When it comes to Orthodox iconographers, the question of style is a difficult one. Wanting to affirm the living tradition of iconography, we can instead be circumscribed by a dead traditionalism. This struggle involves every member of the Church. The faithful who commission icons are often attached to certain historic versions of an icon. While such works can be personally edifying, they often betray a proclivity for a cultural fashion. It is much less work (and heartache) to paint the expected icon than talk about style with that patron. Hardest of all, is the Achilles heel of Orthodoxy—the fetishization of the past. This is perhaps the most common way the devil nests in our beloved church. And, in this spirit, anything new can elicit judgement instead of careful discernment.
Style and the Spirit
Anyone who has taken an icon painting course with me will know how important I believe it is to copy from a prototype. This is quite common in iconography classes. It gives a definitive goal to each student and provides a clear example for comparison. While this is a good, traditional starting point, it might also reinforce a misconception. Iconography is not an exercise in replication. It is the practice of prayer, attentive engagement, and regard.
Painting copies of good icons is only the first step in learning an art that is the depiction of the present and unfolding kingdom. In copying, students have the supportive structure from the original to practice focusing and learning to paint. Even more so, by submitting themselves to another’s vision, the student has the opportunity to humble themselves. This is a requirement of any artist wanting to master a craft, and even more important in iconography. Without such humility, the voice of the angels, the teacher, and the materials will remain unheard and disembodied.
A traditional iconographic apprenticeship ends with the consecration of the hands of the iconographer. During this service, the apprentice’s hands are blessed for this purpose. When this happened for me, I understood right away that this meant I could now accept commissions from my own studio. It took me longer to see that something more significant was being affirmed. Today, I understand that the greatest blessing was the affirmation to create, rather than copy, icons.
It took me many years to become comfortable with that calling. I needed to believe that what I saw, and what my hand wanted to draw, was rightly inspired. It took time to learn that a personal iconographic style, rooted in the incarnation of my time and place, was a blessing of the Holy Spirit. I was surprised to learn that others even saw this as a responsibility of the iconographer. Today, working in a personal, monumental style that is direct but gentle, I understand this better. It is an idea summed up well in a keynote given by Bishop Job of blessed memory, then Bishop of Chicago, at the Saint John of Damascus Association in 1996. At that event, he said,
To learn the tradition of iconography you must simply copy initially. You will never go wrong if you copy a good model. Eventually the Holy Spirit adds to your skill and experience, and then you will develop your own style. This style is the product of prayer and study, the painting of many icons, and obedience to the tradition. It doesn’t sprout fully formed with your first icons. The perfection of iconographic skill is not just a combination of natural ability and experience, but many feel that it is also a gift of the Spirit. On which account, I think that a lot of iconographers would agree with me that once you get your style, it would be very difficult to break out of that and it would not be a good thing to try to break out of it. We can always improve, certainly. We can go to demonstrations and see certain techniques in order to improve on our work, but it still has to be ours, or rather what the Holy Spirit has given to us and accept that really as the gift.
A Vocation to Teach
However, after the struggle of understanding that my hands had been blessed to create something good, my tendency was to remain silent about it. A lot of this was a fear of being unloving, or defensive, in my responses. The oft repeated question, “Can you paint in a Byzantine/Russian/Coptic … style?” boils down to a request for replication. Such copying of a style handed down by holy tradition often turns into a historic fashion, with fashion bound by an historical period and style transcending it. Style pulls the icon forward into new times and places, which has the potential for an enduring encounter. After my struggle to have iconographic style embodied, requests for icons of a certain style were unedifying.
This lack of personal response has meant that the blessings offered in such conversations have taken me a long time to experience. It took a good friend of mine to point out what was being missed—in such questions there is a genuine chance to teach and learn. Because of his words, my time spent in correspondence is now a great blessing to me. I see it as part of an iconographer’s engagement in evangelization to the living presence of the Gospel. And, it’s something that comes particularly in having a studio in the West. These conversations about artwork are very much a cultural expectation here, one going back a long way in its history. An example in Edgar Wing’s, Art and Anarchy lectures, tells that the patroness Isabella d’Este once wrote to the artist Pietro Perugino fifty-four letters about a single painting! While I haven’t come close to this number for any single icon, the blessing of such conversations is now evident to me.
Such correspondence may at first appear to be about fashion, but given the chance, often they can go much deeper. I recently had such a conversation about filling the, “empty” gilded space behind the saint with images from their life. This request came from a desire to add moments of grace, which our tradition has spoken about, from the life of that saint. But, it was only taking into account a symbolic value of the icon. In answering this request, an understanding that the icon is not primarily symbolic but experiential had to explained. In an icon is the experience of the presence of grace in the saint, that man or women who has “put on Christ”. Icons are a portal to the presence of the kingdom, where we can prayerfully commune with the glorified Christ. This space in the icon is the farthest thing from being void. It invites us to experience the glory of God within which the saint is now personal deified. In choosing to render it in high-karat gold leaf, we echo that eternal nature with a beautiful and untarnishing material. In the end, the patron and I not only found agreement, but something important was taught about the saint’s experience that illuminates each person’s spiritual journey.
The greatest opportunity I’ve found in engaging about iconographic style is to offer an alternative to the belief that icons are a faithful replication of a particular fashion. Great icons are the work of a human hand in the fullness of that communion given by the Holy Spirit. The iconographer must be awake to a moment in history, and our particular place in God’s creation, providing a testament that all the earth is filled with divine energy. While every icon is based on the same foundation, the building on those foundations is not about adhering to limitations. It is about being open to the timely fulfillment offered by the Holy Spirit, who inspires in surprisingly beautiful ways from generation to generation.
Treasure in a Question
Painting icons from the village of Conestoga in a new style opens the floodgates of opinion. A lot of these can be positive. When a young woman shared on Facebook that a recent icon, “… captured a part of his spirit.” I celebrated with her that this blessing had occurred. It’s harder to be grateful when someone makes a harsh pronouncement against your work. However, both are potentially dangerous and a blessing. A regular rhythm of prayer, and being open and honest with a few close friends, is essential to staying balanced.
The blessing of an encouraging comment is common. Someone affirming that what you’ve struggled to create has furthered the Kingdom by an inch can be a blessing. But the danger in popular comments are also real if it sways the iconographer from his path. There is an accountability to listen to the assuredness of the truth brought by the angels visiting the studio. To hear them, we must be still with humility, but it is only their affirmation and correction that will see the work completed well. As the icon of Abraham’s Hospitality testifies: Such beings pass by our “tent”, and are the bearers of revelation. Each brings, “the image of God” and in their presence new life unfolds.
Likewise, the danger of heeding judgmental or negative words is pretty obvious. After struggling to create something good, it’s hurtful (or sometimes infuriating) to have unkind things said about it. Oftentimes, when such a discussion takes place online, I’m quick to disengage if it devolves to a kind of judgmental shouting. Discerning when to exercise the guardianship of the eyes and ears is a lifelong exercise. But, sometimes I also can find opportunities and blessings in such words—even when I don’t immediately know the answer or how to respond in a life-giving way.
I recently found such a blessing in a question posed as briefly as, “Why no iris?”. I could have answered it by talking about stylization in general. This notion that what we see with our eyes should inform art’s vision is very common today. That kind of adherence to a kind of scientific observation could be address by asking a question like, “Is a camera’s photograph vision the most realistic way to see and experience the saints?” But, this answer, while honest, was incomplete. Painting the eyes of an icon’s saint without an iris was something that had felt right. While I could point out a couple of historic examples in the iconographic canon, none of them was specific to my work.
After lunch, it’s my practice to walk in the woods along the Conestoga River. For almost a week, I could feel the question trailing me as I walked. Then it dawned on me all at once, as if an angel was whispering in my ear—everything in my style of iconography is about simplification. My stylization is about finding its essential core. The eyes have found harmony with this vision in their simplicity. And, given that the eyes are where we meet in the saint in prayer, they have a special significance. In this style, its shape has a simple geometry, and provides a great receptivity. Combining the iris and the pupil of the eye into one adds to the awareness of the saint’s attention and is in tune with the general stylization. In the end, even such a blunt question was a great opportunity for meditation and clarity.
Most of us can see that the great iconographers of the past were blessed to paint with a style that was integral to who they were, and to their time and place, by a divine grace. As the church fathers and mothers teach, divine grace is not a universal philosophical abstraction. The Orthodox understanding is not primarily that the spirit of God transcends time, but that God is incarnate. In Christ, God transfigures every time and place. The presence of his Spirit, “which is everywhere present and fullest all things” includes our own time and place. Rather than being the exception, those who paint and those who commission icons today in the West need to use this understanding as their guiding star. While the icons of Saint Rublev and Manuel Panselinos offer a profound vision of holiness, those who work in this vocation today need to be mindful of the way the Holy Spirit calls our mind and heart to engage with the gifts of creation. As I’ve learned, even the ground on which we walk in a particular place can inform how the animated grace of a sanctified life may be depicted.
I now understand that through the blessing of iconographic style, we see this understanding. Within such style, we see reality built upon traditional iconographic foundations. But, we can also find something beautiful in the way God participates through each person’s unique hand in its work. Communally, such work gives us a chance to echo the “Amen, come Lord Jesus” in the time and place from which the icon is made. But, as someone who engages in this question, my hope is that in honoring this vocation, through the blessing of style, others might find God and participate in his unfolding Kingdom.