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: