The Icon: Theology in Line and Color

by Macrina Lewis

What is an Icon?

     Icons are often called “windows to heaven.” Using line and color, they teach us about spiritual realities much the same way Scripture does with words. We see in icons the transfigured nature of events and people, leading us to a more complete understanding of both ourselves and the Kingdom of God.

     Icons express the theology of the Orthodox Church. It has guarded and developed this art over 2,000 years as a means of communication and spiritual experience of the faithful.

     Christ created a way for those on earth to attain heaven. The Son of God became man “in a union without confusion,” assuming a physical body like our own. He redeemed all creation by His crucifixion and resurrection of that very body, “trampling down death by His death.” (words from the Paschal Troparion)

     We likewise use physical matter to reflect the union of this worlds with the next in our “windows to heaven.” The icon itself proclaims Christ’s redemptive work for us and for all creation.

     Using the things of this world: wood, color, shape, and the movement of a hand, the commonplace elements of our life are transformed into something of spiritual depth and beauty. We show in our work that this world was created by God as good. As we sing on Sunday mornings: “Thine own of Thine own, we offer unto Thee, on behalf of all and for all.”

How is the Icon Made?

     Icons are made from many different media: paint, wood, metal, fresco, mosaic, embroidery, ivory and even glass. Portable painted icons on wood are traditionally the most widely used.

     For these icons, a fine piece of hardwood is chosen and routed to create and inset surface for painting. This recessed face creates a “sacred space” that the faithful are invited to enter through their prayers.

     The wooden panel is scored to provide some surface texture for adhesion. A piece of clean, light linen is applied to the surface with hot rabbitskin glue. After drying, 10-15 coats of gesso (a cooked mixture of rabbitskin glue and crushed marble or shells) is carefully applied, then sanded to a smooth, mirror-like finish.

     In preparation for painting, the iconographer has completed studies of traditional icons that will be used as the “prototypes” or models for the painting. With the image well in hand, he/she draws the it onto the panel freehand, using dry pigment and water (no adhesive medium). This allows the painter to move the lines around until the image is “sitting” nicely on the panel. The completed drawing is usually traced over with egg and pigment to affix the lines.

     The paint is made from powdered colors called pigments. Some come from natural sources such as flowers, minerals, and soot. Many colors are manufactured these days, and some iconographers use them as well as the natural pigments. These are mixed with egg medium (egg yolk, water, vinegar) to make the paint. It is applied in many layers, painting from dark to light and allowing each layer to dry thoroughly (sometimes 24 hours) before applying the next layer.

     If gold leaf is being used, it is usually 22-24kt and can be applied at any point in the process. There are two methods, one with a long-drying oil-based sizing, and one with red clay bole, which produces the “mirror-like” highly burnished gold surface. The bright red letters and lines around the edges usually go on last.

     When the icon is completed and has “cured” for a time, linseed oil mixed with a little cobalt drier is applied. Depending on the weather, it can take 4-8 hours until the excess oil has thickened enough for a final removal. It generally takes 3 days or so for the icon to be ready for handling.

How is the icon used?

     The icon is blessed by a priest for use in a church or home. In the Orthodox church, some icons are permanently affixed to the walls and to the “iconostasis”, which is a wall of icons separating the altar from the nave. As one enters, she is literally “surrounded by a cloud of witnesses” in the numerous icons on all sides. There is also a stand in the direct center of the church on which a portable icon of the saint or event of the day is placed. This is where the faithful greet the icon with a kiss upon entering the church.

     Orthodox Christians use icons throughout their homes as a living reflection of the heavenly realms and a constant call to prayer. They usually also have a designated “icon corner” where the family prays together.

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