Is an icon painted, or “written”? That may seem an odd question, because as any sensible person can see, icons are painted; they are paint applied to a surface of some kind. Why, then, does such a question even arise?
The answer lies in the usage by many English-speaking neo-Eastern Orthodox of a kind of affected jargon in referring to icons. They will say one “writes” an icon rather than “paints” it. But the reason for that peculiar usage lies in the differences between the English and the Russian languages.
Ask a Russian how one says “write,” in his language, and he will answer “pisat’.” Then ask him how one says “paint,” and he will reply “pisat’.” That is because Russian has one word with a double meaning, and one must know the context to know whether one is writing a letter or painting a picture. English, however, has distinct words for these two actions. We “write” a letter, but we “paint” a picture. So to say one “writes” an icon in English is a poor use of language and it is inaccurate English.
Tell this to your neighborhood convert to Eastern Orthodoxy (if you even have one, and remember there is no zeal like the zeal of a convert), and he or she may likely tell you, “But an icon is the Gospel in paint, and a Gospel is written, so we Orthodox say we ‘write’ an icon.”
Well, he or she may certainly say it, but it is not correct. Nor do all Orthodox say it — in fact fewer and fewer maker that mistake. The reasons given for this mistaken usage among icon enthusiasts are the linguistic equivalent of an urban legend. The true reason is simple: In Russian you can “write/paint” an icon, and you can “write/paint” a copy of the Mona Lisa, but in English, if you are creating an image with paint, you are painting it. All else is simply affected nonsense. And as for “we Orthodox,” well, time has finally caught up with this strange notion, and a great many “Orthodox” now are quite aware that to say “write” in English when one should say “paint” is an “immigrant English” error one should have learned to correct by now.
But what about those who call themselves iconographers instead of “icon painters”? An icon (eikon) is an image in Greek; graphein in Greek means to write; but here again, it can also mean to paint — so we find ourselves in the same situation as in the Russian language. An iconographer, then, is one who “paints/writes” an image/icon according to the Greek root words, but of course in English we would always say that an iconographer paints an icon, because that is correct English. Now, one can correctly say “iconographer” in English, because the word has long been adopted into English, as have many words of Greek or Latin origin. A photographer does not “write light” in English. He photographs, or “takes a photo/picture.” Iconographer is simply a Greek-rooted English synonym for “icon painter.” But “write” in English is not a synonym for “paint.”
Of course if you happen to be Russian, or are speaking of the subject in Russian, it is perfectly correct to say pisat’ in regard to icons. But when translating into English, the correct translation is to “paint” icons, not to “write” them.
I have seen the rumor online that the Russian term pisat’ (“write/paint”), when used of painting a picture, is used only of the work of children, but that is simply not true. It can apply to painting art at any age, whether done by a child or by a mature artist such as Leonardo da Vinci.
The old Russian Church year — and even the civil year until Peter the Great — began with the first of September, which is called the “Indiction,” a calendar usage that goes back to Roman times. It is paradoxical that while there is a specific icon type for the Indiction — the New Year — it is very seldom seen. Nonetheless, the painting of the Indiction is the first calendrical icon instruction found in — for example — the Bolshakov icon painter’s manual:
Let’s translate that:
“The beginning of the Indiction, which is the New Year. And the Indiction is painted: The Savior stands in the Holy Place of God, he reads the book of Isaiah the Prophet.
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord’ [Luke 4:18-19].
Above, Lord Sabaoth, and the Holy Spirit over the Savior, and round about Jews of all kinds.”
Well, that is rather clear. In actual icons painted of the Indiction, Jesus usually stands at a kind of lectern, reading from the Book of Isaiah, but of course in biblical times that would have been a scroll rather than a “codex” book. Let’s take a look at at what such an icon really looks like:
The title inscription (put into modern Cyrillic) reads:
НАЧАЛО ИНДИКТУ ЕЖЕ ЕСТЬ НОВОМУ ЛЕТУ Nachalo indiktu ezhe est’ Novomu Lyetu
“The Beginning of the Indiction, which is the New Year”
As the painter’s manual says:
“Above, Lord Sabaoth…” — well, Lord Sabaoth (Gospod’ Savaof) in Russian iconography is simply God the Father shown as an old man with a white beard. That irritates a lot of fundamentalistic E. Orthodox who say that one cannot paint God the Father in icons, but the reality is that for hundreds of years, God the Father has been painted in countless Eastern Orthodox icons all over the “Orthodox” world, and as as can be seen, here he is even in the painters’ manuals.
My amused, standard response to the “true believers” who say such an image is “heretical” is to point out that God the Father is even found at the top of the Kursk Root (Kurskaya-Korennaya) icon of Mary, which is considered “wonder-working” in Eastern Orthodoxy: so why would a supposed heretical image be found on a supposedly miracle-working icon? It is one of those things they cannot reasonably answer. But of course for the art and cultural historian, there is no “heresy” in icon painting; there is only the way icons were painted and used in the real world. One person’s heresy is another person’s orthodoxy, so we have to look, in the study of icons, to what was really done in the past, not to what theologians and dogmatists of one brand or another would prefer to have been done.
The Holy Spirit, in Russian icons, is painted as a white dove (which usually looks more like a pigeon). So this Indiction icon often (but not always) includes all members of the E. Orthodox Trinity.
If you may be wondering why Jesus is shown twice in the icon shown here, that is because a common practice of Russian icons was to indicate the movement of time by showing two different scenes, making a “continuous” image that takes the viewer from one scene in time to another. So in this image we see Jesus both reading from the book of Isaiah and seated in discussion with the men of the synagogue. One might consider this an early precursor of animation — but it is “static” animation.
The point of using this icon type as the beginning icon for the Church year was first, that this preaching of Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth as recorded in the Gospel of Luke is usually considered the event marking the beginning of his public ministry; and second, the quotation from Isaiah ends with “the acceptable year of the Lord,” which came to be applied, in Russia, to the Church year as given in the calendar of saints and festal days. Ivan Shmelov (pronounced “Shmelyov”) wrote a book following the course of that religious year in old Russia, and titled it Lyeto Gospodne — “The Year of the Lord”
Here is the biblical account that forms the basis for the “Indiction” type:
Luke 4:16 And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up: and, as his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and stood up for to read.
17 And there was delivered unto him the book of the prophet Esaias. And when he had opened the book, he found the place where it was written,
18 The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised,
19 To preach the acceptable year of the Lord.
20 And he closed the book, and he gave it again to the minister, and sat down. And the eyes of all them that were in the synagogue were fastened on him.
21 And he began to say unto them, This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears.
When one looks at the old painters’ manuals (podlinniki), they always begin with the images for September 1st. And when one looks at traditional Church calendars that give the saints and festal days for a given year, they too always begin with September 1st — the Indiction. That is not the case, however, with many modern Eastern Orthodox calendars.
Now let’s look at an interesting 14th century image of the Indiction, a fresco from the Dechani Monastery in Kosovo, Serbia:
In spite of the difference in style and detail, it is still easily recognizable as the same scene in the much later Russian icon. Note the red cloth draped over the architectural background, the traditional way of indicating that a scene is taking place in an interior.
We can easily recognize the IC XC abbreviation for “Jesus Christ.” But what is the longer inscription above the background structure? Here it is again:
It is a slight but easily recognizable variant of the Church Slavic words taken from Luke 4:17:
И дáша емý кни́гу Исáiи прорóка: I dasha emu knigu Isaii proroka
And was-given to-him [the] book of-Isaiah [the] prophet
In normal English, “…And there was given to him the book of Isaiah the Prophet.”
Finally, let’s take a look at the text on the book Jesus has opened:
It is read from top to bottom of the left page first, then the right:
Дýх[ъ] Г[оспóде]нь на мнѣ́:
егóже рáди по[мáза мя́]…
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me:
For he has anointed me….”
So we see it is the beginning of the text of Isaiah described in Luke 4:18.
Russian icons are, for the most part, essentially copies of prototypes that appeared in different times and places. Some of the prototypes are very old, others comparatively recent. So icon painting is not a matter of originality, but rather a matter of reproduction of an existing image. There may be thousands and thousands of copies of a popular prototype. These copies follow the same general pattern as an original, which we may call a type. Icons of Mary, called the Bogomater — the Mother of God — were particularly popular, so there are hundreds of different Bogomater types.
The most popular of these types became so because the original was assumed to be chudotvornaya — “wonder-working,” meaning miracle-working. There are many stories and legends of miracles involving icons of Mary, and such “power” images were given respect beyond that given an ordinary icon, which accounts for the great number of copies made of them.
Even though the original Marian icon may have been considered “wonder-working,” the same could not be said of all of the copies made from it. Unless, that is, a particular copy of the type began to work miracles on its own. Then, curiously enough, it sometimes received its own name, distinguishing it from the original prototype.
There is an interesting icon that became known in the latter part of the 19th century — the icon is that known as the Неупиваемая чаша, (Neupivaemaya Chasha) the “Not-Drink–up-able Cup,” usually more elegantly Englished as the “Unfailing Chalice” or “Inexhaustible Chalice” Mother of God icon.
Now there are two interesting things about this icon. The first is that — unlike the “neo-traditional” style image of it shown above — the popular copies are generally painted in the Westernized style — the more realistic style borrowed from Western European painting, particulary from the 1600s onward, by the Russian State Church, in contrast to the stylized and more abstracted traditional manner favored by the Old Believers, who separated from the State Church in Russia. The version shown above is that venerated presently in the Vysotskiy Monastery in Serpukhov, about 62 miles south of Moscow. It is not the original, which was destroyed.
The second interesting thing is that the “Unfailing Chalice” is visually related to two other icon types. The upper part, depicting Mary with outraised hands and the Christ Child (Christ Immanuel) before her, is virtually that of the “Sign” (Znamenie) Mother of God type. The lower portion, with the Christ Child’s lower body in a eucharistic chalice, is related to the Nikeyskaya (“Nicean”) Mother of God type, which is also called “Your Womb Becomes the Holy Table.”
Now there are prayers to go with these individual wonder-working Marian icons, and one of these would give us the latter “Nikeyskaya” association even if we did not recognize it. The kontakion, voice 6, associated with this icon begins: “Бысть чрево Твое святая Трапеза...” — “Your Womb Becomes the Holy Table.” Those words mean that when pregnant with Jesus, the womb of Mary became the “holy table,” meaning the altar. This relates to the altar table in Eastern Orthodoxy, on which the eucharistic bread which is considered the body of Jesus — the “Lamb of God” — is placed.
There are several Marian icons with a specific “popular” purpose. One, for example, is used in an attempt to ease childbirth; another is used to ward off fire from a building. The “Unfailing Chalice” has as its purpose the aiding of alcoholics who wish to give up their addiction to drinking.
One sees easily how this association with drinking came about. In the icon there is a (eucharistic) cup/chalice, and out of it proceeds the child Jesus. The Church Slavic inscription visible on it reads:
АЗЪ ЕСМЬ ЛОЗА ИСТИННАЯ — AZ ESM LOZA ISTINNAYA meaning “I am the true vine…” (taken from John 15:1)
The association with wine drunk from a cup, with the concept expanded to include other alcoholic beverages, is a natural link to make. And so this prototype became an “anti-alcoholism” icon believed to have wondrous powers. Large numbers of copies have been made of it in the past few decades, and they are recommended to those with drinking problems.
Now all of this is, of course, a kind of magical thinking, but that kind of thinking — the use of talismans and amulets and so on — is very ancient and found in many religions, and it is sometimes probably even effective for one reason or another.
In any case, the icon has, like most “wonder-working” icons, an interesting origin story. In the hagiography of Marian icons, the important date is the “Appearance” (Yavlenie) of an icon. By “Appearance” is not meant when the icon was first made. It means instead the time at which a particular icon first began to work miracles — its manifestation as a “miracle-working” image.
The “Appearance” of the Unfailing Chalice icon took place in the year 1878, according to its associated story. A certain former soldier of the Efremov division of the Tula gubernia (government/province) was afflicted by a heavy addiction to drinking. He drank away all of his pension, and even lost most of his belongings to alcohol. It got so bad that he even was losing the use of his legs, yet he kept on drinking. And then he had a strange dream.
An old staretz (spiritual elder) in a skhima (monk’s hooded garment) appeared to him, and told him, “Go to the town of Serpukhov, to the monastery of the Entry [into the Temple of the] Mistress Mother of God. There is an icon of the “Unfailing Chalice” Mother of God. Perform a moleben [rite involving a series of special prayers] in front of it, and you shall be healthy in spirit and body.”
The suffering soldier, not being able to walk at all now, let alone such a long way, and being out of money, and with no one to help him, did not do as the staretz told him. The spiritual elder appeared to him in a second dream, but again he did not listen. Finally, the staretz came to him a third time in his dreams, and spoke to him so threateningly that at last the man set out on the road, crawling in the dirt as best he could. He eventually made it to a village, where he rested for the night, and there he met a kind-hearted old woman who rubbed his legs and laid him where the stove would warm him –which in an old Russian home was right atop the stove. That night he began to feel a pleasant sensation in his legs. By morning he found he could stand somewhat totteringly on his still-weak legs. He remained there, and by the next night he felt even better. So he again set off for the Serpukhov Monastery, this time walking with the aid of a stick. Thus, hobbling along, he made it all the way to the town of Serpukhov and to the monastery, but when he asked to hold a moleben before the icon of the “Unfailing Chalice,” nobody knew what he was talking about. No one had ever heard of such an icon there. But on looking about, someone found an icon in a side passage, and noticed that on the reverse of it was an inscription reading “The Unfailing Chalice.” The soldier realized that the staretz who appeared in his dream had been the Elder Varlaam, who had been the original founder of the Monastery in the 14th century. The “rediscovered” icon was carried into the church and a moleben was held before it.
Well, needless to say, the alcoholic ex-soldier went away healed, as the endings of all such stories go. Then news of the event was spread abroad, crowds began coming to pray before the image, copies were made of it, and a new Akathist (long prayer form) composed specially to that icon was written. And by the way, the motif of being told to do something three times, but only doing it on the third telling, as in this tale, is a not unusual motif in these origin stories of miracle-working icons, which in that respect are much like other folklore.
The prototype of this icon — at least the one associated with this story — is said to have been burned along with other icons in 1929, under the Communists. The revival of the veneration of this icon — in the form of copies painted in various styles — got under way in 1980. Those who began studying icons before that date but did not keep up on their studies will likely have never heard of it, because it is better known in E. Orthodoxy today than it ever was earlier, when its veneration was more localized in the Serpukhov region.
The icon is commemorated annually in the Russian Orthodox Church on May 5th. Five versions of this type may be seen at:
Does Eastern Orthodoxy have an accurate image of Jesus? Traditionally they say they do, and here it is. This is an outline drawing used in Russia for the duplication of the image in painting icons. It is called the “Image Not Made by Hands,” or the “Not Made by Hands Savior.”
Why is it called “Not Made by Hands”? Because according to E. Orthodox tradition — and in E. Orthodoxy tradition is in many cases a part of accepted doctrine — Jesus once during his earthly life pressed a towel to his wet face, and his image — like a photograph — was miraculously imprinted upon it.
The chief proponent of icon making and veneration was St. John of Damascus, who wrote: “We venerate images; it is not veneration offered to matter, but to those who are portrayed through the matter in the images. Any honor given to an image is transferred to its prototype, as St. Basil says.”
That is the basis of the practice of venerating images — that the honor shown an icon by bowing and praying before it, by placing candles before it, by censing it with the smoke of incense, etc. — goes to the person depicted in the image.
Now interestingly, that was precisely the belief of the non-Christians, the “pagans” who preceded Christianity in the Greco-Roman world, the Latin and Greek-speaking neighbors of the early Christians. They knew there were, for example, many images of the goddess Athena/Minerva in the world, yet they believed also that prayer before any image of her went to the goddess herself, who had a mysterious link with her images. And in E. Orthodoxy, the same mysterious link between image and person is also promoted. That is why it is common belief in E. Orthodoxy that an icon can be — as it is called in Russia — chudotvornaya, “miracle-working.” It is because of that mysterious link between icon and prototype.
In fact so insistent are fundamentalist E. Orthodox on this link between image and person that the Seventh Ecumenical Council declared:
“We honor the venerable images [icons]. We place under anathema those who do not do this.
Anathema to those who presume to apply to the venerable images the things said in Holy Scripture about the veneration of idols.
Anathema to those who refuse to venerate with proper reverence the holy images of our Lord and His blessed saints.
Anathema to those who call the sacred images idols.
Anathema to those who say that Christians resort to the sacred images as to gods.
Anathema to those who say that any other delivered us from the idols except Christ our God.
Anathema to those who dare to say that at any time the Holy Church received and worshiped idols.
So we all believe, and we are all of one mind, and we all have given our consent and have signed our names in agreement. This is the Faith of the Apostles. This is the Faith of the Fathers. This is the Faith of the Orthodox. This is the Faith that has established the universe.”
Well, one can hardly get more definite than that. According to Eastern Orthodoxy, anyone who does not accept their doctrine of the making and veneration of icons is anathema, which means essentially accursed, separated both from the Church and from God, and to be condemned. That is the declaration of the Synodikon of the Seventh Ecumenical Council in the year 787 c.e.
Notice how the authorities of the E. O. Church declared the making and veneration of icons — in retrospect — to be that of the Apostles. But what proof do they have for that? The answer is simple: none whatsoever.
First, let’s take the notion that the E. Orthodox have an accurate likeness of Jesus that originated miraculously when he pressed a wet cloth to his face. This story is found nowhere in the Christian scriptures of the New Testament; not a hint of it. It comes instead from E. O. tradition, which in Orthodoxy often has a capital “T,” meaning it is regarded as infallibly accurate. But there are many things in their tradition that are not at all accurate. For example, look at most any E. O calendar, which lists the “official” saints and the days on which they are to be honored — in among them one will find a St. Ioasaph. Oddly enough, this saint never actually existed in Christianity. The story on which his existence is founded is just a reworking of the early account of the life of the Buddha — an account which came West on the trade routes, and was taken up and appeared in a much expanded Christianized version attributed (wrongly) to St. John of Damascus. Yes, attributed to the very same fellow who expounded the E. Orthodox doctrine of icons with such fervor. So paradoxically, the Eastern Orthodox who venerate St. Ioasaph on his annual day of commemoration — and who venerate his icons — are really honoring the Buddha, though the fundamentalists among them would never admit it.
In his defense of icons, John of Damascus wrote:
“A certain tale is also told, how that when Abgar was king over the city of the Edessenes, he sent a portrait painter to paint a likeness of the Lord, and when the painter could not paint because of the brightness that shone from His countenance, the Lord Himself put a garment over His own divine and life-giving face and impressed on it an image of Himself and sent this to Abgar, to thus satisfy his desire.”
“In addition the Apostles handed down much that was unwritten; Paul, the Apostle of the Gentiles, tells us in these words: ‘Therefore, brothers, stand firm and hold the traditions which you have been taught by us, whether by word or by letter.’ And to the Corinthians he writes, “Now I praise you, brothers, that you remember me in all things, and keep the traditions as I have delivered them to you.”
In other words, there is the story of the “Not Made by Hands” image and there is the E. Orthodox doctrine of tradition — that not everything significant was included in the New Testament, but those significant traditions have been handed down as part of the teaching of the E. Orthodox Church.
Well, the simple fact is that if we trace the story of this miraculous first icon of Jesus –and we can trace it — we find something very revealing:
The earliest mention of the story is in the Church History written by Eusebius of Caesarea in the 4th century. He remarks that King Abgar of Edessa sent a letter to Jesus at Jerusalem, asking Jesus to come and heal him of an illness. In this first and earliest version of the story, there is no image of Jesus mentioned. Then, in the later second account found in the Syriac Doctrine of Addai, there is mention of a painted image of Jesus in the story; and even later, in the third account, given by Evagrius, the painted image becomes instead an image that miraculously appeared on a towel when Christ pressed the cloth to his wet face.
So this is the origin of the “real” miraculous image of Jesus. It is simply a fiction developed by modifying the same story over a long period of time, a story that came to be accepted in Eastern Orthodoxy as historical fact when it simply never happened.
Here is a Russian icon of the image on the cloth:
And here is a pattern taken from a Stroganov School icon. It represents, as its Slavic inscription says, “The Bringing of the Image Not Made by Hands.”
The truth about the origin of icons in Christianity is that the first Christians did not make or use them at all. There is not the slightest evidence for them in earliest Christianity, and of course, given their importance later, it is noteworthy that the making and veneration of icons by Christians is nowhere mentioned in the New Testament. In fact when the first Christian art did appear, it was in the form of decorative symbols and simplified images that call to mind biblical stories. We know that from both the archeological and the literary evidence.
In fact, the first notice we have of Christians actually making and venerating images is one of disapproval, found in the apocryphal 2nd century Acts of John which recounts how the Apostle John found that a man whom he had raised from the dead — Lycomedes — had made and was venerating a portrait of him:
“…He [John] went into the bedchamber, and saw the portrait of an old man crowned with garlands, and lamps and altars set before it. And he called him and said: Lycomedes, what do you mean by this matter of the portrait? Can it be one of thy gods that is painted here? For I see that you are still living in heathen fashion.” Later in the passage John says, “But this that you have now done is childish and imperfect: you have drawn a dead likeness of the dead.”
The impression given by this excerpt is only confirmed by other literary and archeological evidence. When venerated icons first appeared (as opposed to symbolic and narrative images), it was among “pagans” converted to Christianity, pagans who brought their tradition of image veneration with them and simply applied it to the “new” religion. Later, with the masses that flooded into the Church after the legalization and promotion of Christianity under the Roman Emperor Constantine, we find the beginnings of the first real rise of the making of “portrait” images of Jesus and the saints, and their eventual veneration.
Essentially, then, the making and veneration of images is simply the old “pagan” — that is, non-Christian — practice of image veneration, which was increasingly adopted into a developing Christianity after a heavy influx of “pagan” converts. An ancient pagan would have been quite at home venerating icons of various saints that took the place of the old gods, lighting candles before them, ornamenting them with garlands and wreaths, bowing, and offering incense. That was precisely the way “pagans” were accustomed to venerate their deities. In fact the practice of Lycomedes in the excerpt from the Acts of John illustrates the usual polytheistic practice of having a votive image painted of the deity who had bestowed a gift on the worshiper, placing it in a shrine, and honoring it with lights and garlands. Such votive images were ancestors of Christian icons. The only thing that would have made a “pagan” uncomfortable would have been the notion that only the Eastern Orthodox had it right, and that all other religious images made and venerated outside of E. Orthodoxy were somehow “evil.” Polytheists were far more tolerant than Christians in such matters.
For further reading about the art of the first Christians and the later eventual rise of the venerated icon, I first recommend two books, both by Robin Margaret Jensen:
1. Understanding Early Christian Art, Routledge, 2000
2. Face to Face: Portraits of the Divine in Early Christianity, Fortress Press, 2005
Read in that sequence, Jensen’s books give a factually-supported account of the first Christian art and the eventual rise of the Christian “portrait” that gave birth to the practice of the veneration of images formalized later in the Eastern Orthodox doctrine of icons.
Another useful book on the subject, but more complex in its organization, is Hans Belting’s Likeness and Presence: a History of the Image before the Era of Art, University of Chicago Press, 1994.