“QUANDO UN’ICONA È SANTA?”: ECCO GLI INSEGNAMENTI DELLA CHIESA (3)

Holy Icons are made in a special way

This is the belief that the piety or holiness of the iconographer effects the holiness of the image being painted. There are indeed canons, or rules, set forward – particularly in monasteries – as to how someone must approach the painting of an icon. It involves fasting, prayers, and other ascetic acts which effectively discipline the passions of the painter and allow him or her to create the icon in a prayerful attitude. Praying for the cleansing of passions and calling upon the name of God before undertaking some kind of work is clearly important, but what is its purpose specifically in iconography? Once more turning to the example of the Holy Scriptures, it is the Orthodox belief that these writings were divinely inspired. This is sometimes shown in pictures of the Holy Evangelists, when they are depicted with an angel of God whispering into their ear as they write (see also John the Apostle | The Theologian in Silence). This shows us that such holy scriptures are not only written accounts based on divine revelation, but also guided in their specific choice of words, by divine revelation too. But that is only true of the original manuscripts: what of the many transcriptions of the Gospels made and distributed among the early Church? Here, those given the task of transcription do not rely on being told “from Heaven” what to write: they need only painstakingly copy what is already written. Yet in doing this they must be watchful and sober, not making any mistakes, treating every word as precious, and not be tempted to edit anything based on proud self-opinion.

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This then, is the purpose of the iconographer’s prayers, fasting and sobriety: to “transcribe” the holy images of the Church, already revealed and confirmed to be of divine origin. Where the iconographer is creating a “new” image (e.g. an icon of a newly-revealed Saint) then clearly the prayers also have the purpose of calling upon God, or the newly-revealed Saint, to guide their painting and ensure it is a true representation. However, the preparation of an iconographer has little to do with his piety being transferred to the image they are painting, merely that it is through such piety that an image of a holy person can be depicted truly, without the pollution of vainglory that an “artist” might have. In 19th century Russia, icon workshops sprouted up everywhere. These were businesses, and effectively mass-produced icons. They did this by assigning specific tasks to specific workers: one would prepare the wooden boards, another would paint the background, another would paint the figures, another the features, and so on. This is far removed from the image of a solitary monastic praying and fasting for 40 days before, with trembling hand, daring to pick up a paint brush and depict that which is holy. However, ironically, the majority of those mass-produced icons of 19th century Russia can still be called Holy. This is because by being mass-produced, the makers only cared about reproducing accurately older types of icons that were popular, and not doing anything innovative. In doing this, they preserve the subject of the Icon, and the truth of its depiction, and so the image remained “holy”.

(da A reader’s guide to Orthodox icons)
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