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Icon Writing: My journey from Syria to Byzantium

Friday 7th July 2023

The CHC @ The Catholic Universe

Icon Writing: My journey from Syria to Byzantium

Schaher Rhomaei

Schaher Rhomaei shares how he began to explore the extraordinary art of ‘icon writing’ -and how icons can be a ‘visual Gospel’ to inspire a deeper and more profound faith.

My first memory of icons takes me back to my tender years at St John the Baptist Church; a small Byzantine Greek Melkite church in Ma’arouneh, which means ‘small cave’ in Aramaic. This mountainous suburb of Damascus is a place of natural biblical and spiritual beauty. It was Elijah’s last abode before ascending into Heaven.

From this place and time, I began a journey of reflected prayer through the beauty of icons: an encounter with the Divine. One icon that stands out for me in particular was a wooden panel depicting Our Lady tenderly holding her Son on her lap. Somehow, the aura of mystery surrounding this icon created a sacred space for contemplating the striking image of the humble Mother and the Saviour child, which remained with me throughout my childhood.

The word ‘Icon’ comes from the Ancient Greek (εἰκών/eikṓn) meaning ‘image or resemblance.’ The term was, in fact, coined by Plato, in relation to his theory of knowledge. According to the philosopher, real knowledge is to be found in the intelligible world of Ideas, which is reflected to some degree, as per a shadow, in the physical world. Likewise, in Christian art, the word “icon” has become synonymous with the depiction of divine subjects and the sacred figures of those in the heavenly world. Icons thus not only communicate a profound and sacred significance, but also create a powerful sense of prayerfulness.

Possible depiction of Jesus Tile from Dura-Europos excavations (Yale University Art Gallery)

Icons Hold Deep Spiritual Meaning

In the Eastern Church generally and the Syrian Church particularly, icons are an essential pillar of the Christian faith, holding deep spiritual meaning. They serve as windows through which one can approach the Creator, not only by praying and prostrating before Him. but also by seeking help or forgiveness. Indeed, the Eastern Church understands icons as a visual gospel, proclaiming in colours and images all that is uttered in words and written in syllables (cf. Council of Constantinople)

According to historians, Christian art originated and developed in Syria before this ancient, original, and spiritual artform was exported to Egypt and Mesopotamia, and then to the wider world. The journey from Syria to Egypt to
Byzantium gave birth to different styles of icons: ‘Syrian’ in Syria, ‘Coptic’ in Egypt and in Byzantium ‘the Byzantine art.’ The latter describes the process of creating icons as one of ‘writing’ rather than ‘painting’ – an iconographer is a ‘writer’ not a ‘painter’ – and we ‘read’ an icon rather than view or ‘see’ it. 

At Dura-Europos near the Euphrates River in the Syrian Desert lie two living ‘witnesses’ to early iconography. First, there is the baptismal room of a private house that became the first home church, with murals painted in 232-56 AD, decades before Emperor Constantine recognised Christianity. Then there is a synagogue dating from the third century, with brightly painted walls depicting famous scenes from the Old Testament. Although the artistry of Dura-Europos might seem simple in nature and battered due to age, fighting, destruction and the like, yet it is astounding in its beauty and depth. 

The location of Dura-Europos in modern-day Syria

Those depictions emerged from the early Christian imagination, from a faith alive with wonder. They give us a precious insight into the emotions and desires of those isolated faithful on their early journey. It was their way of reaching out to express their faith
with confidence. Their belief and trust in Christ were represented quite differently compared to that of, for example, the Christian art of the Renaissance, where great emphasis was placed on an aesthetic and grandiose depiction

Another possible depcition of Jesus from Dura-Europos

A Contemplative Experience

My journey into icon writing began during what seemed to be an eternal lockdown. This period of transition and discernment drew me deeper into exploring this extraordinary art. Initially, as part of a reflection on art and spirituality to celebrate Eastertide, I wrote my first icon, ‘Christ is the Light.’ Following that and whilst celebrating Pentecost, another icon followed: ‘Mary in the Cenacle.’ Both were written in a style that resembled that of the early Christians: simple and expressive. The aim was to understand the mystery of Christ and His Mother’s being as they reach out in love, keeping the light aflame in our hearts. I envisaged them as radiant, humble, and modestly dressed with an expression of intensity and invitation. Out of this contemplative experience, two images conceived and set in darkness emerged, of such humanity and yet of such majesty.

In the following year, I completed more icons using oil, but it was not until this year that I embarked on a new journey: that of exploring the Byzantine style using pigments and egg tempera. Drawn by the spirituality of Master Vladislav Andrejev at the Prosopon School of Iconology in the US, I took part in an icon writing course at the Christian Heritage Centre at Stonyhurst, facilitated by his Andrejev’s son, Nikita, who is a master in his own right. The theme of the workshop was ‘Our Lady of Tenderness.’ I found the whole experience a complex piece of utmost beauty and delicacy.

To save time, the wooden panels were already prepared. The first stage was applying the gold leaf onto the halos, then the initial underpaint tone, which covers the faces and other parts of the body, and the application of a dark yellow/green pigment called Sankir, thus creating the shadow areas. Here, shadows are not of a physical source as such, but rather ethereal. Similarly, the light areas in an icon indicate the divine nature and not a reflection of the sun. Stage by stage, the image builds as other layers are applied, always lighter than the one before. Patience and thoroughness are required throughout the whole process; from laying the gold leaf, getting the right measurements of pigment and egg tempera, to the right brush strokes. Each step is crucial and has its own logic, as well as consequences if not done in a methodical way. I must admit that, unlike my previous work, this experience was not merely painting, but building.

Taking A Leap Of Faith

We were fifteen people attending this course, some writing their first, second, or even seventh icon. It was my first workshop and although quite apprehensive about the process and outcome, I took a leap of faith and dived into exploring this wonderful art form, allowing the Holy Spirit to guide and inspire me as I went along. It was touching to see how some of the other experienced writers, aside from the tutor, mentored the beginners in their struggles. They gently offered advice and even helped to salvage areas that at times seemed almost like a battlefield.

My piece was no exception. I faced a mess right at the start because I applied too much clay, which is used as an adhesive for gold leaf. It was too wet and this meant that the leaf would not stick to the halos and kept peeling. My thanks go to David, a fellow participant who kindly rectified the catastrophe at once. His meticulous application of gold leaf and the right pressure did wonders and was like a sign of light and hope that helped me to go on.

In contemplating this recent experience, three profound insights surfaced for me. The first relates to how the harmony and symmetry of composition must be visible everywhere in the icon, from the poise of the figures to the flow of drapery. These carefully-drawn and harmonious straight lines come to life as flowing lines of Divine energy. Secondly, the role of luminosity in an icon is suggestive of the Holy Spirit within the subject, constantly renewing and creating life. And lastly, the words of my little cousin still echo in my head today, as she sat next to me in that very same church of St John the Baptist, and whispered with a slight giggle and pure innocence: “This is you and your mother….” Indeed, Mary’s presence in icons conveys a unique sense of motherhood. She is a source of inspiration, hope, comfort, and support to those in need of her help. 

https://www.schaher.com/

Mary in the Cenacle

 

For the Christian Heritage Centre’s iconography course, visit https://christianheritagecentre.com/events/iconography-course/

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Iconography, imago Dei and identity

6th July 2023

Iconography, imago Dei and identity

How the ancient art of iconography symbolises man’s relationship with God 

By Gabriel Stirling

It has just gone 9 am, and fifteen iconographers have gathered in the atrium of Theodore House. For the next week, they will study the ancient art of iconography under the guidance of Deacon Nikita Andrejev of the Prosopon School of Iconography. For the next week, they will gather each morning to pray that God might glorify the work of their hands. Through the strokes of the brush, they hope that the light of God might touch the blank canvas.

The first thing I learned was not to call it icon painting. You do not paint an icon; you write them. More than just mere pigments spotted on a canvas, the icon is the Gospel drawn out. 

Right from the outset, the religious symbolism of the icon dominates the methods and techniques used. The students began with a blank board made of gesso, representing, according to Nikita, “the moment before the creation of the world where there was just the divine.” But as God formed the heavens and the earth by His hands, so too our iconographers transformed these blank boards into a holy image of Divine realities.

All the materials used in icon writing are natural. The paint is based on diluted egg yolk mixed with natural pigments. As the colours took shape, the students slowly added lines to their icons. We had moved beyond the first part of creation, where light, colour, and matter existed. Figures start to emerge from the dust of the board, a firmament creating definitive shapes.

One of the icons written by a participant of the course
Deacon Nikita mixes the first colour to add to the image proper

Icon writing is not easy, and mistakes happen along the way. Likewise, being a Christian is a challenge, and we all fall into temptation at times. But as much as we wish, neither the icon writer nor the sinner can rewrite the past. However, the future is still up for grabs, and just as repentance sees us turn from our past wrongs to God, a slip of the icon writer’s brush can be turned into something greater. “This is a process of transfiguration,” says Nikita. 

The reason why iconography is so captivating might be that it speaks so deeply about human existence. It takes us right from the beginning, the formless void of the gesso board, right through the beauty of creation. But it shows us something about ourselves, too. We are not blank automatons, but men and women created in the image of God. Thus, humans are in a sense the proto-icon, created out of dust in the likeness of God. 

By Monday morning, the last day, the icons were almost complete—the shining crown of the Virgin Mother and Christ, their loving eyes gazing at us. Not unlike man, these icons are in the image of God. The icon writing might be over, but the writing of our souls remains an ongoing task. As Nikita put it: “We are born with the image of God intact as an embryo, but this likeness is yet to be achieved.”

Oh, blessed Virgin, pray that we might share in the likeness of your Son!

The Ancient Byzantine Iconography Course returns in 2024 from 3rd to 10th June: click here for more information

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The ancient practice of Iconography

6th May 2022

The ancient practice of Iconography

Rev. Nikita Andrejev talks about this original tradition of Christian sacred art, which has been integral to the spiritual life of Christians since apostolic times.

Is Icongraphy primarily a religious practice in former times? When did it become available to lay people & even those not allied to a Christian tradition?

We know very little concerning the identities of the ancient iconographers. Some of them were monks with a high level of spiritual life, like St Andrei Rublev who painted the famous Trinity, and St. Alipiy of the Kiev Caves. But whatever their background, at least on some level the painting would require entering into a relationship with the saints depicted, with the dogmas and tenets of the faith. Icons on display in churches were by definition designed for lay people’s appreciation.

This is all the more the case in our own times, where icons can be enjoyed as works of art but have an appeal that goes beyond superficial beauty and technical skill. There is a general hunger for spirituality in the West and the rediscovery and appreciation of the Eastern Church’s Orthodox iconography is very much part of this. An icon is at base a spiritual portrait, suggesting the mystery of the divine – yet whatever one’s beliefs, what could be more universal than a simple yet attentive depiction of a human face?

Rublev's famous icon of the Trinity, symbolised by the three angels who visit Abraham at Mamre

How did you come to learn the skill of iconography?

I learned the skill of icon painting from my father. As a child, I watched him both painting and teaching in his studio. Icons were at the centre of his life; not just professionally and spiritually, but socially, too – both my parents enjoyed entertaining his students to meals and to an annual ‘open house’.

I loved the sense of peace, of safety, in his studio, but I also enjoyed learning the practical skills of how to draw, to paint, and this gradually developed into assisting him with aspects of creating the icons he worked on. As a teenager I would accompany him to summer workshops, acting as his translator, but by then I had already realised that my future was as an artist, creating icons and teaching iconography.

Are you an Iconographer who teaches or an Iconography teacher who paints icons? What is the relationship between your Iconography practice and your role as an iconography teacher?

The two spheres of painting and teaching certainly feed into each other. I teach based on the experience of my own painting, but many times it’s when in a workshop that I’m better able to test out or implement a ‘plan’ for a given stage of the painting, say a certain colour combination. Perhaps because in a class, where many students are painting one and the same subject, you have the chance to see one and the same plan, the same paint combinations, unfold in ten or twenty very different ways! You can see the limits of what is possible, the potentials as well as the difficulties.

Perhaps more importantly, though, when taking a workshop you have to be very focussed, very time-conscious. You are responsible for other people, and this is always a challenge, but also an opportunity to grow, by observing and learning from others. So from one perspective, workshops are very good for the teacher! Whatever the balance between my role as painter and teacher, I don’t see myself as a fount of knowledge – as iconographers we are all at various stages of learning…

Deacon Nikita Andrejev is an iconographer and instructor based in Estonia, belonging to the Prosopon School of Iconology.

He will be teaching the CHC’s course on Ancient Byzantine Iconography in June 2022.