Betsy Porter

Betsy Porter
Art and Iconography

Article On Byzantine-style Icons
By Betsy Porter

Betsy Porter

Above; "class photo" taken at a Prosopon School workshop in Santa Barbara, CA, June 2008.

Our instructor was Dmitri Andrejev, at center with white shirt and beard. We all painted the same challenging icon of The Annunciation - and each icon turned out quite different from all the others. To see the steps by which my icon was painted, go to the Step by Step page.

“Hope always draws the soul from the beauty which is seen to what is beyond, always kindles the desire for the hidden through what is constantly perceived. Therefore, the ardent lover of beauty, although receiving what is always visible as an image of what he desires, yet longs to be filled with the very stamp of the archetype.”

Saint Gregory of Nyssa

Some History and Background: “Icon” means simply “image.” The term here refers to sacred images, specifically those developed in the Orthodox Christian tradition.

These traditional images have historically been revered as equivalent in authority to Holy Scripture, as a visual expression of the Word of God. Some are reputed to perform healing miracles. Each Orthodox church is adorned by an altar screen (iconostasis) covered with icons, as well as portable icons on stands. An Orthodox home will typically include a “beautiful corner,” where icons are displayed on a special shelf, and are greeted by visitors prior to greeting the residents. Small icons may function as meditation objects and prayer companions. More than just sacred art, icons are treated with great reverence, as part of an active relationship with the holy.

Icons are strongly rooted in classical Greek and Roman art. They were developed during the long-lived Byzantine Empire (330-1453) and its descendant cultures. In recent years, iconography has attracted increased interest and many new practitioners. The discipline continues to evolve as a living art form.

There are numerous icon styles, most prominently Greek, Russian, Coptic, and Ethiopian. Most historic examples are paintings in egg tempera on wood; others are mosaic, fresco, embroidery, tapestry, precious metals, and enamel. The most familiar icons are half-figures of Jesus, Mary holding the Christ Child, angels, saints, apostles, and prophets. Other types include faces, full-length figures, traditional group scenes representing special days in the church calendar, and illustrations of Bible stories and legends of the saints.

In iconography, a number of artistic rules and conventions apply. The underlying drawing is geometrically structured and proportioned. Color areas are clearly defined. Figures are elongated, eyes large and shadowed, eyebrows arched, noses long and straight, mouths closed, hands gracefully stylized. The forehead (seat of the intellect) and the collar bone (gateway to the heart) are emphasized. Both eyes and at least one ear must be visible to enable the holy figure to see and hear the viewer. Out of respect for the commandment against graven images, Orthodox icons avoid strongly three-dimensional effects; but the complex cubist-like highlights hint at spiritual dimensions. Perspective is flattened or even inversed.

The image is diagrammatic as well as representational, floating on a sea of philosophy, theology, and mathematics. Folds in the garments converge and spiral into power points; hair curls and waves with the saint’s energies; and increasingly bright layers of highlights symbolize levels of consciousness. Light comes primarily from within the figure.

Icons have been described as “windows into heaven” and as “making the invisible visible.” Even though somber events may be depicted, there is an underlying mood of confidence, joy, and sometimes a playful humor. The holy figures are shown in a blessed state, suffused with golden light. They project an intense psychological presence, and may seem to return your gaze, or even to initiate the scrutiny.

Painting (Traditionally Known as “Writing”) an Icon: Iconography is both a spiritual practice and a non-competitive artistic discipline. This work is undertaken with prayer, in a contemplative atmosphere. Icons are left unsigned or signed only on the back, as “by the hand of” the artist.

These sacred images have been lovingly refined over the centuries, so the iconographer does not attempt to re-invent them, but to copy them faithfully, clearly, and expressively. Originality and “self-expression” are rarely required or appropriate. If a modern saint or unfamiliar theme is to be depicted, one relies on precedent insofar as possible, allowing several hours to prepare a satisfactory drawing. But every iconographer develops a unique style and approach. The individual touch is readily visible in minor variations and in nuances of line quality, detail, highlight, and color. With concentration and persistence, almost anyone can learn to paint a beautiful icon.

The Prosopon Method: Although I have taken workshops with several instructors, I am most strongly drawn to the method of Vladislav Andrejev and his associates of the Prosopon School, with whom I have been studying since May 1997. Andrejev learned this method secretly under the Soviet regime. It is based primarily on the work of Saint Andrei Rublev (c. 1370-1430), the famous Russian iconographer-monk.

This method, in itself devotional and ritualized, produces a “liturgically correct” icon, using only natural materials. The process requires a series of carefully executed steps, each of which takes an hour or two, for a total of at least 40 hours. Every material and step is symbolic, and part of a coherent system of symbolic meanings.

The image is written in 23 or 24 karat gold leaf and egg tempera on a wood board covered with a layer of cloth and many coats of smooth white gesso, also known as levkas, concocted of chalk, marble dust, and animal-skin glue. Egg tempera paint is hand-mixed of natural pigments (mostly pulverized minerals) in an emulsion of egg yolk with wine (or vinegar and water). These colors will last for centuries.

Several layers of highlights and transparent washes are applied over dark background colors. Details and lettering are added last. The careful technique and beautiful natural materials are similar to those used by the Old Masters. The resulting image is characterized by elegant line and detail, an appealing inner glow, subtle but luminous color effects, and a soft sheen.

The Prosopon Method is marked by translucency, precision, and a lightness of touch. Paint is applied in small circles with a bit of white showing through, rather than in large opaque strokes. The veil of paint overlies the veil of clothing and the veil of flesh, through which the holy presences shine.

In this method, the process of painting an icon re-enacts the story of creation, the story of salvation, and our hopes for a future heavenly kingdom. The white board, ready to paint, represents the eternal uncreated light of God, awaiting the creation of the Universe. The dark first layer mimics the chaos, the primal energy of all things. The first highlight recalls God's creation of the natural order; the second highlight represents the creation of human beings with our intellect and culture. The very small, bright third highlight indicates the spiritual or angelic level which we can occasionally experience by grace. The tiny final highlights, the ozhivki, bring back the light of God, and our aspiration to the divine.

Nikita Andrejev teaching

Dmitri and Nikita Andrejev, sons of Prosopon School founder Vladislav Andrejev, are both excellent instructors and iconographers.

photograph by Mary Plaster

For instructions on how to write an icon, see the technical pages of this site.
For more resources on iconography and religious art, see bottom of home page.
For workshops and classes in iconography, see the classes page.

ON SPIRITUAL VISION – writings compiled by Vladislav Andrejev, as a handout for a class on Theory of Iconography, Austin, TX 2003

“Open the eye of thy intelligence and look at Me.” - St. Catherine of Siena

“The eye by which I see God is the same as the eye by which God sees me. My eye and God’s eye are one and the same.” - Eckhart

“I am blind and do not see the things of this world; but when the light comes from Above, it enlightens my Heart and I can see, for the Eye of my Heart (Chante Ishta) sees everything; and through this vision I can help my people. The heart is a sanctuary at the center of which there is a little space, wherein the Great Spirit (Wakantanka) dwells, and this is the Eye. This is the eye of Wakantanka by which he sees al things, and through which we see Him. If your heart is not pure, Wakantanka cannot be seen, and if you should die in this ignorance, your soul shall not return immediately to Wakantanka, but it must be purified by wandering about in the world. In order to know the Centre of the Heart in which is the mind of Wakantanka, you must be pure and good, and live in the manner that Wakantanka has taught us. The man who is thus pure contains the Universe within the Pocket of his Heart (Chante Ognaka).” - Black Elk

“The light of splendour shines in the middle of the night.
Who can see it? A heart which has eyes and watches.”
- Angelus Silesius

“And then our Lord opened my spiritual eye and shewed me my soul in midst of my heart. I saw the Soul so large as it were an endless world, and as it were a blissful kingdom. And by the conditions that I saw therein I understood that it is a worshipful City. In the midst of that City sitteth our Lord.” - Julian of Norwich

“There is a power in sight which is superior to the eyes set in the head and more far-reaching than the heavens and earth.” - Eckhart

“In these outlines, my son, I have drawn a likeness of God for you, so far as that is possible; and if you gaze upon this likeness with the eyes of your heart, then, my son, believe me, you will find the upward path; or rather, the sight itself will guide you on your way.” - Hermes

“I saw my Lord with the eye of my heart, and I said: Who art thou? He said: Thou.” - Al-Hallaj

“This Ätmâ, which dwells in the heart, is smaller than a grain of rice, smaller than a grain of barley, smaller than a grain of mustard, smaller than a grain of millet; this Ätmâ, which dwells in the heart, is also greater than the earth, greater than the atmosphere, greater than the sky, greater than all the worlds together.

Containing all works, containing all desires, containing all odors, containing all tastes, encompassing this whole world, the unspeaking, the unconcerned – this is Ätmâ within the heart, this is Brahma. I shall enter into it on departing hence”Chândogya Upanishad, iii. Xiv. 3, 4

“The most high is absolutely without measure, as we know,
And yet a human heart can enclose him entirely!”
Angelus Silesius.

“My earth and My heaven contain me not, but the heart of My faithful servant containeth Me.”Muhammad

“You must close the eyes and waken in yourself that other power of vision, the birthright of all, but which few turn to use.” - Plotinus

We must shut the eyes of sense, and open that brighter eye of our understandings, that other eye of the soul, as the philosopher calls our intellectual faculty, 'which indeed all have, but few make use of it.'

Betsy Porter

by Vladislav Andrejev

A handout at the same workshop

Each numbered level represents a quantum leap to a new level of spiritual consciousness. The highest levels, Prosopon and above, are probably known only to God.

Level 1, Atheismos, represents good mental health without interest in God.

Vladislav says that there are equally many spiritual levels, representing despair and mental illness, below the "zero" level of Tartaros - but we won't go there.

For a Color Theory Chart by Valdislav Andrejev, see bottom of layout page.

Betsy Porter

Father Daniel censing icons

Omaha, NE, July 2008
photo by Shelli Joye

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