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How to Write Icons
Secrets and Formulas
of the Holy Art
Translated by Denis Deriev
Dr. Ulf Abel
During a visit to Athos, or the Holy Mountain, as this Orthodox monastery-republik is officially called, I met an old monk from the Chilandar monastery. While we were talking about icons, he said: “Painting icons is a difficult kind of art. It does not mainly depend on the hand, but on the heart.” The monk talked deeply from his own personal experiences. The same can be said for sure about all kinds of art worthy of this name. But painting icons is difficult.
Painting icons is sometimes compared to the work of a priest. In both cases, the matter concerns delivering the Word, the holy text. The task of an icon-painter can also, more evidently, be compared to the work of a translator, especially of a translator of a text from the Bible. It is for the translator to preserve the meaning of the original text. At the same time, the text should be as clear and expressive as possible. In both cases, the relationship between respect for the original text, the tradition, the canon, on the one hand and a personal, creative spirit on the other hand is basically the same.
For an artist educated in the Western tradition, this reducing of the artistic freedom causes difficulties. At the same time, it can also be considered as an inspiring factor, “freedom under responsibility.” Michail Alpatov, one of the leading scholars in the field of icons, wrote in his book Russian Icon-painting: “Even if the icon-painters stuck to the model, it was enough for them that they deviated only slightly to give the icon a new meaning, a new tone.”
The handbooks about painting icons have old traditions. They are called Hermeneia in Greek and Podlinnik in Russian. Both terms mean “explanation.” These books often contained a part concerning painting techniques. The main body, however, contained information about iconography - how a certain motif is to be painted. One type of these handbooks introduced the motif in word; another did it by drawings. Maybe you can say that today, when there are an abundance of illustrated books about icons from different times and places, a handbook of drawings is unnecessary. But the book gives information about the techniques of painting is definitely still needed.
May this book inspire the exact kind of painting icons the old monk from Chilandar was talking about!
Doctor Ulf Abel
Keeper of the Icon Collection
of the Swedish National Museum
Stockholm, June 14, 2000