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Icons, Their History and Construction


Icons are religious paintings done on wooden panels in the Byzantine style. The word Icon comes from the Greek EIKON which means image. It is believed that Icon painting originated in the Byzantine Empire about the 6th century and spread to Russia in the 10th century when Prince Vladimir of Kiev was baptized at Korsun, a Greek colony on the Black Sea. The first Golden Age of Byzantine Art (Early Byzantine Period) had begun by 300-400 AD This period was culminated by the construction of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. The earliest Icons that survive from this age were painted in hot wax, also known as encaustic. From the 9th to the 12th century a second Golden Age of Byzantine art arose which is also known as the Middle Byzantine period. This is the time when the Orthodox Church was introduced into Russia and Icons began to be produced there. This work was culminated by the exceptional work of the monk Andrei Rublev (circa 1360 - 1430). The Crisis of Iconoclasm (726-843 AD) disrupted the evolution of Byzantine art. This movement opposed veneration of religious images and destroyed or whitewashed many of the Icons. The function of Icons as visual theology was eventually consolidated and restored as an integral part of the liturgy. One of the main arguments for veneration of Icons is an oral tradition telling of the impression of Christ on the Mandylion ("The Veil of Veronica"). Legend recounts how Christ himself, put his image on the Veil creating the first Icon or "prototype" painted without human hands. The name of this Icon is The Savior Acheiropoietos. By the early 13th century, history shows that the Crusaders and the powerful merchant princes of Venice ruled Constantinople. Italian art styles began to influence Icon painting by introducing a more humanistic approach, and a very interesting mixture of styles was demonstrated in this period.

By the 14th and 15th centuries, Icons in Constantinople again had reached a high level of artistic accomplishment. This was known as the third Golden Age or Late Byzantine Period. In 1453, Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks, marking the end of the Empire. Byzantine influence continued however and eventually in the 16th century, Crete became the center for Greek Icon painting.

Russian Iconology

Brought to perfection by Greek masters, the process of Icon making in Russia was taken over by Russian artists and by the 12th Century, the Russian Icons had acquired their own distinctive style. Records began mentioning the gifted Russian iconographer, Alempi Perchersky. One of the distinguishing characteristics of the new Russian style was its size. Russian Icons of the period were much larger than contemporary Greek Icons. Mongolian occupation of Russia during the first half of the thirteenth century severed influence by the Greeks and Russian styles began to appear. The Greek style and coloration can be observed only in the Icons before the Mongolian occupation. The earliest surviving Greek Icon is the 12th century Virgin of Vladimir while the earliest surviving Old Russian Icon surviving from pre-Mongol days is believed to be the Novgordian Icon of Apostles Peter and Paul, which has been dated to the 11th century. Icon painters were considered chosen people, highly respected in Old Russia. The Church gave them many privileges and rewards. Iconographers were admonished to maintain an atmosphere of piety and reverence as the profession was considered a sacred endeavor. It was not until the 17th century that the artists began to sign their work, for he considered himself a tool in the Hands of God.


The surface selected for religious paintings needed to be tough and sturdy. The wood used for Icon panels was mainly that of the easily worked lime tree however quality local woods were often used when this was not available. Pine boards were used in Novgorod and Pskov, and fir and larch in northern areas. Birch, alder, oak and cypress were also used depending on the availability of quality woods. The board was carefully selected so as to be free of knots and was well seasoned. Once the board was selected, it was rough hewed by the carpenter on both sides to the required thickness. Often the carpenter created a shallow flat recess (Kovcheg) with a bevel chip (Luzga) on the panels face at a distance from the edge all along its four sides. This was accomplished with an axe or a special two-handed plane (Teslo). It was this recess that was then painted with the image and the border was often used to show scenes relating to the image. Often several planks joined together and reinforced by horizontal wooden slats in order to create larger Icons. In the 12th and 13th centuries, the slats were fixed to the butts of the planks by means of wooden pegs, or were hammered onto the back of the panel with forged iron nails. Sometimes dovetails were additionally set into the panel for greater strength. If the Icon was to be a processional Icon, it needed to be painted on both sides, and could not be slatted. In order for the panel to survive handling and resist warping, only the thickest, well-seasoned highest quality wood could be used. From the end of the 14th century, slats were inserted into special grooves cut through nearly the entire width of the joined planks. These spleens were used to further strengthen the panel. A small Icon usually had only one slat cut into it. In the 17th century, the slats were made of oak, often in intricate shapes. Their purpose was to prevent the warping of the panel.

The panel was then passed on to the master who glued strips of flax or hemp canvas onto upper and lower borders of the panel and upon the longitudinal seams if the panel consisted of several planks. This was done to protect the gesso ground from cracking and peeling in the most vulnerable places. On ancient Icons, canvas cloth was glued over the entire face of the panel. Next the canvas covered panel was "grounded" or coated with a specially prepared priming which consisted of a mixture of chalk or alabaster and animal glue that was prepared from cooking pieces of hide with the gummy flesh side retained. Several coats of priming were applied, each being smoothed out with a special metal or wooden spatula (Klepik). Occasionally the palm of the hand was used to spread the gesso instead. After all the coats were uniformly dried, the master polished the gesso ground with pumice, continuously wetting it with water, and then finished it off with the stem of the horsetail plant. Just as medieval monk-scribes copied ancient sacred books (prime sources), Russian Icon painters of long ago copied the ancient iconic "originals". In 1551 the Council of a Hundred Chapters codified Icon painting in Russia. These new rules demanded strict emulation of the existing format, so that artists would not depart from the iconographic originals.


Russian Icon painters through the centuries had to follow the iconographic canon. In order to maintain the canon and preserve it intact, iconographic originals were provided in the form of a guide book (typicon). The books consisted of "tracings" from ancient Icons that were made onto parchment. These tracings were highly valued by the painters who preserved them and passed them on from generation to generation.


Every painter made his own paints by grinding and pulverizing pigments in small wooden or clay dishes. This pigment was then mixed with and egg-yolk and "Kvas", a popular drink (made from fermented bread, currants and grain) or rye beer. From old painting guides we know what mineral and organic pigments the painters used and where these pigments were obtained. The most costly of these paints was sky blue made from lapis lazuli. The best source of quality Lapis during this period was Afghanistan, near the West Hindu Mountains near the source of the river Amu-Darja. When a painter was commissioned to make an Icon, he made use of the guidebook. and traced the image onto the prepared panel. By the seventeenth century, the artist scratched the image onto the gesso ground with a stylus in what is called the graphic method. After the image was transferred, the panel was gilded. Ancient Icons were gilded with thin sheets of gold leaf. The areas to be gilded were covered with a sizing which was sticky, and the sheets of leaf were applied with special brushes and smoothed into place with a bone spatula. In the late 16th century, powdered gold was painted onto the area. After gilding was finished, the artist applied his colors. Icons were built up from the background and the face and hands were painted last of all.

At first the artist outlined the picture with cinnabar, then he covered all faces, hands and feet with sankir, a layer of flesh priming or shadow tint, An Icon's date can be determined by the color of the sankir. Ancient Byzantine sankir is grayish blue, from the 14th and 15th centuries, green; later it becomes darker, turning tobacco brown in the second half of the 16th century. After applying the sankir, the artist covered the layers of shadow tint with a lighter ochre flesh color, outlining the contours of the face, hands and feet, accenting the eyebrows, the eyes, the nose, the lips and the fingers. The flesh color also changed with the changes in style: in the 14th century it was bright red, becoming darker, yet remaining rather soft, before turning all but black in the 16th. The painter then began modeling the image, applying white highlights to the most prominent parts, the forehead, cheeks and bridge of the nose and chin. For this he used liquid flesh color diluted with white and containing ochre. This process bears the name ochreing (vochreniye). The last thing done by he painter was to paint the hair and accent the faces, hands and feet by applying fine white lines and different kinds of highlights (bliki). When they were shaped like tiny curved lines, they were known as enliveners (ozhyuki), but later they consisted of tiny parallel lines called flecks (dvizhki). Highlights on draperies were accomplished by various colors and were known as "probely". The Icon was then passed on to the calligrapher who inscribed it with lettering and a narrow framing line (opush) which was usually bright red, but occasionally two colors were applied to the outer edge of the panel. The panel was allowed to dry for a long time, then coated with a linseed oil varnish "olifa". This varnish enhanced the depth and intensity of the colors and protected the paint against moisture. After the varnish was dried (this process took a few months), the Icon was then taken to the church and blessed.

Symbolism of Colors used in Icons

red: blue: green: white: black: gold: blood of Martyrs heavens and contemplation youth and life "divine color", purity embodiment of death and the darkness of Hell Divine energy.

The virgin always wears a dark cherry cloak, Apostle Paul, a bright carmine cloak, Saint Peter wears an ochre cloak and holds a golden key, Saint George and Saint Paraskeva Pyatnitsa wear red cloaks of Martyrdom.


bliki: Byzantine Empire: Fine white lines and highlights Empire with Constantinople as the capitol and finally fell in 1453. The area included the present day countries of the Balkan Peninsula and Syria, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, Cyprus, Egypt and the eastern part of Libya. (Greek eikon, "image"; kloein, "to break") A movement against the religious use of images. In 726 and 730 Emperor Leo III, the Isaurian; promulgated a decree forbidding the veneration of images. The council of Nicaea in 787condemned iconoclasm, and the Council of Orthodoxy in 843 finally ended the movement. Highlights consisting of tiny parallel lines or flecks. A method of painting that combined dry

Crisis of Iconoclasm:

dvizhki: encaustic:

pigments with heat-softened wax and resin. These pigments are then fused by heat and the substance applied to the surface of walls or specially prepared panels. Resin is added to harden the mixture. gesso: prime a Icon: A mixture of finely ground chalk or alabaster and animal glue used to surface for painting. A painted panel with the image of a religious figure or event that is characteristic of the Eastern Christian church. To avoid the taint of idolatry, were created with a formalized, stylized aspect that emphasized otherworldliness rather or sentimentality. A large screen containing many icons Christ, the Virgin and various saints. A special wooden or metal spatula used to smooth the gesso coat on an Icon panel. A shallow flat recessed area carved into the center of the Icon panel. It was in recess that the Saint or event was A beverage made from fermented bread, currants and grain which Russian artists often used to mix their paints. This was a beveled chip edge surrounding the kocheg or recessed portion of the Icon.

they deliberately than human feeling Iconostasis: of klepik:

kocheg: this painted. kvas:


ochreing (vochreniye): white, to added. olifa: opush:

The process of highlighting the most prominent parts of the face of an icon using the flesh tone diluted with which an ochre pigment is A linseed oil varnish. A narrow framing line around an icon, usually red but occasionally two different colors. An early form of highlighting that consisted of tiny curved lines or enliveners. Highlights seen on draperies and fabrics using various different colors. A layer of flesh priming or shadow tint on an Icon. A painting can be dated by the color of this priming. A slat of wood inserted into a groove carved horizontally into the back of an Icon. This provided extra strength and helped to prevent the Icon from warping. A special two-handed plane used to make the indented center portion of an Icon panel. A guide book for Icon painting, consisting of tracings of ancient Icons onto parchment. It was expected that the painters followed these guidebooks as closely and accurately as possible.

ozhyuki: probely: sankir:





Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, Moscow: Treasures and Traditions; Washington, D.C., University of Washington Press, Seattle, Washington; 1990. Talbot Rice, David and Talbot Rice, Tamara, Icons, The Natasha Allen Collection Catalogue The National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, 1968. Talbot Rice, Tamara, Icons: Art and Devotion, Barnes & Noble, New York, 1966 Ramos-Poqui, Guillem, The Technique of Icon Painting, Burns & Oates / Search Press, Tunbridge Wells, Kent, Great Britain, 1991.. Vorobyev, Nikolai A., Lucy Maxym, ed., The History and Art of the Russian Icon from the X to the XX Centuries, Siamese Imports Co. Inc., Manhasset, N.Y., 1986. Schumann, Walter, Gemstones of the World, Sterling Publishing Co., Inc, New York, 1977.


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