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The apostle and evangelist Luke is generally acknowledged to be the first to have painted an ikon, so from that you can guess that they have a very long history. The visual arts have been used almost from the beginning of Christianity to create an environment that reminded believers of the Kingdom of God, and aided their prayer. The catacombs are a prime example. Ikons are more than just pictures of a scene.
They are painted according to strict rules of form and colour. Also very important is the disposition of the painter whilst work is in progress. As Russian ikon painter Father Zinon says: ''To make an ikon is the fulfillment of prayer. You need to feel the Holy Spirit. You can feel ikons only during prayer. And ikons are only for prayer. An ikon is a place of prayer. You paint it in the same way you prepare for a church service, with prayer and fasting. It is a liturgical work.'' Because of the disposition needed to be worthy of painting, an ikonographer is usually a monk or nun, and before they start they are blessed by a priest, very often their spiritual father - the priest who has special responsibility for the spiritual welfare of the monastery.
Whilst in Greece a few years ago I was privileged to be staying in a monastery where the sisters painted, and the atmosphere in that room was striking, it really was a sacred space. All the materials used are natural. The preparation of the surface itself takes several days. An ikon is never painted straight onto the wood itself, but usually onto cloth mounted onto it. All the colours are found in nature - often ground from the minerals and added to egg tempera. Contrary to the usual rules of composition it is painted from dark to light, usually beginning with dark red - a symbol of the earth, among other things, and often gold leaf is then laid on. The colours then used will depend on the theological meaning of the ikon, the colours available, the local tradition, and of course the ikonographer. The main colours are: Blue=heaven, mystery and the mystical life. Christ often wears blue as does Mary. Green=vegetation, fertility in a general sense. Martyrs, who's blood nurtures the church, often have green in their clothing. Brown=inert matter, earth. In clothing can be a sign of poverty Red=life, vitality, beauty [Slavic beauty + red=same]. the inner robe of Christ is red. Orange-red is associated with fire=suggests fevour and spiritual purification Purple=wealth and power White=the divine world, purity, innocence, the 'uncreated light' of the transfiguration. Gold=sanctity, splendour, the imperishable, the divine energy, the glory of god, life in the kingdom of god.
An ikon is theology written in images and colour. You may notice, looking at these ikons that they are silent. No-one is speaking, but it is not an empty silence, it creates a space that constantly invites prayer. Ikonogrphers avoid artistic techniques that create the impression of three-dimensional space, there is a minimum of detail, and the light within an ikon is never explained by a single light source, the 'uncreated light' of god illuminating all, so there are no shadows, and as nothing is hidden from this light all can be seen - to the extent that when the Visitation of mary to Elizabeth is represented St John and Christ can both be seen within their mothers' wombs. I think that is enough theory!! The best way to connect with an ikon is to pray with it, and here you have a choice of several to choose from.
Sr Sue Makin Summer 2002