Art and Iconography
INSCRIPTIONS, BOOKS, AND SCROLLS
TWO SCROLLS by Tom Hodgson
Left: John the Baptist
Right: Prophet Ezekiel
FOR CHRIST THE TEACHER
Left and Center: Betsy Porter
Right: Paul Fromberg
LETTERING FOR YOUR ICON
Although previous artistic experience is not required for icon painting, some training in
calligraphy or graphic arts is a great help when it comes to lettering.
Before applying lettering to your icon, practice on paper. It may require several tries to establish the proper
size of the lettering, the length of the lines, and their position on the icon. For scrolls and open books, lettering
may need to be slanted or even curved to look correct.
All major persons appearing in an icon should be identified by name; or in the case of Mary and Jesus, by
abbreviations of their names. The name is usually inscribed on the background near the person's head, but may
appear in a margin. In addition, the person may be holding a scroll or a book.
The usual color for lettering is bright red or dark red on a light background. I've had trouble with dark
blue lettering; it tends to bleed onto a light ground when olifa is applied. On a dark background, lettering may be
light gold or any contrasting light color.
Let the background color set up thoroughly before lettering! If you should make an error, remove most of
the incorrect lettering with a slightly damp Q-tip, and let the background dry before trying again.
The lettering in some of these examples is much more attractive than mine!
Inscriptions in the borders can
help clarify the intent of an icon,
further describe the saint and her
work, or give the icon additional
interest, poignancy, and depth.
Jesus is often depicted with a book, and so are saints who are known for their teaching. The book may
be opened to reveal a revered passage. Books are held in the left hand, to leave the right hand free for teaching.
Many saints, especially bishops, are shown with a closed Gospel book, magnificently bound. The hand that holds
the book may be covered with draped cloth, indicating the holiness and importance of the book.
Gospel books were extremely precious, being individually transcribed by hand and beautifully bound, sometimes in
a golden cover adorned with jewels. They may be held closed with straps. Edges of the pages are usually bright
red. Like other rectangular solids, books may be shown in inversed perspective.
Below are several icons featuring closed books; and a detail of the gospel book held by Saint Gregory of Nyssa.
Prophets and other Biblical figures are often depicted with a scroll bearing a passage from their
teachings or writings.
These SCROLLS (like those illustrated above) may be depicted in gravity-defying positions - the
spirit behind the messages seems to hold them aloft!
Left; Paul Fromberg uses dramatic
large-scale lettering to identify Christ the
Teacher; the bold inscriptions become an
integral part of the icon. Scroll down for
a detail of the book.
Right; the multiple figures and active
background of The Presentation in the
Temple presented artistic challenges as to
how to position the inscriptions.
Identification for Mary and the Christ
Child appears on the background. Saints
Joseph, Simeon, and Anna are identified
in the margins.
INSCRIPTIONS are integral to icons, identifying the saint(s) and/or events(s)
pictured, and telling us viewers the meaning and intention of the icon.
The words in a scroll or book usually come from an important passage in the saint's own
Books and scrolls function similarly to the "balloons" in comic strips - but their
words are experienced as a message from the heart of the saint straight into our
own listening hearts.
Borders and backgrounds provide space for more inscriptions, which should typically
include identification of the icon's subject. Other sources for inscriptions abound - Biblical
passages appropriate to the subject, beloved hymns and prayers, spiritual commentary
both historical and contemporary. The Psalms are a particularly rich source for border
inscriptions - not only for their varied subjects and rhythmic poetry, but because of their
structure of parallel verses of similar length, which can fit neatly onto the opposing borders
of the icon. Plan ahead! Short inscriptions will be easiest.
If you prefer to paint your inscription in Cyrillic alphabet or in a historic font, a web search
for images of your subject will usually bring up historic icons with appropriate lettering which
you can use as a guide.
Paul Fromberg spent many hours
planning and painting the beautiful
border inscription on his Epitaphios