ASSEMBLING THE SAINTS: How Icon Figures Are Constructed

This icon depicts the Prophet Jeremiah — or does it?

Prophet Jeremiah, Russian icon from first quar...

It is a quite a few centuries too late to be pointing it out (and it was somewhat dangerous to point it out when the doctrine of icons was being formed in Eastern Orthodoxy), but there is an inherent flaw in the in whole matter — the formal rationale for icon painting.

To put it very simply, the making of icons is based upon the principle that because Jesus became incarnate, and is considered to be God in the flesh, one can therefore depict him in icons.  That was said by the chief proponent of icon-making, John of Damascus:

When He who is a pure spirit, without form or limit, immeasurable in the boundlessness of His own nature, existing as God, takes upon Himself the form of a servant in substance and in stature, and a body of flesh, then you may draw His likeness, and show it to anyone who is willing to contemplate it.

The catch here is the word “likeness.”  People in the time of John of Damascus thought they had a true image of Jesus passed down from his lifetime (the so-called “Abgar” image), but today we know better. The fact is that in ancient times no one had the slightest idea what Jesus looked like.  Moreover, the earliest Christians did not show much interest in the matter, and certainly no interest whatsoever in the making and venerating of icons.

The earliest depictions of Jesus in the catacombs show him as a generic, beardless young man, often holding a magician’s wand as he works a miracle.  The image of Jesus developed and evolved over time until finally it settled into certain characteristics, so that when one looks today at an icon of Jesus, one recognizes it; but what one recognizes is not “Jesus,” but rather the conventionalized image of Jesus that the Church eventually created.

The same can be said for the icon images of huge numbers of saints.  No one really has the slightest idea what many of them looked like, except for a very few and often late saints, such as Seraphim of Sarov, who lived in the 19th century.  There were other Russian saints who either had icons painted from their dead bodies or from the scant descriptions of contemporaries, but the great bulk of Eastern Orthodox saints in icons are merely conventionalized images that developed over time and eventually became recorded in icon painters’ manuals with their conventional characteristics.

One recognizes saints — for the most part — not by their facial features, which are often generic, but rather by the cut of the hair and beard, the type of garment, and other such representative elements.We can say, in fact, that the majority of icon saints are constructed by assembling these elements according to the patterns that have come to be traditional.

Here, for example, is how one paints the prophet Jeremiah, as described in an icon painter’s manual:

“The holy prophet Jeremiah, grey beard of John the Theologian, hair like the prophet Elijah, robe ochre with white, under [robe] blue, in the hand a scroll, and on it is written, ‘Thus saith the Lord: Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my word shall not pass away….'”

Of course no one knows what Jeremiah looked like.  But one does know the codes that developed in iconography.  So Jeremiah is a combination of the conventional characteristics of certain “model” saints like John the Theologian (the apostle and evangelist John) and the prophet Elijah.  But again, no one really knew or knows what those two model saints looked like.

An icon painter’s manual, then, is just book of instructions for painting saints, and the instructions contained in it are largely fictions — artificial conventions.  Someone at some time just “made them up.”

So here we have Jeremiah from the Stroganov manual:  He is assembled from generic elements:  a generic robe, the generic hair style used for the prophet Elijah, the generic beard  used for the Evangelist John, generic face and feet, generic halo, generic scroll, with one of two suggested inscriptions, though inscriptions often vary and the colors of the garments often vary as well from manual to manual and icon to icon.

The Prophet Jeremiah (from the Stroganov Manual)

What we have here, then, is an abstraction, nothing that was ever actually in human flesh.  The final (and really very important) touch on such an icon abstraction is the title, which in this case would be “The Holy Prophet Jeremiah.”  The title is really the chief identifying factor for a great many icon saints, because so many saints are so generic in appearance and so much alike that without the title is difficult or impossible to identify them.

One can see, then, that icon painting in reality is considerably different than the propaganda for it in “popular” icon books and icon sites would lead one to believe.

It is said in such books that icons try to depict “invisible reality” in visible form.  Well, try as one might, that is an impossibility.  One is left with the material elements of board and gesso ground and egg tempera paints and gold leaf, and all are very material elements that can only create material subjects, no matter how beautiful or skillful such depictions may turn out to be.  All the rest is provided by the human mind and imagination.


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