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ICONS

An icon is an image of Christ, the Mother of God, saints or solemnities.

Fragment of the Mother of God Vladimirskaya, Byzantine icon (12th century). This icon is one of the most venerated icons in Russia

Boris and Gleb, the first Russian saints. Early 14th century icon of the Moscow school

Icons belong to the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches and are inextricably linked to the ecclesiastical and spiritual life of these churches and their believers.

Icons are painted on a wooden panel. Certain rules must be taken into account when painting. These rules are contained in the painters' books (the so-called canon) and are intended to ensure purity and uniformity and not to deviate from the teachings of the Church.

Within the Eastern Orthodox Church, painting icons is a work for which God's blessing is requested; it is generally accompanied by prayer. Nowadays an icon is usually no longer signed, unless it is added to the painter's name by hand , as is customary among Greeks. Icons mainly emerged in countries where Christianity in the form of Eastern Orthodoxy is the religion, such as Greece, Russia, the Balkan countries, Eastern Europe and also Egypt and Ethiopia.

Icons in theology

In the 7th and 8th centuries, the Byzantine Empire lost a lot of ground to the advancing Arabs and Slavic peoples. Emperor Leo III of Byzantium thought this could be a punishment from God for the use of icons, an idea he may have adopted from Muslims and Jews. Many other Christians also had a negative attitude towards icon worship. In doing so, they usually invoked the prohibition against idolatry in the second of the Ten Commandments: “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself any carved image or any form [ ...]. You shall not bow down to them, nor serve them” (Exodus 20:4-5). They were called iconoclasts, icon breakers. The outcome of the Council of Hieria in 754 was a ban on the use of icons.

Advocates of icons were called iconodules. Their greatest advocate was John of Damascus, who argued that in some places in the Bible the making of images was actually commanded and that the Old Testament had forbidden the representation of God because God could not be depicted, but that this was done with the incarnation of Christ had changed dramatically, for God had now become visible and could therefore be depicted. [1]

After a struggle of more than 30 years between the iconoclasts and the iconodules, the use of icons (and images) was allowed again at the Second Council of Nicaea in 787. Icons were not to be worshiped ( latreia ), but could be honored ( douleia ).

Theodorus the Studite († 826) said about the legitimacy of icon worship: “The icon represents the prototype [ ...] The honor paid to the icon goes back to the archetype [ ...]. For Christians, the image was and is, to this day, a mystery and they regard it as a bearer of Divine energy and grace.”

Icons and spirituality

Orthodoxy teaches that through an icon the believer comes into contact with God and the saints. The fourth-century church father Basil of Caesarea put it this way: “The honor paid to the image goes to the original” – that is, the saint. A believer prays to a saint and honors him by crossing himself at his icon, bowing and possibly kissing the icon. In the church, the faithful place a candle in front of the icon on a designated candle stand.

Icons are also called windows to eternity, because they show a piece of Heaven, a piece of God's Kingdom. An icon is, in a sense, a meeting point of the material and the transcendental, a passage through which man is brought to God and the saints, and God and the saints to humanity. The believer can detach himself for a moment from the world and connect with the invisible, higher world - but at the same time God, the angels, saints, martyrs, even the eternal facts of salvation manifest themselves to that person. After all, they say, icons look at us.

Schools and traditions

  • The Byzantine tradition, from Constantinople with later schools of Macedonia (1200-1423), Cyprus (1000-1570), Athos (1000-present) and Crete (1400-1650).
  • The Balkan tradition: Bulgaria (1200-1800), Serbia (1500-1800) and Romania (1400-1900).
  • The Adriatic coast, Italian madonnas, Ukraine and Galicia.
  • The Georgian, Armenian, Coptic and Ethiopian icons.
  • The Crusader Icons.
  • The Russian tradition with the schools of Kiev (1000-1240), Veliky Novgorod (1050-1570), Moscow (1300-1800), Vladimir, Tver, Pskov, Yaroslavl, Stroganov, Saint Petersburg and Old Believers (1666-present).

Russian icons

Icon of Christ from the monastery in Zvenigorod and attributed to Andrei Rublev

Angel with golden hair (12th century), a masterpiece of the Novgorod school, Russia

The Russian icon has its origins in the Byzantine tradition, but icon painting in Russia early on developed in its own way and broke away from the Byzantine-Greek style.

Several schools emerged in Russia with their own style characteristics; the most famous schools are those of Novgorod, Vladimir-Suzdal and Moscow.

There were also the Yaroslavl school, Palech school and the Stroganov school. However, icons from these schools are not considered the pinnacle of Russian icon art.

The heyday of Russian icon painting is usually situated in the period from the 13th to the 16th century. This is also the time when the great icon painters were active: Andrei Rublev (c. 1360 - c. 1430), Daniil Cherny, Feofan Grek and Dionisi.

The world-famous Old Russian icons of unparalleled beauty are a mirror of the spirituality of the Russian Orthodox faith. In these icons the highest spiritual ideals have taken shape in form and color. These icons call believers to unity and show the glory and joy that will come to man in the future Kingdom.

Assembly of the Archangels; Gabriel and Raphael together hold a shield on which Christ is depicted blessing Immanuel. Cherubim and seraphim are depicted at the bottom. (Russian icon, 19th century)

The making of icons

The production of traditional icons is subject to rules, which are contained in ancient books, the Podlinniks.

The making of an icon is considered a religious act within the Eastern Orthodox Church. The icon painter is expected to consult his confessor before starting his painting work and to do what he tells him to do. He may spend a time of deep contemplation, studying fasting and religious texts on his chosen subject.

According to tradition, only natural materials are used for painting icons: wood, chalk, glue, resin and tempera (paint consisting of egg yolk, water and pigments of preferably mineral origin) and possibly gold leaf. The first step is to create a panel; engineered wood is preferably used for the panel. With Russian icons, the center of the panel is often slightly deepened, creating a frame, the so-called klejmo (in Greek such a panel is called skaftó ). This panel is often first covered with linen and then many layers of levkas , a mixture of organic glue and chalk, dissolved in water, are applied to this linen or directly on the panel. The sketch is then applied with charcoal or pigment. If gold leaf is used for the background or the nimbus, the panel is first provided with gold leaf. Only then can the actual painting begin. When painting with tempera, we work from dark to light. In Russia the icon is finally covered with olifa , a varnish based on linseed oil, in Greece most often with a varnish consisting of different types of resin.

There are also icons that are carved in high relief in a panel, with or without levkas and painted with tempera.

When an icon was considered an important, ancient and precious work, the panel was often covered with a decorative shield of precious metal, often richly decorated with pearls and precious stones. There are also textile coverings, decorated with beads or gemstones, which cover large parts of the painting. The decorative shield can only cover the edge of the icon; sometimes it covers almost the entire painting, except the saint's face and hands. Old Russian icons often had a thin layer of silver or gilded silver with a plant motif nailed to the edge; this is called basma . When the decorative shield covers larger parts of the icon, it is called oklad or riza ("cloth") in Russian .

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