Icon Traditions

Some notes on traditions, meaning and care of the Orthodox icon.

ANATOMY OF THE ICON

An icon, as we said in an earlier post, can be made of any material. It can also be practically any size: a monumental painting on the wall of a church, a modest image on metal or ivory, or a tiny image on a medallion for the neck. The most ubiquitous icons, however, are on wooden panels which have been in use in the Eastern Orthodox Church for hundreds of years. Over the centuries, these panel paintings of special purpose have often migrated from the churches they were originally intended for. Now one can find these treasures not only in Eastern Orthodox churches, but also among museums or in private collections. So, let us examine this most common of church artifacts, the panel painting on wood, by discussing its parts and layers, to get better acquainted with the subject:

ANATOMY OF A TRADITIONAL WOODEN ICON:

Perspective view of traditional icon board

The physical board, when seen in perspective, as in this drawing, shows that there is a hollowed out area in the center. This area is called the “kovcheg” which literally means the “arc”….think of the “Arc of the Covenant”, or think the recessed area is where the greatest treasure is stored. That is the center of the icon. It is recessed so that the “treasure”, or the holy image, can reside there.

The bevel or "loozga" is between the hollow and the raised sides.

There is a transitional area between the hollowed out  “arc” and the raised border areas. We could call this transitional area a bevel. However in Russian iconography it is called the “loozga”; this transitional area can be of different widths and tilts; the loozga can also be curved, straight or doubled. In fact, some icon connoisseurs can date an icon based on the profile of this transitional area. I am not one of them. I admire the expertise, but will leave this specialized area to those who know more about it. Perhaps if someone reading this blog has more information on the subject of the “loozga”, we would appreciate more information on its origins and history.

Reinforcement pieces called "shponki" on the back of the board

Finally, the back of the icon board frequently shows one or two transverse reinforcements inserted into the board across the grain of the wood which typically runs up and down on the icon board.  These reinforcements are usually made of a harder wood than the main icon board. In Russian they are called “shponki”. They are inserted at the time of manufacture, when the board is still relatively young, and the reinforcements are inserted to be quite tight. The thinking behind this is to stop the icon board from warping with age.

The fact is, however, that all wood, no matter how well  seasoned, will move with time, as it dries and ages. Usually the front of the icon, protected by layers of gesso, glue, paint and other materials, dries more slowly than the back which does not have the same protection. These changes usually result in the board bowing out toward the front. As the wood ages and begins to bow, the “shponki” also dry out and begin to stick out on the sides as the board shrinks; in many older icons they are loose and ready to drop out. The “shponki” are supposed to move with the aging board.

Icon board bowed and cracked from age and stress

This principle of the board changing with time is important to remember when we encounter an old icon board such as this one on the right; it has dried and bowed over time. Unfortunately, the “shponki” and the brass frame elements did not allow the board to move  as it aged. The result is a typical split down the length of the board along the line of greatest stress.

"Shponki" missing, dropped out of dry, bowed back of board.

The “shponki” shrank and served no more purpose anymore, and finally dropped out (as in this illustration), but together with the metal frame they kept the board from bowing as it was inclined to do. So the board cracked. When the reinforcements and the metal frame were removed, the two halves of the icon board could now be reattached. The board then took on its natural curved shape it had achieved over the last 200 years. Now the “shponki” could not and should not be reinserted without damaging the icon, so they should be marked and stored separately as part of the history of this icon. The gilded brass straps, formerly attached to the front of the icon, form what is called the “oclad” or casing of this icon. They may or may not be original. It is up to the present owner or the church to decide if they wish them to be reunited with the icon board.

Icons undergo a lot of transformations over their long history: change of environments, change of ownership; different handlers. We would argue that all layers found with an icon belong to its history and should be retained together as much as possible. In this case, the metal straps need to be cleaned and reassembled to the front of the icon, if possible. There will need to be some adjustments in the way the metal lies because the metal pieces are straight and the board is convex. That should be discussed with the church or the present owner and a decision made as to how to best proceed. A historian wishes to see all these parts stay together to maintain the historic, spiritual and aesthetic integrity of the icon in question.

One last point about the reinforcements on old icon boards. When the “shponki” are no longer serving their purpose and are beginning to fall out, under no circumstances should the “shponki” be forced back inside the icon board by any physical means such as glue, screws or other permanent means. As we said, wood is inclined to move with changes in humidity, heat and cold and especially with age. If the old reinforcements are forced to stay in place by some unnatural means the icon board could, eventually, react with violence (as the icon above did) by cracking, with loss of gesso and paint layers.

If you or your church have a treasure in your midst, do not try to correct the problem yourself. Always take the conservative approach, and do nothing until you can find a reliable person to consult. WHEN IN DOUBT, STOP and consider the consequences, which could mean serious damage that may not be reversed. A local museum might recommend a museum conservator or try “googling” for the American Conservation Association to find a conservator to consult.

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Any iconographer setting out to create a traditional icon knows that an icon is meant to last. All materials used for the icon need to be the best that the iconographer can afford: the best boards, gold and paints; the best methods of preparation and workmanship to serve a spiritual purpose for many lifetimes to come. Let’s look at the  typical layers of the traditional icon.

THE LAYERS OF A WOODEN ICON BOARD:

Layers of a traditional icon board

1. The traditional wooden board is often made of seasoned lime lumber

Face of board with linen strips or fabric covering knots in wood.

2. A layer of animal glue

3. Strips of linen are applied to the front to cover knot holes only or an entire sheet of fabric is spread all over the front of the board to isolate the wood from the other layers to come. This layer is called “pavoloka” in Russian. [see illustration on the right]

4. The gesso layer, or more accurately, several very thin layers of finely ground alabaster powder or similar substance mixed with warm animal skin glue; if water gilding is contemplated, then some iconographers recommend up to 8 or more layers of thin gesso, with drying times and polishing in between.

5. Once the gesso has dried and polished to a mirror finish the design may be drawn with an umber color .  Some iconographers also “inscribe”or scratch in the design with a fine pointed tool so that they can continue “seeing” the drawing even after gold leaf and paint is applied.

6. A mixture of red bole clay and glue is applied to areas such as the haloes or background that will be gilded. This clay, also, needs to be applied in several thin layers and lightly polished.

7. Gold leaf is applied to the polished clay areas in an ancient gilding technique called water gilding. In Russian this is called “zolocheniye na poliment”….When properly done, all areas that are water gilded will shine like a fine gold mirror, giving the appearance of solid gold.

8. After gilding, traditional egg tempera paint is applied in a systematic fashion with darker colors applied first while the process brings each succeeding application of paint into a lighter and lighter tone. The process of painting an icon in this method is called “vysvetleniye” or “bringing the icon into light”. The technique, when properly done, gives the icon an opalescent appearance and light which is in accord with all that icons represent, that is “another world”.

9. After all surface painting is completed, the iconographer has the option of applying some highlights in gold using what is called “tvorenoye zoloto” which translates approximately into “dissolved gold”.  The technique is called “assist” in Russian.  This topical application of liquid gold can be done with the aid of different mediums: gum arabic or garlic juice for instance.

10. When the icon is done and dry, a final layer of protective varnish is applied.

Icon of "Christ on a Napkin", completed 2006, St. Petersburg, Russia

This is an image of “Christ on a Napkin”, one of a pair of icons made for a wedding. It was painted in 2006 by an iconographer in St. Petersburg, Russia. His work is an excellent example of the best traditions of Russian Orthodox iconography, a tradition that has evolved in Russia over a thousand years, and in spite of historic hardships, has survived and is alive  and thriving today.

It needs to be said that there are several schools of thought on how to paint an authentic Eastern Orthodox or Russian Orthodox icon [the two terms are here used interchangeably].  The purist iconographer will work only with traditional materials, such as solid wood panels, gesso and egg tempera. Some modern day iconographers may work with plywood panels and use any media that will give the satisfactory result to their line of thinking. We have known modern day master iconographers who painted in acrylics and had excellent results. Both traditional and modern approaches must adhere to canonical principles of the representation of images. Still,  there are good iconographers working with traditional as well as modern materials. Some of the  work is so good that one can hardly tell the difference in the methods used, unless the work is examined under strong light or under a microscope.

In later blogs we hope to discuss more about board preparation, gilding techniques and methods of icon painting itself. It is a never ending discussion………….

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Materials for this piece come from conversations with iconographers, museum conservators and museum curators over a period of 30 years in the US, in Russia and one in Croatia: Fr. Alexei Rosentool [on icon painting techniques] , Archimandrite Cyprian Pizhov [on the canonically correct icon], Nikandr Victorovich Maltsev [on historic variations of the “loozga” used to date certain icons] and Ivan Tomljanovic [on icon painting techniques] and Robert Organ [on museum conservation issues]. Many thanks to all of them. Illustrations are our own, except two in black and white which come from the book by V.V. Filatov “Dictionary of the Iconographer”, Lestvitsa, Moscow, 2000 [in Russian]. Any errors in the interpretation of material are strictly our own. We welcome comments and corrections to our articles.

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