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.


For further information on this topic, click on this link to a later posting:


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:

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 here, that is because a common practice of Russian icons was to indicate the movement of time by having 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.

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,

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.

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.

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.