Yesterday we looked at an icon type in which Jesus heals a paralytic, then tells the man to take up his bed and walk. Today we will look at another type in which that happens. Here is an example, a 14th century ceiling fresco from Pech, Serbia:
The title inscription reads:
Х[РИСТО]С ИСЦЕЛIИАЕТЬ РАССЛАБЛIЕННАГО Khristos Istsyeliaet Rasslabliennago
“Christ Heals the Paralytic.”
Here is the story as found in John 5: 1-15:
“After this there was a feast of the Jews; and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
Now there is at Jerusalem by the sheep market a pool, which is called in the Hebrew tongue Bethesda, having five porches. In these lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, withered, [waiting for the moving of the water. For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.]And a certain man was there, which had an infirmity thirty and eight years.
When Jesus saw him lie, and knew that he had been now a long time in that case, he says to him, Will you be made whole?The impotent man answered him, Sir, I have no man, when the water is troubled, to put me into the pool: but while I am coming, another steps down before me.
Jesus says to him, Rise, take up your bed, and walk.And immediately the man was made whole, and took up his bed, and walked: and on the same day was the sabbath.
The Jews therefore said to him that was cured, It is the sabbath day: it is not lawful for you to carry your bed.He answered them, He that made me whole, the same said to me, Take up your bed, and walk.
Then asked they him, What man is that which said to you, Take up your bed, and walk?And he that was healed knew not who it was: for Jesus had conveyed himself away, a multitude being in that place.
Afterward Jesus finds him in the temple, and said to him, Behold, you are made whole: sin no more, lest a worse thing come to you.
The man departed, and told the Jews that it was Jesus, which had made him whole.”
For those of you who are interested in the manuscript history of the New Testament, the portion of the text I have put in brackets and bold type — the story of the angel troubling the waters — is missing from the earliest manuscripts. The earliest Greek manuscript of John in which it appears is 6th century. It is, however, included in an Old Latin 4th century version.
The tale of the angel stirring the waters of Bethesda is mentioned by Tertullian in chapter 5 of his 3rd century work On Baptism:
“If it seems a novelty for an angel to be present in waters, an example of what was to come to pass has forerun. An angel, by his intervention, was wont to stir the pool at Bethsaida. They who were complaining of ill-health used to watch for him; for whoever had been the first to descend into them, after his washing, ceased to complain.”
But in the same chapter, Tertullian also warns against evil spirits lurking in waters here and there:
“Are there not other cases too, in which, without any sacrament, unclean spirits brood on waters, in spurious imitation of that brooding of the Divine Spirit in the very beginning? Witness all shady founts, and all unfrequented brooks, and the ponds in the baths, and the conduits in private houses, or the cisterns and wells which are said to have the property of spiriting away, through the power, that is, of a hurtful spirit. Men whom waters have drowned or affected with madness or with fear, they call nymph-caught, or lymphatic, or hydro-phobic. Why have we adduced these instances? Lest any think it too hard for belief that a holy angel of God should grant his presence to waters, to temper them to man’s salvation; while the evil angel holds frequent profane commerce with the selfsame element to man’s ruin.”
The tale of the angel troubling the waters was also mentioned by Chrysostom and Ambrose in the 4th century. The problem is that the various early manuscripts are rather garbled as to whether the incident is omitted entirely or given only in part.
But back to the iconography. You will notice in the Pech fresco that the painter has carefully depicted the “five porches.” at the Pool of Bethesda, but has not shown the actual pool. In some examples we see the pool, while in others we see water pouring into five separate small tanks, or even only one tank. So there is considerable variation in how the image is presented, but the main elements are the figure of Jesus and the figure of healed man carrying his bed (some show him twice, first lying on his bed, then carrying it).
In the Eastern Orthodox Church calendar, the fourth Sunday after Easter is called the Неде́ля о рассла́бленном — Nedelya o rasslablennom(Greek Κυριακή τοῦ Παραλύτου) — Kyriake tou Paralytou), because on that day the liturgical reading is the story of the healing of the paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda.
Having told of the preparation of the wooden icon panel, today I would like to talk a bit about the actual painting of an icon. I will not go into great detail, because my purpose is not to tell artists how to paint icons, but rather to give those interested in icons the necessary background to understand how they are made.
To make things simple, we can use the way in which an icon was often painted in the 19th century. It began with a pattern, either a description of a saint in a podlinnik — a manual that told painters the appropriate garments, hair, shape of beard, objects held, scroll (when appropriate) and title for each saint — or else an actual pattern. Such a pattern was often made from an existing icon by following over its outlines with a fine brush dipped in a sticky substance such as garlic juice or honey. A piece of paper was pressed over the surface, and the sticky substance formed the outlines of the icon on the paper.
Those outlines were then gone over with needle pricks to make holes in the paper following the outlines. This created the icon pattern, which one could then put over the smooth levkas (gesso) suface of the prepared icon panel. Powdered charcoal in a little bag was then pounced lightly over the surface of the paper pattern, and its fine dust went through the needle pricks and onto the gesso surface of the panel.
The final step in transferring the pattern to the icon panel was to scratch the outline of the transferred pattern into the levkas (gesso) surface, marking it permanently with the outlines of the icon to be painted. Once that was done, the actual painting could begin. These needle-incised outlines into the gesso are commonly still visible when one looks closely at the painted surface of such an icon.
To understand the sequence of painting, it is helpful to ponder a different kind of icon for a moment, those painted as folk objects in Romania on the reverse side of a pane of glass. To paint such an icon, one had to do it in reverse, first painting, for example, the light highlights of a saint’s face, and then working backward to the base colors.
Russian icon painting on panels, by contrast, began with a brownish base color for a saint’s face and exposed body parts. This brownish color was called the sankir. The Greeks often preferred it to have a slightly more greenish-olive tinge. Then successive layers of lighter colors of ochre paint were superimposed over the brown to dark brown sankir to bring out the forms and highlghts of the face, etc. This process of adding progressively lighter layers over one another is called vokhrenie or okhrenie, or in rough English, “ochering.”
If we look at this detail from an icon of John the Forerunner (John the Baptist), we can see clearly how the entire surface of the face was first painted with a brown sankir. Then the features of the face were moulded by adding progressively lighter layers over that, leaving the darker color visible here and there. So icons were painted in a system of layered colors, with lighter colors superimposed over darker colors, finishing with increasingly white touches. The exceptions here to this are the eyebrows, which are in an even darker brown than the base color, as well as the dark strokes used to detail the hair, as well as elsewhere to finish the image. Note that the base color of the hair and beard are exactly the same brown base color used for the face.
A light layer could be added in separate thin, clear strokes to model the facial features, a technique called OTBORKA (Отборка), literally “picking,” or the paint strokes, instead of being clearly separate, could be more liquid and “melt” into one another, a technique called PLAV’ (Плавь), “melted.” “Picking” was the more traditional of the two methods, used for non-realistic “abstract” painting, and “melting” worked better for western-influenced, more realistic icons. The last steps involved the adding of the lightest colors, as well as delineating fine features, and, of course, in more expensive icons, the addition of gold leaf highlights in garments, etc.
In the icon of the “Tikhvin” Mother of God shown above, one can easily see that Mary’s facial features are formed by superimposing lighter shades over the dark brownish base color so obvious in her right cheek. The same is seen in the Christ Child’s (Christ Immanuel) face. So the painting of icons was essentially the forming of facial features by superimposing lighter and lighter highlights over a dark background base color. (The dark strip at upper right is a remnant of the original olifa varnish).
In the icon of St. John (Ioann) seen above, the painter used a more sophisticated and nuanced method of layering from dark to light, not nearly so abrupt and obvious. Nonetheless, the basic method of lighter layers over darker is still there, used even in delineating the hairs of the head.
If you look carefully at the facial detail from an icon of St. Alexander Svirskiy, shown above, you can see that everything from his wide, long beard to the hair on his head to his face all has the same underlying dark brownish sankir color. A slightly lighter brownish layer was then overlaid on that in the beard and hair regions, and then “hair” detailing was added to both areas, largely in narrow streaks of white paint. The dark sankir background of the face has a more complex layering of lighter and lighter shades of brown superimposed on one another, finally finished off with the last detailing in whitish highlights and very black outlining in nose and eyebrows, etc.
I have often thought that because of this characteristic layering of shades of paint in icons, it would be very easy to reproduce the stylized manner of icon making if one used silk screen printing, using a separate screen for the different layers. Obviously, that idea occurred to others as well, because there are now many shops selling silk-screened icons online, some of them quite well made, and at a fraction of the cost of hand-painted icons.
In icon studios, the faces and hands of saints were generally painted last, by the studio’s best painter or painters. The garments and other background features were commonly the first, painted in by others. In an icon studio one would see unfinished icons set aside and drying, backgrounds and garments without hands or faces, waiting for the “face painter” to do his job. So the painting of icons was often a communal project, with different tasks performed by different people. That is because a studio had to streamline its production to keep up with the demand for icons, and also to keep costs down.
There were also icon painters who worked alone and painted the whole icon, faces, garments, and backgrounds.
Because no podlinnik (painter’s manual), whether plain text or illustrated, included all the icon types one might be called upon to supply, icon studios often had their own collections of prorisi (singular proris), which were tracings of icons, as well as perevody (singular perevod), which were the transfers — the pierced patterns — used for transferring the image to the gesso surface.
Though the method of using paper or parchment patterns for making new icons was very common, there were also some painters so experienced that they could reproduce an icon without the need of such a pattern, and not only that, they could paint in different styles, whether in the traditional stylized manner favored by the Old Believers, or in the more “Italian” and realistic-appearing style that began to be favored by the State Church after the split between the Old Believers and the State Church divided Russian Orthodoxy in the mid-1600s.
The svyet or fon is the “light,” the background area of the icon. It is sometimes only painted in a light color, but in many examples it is gilded with gold leaf or with a cheaper substitute. Additional ornamentation could be added by stamping or incising the gilding. The “cheaper substitute,” particularly in the 19th century, was a background of tin leaf over which a varnish tinted with saffron was placed to make it look like gold, an inexpensive alternative to gold leaf that has its own charm. I have seen many old icons now with “silver” backgrounds that were originally coated with saffron-tinted varnish, but someone at some point removed it, and with it the original appearance of the icon. It is usually best, when coming across an icon with such a tinted varnish, to just leave it untouched.
One could also add a decorative repoussé (design hammered in from the back) metal cover of silver or gilt or silvered brass. Such a cover, called a riza (“robe”) often covered all of the painted icon except the faces and hands of the saints depicted. It was bent over at the edges to fit over the outer edges of the painted icon, to which it was nailed on the sides. The riza generally reproduced in metal the bodies and garments of the saints painted on the icon panel itself.
Earlier icons often had ornamental metal covers that were actually nailed to the painted surface of the icon, which accounts for the many little holes one sees in so many early icons when the covers are removed to reveal the painting beneath. That may also have happened to more recent icons, as is visible on the icon of Jesus as The Lord Almighty (Gospod Vsederzhitel) seen below. Note the little holes here and there on the surface:
(Photo Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
That is a very quick summary of the way icons were commonly painted.
As for the paints themselves, they consisted of powdered plant and mineral and various organic substances. The colored powder was mixed with the yolk of an egg and a little rye beer (kvass) to keep it from quickly spoiling. Such paints are called “egg tempera,” and they are essentially the same kinds of paints that were used in Western European painting prior to the discovery of oil paints. In Russia, however, the use of egg tempera in painting icons continued right into the 20th century (and even today), while the use of oil paints in Russian icon painting was much less common.
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