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Father Demetrios Serfes
   Fr. Demetrios Serfes

O Lord Jesus Christ,
Son Of GOD,
Have Mercy,
Upon Me,
A Sinner!

"The Jesus Prayer"
Also known as
"The Prayer of the Heart"


Eastern Orthodox Spirituality

The First Icon by Pat Michas
of Boise, Idaho

Compiled by Father Demetrios Serfes

The First Icon
The Eastern Apse With The Theotokos Platytera
(Icon usually placed behind the Holy Altar.)

Church tradition traces the first icons back to the time of Jesus Christ Himself. It is believed by many art historians that as the art of portraiture was at that time very popular in the Roman Empire, and portraits were made of relatives and of distinguished people there are no grounds for supposing that the early Christians were an exception to that rule (Lossky, 1992). In the History of the Church by Eusebuis (2nd Century), the following phrase is found "I have seen a great many portraits of the Saviour, of Peter and of Paul, which have been preserved up to our own times". Eusebuis' testimony is believed to be all the more valuable since he was personally against icons and his reference to the portraits is accompanied by the disapproving comment that it is a pagan custom (as cited by Lossky 1952).

This argument against icons prevailed for many years in the early church. The obvious influence was the Second Commandment of its Judaic root that objected to representational art in general and to images of the Deity in particular. Early Christian communities were surrounded on all sides by paganism with its idolatry. It was therefore natural that many Christians both of Jewish and of pagan origin, conscious of negative experience of pagainism, should stive to protect Christianity from the infection of this kind of idolatry (Weitzmann 1982).

The culmination of these arguments finally ended the Iconoclastic Controversy when in approximately 726 AD, the Byzantine Emperor Leo II commanded the removal and destruction of all religious images. This ban lasted over 100 years and by the time it was resolved nearly all the early religious pictures had been destroyed. One cannot help but wonder what these very early portraits of Christ and Saints, painted from life looked like.

However despite the occuurences of the iconoclastic movements, there existed a fundamental line of belief that right from the beginning there had been a clear understanding of the significance of these images, and The Sweet Kissing the attitude of the Church towards it never changed, since it is derived from the actual teaching on the Divine Incarnation. This teaching shows that the image is necessarily inherent in the very essence of Christianity from the beginning. Since Christinaity is the revelation of God-Man (Christ) not only of the Word of God, but also of the image of God. "No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him" (St. John 1:18) -has revealed the image of the icon of God. This truth revealed in Christianity as "as in the bosom of the Father," so after the Incarnation, the Son is consubstantial with the Father, being, according to His Divinity, His image, equal in honor. This is the foundation of the tradition showing that the preaching of Christianity to the world was from the beginning carried out by word and image (Lossky 1952, Weitsman 1982).

That was the argument that was used against the iconoclastics. The Church Fathers had to find convincing formulations to prove that icon worship was not idolatry. The key reasons as stated above, the Doctrine of the Incarnation and the Dogma of the Two Natures of Christ (Christ as God and Christ as the Saviour). Early in the iconoclastic period, St. John of Damascus wrote his Defense of the Holy Images, he argued: "It is not divine beauty which is given form or shape, but the human form which is rendered Christ Forgiving the Sinful Woman by the painter's brush. Therefore, if the Son of God became man and appeared in mans nature, why should his image not be made?" Later Theodore of Studios defined the relationship between the images and its prototype as relations of identity, "Man himself is created after the image and likeness of God; therefore there is something divine in the art of making images". This becomes very important later on as specific rules are made in the way icons are constructed.

But it was the theory of necessity ("As perfect man Christ not only can but must be represented and worshipped in images: let this be denied and Christ's economy of the salvation is virtually destroyed"), which gave the final triumph to the icon-worshippers in 843 AD and gave the holy image its permanent preeminent position in the Orthodox Church (Weitzmann 1982).

Iconography is by no means an invention of painters but is, on the contrary as established law and tradition of the Church. The fundamental principle of this art form is a pictorial expression of the teaching of the Church, by representing concrete events of sacred history and indication their inner meaning (Rice 1962). It is intended not to reflect the problems of life but to answer them, and thus from its very beginning is was a vehicle of Gospel teaching (Lossky 1982).

For example a series of three pictures from the Roman Catacomb of Callixtees: 1) A fisherman taking a fish out of the water, 2) baptism and 3) a paralytic carrying his bed, the first image is the symbol of conversion to the Christian faith, the second then shows how through baptism, the third, man is made whole from his sins and infirmities.

From the very first, Christian art was deeply symbolic as is mostly iconographic, is connected with a subject. To indicate that a woman holding the baby was the Mother of God, next to her is depicted a prophet pointing to a star. Separate symbols were used not only from the Old and New Testaments (lamb, shepherd, fish) but also from pagan mythology, for instance Cupid and Psyche, Orephus etc. are seen. By using the old pagan myths Christianity established a new and profound meaning to the myths giving them new content (Losssky 1982).

Much is written about how this symbolism is represented. The symbol is not in the inconography, not in what is represented, but in the method of representing, in how it is represented. So important was this representation and its dogmatic basis that specific rules were laid down by the Trullan Council 691-2 AD. It was found at that time that the symbols of the first centuries, that belonged to a small number of initiates, were less intelligible to the new converts. In order to make the new teachings of the Church easily understood a more concrete and clear pictorial expression of their teachings became necessary. The themes of icons frequently had definite answers to any dogmatic questions in the faith and often at the same time reflected struggles between the Church and existing heresies (Lossky 1982). For instance, in answer to the Arian heresy condemned by the first Oecumenical Council of 325 AD, on either side of the image of the Saviour are placed Alpha and Omega (Rev. xxii:13) inidicating that Jesus Christ is consubstantial with God the Father (Brehier 1928). By emphasizing the meaning and importance of historical reality the Council showed that a realistic image can transmit the teachings of the Church.

The Church then prescribed the particular manner in which the Saints were to be painted. The iconographer does not paint his own ideas but portrays a description of what is factual knowledge as seen by himself or as told to him by trustworthy witenesses down through the ages, as put down in the Trillun Doctrine. The painter must be a member of the Church and a participant of the sacramental life of the Church. For the iconographer does not work for himself but for the glory of God. Just as a priest is forbidden to alter liturgic texts, so then an iconographer must conform to the image conscrated by the Church, he may not place any personal or emotional content into his portrayal (Lossky 1982). Therefore an icon is never signed. Oddly enough each iconographer paints with his own peculiarities and transmits image according to his gifts and technical proficiency and therefore no two icons are ever absolutely alike.

The process of preparation of a board for the painting of an icon is fairly complicated. The most suitable panels of nonresionous wood such as alder or birch are chosen. The panel must be dry and without knots and it is then carefully planed. The back is then fixed with two horizontal struts of some hardwood to prevent warping. The panel is then scored and a layer of gesso like liquid is applied and allowed to dry. A loosely woven piece of linen is glued onto the panel which is the base for the ground (a solution of glue and chalk) on which the drawing for the icon is made. The ground is applied very thinly on 8 to 10 layers. The drawing is then made with a brush as the painter lays out the composition either from his head if it is well know to him or he uses the "Authorized Versions" assembled into a manual for the use of painters. The drawing is then scratched onto the ground along its principal lines with a sharp tool called a stylus. If some areas are to be covered with gold this is done at this time before the painting is begun. The fundamental color used are all the "earths" mineral pigments and natural organic colors. As in composition and drawing the artist is bound by the meaning of the images he is portraying, whereas in color he is bound only by fundamental symbolic colors of the garments represented and of course by any true facts - such as hair - eye color etc. Thus he is only free to choose the colors of landcapes or architectual features.

All pigments used in powdered form is dissolved in prepared egg yolk and a little water. The amount of egg in each pigment varies. For certain colors such as white, blue and umber require more egg then the others. To get the correct anount of color requires a lot of experience on the part of the artist. The purpose here is for when dry for the color to be matt and hard. If too much yolk is used it will be shiny and hard and easily crack off. If too little is used it will be easily rubbed off. When properly prepared these paints have a prcious quality as they are suitable not only for brush work but also for the laying on of washes. They dry quickly as water colors, but are not easily washed off.

The painting of the icon then proceeds by definite prescribed stages. Two methods are used in layering the paints, one for figures and another for landscapes. The layering effect creates a barely perceptible relief, lower in darks, higher in lights. In this way the icon is not only painted, but modelled according to the traditional requirements for the icons structure.

The icon when finished is allowed to dry for several days. After drying it is convered with olipha (boiled linseed oil). Olipha plays a double role: it protects the icon from damp and light and air and it also has an effect on the colors. As it permates the paints the olipha gives them greater translucency and depth which gives the icon a warm golden hue. DeisisOlipha is even today the best and safest way of preserving icons. It connects all the layers of colors and penetrates through to the ground, fixes them and with time transforms them into a uniform solid mass. It is mainly due to the olipha that ancient icons are preserved to this day (Ouspensky 1982).

Oil paints were never used for icons until the 18th century and are still not approved by many sections of the Church. The reason being that the significant feature in the technique of iconography is in the selection of the basic materials. The materials are also symbolic as they represent the participation of the animal, vegetable and mineral world. The most basic of these materials (water, chalk, pigments and egg) are in their natural form and purified and prepared (Ouspensky 1982).

"It is said by the work of his hands man can serve God. By offering the icons as gifts to God by man, in its turn emphasizes the liturgic meaning of the icon(Vladimir Lossky 1982).
Editors Notes: After the holy is painted or purchased the faithful bring the icon to the Church and gives it to the priest, who places the icon in the holy Altar for 40 days, and afterwards blesses the icon which now becomes holy. Another point of interest is that when the iconographer is actually painting the icon fasting fasting is required, and secondly the iconographer usely says the "Prayer Of The Heart", or also known as the "Jesus Prayer" which is "O' Lord Jesus Christ Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner!" Everytime the iconographer strokes the brush he says the "Prayer Of The Heart"!

References for the above text....

Alibegasvili, G., Alpatov, M., Chatzidakis, M., Voinescu. T., Volskaja, A., and Weitzman, K. (!982). "The Icon" ., New York: Alfred A Knopf, Inc.

Lossky, V. and Oupensky, L. (1982) "The Meaning Of Icons" (3rd ed.). New York: St. Vladimir Seminary Press.

Chatzidakis, M., Mialev, K., Radojcic, S. and Weitzman, K. (1966) "A Treasury Of Icons Sixth To Seventeenth Century". New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc.

Rice, T.T. (1962). "Icons" (3rd ed.) London: Batchwood Press.


Glory Be To GOD For All Things!
father@serfes.org

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