The world of icons


Dear Artist,

Every Bulgarian Orthodox church has an iconostasis spanning its center and holding up to six tiers of icons. The top row — the deesis — has an image of Christ in the center. These Christ figures are often of the Pantocrator (all-ruler) type, or of the Mandelion (not made by hand) variety. While they are actually paintings, these Mandelions have supposedly been developed from the imprint of Christ’s face on St. Veronica’s handkerchief. On either side of Christ are generally the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist. Other rows of icons show local saints, prophets and patriarchs. The iconostasis serves as a permanent gallery showing the main characters and hierarchy of each particular church.


Demonstrated steps in the making of an icon. Ethnic Museum, Bulgaria

Icons are traditionally egg tempera on wood panels, often gilded and highly decorated or perhaps set with precious stones. They range in size from tiny to gigantic. These religious artifacts are now seen as works of art by a world of collectors, with the usual spin-off of fakes, forgeries and prints.

In many cases linen is mounted on the wooden support to stabilize warping and cover potential cracks. A white ground is then laid on, often several coats as in Western academic practice. After a traced and formalized graphite drawing, the gold or other ornamental surround is often put on prior to the visage. Thus the embellishment might seem at times to be more important than the partly obscured figure.

In Varna, Bulgaria, the Ethnological Museum has rooms of them ranging from the 6th century to the present. Glancing past the window-laundry of Bulgarian homes, icons have pride of place there as well.

In earlier times there was a shortage of visual media. The illustration of a religious figure served to give a living presence to a deity or a holy one. To this day, particularly in remote villages, people have deep respect for this art and its creators, both dead and alive. Good harvests, happy occasions or divine interventions still deserve an icon.


At the seaport of Varna, Bulgaria, on the Black Sea

Best regards,


PS: “The beautiful is not determined by the natural form of objects, but by its sublime content, that is, by its power to serve the ideals of the faith.” (Vikki Belchev, museum guide, Varna, Bulgaria)

Esoterica: Churchgoers appropriated their favoured characters to the walls of their homes, thus we have an early example of official art spreading to the people. The “magic of artists” is not to be missed. Artists are interpreters and conveyors of the holy and sublime–servants of a current priesthood in the maintenance and increase of a faith.


Icons according to tradition
by Joan Crawford Barnes, Lima, OH, USA


“Mary the Mother of God”
egg tempera painting
by Joan Crawford Barnes

I am an Iconographer and a member of the Orthodox Church of America. In our discipline, whether you are an artist or not, you must follow the cannons of the Church in writing an Icon. Even to the colors you choose for the robes and outer garments of the particular saint you are doing the Icon (Image). Even if you do not agree with the way it should be done, it is done in accordance with the discipline and Cannon of the Orthodox Church. So, we don’t interpret the painting of an Icon. The Icons I do are according to the Byzantine Tradition. I have studied with Master Icongrapher, Vladislav Andreyev of the Prosopon School of Iconography (Russian).




Personal icons as everyday saints
by Georgianne Fastaia, San Francisco, CA, USA


original painting, 20 x 20 inches
by Georgianne Fastaia

Santeras means “Saint maker” or one who paints saints, as in the Russian tradition of self-taught artists painting naive religious icons after devout prayer. There is a difference between making an icon, and having it become the object of worship, and making a representation that expresses a truth about God. We cannot depict the Father, the Holy Spirit, or the Trinity. Herein lies the contradiction of faith, both invisible and boundless, yet evidenced through our very real humanity. I set out to describe my faith through a Child’s eye. In creating this series I became a santera: a saint maker interpreting the holy moments of each day. Inspired by the joy of my infant daughter Sophie, I relied on the spirit to move through me to create raw childlike images infused with feeling. Many figures float in a timeless space in which their bodies are painted as shimmering vessels for their hearts. If we reveal our spiritual nature when we release our fear of difference and our sense of separateness from one another, then it is inevitable that in the figures grew increasing similar and androgynous in each new work. I’m particularly fascinated by images of triplets — as a metaphor for aspects of us — the trinity depicted as three male figures dancing or floating together as one body. Or as three women, often with one or more painted over but still faintly visible. These are everyday saints, personal icons depicting mysteries of joy.

There is 1 comment for Personal icons as everyday saints by Georgianne Fastaia

From: Georgianne Fastaia — Dec 18, 2008


Sincere innocence
by Pierre Eisele, Pont Aven, France

Today, in retrospect, icons appear to be a repetitious and stultified art form, with only the copying and recopying of archetypical and formalized images that hasn’t changed much for at least six centuries. In a way they are like the liturgy itself, incredulities repeated so many times that they appear as truth. When one is contemplating the beauty of these images, one must take into consideration the innocence and primitive understanding of the sincere ones who originally made them.


Living art form
by Sue Grace Talley, New York, NY, USA

I read your letters with pleasure, and I especially appreciate your courteous comments with regard to icons. Iconography is a living art form and those of us who have had the pleasure of going through the immense labor to “write” an icon know that it can be an intense form of devotion. Painting with egg tempera requires patience, silence, and skill. Nature is brought into play if the iconographer is able to collect his or her colors from the earth itself. Those of us who appreciate the world around us, and take time for silence and nature, can greatly appreciate the beauty of iconography and the greatness of the Divine.


Profiteering discourages iconographer
by B.J. Wilson, Irvine, CA, USA

I met Father Illio Torricelli at Cal State U. in Los Angeles when we were both there taking art classes. We were both interested in painting, and he liked what I was doing. He was interested in icons and enjoyed doing them in the old, traditional manner, complete with a red oxide base and gold leaf on top and painted in egg tempera. They were gorgeous to my eye. What did he do with them? “Oh, I have a collector! He pays me $50 for each one!” It was hard not to have some unladylike words to say about that “collector.” With his newfound wealth he bought a good camera and a small painting of mine. Then he found one of his icons in a gallery one day, being offered as an original, with a price tag of several thousand dollars and after that he never again painted one.


Doors to a culture
by Alfonso Tejada, Vancouver, BC, Canada


“Rio de la Beccarie, San Polo”
watercolour painting, 17 x 13 inches
by Alfonso Tejada

It is so interesting the discovery and learning about other cultures and you are so lucky to experience it first hand. Thank you for sharing the experience and the essence of the Orthodox culture. The question for me is what is the essence of a place? The physical, visual expression of a culture or the inner perception of the locals living a life day by day? Perhaps for me the visual images of a place make the frame in which my spirit may find the doors to a culture. Artists need to learn to see the essence of what is in front of their eyes and then understand the roots of its creation. I am fascinated by this discovery of a place because the eyes of my mind can be open to new possibilities and references that in return may lead to really understand a Culture. Artists need to see and understand culture as is giving in every day’s life but without forgetting that a visual world talks to the spirit in each one of us in different ways. And what is that the artist does talks to the spirit and then he shows the gates of that inner world of a culture in his work.


Age-old American mission
by George Mccausland, Tucson, AZ, USA


San Xavier del Bac Mission

The Mission San Xavier Del Bac is only a 15 minute drive from my home in Tucson, Arizona. It was established by Father Kino in 1732 and is probably one of the oldest churches still in use today. It is constantly under repair and reconstruction both inside and out. Its walls are rich with various religious frescos in various stages of repair. It is featured in many of the paintings of Ted De Grazia. The early Indians referred to it as the white dove in the desert and as you approach it from the highway the white towers of the mission seem to rise from the barren desert before you.


Prayer in a brushstroke
by Virginia Wieringa, Grand Rapids, MI, USA


original painting
by Virginia Wieringa

I have taken three icon workshops at the Franciscan Center in Lowell, Michigan with Diane Hamel who is a local iconographer. She learned from Peter Pearson who wrote a great how-to book called A Brush with God. Since ‘writing’ an icon is not a creative endeavor but a contemplative one, I had to quiet that part of myself that thinks outside the box and conform to the directions and work on ‘making each brushstroke a prayer.’ Each color and part of the process is proscribed. It’s a semantic or symbolic language so it’s important to pay attention to all the nuances of the process and the details. All the students paint the same icon in the same way in an atmosphere of meditation, and while there are variations because of skill levels, the goal is to pay homage to the image we are copying and the iconographer whose icon we are copying and the Lord whose story is told through the icon. This was a great experience in appreciating an old style and learning the value of layering and quieting.

I recently created 3 paintings in the icon style using my own designs. I wanted to bring the element of music into images of the annunciation and nativity. I manipulated music on the computer and printed it on acid free tissue paper, then made it adhere it to the paintings with clear acrylic medium.


Going back to an earlier style
by Alicia Chimento, New Jersey, USA


“Going back”
oil painting
by Alicia Chimento

Reading your letter this morning has once again made me think you have an inside track on what I’m thinking about. How do you do that? Last night I was looking at some paintings I had done years ago, completely different from my style now. Nevertheless, at the time, they elicited a very spiritual connection for me, and challenged me at the same time. At this time, when other work is moving quite slowly, I think I will re-visit the exploration of my earlier years. Is that going backwards? I think maybe it is coming full circle.





Responding to visual objects
by Lois Jung, Hutchinson, KS, USA

I enjoy your observations on so many things. This one on the icons brings to mind a fact we really don’t think about: for century upon century the average person in the street could not read. So the icons and other art in churches, then into homes, was a visual way to remind them of the contents of Scripture. To this day we respond more to visual objects, rather than words — a “go” for art! We will listen to a person’s speech and get a vague impression of all of it, but a carefully contrived logo or icon goes a long way. Thanks for showing this.


Letter brings artists together
by Marsha Elliott, Covington, OH, USA


“Fisherman’s Wharf”
watercolour painting, 16 x 20 inches
by Marsha Elliott

My husband and I just returned from a two week holiday in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea thanks to you. On May 22 of last year, I responded to your letter on “The Persistence of Creativity.” I received a response from Paul Caruana, a graphic artist like me. We related on that level and experienced the same trials and tribulations of being in that business. He was from Malta, an island which lies below Sicily along with her sister islands of Comino and Gozo. Through emails describing his country and seeing many works of art which drew me into the old world, I wanted very much to see the island and to meet him and his family. My husband and I decided to go there. What a great time we had and what an honor to meet this great artist. We’ve made some great friends and hope that one day he’ll realize his dream of visiting America. So here’s to you, Robert Genn, for facilitating something beautiful via your letters.


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for The world of icons



From: Bev Sobkowich — Oct 23, 2008
From: Sam Liberman — Oct 24, 2008

I am always amazed when looking at church art to realize how thoroughly the churches took over the art establishment when the ten commandments particularly forbid the making of Graven Images.

I guess it was better than the way that commercial interests have taken over art in the present time. Thankfully we can each and all still make and choose the art which supports us.

From: Lou Adzima — Oct 24, 2008
From: Giorgos — Oct 24, 2008

Not only every “Bulgarian” church has icons, all Christian Orthodox temples, cathedrals, churches, chapels, monasteries, have many images. Even the christian orthodox homes have, in Europa, Africa, Asia or America!

There are a “theology of icons”, and every format, design, an even colour has a meaning.

Ouspensky, Lossky, Kontoglou or Cavarnos, among many others, are authors of books that are of easy reading in english.

From: Annoel Krider — Oct 28, 2008
From: Margie Larson — Oct 28, 2008
From: Ron Freyer-Nicholas — Oct 29, 2008
From: Anonymous — Oct 29, 2008

The unreal beauty of Icons also carries something very sinister. Iconographers from various countries recognize and generally despise their differences in styles, even accusing each others of sacrilege. I experienced this even between the fellow iconographers belonging to different religions (some Anglicans, Roman Catholics and Orthodox all write Icons). Even Orthodox iconographers from Russia or Greece or Serbia, Romania, etc. will have bad things to say about each others. For example, Serbians who received the Christianity and iconography from Greeks long before Russians, despise the Ukrainian and Romanian Icons since they received Christianity second hand, from Russians, who received it from Greeks. African branches of Orthodox Church (Syria, Ethiopia) have long been excommunicated for their use of pagan symbols in their Icons and rituals.

I was sharply criticized by my (Russian) teacher for writing the Mother of God wearing a blue and white robe for my Roman Catholic friend, instead of, in Orthodoxy prescribed, red and blue – he expressed his disgust in a way that really put me off. If you think this is crazy, just ask any iconographer what they think about Syrian Icons, you may get interesting answers.

The funny thing is that I am not religious at all, I just wanted to write Icons because they are beautiful – well, it doesn’t work that way – you have to get into a camp and then rigidly follow the rules. My teacher was pushing me to follow the ritual of Russian iconographer’s prayers and those are nothing like the artist’s prayers that you prescribe. Those ones were one step from blood letting and calling for miracles! Not my piece of cake!

This experience reinforced my opinion that religions use any form of manipulation and especially art to indoctrinate people and turn them against each other. The next stage is killing each other for the color of the saint’s robe.

Sorry for staining the enjoyment of Icons for you, but I thought that this may intrigue some interesting thoughts. Bigotry is alive and well in the world of Iconography.

From: Cristina Acosta — Nov 04, 2008
From: Roger Starr, New York — Nov 10, 2008

What you didn’t make clear is that the board, after being covered with linen, is generally primed with a red oxide primer that takes the gold leaf well and adds visual magic to the surface.





Autumn Solstice

oil painting on canvas, 48 x 60 inches
by Gordon Lewis, Regina, SK, Canada


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.

That includes Ion Danu of Sherbrooke, QC, Canada who wrote, “There’s an Icon-on-glass Museum in Sibiel, a village near the beautiful medieval town of Sibiu/ Hemannstadt, in SE Transylvania, Romania. Romania is beautiful, spectacular (in the mountain and rural areas) country… I know, I come from there.”

And also Diana Bouchard of Montreal, Quebec, Canada who wrote, “Visiting Russia recently we noticed covers of precious metal are often made for particularly venerated icons, leaving only the faces showing. Sometimes the icon and one or more covers for it will be displayed separately as works of art.”

And also Bruce Stangeland who wrote, “My wife and I visited Nesebur, Bulgaria, earlier this month and saw many of icons in their local museum. They do have a powerful presence. The gold background sometimes detracts from the person being portrayed. The artists, it appears, weren’t concerned about integrating the subject and background.”

And also David Ehrmann who wrote, “For our readers’ information, the Lankton Museum of Russian Icons, one of the largest collections outside the Orthodox world, is located in Clinton, MA.”




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