The Iconographic Intent
Iconography, or the painting of Eastern Christian religious images, is a tradition that reaches back into ancient Hellenistic art. It entered the Christian religion from earliest times. The most primitive surviving examples are mainly catacomb frescoes of the second and third centuries.
The term Icon, the Greek word for ‘image’, normally refers to the portable painted panels (as opposed to frescoes or mosaics) that began to appear in Christian churches after the sixth century. These earliest Christian works of art mainly depict Christ, the Virgin Mary, Apostles, or Martyrs. Later the range of subjects expanded to encompass scenes from the Gospels and a wider array of different male and female saints. The number of female martyr saints from the earliest generations of Christianity is a testimony to the exemplary role women had in the heroic resistance that characterised the early Christian movement. It has been a special theme of my iconic art, as a woman, to throw light on the extent of the female witness to the Gospel across the centuries.
The icon panel itself is traditionally made up of wooden boards glued together to the requisite size, and covered with a fine linen cloth pasted over them . The cloth is then covered with many layers of fine white powdered chalk mixed into a paste with fish or rabbit glue. The resultant smooth plaster (Gesso) fixed permanently to the wood, yet resilient because of its linen backing, provides a pure white, smooth, and highly absorbent surface that gives the colours luminosity as well as ensuring the paintings can endure for centuries.
The Icon does not seek to render the naturalistic form, a quest that has dominated most western art since the Renaissance; instead it seeks to depict the state of the body of those who have been transfigured in the ‘next age’. The figures in Icons gaze hieratically at the observer.
Gold leaf halos and luminous backgrounds abstract all superfluous detail in an evocation of the light of the Kingdom of God to which the saints now belong. When approached, as in the past, by the flickering light of candles, this background of gold leaf scintillates mysteriously. In Eastern Christian theology the Icons are regarded as intrinsically holy things, conveying and carrying the mysterious presence of the saint they represent. They are focal points of prayer and meditation.
The icon painter, in the Orthodox context, is synonymous with the theologian or the preacher– making a sermon of light, a sacrament of colour, in the service of the Christian Gospel.
As a contemporary female Orthodox Iconographer, I am happy to stand in an ancient line– holding hands with the past, and simultaneously reaching out to the future.