your work. Look at the parallel between icons and classical
music. After performing Bach, Glenn Gould didn't sign his name to the Goldberg Variations.
Nor did Maria Callas say she was the author of the arias she sang (even with her huge ego).
She was their voice.
Iconography is not a personal art; it is a transpersonal art. It is about expressing the
cumulative consciousness of the Church, not our own personal opinions or theories. It is
dangerous to project our own words into the mouths of the saints, who were completely capable
of speaking for themselvesor our own ideas about God onto him.
does a person begin in this calling of iconography?
When I teach, I follow the example of my mentor and teacher, Ksenia Pokrovskaya, who is
eminently practical and experienced. I begin by teaching my students to paint just the
head of an angel, with part of the shoulders and wings.
Beginning iconographers need this intimate contact with their subject matter. It also
allows them to become familiar with the materials and tools without being overwhelmed.
Then we try other saints, developing and stretching the visual language and techniques
needed to master the various ages, expressions and hairstyles. Then we work on half-figures
(head to waist). In addition to faces (which they already have experienced) is now added
the difficulty of garments over an upper torso, drapery and the expression and gesture
of arms and hands.
After achieving competency with half-figures, we move onto full figures, then figures
in a setting, where the challenge is harmoniously integrating architectural and natural
elements. The next step is multiple figures in a setting such as the icon of Palm Sunday
or Easter or (finally) the Transfiguration.
did you know you wanted to be an iconographer?
Honestly, when I was in art school I never thought I would be an iconographer. It was
too high, too holy an act for me to touch. Unless I had been pushed, I would never have
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. My pastor saw I had a talent for
it, and encouraged me by giving me work and a workspace to do it in. My parents supported
me with a home while I did the work. It wouldn't have happened otherwise.
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 and that I had to do it correctly.
People come to iconography from all over the place and from various denominations. I knew
some students who were Jewish, others who were non-committed sincere spiritual seekers.
Some are artists who want to taste it by trying the technique or understand the art's historical
context. Other people want to write icons for their own spiritual practice.
Ask a hundred iconographers and each one has been called by a different path. We're all
so different that it's amazing we're in the same place, but I love that about the fellowship
of other iconographers.
to article on Iconographer Marek Czarnecki