How are icons painted/written?

Icons are not painted, but “written”! Icons are sacred images. They are subject to fixed rules derived from their purpose and goal. Painting icons is prayer. During the work, the painter is in a mental dialogue with the depicted person. Not everyone is allowed to paint or write icons. The holy councils established the following: The painter should be peace-loving, humble and pious. He should not talk lightly or make jokes, be quarrelsome or spiteful. For his own salvation, he should maintain purity of soul and body, and -if he cannot remain unmarried, he should at least get married ecclesiastically and legally. He should seek advice from his confessor and, according to his instruction, fasting and praying with abstinence and humility, living without naughtiness and shame, painting with great zeal and devotion the images of our Lord Jesus Christ and His most pure Mother, the holy prophets, apostles, martyrs, blessed women, high priests and blessed fathers.

The master steps back behind his work, remains anonymous. His work is service to God, another form of worship. We know only a few icon painters by name, the earliest from the 11th century. Generally, icons were created in painting schools of monasteries. They already existed in Justinian times in many places in the Eastern Roman Empire, in the Balkans and Crete as well as in Syria, called podlinniks, created by individual painters or the schools of painting. Only a few have survived and only those from recent times. But they contain the views on the design of themes and motifs as well as painting instructions handed down from time immemorial. The most comprehensive of this kind is the Hermeneia from the 18th century. Monks on Mount Athos, where there is still a famous icon painting school, wrote it. From the Russian Stroganov school, which existed from about 1580 to 1620, there are painters’ books with outline drawings.

Despite all the rules, no two icons are painted alike. The stronger and finer differences and nuances give the icons their special charm. They reveal the handwriting of the painter or the view of the school of painting. In later times, they show – but less attractively – the influences of art historical currents of Western Europe. The way an icon was made has changed almost nothing over the centuries. At the beginning of the 8th century, shortly before the outbreak of iconoclasm, a new technique appeared that has been maintained until today: painting with egg tempera paints. Until then, as with the mummy portraits, encaustic had been used, a painting method in which heated mineral colors bound by wax were applied with a palette knife. Since it was necessary to work quickly – cooled colors could not be spread – icons painted in encaustic often seem improvised and impressionistic. The putty line is usually clearly visible. As a base for the icons take boards of non-resinous tree species, for example, beech, birch, alder, poplar, cedar and cypress, in Byzantine schools mainly pine, walnut and olive. The size of the icons, which are hung in the icon corners of the apartments, is generally about 30 x 35 cm; they are consistently portrait format, only exceptionally landscape format.

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