A FUNDAMENTAL (BUT SADLY STILL FREQUENT) ERROR

This will be a very brief posting.

It is just a reminder that the surest way to make yourself appear an uneducated novice in the study of icons is to use the inaccurate and inappropriate expression “write” in relation to icons.  One does not “write” an icon (which should be obvious); one paints an icon.

I have explained why this rather silly usage arose — primarily in the United States — in a previous posting:

https://russianicons.wordpress.com/2011/08/31/is-an-icon-painted-or-written/

To make it very simple, it is a matter of linguistics.  In old Greek, to create either a painting or a letter was to “write” (graphein) it.  There was one word for both.  That was true whether one painted an image of a god or a bird or an image of anything else.

That was the case also in old Russia.  In Russian, pisat’ can mean both “to write” and “to paint.”  So pisat’ means to write in letters, as in writing a letter or book; but it also means to paint, as in painting a picture of any kind. as we see in these two illustrations from a Russian-language site:

ПИСАТЬ -- PISAT' "TO WRITE"

ПИСАТЬ — PISAT’:  “TO WRITE”


 But also:

ПИСАТЬ -- PISAT': "TO PAINT"

ПИСАТЬ — PISAT‘:  “TO PAINT”

But in English we PAINT icons and we WRITE a letter.  We have two distinct words for two different actions.

The common word in Russia for how one created an icon was pisat’, just as the word for creating the completely non-religious painting the boy is working on in the photo above is also pisat’.  It is not specific to icons or religious paintings, but used for other kinds of paintings as well.

So when people mistakenly say “write” an icon in English, it is not a matter of church doctrine, but simply of difference in language and mistaken translation.  That is why when the Cretan, Greek-speaking icon painter Andreas Ritzos (1421-1492) painted an icon of Mary for a customer in the Latin-using Catholic Church, he signed it in Latin, like this:

ANDREA RICO DE CANDIA PINXIT — “Andreas Ritzos of Candia Painted It.”

Note that he did not say SCRIPSIT — “Wrote It” — in Latin, even though he was a Greek-speaking icon painter.  Any educated person would have known that to be a mistake in Latin — the wrong word to use.  And it is a mistake also to say “write” an icon in English, because in English we paint an icon (or any painting) but we write a letter.

Similarly, when the Cretan icon painter Andreas Pavias painted an icon for a Greek-speaking customer, he wrote on it:

ΧΕΙΡ ΑΝΔΡΕΟΥ ΠΑΒΙΑ — Kheir Andreou Pavia — “The Hand of Andreas Pavias.”

But when he painted a Crucifixion for a Western customer, the signature on it was:

ANDREAS PAVIAS PINXIT DE CANDIA — “Andreas Pavias Painted It – of Candia.”

My point is that even Greek-speaking icon painters in one of the classic schools knew not to say “write” for paint when using a language that had distinct words for each.  And English again, like most European languages, does have distinct words for each.

One would have thought this bad habit — the result of a linguistic error — would have disappeared years ago, but it still shows up on the Internet.  It is as grating on the senses as hearing a politician say NOO-kya-ler for “nuclear.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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