Part Two: Icons, Icon Painters, and Praying With Sacred Icons

The sacred icon is a visual aid that helps the person enter into a conversation with God, an angel, or a saint. If a sacred icon is to be painted with this purpose in mind then it it is a major responsibility of the sacred artist to construct the icon so that it may serve, rather than interfere with or destroy, that purpose. Thus, it is necessary for the sacred artist to curb the desire for ornateness, since it might detract from the prayer itself by focusing the viewer’s eyes on embellishment versus Person, or saint. 

Of all the physical features in an icon, in my opinion, the most important are the eyes. The eyes of the person represented in the icon – Our Lord, the angels, or the saints – are critical. They normally look out at the viewer. They are painted this way because icons, which should be painted in a spirit of deep prayer, are trying to establish or renew our relationship with the Heavenly person portrayed. So, as in typical conversation, we look at the person and they look at us. Yet, in many cases the eyes of the Blessed Mother, as the greatest of the saints, do not look at us; they are usually looking at her Son, or, are looking away from the viewer, or present us with  a “distant gaze.” These particular types of steady and intense looks of the Blessed Mother may also be seen in statues – especially those of medieval France. Please note the following link to an excellent site which shows some of these gazes in statues of Mother Mary and the Christ Child:

vialucispress.wordpress.com/2012/05/04/the-thrones-of-wisdom-dennis-aubrey/  By the way, I highly recommend Dennis Aubrey and PJ McKey’s site for your subscription.

Sacred icons are the traditional form of artistic expression of the Eastern and Western Rites of  the Catholic Church from approximately the 6th century on. The Western Rite moved away from purely painting sacred icons in approximately the 12th century and moved into the Gothic Period of sacred art. The Eastern Rite continued to develop its devotion to sacred icons with differences being seen within the various cultural areas of Orthodoxy – from Greece, to Serbia, Russia, Crete, etc.

As mentioned above, the use of a sacred icon is of practical spiritual value in that it is an aid in prayer. On an additional note, when we pray with a sacred icon, we are doing the same thing as when we speak to someone that we know and love. We speak to them, we may be in their physical presence, or we may be on a phone or computer connection with them, but we are with them in the sense that we are focusing on them at that moment in time – either physically facing them – or –  on a phone or computer screen. So when we pray to an icon we are looking at it in the same way we would look at someone in a face-to-face conversation; for that is what prayer is: conversation with God, Our Blessed Mother, the angels, or a particular saint.

Some people have a tendency to get themselves upset over the use of the term iconographer (icon writer) versus icon painter. The word graphein in Greek means “to write,” and it also means, “to paint.” A linguist and museum curator by the name of David Coomler informs us that in the Russian language the English word “write” is pisat, and the word “paint” is pisat. So, in Greek and Russian we have a double meaning for one word that represents both “to paint” and “to write;” however, this doesn’t transfer into the English language since in English we obviously have two different words to express graphein and pisat: write and paint.

I have no problem with people saying “I am a sacred icon painter.” The reason being – it is correct English. The term iconographer, however, is used and you see it in numerous books and in conversation in non-Russian or Greek formats. When people ask me how I identify myself – as an icon painter or an icon writer – I respond that I am a simple “sacred artist”!

Yet, we have an obligation to be truthful to our Holy Faith, so, when we paint icons we need to be attentive to and follow Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. In that sense, we are “writing” icons because we are scribing into visual form – using paint rather than just ink – the images from Sacred Scripture and Tradition. I may be breaking a grammatical rule in saying that; yet, I feel that it is appropriate owing to the nature of what we are trying to do in painting sacred icons.

May I suggest that as icon painters we must be conscious of the truth that the images that we copy of Our Lord, Our Blessed Mother, the angels, and the saints (saints prior to the 14th century) were and are built on our human imagination, for we do not have an actual authentic portrait of Our Lord, or Our Blessed Mother. There is consensus that St. Peter had a full head of hair and full beard, while St. Paul had a bald or balding head and full beard. I can say that because recent archaeological discoveries in Rome have continued to show those pictorial images for these two saints.

Still, that being said, we cannot be absolutely sure of this because we have no photographs, or, first century portraits of them; but, we do have a sacred tradition that portrays them that way; but this is not true for many of the saints – unfortunately, we just don’t know what they looked like. So we have to be very careful in our portrayal of saints, and remember, that basic cultural and historic research will help us in painting a quality sacred icon or image.

The above photo shows a recent interesting archaeological discovery that occurred in June 2010: The link below shows the cameraman filming  paintings of some of the earliest known images of the Apostles Peter and Paul (these ceiling paintings date from between AD 350 and 400) in a catacomb located under a modern office building in Rome. The images were uncovered using lasers and were under thick deposits of calcium carbonate. ((AP Photo/Pier Paolo Cito)) Click on this link below to see more photos:

http://www.foxnews.com/scitech/2010/06/22/ancient-icons-apostles-peter-paul-rome/#ixzz1voqaPpKJ  Thanks to this site for the information.

 Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

6 thoughts on “Part Two: Icons, Icon Painters, and Praying With Sacred Icons

  1. Great post, very informative.I loved the links, too. Beautiful photography of beautiful art.
    It is fascinating to read of the discovery of the ancient frescos. Online photos give only glimpses. I hope that there is a more comprehensive publication of excellent photographs to study in the works.

  2. Pingback: Praying with Icons | reinkat

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  4. For Ss. Peter and Paul-
    The first known images were portraits on Roman medallions and in fact based on real likenesses. Historical fact. They were well known personages in their day and even pagan Romans are on record as keeping these saints portraits on display in their homes along with other pagan images as they were revered. Easy enough to research. The earliest iconographic prototypes were based on these first medallion portraits and recorded descriptions.

    • Hi,
      Thanks for the comment.
      Yes, Dr. Margherita Guarducci, in her wonderful book – The Tomb of Peter – published in 1960, shows a 3rd century bronze medallion that was found in the cemetery of Domitilla. This bronze medallion shows images of Peter and Paul in the typical style that we have come to know them. The medallion is currently found in the Vatican Museum. The 1911 version of the Catholic Encyclopedia speaks of this medallion, too, as well as other sources for their likenesses.
      I am not disputing the historical lineage for the images of Peter and Paul; what I said in the post is that the images of many early saints other than Peter and Paul are unknown (or at least unknown at this time); archaeology, however, is constantly surprising us – which is proven by the early frescoed images of Sts. Peter and Paul that were uncovered in 2009 and 2010. One of my points being: we need to be careful, as sacred artists and iconographers, as what we claim to be “the true” likeness of a saint.

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