This article originally appeared in the Northeast Region May eNewsletter. Written by David Clarke, St. John’s, Vernon – if you would like more information about writing icons, or the process of blessing an icon, please contact David. Following the initial article, David provides more information in a follow-up letter including several images of his work.
I’ve been writing icons for a year and have made sixteen so far. I have each one blessed at the altar when they are finished. Once, when after one had been blessed, a member of the Altar Guild, JoAnn D’Amoto, said that we needed an icon on right side of the wall behind the altar to balance the aumbry door on the left side. That’s all the inspiration I needed.
My first problem was to find an appropriate subject. The icon would be located over the credence table where the elements for communion are placed for preparation. My first thought was the last supper, which is called the “Mystic Supper” in Orthodox iconography. Unfortunately, these are configured in landscape mode, but the aumbry door is landscape. This did not balance.
I finally came up with an icon with several names, The Hospitality of Abraham (ἠ φιλοξενία του Αβραάμ), The Holy Trinity (ή Αγία Τριάς), or The Old Testament Trinity. It is based on the incident referred to in Genesis 18 which in Orthodox belief prefigures the mystic supper. It must be remembered that in earliest Christian history, most of the believers were illiterate.. stained glass windows and icons were used to “write” the Biblical stories so that the unlettered could “read” them. That means that the icons have a language that can be interpreted.
Below is a follow up letter from David:
You asked for a bit more about why I “continue to write icons and what that has been like for you (i.e., me) spiritually”. Perhaps it would help if I supplied some history first so you see a more complete picture.
Actually, before I wrote icons, I wrote illuminated manuscripts. That was nearly 50 years ago. Probably the most interesting one from back then was an “epistle” that the vestry of St. John’s East Hartford sent to the Bishop. It’s still in the Diocesan Archives. The following picture of it was taken by Greg Farr.
Unfortunately, the requirements of my job got in the way and I had to give it up. Now I’m retired and back at it. Here’s a recent example:
About a year ago I started writing icons. I was drawing and painting quite a bit at the time, so with the help of three books and a lot of web searches I managed to teach myself how do it properly. I started with the standardΧριστος Παντοκρατορ (Christ Almighty) and then just kept going.
The NE Region Newsletter article tells how a member of the altar guild inspired me to work on the icon for our Church (St John’s, Vernon) and how I decided on The Hospitality of Abraham (ἠ φιλοξενία του Αβραάμ) because it is located over the credence table where the elements for communion are placed for preparation, and the icon shows how Abraham’s meal for the three “guests” prefigures the Eucharist.
Here are pictures of the icon above the credence table with the vessels ready for the service, and of me standing next to the icon and credence table.
For Lent I wrote two icons, one of the crucifixion and one of Mary Magdalene being the first to see the Risen Lord. There is a place in the Good Friday service where we light candles and say a prayer. This year, we mounted my crucifixion icon behind the candles to focus attention on the meaning of the moment.
As mentioned in the NE Region article, I start each writing session with the iconographer’s prayer (or a short service based on noontime prayer from A New Zealand Prayer Book that is edited to contain the prayer). But it doesn’t end there. With each icon, I do a study of the saint(s) it represents, and have that in my mind as I work. I actually get to know them in the process. Believe me, I often ask their guidance as I work.
Unlike modern day practice, copying is not only accepted, it is actually encouraged when writing icons. The Hospitality of Abraham icon expands on a famous icon of The Trinity by Andrei Rublev (c.1360-1430), but his original is also apparent in the logo used by Trinity Orthodox Church in Willimantic on their webpage. The reason for this is to make sure the meaning built into the original is not lost (or changed) in the new icon.
Since icons were originally meant to instruct a mostly illiterate laity about their religion, everything in the icon had meaning, colours, gestures, perspective, you name it.
Here’s an example. To the left is my icon of St. Like, the patron saint of artists. He is giving a blessing with his light hand.
The way he holds his fingers is extremely meaningful, as seen by the enlarged view on the right. The forefinger sticks straight up (at least it should, sorry, my Luke is suffering from a touch of arthritis).
This is the Greek letter I (iota). The middle and little fingers are bent, forming the Greek letter C (sigma). The thumb and the remaining finger are (attempting) to cross, forming the Greek letter X (chi). Thus, the Index and middle finger are forming the first and last letters of the Greek spelling of Jesus (Ἰησοῦς), the other fingers are forming the first and last letters of the Greek for Christ (Χριστός).
It has been said that “An icon is a window out of the obvious realities of everyday life into the realm of God”. I find that to be true.
Rev. Virginia Army prefers the term “Praying” the Icon over “Writing” the icon. There is a lot of truth to this. I start each painting session with a special prayer or a short service (based on midday prayer from A New Zealand Prayer Book modified somewhat and containing the special prayer). The special prayer is traditional among iconographers, and goes as follows:
Prayer Before Writing An Icon
O DIVINE LORD of all that exists, You have illumined the Apostle and Evangelist Luke with Your Holy Spirit, thereby enabling him to represent Your most Holy Mother, the One who held You in her arms and said: “The Grace of Him Who has been born of me is spread through the world!”
Enlighten and direct my soul, my heart and my spirit. Guide the hands of Your unworthy servant so that I may worthily and perfectly portray Your Icon, that of Your Mother, and all the Saints, for the glory, joy and adornment of Your Holy Church.
Forgive my sins and the sins of those who will venerate these icons and who, kneeling devoutly before them, give homage to those they represent. Protect them from all evil and instruct them with good counsel. This I ask through the intercession of Your most Holy Mother, the Apostle Luke, and all the Saints. Amen.