Making an Orthodox Icon
Making an Orthodox Icon in Seven Steps
Orthodox icons are images that offer prayerful communion with the glorified Christ. They are vehicles of his spiritual presence, offering a meeting place between us and himself with his saints.
The role of the iconographer in making an Orthodox icon is to prepare himself for work through fostering humility by prayer, fasting, and service to others. Ultimately, a good icon is the gift of God, and in preparing himself, the iconographer lives in hope that his work is inspired by the angels and blessed by the Holy Spirit.
Traditionally, icons are made by bringing together the three kingdoms of the earth—those of the mineral, plant, and animal—to see them fulfilled in creating a window to Heaven. Minerals provide colourful pigments, plants provide a wooden panel, and animals provide glues and varnish. In this way, the whole of creation participates in the icon’s divine image, which is a foretaste of the coming Kingdom of God.
The icons made in the Conestoga Iconographic Studio are made according to this tradition. However, instead of using industrially prepared materials, each icon is made out of the local land . The icons’ wood, pigments, and varnishes all come from around the village, where the studio is located. In this way each icon represents a vision of heaven from the place where the iconographer lives and works.
This is a forgotten approach in modern times, but the results are icons that are environmentally humble, beautiful to look at, and made in the best way possible. They are humble because they gratefully take only what is needed for the work. And, beautiful because rather than using the repeating note that commercial paints provide, these works are imbued with a lively harmony given by a host of minerals, plants, and animals.
Making an Orthodox icon in the Conestoga Iconographic Studio happens in seven stages. First, a cartoon is drawn, referencing ancient models, in the direct but gentle style of the studio. Second, a tree harvested and milled for lumber is used to create a wooden panel. Third, the panel is prepared with gesso and gold leaf to form the icon’s halo and its background. Fourth, a sketch from the drawing is created to test the local rocks and soils, plants, and shells used for its pigments. Fifth, the icon is painted in egg tempera paint on the panel. Sixth, the image is named, and becomes an icon. Lastly, the new icon is blessed by a priest or bishop with water or oil, and prayed with by the family or congregation.