When icons first appeared, in style they were in part influenced by what had gone before: the art of Egypt, Syria and Asia Minor. Icon painting borrowed from the classical traditions of Alexandrian art, which had preserved Greek Hellenism in its purest form. We see these influences most markedly in some of the few surviving portraits from Pompeii. Although icons share similar stylistic characteristics, icon painters took those influences and transformed them into a unique expression of the Christian faith.
The earliest surviving icon, which was discovered by chance in a small auction house in Avignon, France in 2003, dates from the sixth or seventh century AD. It is an icon of the Virgin and Child. The style is simple but undeniably powerful. Viewed simply as an art object, it is rudimentary and even primitive. However, to the person of prayer, the image has a spiritual power. An authentic icon draws you beyond the material world and into the world of angels and saints.
Because icons are liturgical, the making of icons is bound by rules and traditions laid down by the Church. The icon is the agent of dogma; its function is to communicate in visual terms the essential doctrines of Christianity: the Holy Trinity, the Incarnation, the Saints. The iconographer – the one who creates icons – does not transmit his or her own idea, but “a description of what is contemplated.”
The Western notion of the “I” in art has no importance where icons are concerned – hence icons are not signed. When I visited the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow I made the simple mistake of asking a member of the gallery staff where the Rublev icons were located. The woman I spoke to corrected me at once: “We do not speak of the icons as belonging to one artist or another”, she replied.
A good description of what is required of an icon painter is provided by the Orthodox theologian Leonid Ouspensky, who states that “an iconographer must conform to an image consecrated by the Church, introducing no personal or emotional content, but placing all those who pray, before one and the same reality and leaving each person free to react to the extent of his or her possibilities and in accordance with his or her character, needs, circumstances and so forth. Moreover, just as a priest officiates according to their natural gifts and peculiarities, so an iconographer transmits an image according to his character, gifts and technical proficiency”.
Although icon painters are bound by certain rules and conventions, there nevertheless exists a small measure of stylistic freedom. Accordingly, this guarantees that each icon that is painted will be unique.
Because iconographers make visual the mysteries of theology, they are not so much painters as writers, and the Orthodox description of the creation of an icon talks about the “writing” of it rather than the “painting”. Iconographers must be people of prayer, preferably ascetic in their lifestyle, and partaking fully in the sacramental life of the church. Being an icon “writer” makes religious and moral demands.
For example, the Council of the Hundred Chapters decreed that the icon painter should be “meek, mild, pious, not given to idle talk or to laughter, not quarrelsome or envious, not a thief or a murderer”. The main demand was that the painter must show no independence, no “thinking for himself” in what he painted. However, we can also note that those icons we can attribute to particular “writers” evidence a refined level of technical and creative ability.
Theodisius the Hermit draws parallels between the iconographer and the priest. “For the priest, officiating with divine words, prepares the Body of which we participate for the remission of sins; while the artist, instead of using words, draws and images a body and gives it life; and we venerate icons for the sake of their prototypes.”
There’s that word “prototype” again. You will discover that there are no icons of living persons. The icon shows a person in his or her transformed or deified state. It shows those who have gone over, whose corruptible human flesh has been replaced by the incorruptible and eternal light of God. The subjects of icons are characterised by a certain spiritual reality: sober, grace-filled, free of any exaltation. They are usually static images. The subject looks out at us directly, looking not so much into our eyes but into our souls.
In some icons the proportions of the subject are exaggerated. In Orthodox tradition this reflects the path to spiritual transformation as being that of asceticism, of self-denial and fasting. So hands and feet are sometimes thinner than they are in real life, while the facial features – the nose, eyes and ears – are more oblong. All these and many other artistic techniques are employed to convey the spiritual change that happens to human flesh as a result of the asceticism, of the self denial of the saint and the transforming impact made on them by the Holy Spirit.
Metropolitan Hilarion describes it as follows: “The icon of a saint shows not so much a process as a result, not so much a way as a destination point, not so much a movement towards a goal but as a goal in itself. In an icon we see someone who does not struggle with the passions but has overcome them, who does not seek the Heavenly Kingdom but who has already reached it.”