Prepared by Tamara Penwell,
Contact Tamara on +44 (0) 1225 315028 for Icon Painting
What is an icon? The word means image, here specifically the image of the eternal invisible God who visibly entered human history as a man – Jesus. Jesus revealed the human face of God to us, and at the same time demonstrated the divine image in man. For many before and after Jesus’ time on earth, divinity was the norm they strived to apprehend in their human existence. The divine image was reflected in their human faces. Therefore side by side with icons of Jesus there are images of Mary, the Mother of God, saints and angels.
There are also narrative icons of biblical events (Annunciation, Nativity or Visitation of Abraham), or events from the life of the Church (Exaltation of the Cross or scenes from the lives of saints), that show us a glimpse of the revealed mystery of God and proclaim the good news of the heavenly kingdom. The iconography of these images developed over the centuries and is now established and instantly recognisable. Icons carry a message that did not originate in an individual human mind, but reflects the collective mind of the Church. For that reason icons are never signed with the name of the painter, however they do bear the name of the person or event depicted.
As far as the traditional style of icons is concerned it has also evolved over time and drawn richly from many cultures, however it is evident to the Western viewer that it took no notice of the developments of the Renaissance or subsequent. Icons do not seek to create an illusion of depth where there is none, but instead through the use of complex, if unsophisticated, inverse perspective, reach out to the viewer and engage him in the reality of what is depicted. In the representation of the human form the aim is neither to show idealised perfectly proportioned body nor to be “true to nature” and create a photographically accurate image, but to show the bodies and faces of the saints transfigured, glowing with the inner light, still and serene, temples of the Holy Spirit.
Icons are, no doubt, objects of beauty, however their role is not ornamental. Or in other words, we do not place icons in our churches and homes in order to make them pretty, but to remind us and focus our attention on the beauty that is already there, the beauty of God’s creation, the unique beauty of each individual human being made in God’s image, the radiant beauty of God’s truth. Filling the interior of the church, icons are an active ingredient of the liturgy, demarcating the space as well as the congregation engaged in the liturgical drama, as a “kingdom not of this world” (John 15;36). The mystery enacted and the mystery depicted are one (…). This is why (…) the icon does not define itself as an art belonging to one or another historical epoch, nor of the expression of the national peculiarities of one or another people, but only by its function (…). (Leonid Ouspensky The Meaning and Language of Icons)
Icons are sometimes described as “the Scriptures in colour”, representing the Word of God as well as His image. It is therefore logical that they have a language. Colours and composition used, shapes, gestures, objects represented, carry meaning and need to be read, for the icon to be intelligible. The process of painting (or writing ) an icon, in its progression from dark to light likewise reflects the Gospel of God’s salvation.