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Betsy Porter
Art and Iconography
LANDSCAPE in icons is often highly stylized, as shown in this demonstration piece/
highlight study by Vladislav Andrejev, founder of the
Prosopon School of Iconology.  This
sampler piece provides suggestions for treatment of rocks, mountains, caves, ocean, clouds,
and vegetation.
Above; these two icons of the Prophet Elijah show very different treatments of landscape elements.

At left, the
trees are quite naturalistic, and the rocks tower into fantastic sculpture.  The white rocks in the
foreground are to be understood as covered with flowing water.

At right, trees are more stylized; and one of them serves to separate two events which took place at different
times.  The rocks form a sort of cradle for Elijah's chariot of fire.  In the foreground, the Jordan River is shown as a
strip of deep blue-green, striped with lighter green to indicate waves.
Right; in this icon of the Transfiguration, steep peaks in various pastel colors
support the figures, and the vegetation is even further stylized.  The entire
landscape seems to rotate, briefly bringing Elijah and Moses to earth and then

As in many other icons, the landscape includes a
cave, representing the deep
and unknown (although not necessarily evil) mysteries that hide within the
visible nature which surrounds us, and within our own psyches.
In some icons, the cave becomes
more menacing, the home of hungry
lions and destructive dragons!

It also forms an effective frame for the
heroic figures of Elijah (above left) and
Daniel (left), shown posed neatly
against the cave opening.

Rocks and mountains have a
distinct shingled configuration - "stair
steps to heaven."  At the top, they may
end in little rounded or slanted
topknots, highlighted for definition.
For the Trinity icon, I preferred a relatively
naturalistic landscape, reminiscent of the
rolling hills of California.  That's supposed
to be an oak tree.  The building looks a bit
like the bell tower of St. Gregory's.

St. Francis is set in a landscape that recalls
his town of Assisi.
Water is usually depicted very dark green or
blue-green with lighter wave marks, and often carries
a symbolism similar to that of caves - the mysterious
and potentially dangerous unknown.  Waves may be
depicted as very large and threatening.  In the
"Ubuntu Trinity" at left, I wanted to depict a peaceful
stream, and used smaller waves.

Clouds, like water, may be shown as extremely
active.  In the icon of Prophet Daniel, the clouds are
carrying a friend to his rescue.  Even wispy clouds
can provide a sense that the wind is blowing and the
Spirit is at work, as in the detail at right of "The Angel
of Saint Gregory's Church" by
Paul Fromberg.
John the Baptist said that God could
raise up children to Abraham from the
stones - and in icons, the towering rock
formations tend to assume a human-like
profile.  They lean or rotate inwards
toward the sacred event, as though
hoping for a better view!
BUILDINGS in icons have their own style of
perspective, in which the building is turned inside
out to enable the viewer to see both interior and
exterior, as the angels see them.  Western-style
perspective, with its consistent vanishing point(s)
in the distance, would be too restrictive.

Instead, perspective may actually be inversed,
with the wider part of a rectangular solid in back
of the narrower part - the sight lines converge at
the viewer's eye rather than in the distance.

Loretta Hoffmann's icon of Saint Mark writing
his Gospel, we seem to be looking up at one of
the two buildings, and down on the other.

The dark window and door openings function
similarly to caves - there's a mystery inside.
                  THE TEMPLE OF JERUSALEM

In a number of icons, including The Annunciation (left) and The Presentation
(above right), the action takes place in the magnificent Temple, the epicenter
of Jewish culture and religion.  Although the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD,
it remains the symbolic prototype of every Orthodox church building.

In the Annunciation icon, Mary is spinning yarn, just as a new creation will be
"spun" inside her womb during her pregnancy.  This red yarn will be used for
the weaving of a new temple veil for the Holy of Holies - the same veil that is
torn in half at the Crucifixion.  The same (?) red cloth appears draped over
the rooftops, indicating that the action takes place inside the building.

The building behind Mary is a well, indicated by the hole in its lower roof - but
why a side door?  Its upper roof is shaped into the letter "M" for Mary.

In the rear is the Pinnacle of the Temple, from which Jesus will be tempted
some 30 years later to throw himself down.  We see the foundations which
will be shaken.  The narrow structure with double pilasters, at left in the
Annunciation icon and at right in the Presentation, is a recurrent feature
which sometimes includes a throne-like seat between the pilasters.

FURNITURE, like buildings, is shown in inversed perspective, and may
include mysterious dark openings.

Furniture does not necessarily sit on the ground - it sometimes floats in the
foreground with its holy figure, occupying another plane in space-time.  The
footstool is of special symbolic importance, indicating that the saint is lifted
above the earth.

Upholstered furniture was not invented until relatively recent centuries - so a
bolster-like cushion may soften the seat.

Furniture may be adorned with ornamental carvings and with radiating fine
lines or "assiste" in the second and third highlights, over a more sculptural
first highlight.

At left; Christ Enthroned by Loretta Hoffmann
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Above; more stylized trees and
shrubs from the Prosopon School