A tentative introduction:
Icon – Iconography –Icon Centre

In the following we shall endeavour to show the visitor to the Icon Centre the way to another world, a world which was long unknown in Western Europe.  In other words, we intend to guide the visitor aalong a path – a path not quite forgotten, but hopelessly overgrown with the weeds of unbridled intellectualism – a path we have long lost track of yet are constantly searching for, consciously or subconsciously.  Somewhere along this path we shall encounter the  I c o n.

Before the division of the churches  I c o n s  were revered in the Occident as well.  They were common property and wealth of the Christian faith.  The Eastern Orthodox Church has defended, protected and guarded them to this day.  The  I c o n  has survived iconoclasm and pursuit.  The   I c o n  is an expression of God’s love for us, and through our love of God the 
I c o n  lives.  A better interpretation of what the  I c o n  represents is hardly possible. 

But is this enough for man, held in civilisation’s grasp?

Will man continue to reject what he cannot through his intellect understand?

Spiritually, our Western world, characterised by excess, has become pitifully poor.  Notions and values have become confused.  Greed, materialism, aspiring to have, have taken hold of all thinking.

Where does that thinking exist that is totally free of ambition?  What has happened to contemplation of circumstances without aspiration?

We must first of all attempt to put some things into perspective.  This is the only way we can draw closer to the  I c o n  and to ourselves.

Let us forget for the time being the usual notions of art and image.  The earliest icons were never signed, never dated.  The Believer never asked who had painted the  I c o n,  how, when or where it originated.  The artist was relegated to the background – he stood in the shadow of the Saint, in the shadow of the Mystery.  He was to reveal himself to the Mystery of the Highest Authority only, proclaiming and calling, calling us to prayer, and bringing fulfilment, relief and, yes, wonders. 

In the artistic picture, however, man is confronted with man.  Fully understanding a painting requires knowledge and cognitive ability.  More often than not, more value is placed on the artist’s signature and what is known about him than on the painting itself.  The Greek word for painting is not “icon” but “pinax”.  The icon is neither a picture nor is it a painting.  Neither is the iconographer an artist.  He is an iconographer – a painter of icons”. The terminology of art is out of place here.

The  I c o n  is one of the elements of Holiness.  Holiness is not the work of man, but the essence of God.  All things are holy only in relation to Him.  Holy is the place where God is.  God’s presence is a blessing. 

“Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, be merciful with me sinner!”.  Thus the Believer prays and knows that neither standard of living nor social stance bring true fulfilment in life, but God’s blessing alone, His power which fills the universe and is the source of all life. 

The  I c o n, designated to portray God’s greatest blessing for us, namely His son who became man and with Him the blessed Saints, itself becomes the conveyor of divine grace. God the Father is never portrayed on  I c o n s.  The Believer doesn’t conjure up an image of God, he seeks Him not in the mortal knowledge of theology or in polished theological structures.  He does not attempt to understand God or His Mystery.  The Believer seeks God in his everyday life.

In the Orthodox Church, the divine liturgy is linked inseparably to the  I c o n s.  Like the liturgy, they lead us from this fleeting world into that other world, where death has no power, whereby it makes no difference whether an  I c o n  is of Greek or Bulgarian or Russian origin, whether it is old or new, red or blue in its basic colouring.  What is important is the window or – better yet - that it forms a bridge to God’s everlasting world.  Therefore, for the Eastern Orthodox Believer, the Church is not only a house of prayer and preaching or a place for execution of the liturgy, but first and foremost a Holy place, where the Creator meets and becomes one with His creation.  Here, all earthly dimensions are transcended; here the past, the present and the future converge.  So, too, the  I c o n exists beyond all concepts of space and time, uniting Jesus Christ and the Saints of various places and times in one single dimension.  The foreground is what is important, not the spatial or temporal dimension.  The Orthodox Believer distinguishes sharply between the heavenly and the worldly Church.  For him the community of Believers here on earth already constitutes God’s kingdom, the beginning of God’s rule.  Here the beginning, there the destination and completion.  Thus, the Church with its  I co n s  is not simply an appearance somewhere on the edge of life.  Rather, it accompanies life throughout – from birth, through every stage of life, in sickness and in health, as in death and homecoming.  The Church sanctifies everything through prayer and through sacrament.  The Church year with its festivals and feasting determines the rhythm and way of life of the Orthodox Believer.  Religion becomes life itself, is more than just dogma, morals, deeds of compassion or exercises in piety. 

L o v e is a tremendous power.  It destroys all evil, all that is dark and hostile.  Everything becomes beautiful in the light of love.  Love envelops the prayers of the liturgy in beautiful song; love ensures that the interiors of the Church are lavishly furnished and decorated.  The liturgy is celebrated not dutifully, but with exultation and grateful joy.  Through our Lord Jesus Christ, God and man have become one.  Can there be anything greater?  Words can not adequately describe it.

And so the Believer reaches for colours and paints the transfigured, spiritual beauty of the Mystery – not a worldly beauty as artists would paint – but the transfigured, spiritual beauty of the Holiest of all Holies, the son of God and the Holy Virgin, the righteous of the Old Covenant, of the apostles, the martyrs and the founding fathers of the Church.  Through colours and shapes the Believer defines his world – a world in which the “I” of mortals has been overcome and replaced with the divine “You”, in which “I” has turned to face the One who proclaims: 

                                              
  “I am the Lord thy God!

Thus the writer of  I c o n s  prays “Saint! Bless and enlighten the soul of your servant!  Take his hand that it may create a worthy and dignified Holy  I c o n”.  The original  I c o n s, created in the traditional manner during the lifetimes of the apostles, have been copied time and again.  Their content remains essentially the same, only the shapes change.  Yet it cannot be said that  I c o n s  are merely copies, for no two are completely identical.
The canon by which the iconographer paints is that the personages portrayed must not be altered in any way and that the tradition passed down to us must be faithfully adhered to and preserved.  Within these guidelines, however, the iconographer is free to be himself.  He will strive to paint the  I c o n s  to the best of his ability, with God’s help.  He must not debase his work by allowing it to become merely a business.  Icons must not be objects of trade.

And now a few words regarding the portrayal of individuals.  Let us take, for instance, the  I c o n s  of the apostles Peter and Paul.  Their portrayal today is the same as it was in ancient times.  What is personal, what is characteristic, what is important, remains.  What is to be “painted” is not simply “men with beard, keys, and sword”, but the well-known character of old.  The familiar features of the apostle must be always instantly recognizable.  
A further example is this: according to old lore, the first  I c o n  of the Blessed Virgin was painted by Luke the Evangelist himself.  Yet in Russia alone there are more than 200 types of  I c o n s  of the Blessed Virgin Mother of God.  All, however, show the same, unmistakable figure - not a beautiful Greek or Russian woman, no Madonna with sweet child, but the Blessed Virgin herself, untouched by all differences in style and taste.

Iconographic tradition has its origins in the beliefs of the early Church for whom heavenly Church and worldly Church are one.  This is why the  I C O N  rises above all worldly reality.  Perspective and anatomy, the customary colouring, light and shadow, place and time, all lose their importance.  In safeguarding Holy tradition, the  I c o n  cannot be a worldly, naturalist painting.  This is why oil colours, so popular in pictorial art, are not used.  Iconography has always used, and continues to use, only watercolours.  It has its own technique for applying the colour.  By applying it layer upon layer, the translucent, light, clear, yet strong and radiant colouring is achieved….. (see “Technique”)

The faces of the saints portrayed on the icons radiate peace.  They are serious, often stern, elevated above the mood of the moment.  Large eyes gaze with kindness, sometimes with sadness, upon our life, our world, our happiness and our misery.  Despite what one might call an almost monumental appearance, they seem ethereal, floating in space.  Their robes usually conform to their status and their time without losing themselves in detail.  They display exceptional colours and are draped lightly around the figure, so as not to arouse human feelings or provide aesthetic pleasure.  The  I c o n’s  sole purpose is to guide the observer by means of its unique characteristics along the path of mercy.  Hence the majestic simplicity of  the  I c o n s, the calmness of movement, the harmony of lines, the exuberant colour and harmony of the whole.  Intellectuals may see in the  I c o n  an idealised fiction and the illusion of a fantasy world, even arguing that it is not our responsibility to glimpse God’s world.  John the Theologian says in his gospel: “And the word became flesh and lived amongst us, and we saw its glory, the glory of the only-begotten son of God the Father, full of mercy and truth”.
As with the Holy scriptures, the  I c o n s  are replicated without any changes.  Uninfluenced by the times, they reveal to us the same eternal truth.  Like the Holy Scriptures, the  I c o ns  impart to us not human ideas and conceptions of truth, but the truth itself.
Saint Basilios, the great Cappadokian, remarked about the icon: “What the word reveals to us through hearing, iconography silently discloses to us through depiction, and through these two complementary instruments we gain knowledge from one and the same source.
 

-On the nature and importance of the  I c o n
-How the iconographer of today views himself
-An excerpt from a letter of Alexej Saweljew, dated 7th January 1962, to the Reverend Henrichs of Essen, North-Rhine-Westphalia

"Through Professor Gardner’s visit I learned that you would like to present a church of your choosing with an iconostasis and are therefore looking for icon painters, but that you have so far not discovered any who meet your expectations.  Please allow me, with this letter, which I write also on behalf of today’s “painters of icons”, to come to the defence of our "guild".

Because the icon encompasses the whole spectrum of theology revealed to us, which man can hardly comprehend and master, the iconographer of today is a particularly tormented soul.  Not only must he be able to understand and assimilate it all, he must also be able to explain, protect and defend it.  In the times of earlier iconographers, this was completely unnecessary! 

Last year I held seven exhibitions with my icons – organised by my wife – and talked to many people about the “new icons”. Can you tell me why it is that no-one would ever dream of comparing Chagall, Kandinsky or Picasso with Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo?  May I then ask why is it found necessary to compare the “new icons” with the works of holy masters? 

Why is it that only a very few really understand that the icon is not a piece of artwork, and that the painting of icons is a 
c r a f t  and a part of the Church service, and that today’s “iconographer” is forced to live and work in modern surroundings and a modern ambience, which are
by no means suitable for him?  Even the materials available today are suitable only for “works of art” – but not for the “production” of icons!

Professor Gardner asked me to tell you about my work.  For many years I have been trying to fulfil the duties of the icon painter.  But I find I am compelled to fight an ever greater fight between my conscience and compromise.  I am forced to carry out a downright “trade” in my icons, to fill orders which are not always one hundred percent respectable, and to represent the icon.  This is all in complete opposition to the  I c o n’s objective.  But then, it is opportune!

Despite all this, I am happy and thank the Creator that with my work I am able to open a window to the spiritual world and provide stimulation for reflection. I am happy too that I have probably succeeded in rediscovering the tradition, lost in 9th century Byzantium, of writing and painting with transparent colours used only for the “painting of icons”.  It is a completely forgotten technique whereby the colours not only create an effect, but unfurl themselves in endlessly rich existence with their individual character and vitality!

Professor Gardner asked me to present to you my views on the icons.  The prayer, the liturgy, and the icon developed from the desire to experience God and draw close to Him.  The icon is a part of prayer and liturgy and cannot be separated from these.  Only in progression towards  G o d  does the icon reveal to us the pathway through the Saints.  The icon painter is a street-sweeper whose mission is to sweep away the dirt.  And it is this that artists cannot bear, and what constitutes the difference between  a p a i n t i n g  and  an icon in our times of growing spiritual poverty, where we lose sight of the path and the world goes astray in its search for new ways.  We can hang as many wondrous and splendid icons in our churches and homes as we want - if we don’t believe in what is portrayed, neither old nor new icons can help us.  If progression towards God is a prerequisite for our salvation, then  l o v e  alone can bring that about…and so too, the icon was born of God’s love for us, and through our  l o v e  o f  G o d the  I c o n  lives.   I am sending you now a few photographs and articles from and about my work, and shall be happy if you will let me have your thoughts on these”.
 

(see the complete works: The one and only iconostasis in a Catholic church in Germany, Church
of St. Elisabeth in Essen-Frohnhausen, and the icon altar of the Church of St. Jodokus in Bielefeld.)
 

Another very interesting introduction to the icons is the speech held by Reverend Gerhard Spelz of Bernkastel-Kues, in connection with the opening of the exhibition and the concert featuring the clarinet ensemble Carcoma of the Cologne Academy of Music, “Icons in Concert”, on 17the December 2000 at 3pm in the Museum of the Mid-Moselle in Traben-Trarbach

To view a taped transcript of the lecture please click…..

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