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Understanding How Icons Are Written: Questions and Answers With Marek Czarnecki
As editor of the December interview with iconographer Marek Czarnecki, assistant managing editor Carol Ann Morrow became so intrigued that she posed additional questions to the artist. He graciously responded by e-mail.

Q U I C K S C A N

How do you prepare yourself spiritually to write an icon?
Is there a certain sequence in the writing? If so, Why?
Is there symbolism in the colors chosen?
Are there other symbols in the wood, the linen covering and other media you use?
Please explain the term riza, as it relates to icons.
When you paint Our Lady of Czestachowa, a traditional icon, you wouldn't change too many things, would you? Is anything variable? Why is this?
Variation is more possible in contemporary icons, it seems—for instance, Maria Goretti or Therese. What aspects are fixed then?
Are there other rules to be aware of?

 


How 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 students—for whom this is a whole new world—to 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 saint—or the event—as if the person(s) were sitting next to me, or I was there myself.

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.

Is 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 ascetic—that is, sparse and essential—as 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 light.

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.

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 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 they shed.

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 in life.

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.

Are 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 well—which most people ignore—because 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 their construction.

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.

Please 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.

So—they'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.

When 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.

Variation is more possible in contemporary icons, it seems—for 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 saints—Basil 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 of time.

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 air—as if speaking—and 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.

Are 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 freedom.

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 themselves—or our own ideas about God onto him.

How 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.

When 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 tried it.

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.

Return to article on Iconographer Marek Czarnecki


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