A brief overview of Iconography

In the Painter's Manual, preserved in Mound Athos, the icon master advices the one who aspires to become an icon painter to pray before the icon of Christ and that of the Mother of God, because the art of painting comes from God.
The first icon was the "Mandelion of Edessa" on which Christ's face was miraculously imprinted and sent to Abgar, King of Osroene, who suffered from leprosy and wanted Jesus to cure him. This icon is known as "acheiropoitoi," not made by human hand.
St. Luke was the first one who painted Virgin Mary while she was still alive. He credited with three icons of Mary, in one case using the wood table where Mary and St. John ate their meals. The placing of the icon near the altar serves as a reminder that Theotokos became the bridge linking heaven and earth. St. Luke considered being the Patron Saint for iconographers.
An icon is not simply a piece of art, but it carries a lot of spiritual meaning in our lives. Many people ask what is the difference between an icon and a portrait? An icon is the image of a man or a woman who is united with God. In addition, Christ can be depicted as a man since He became visible by taking on flesh. Other characteristics also define an icon. It is important to note that when an evil character is portrayed it is always in profile because it is not desirable to make eye contact with the viewer.
On the icons, the eyes are large and wide because they have seen great things beyond the material world. The forehead is often large and high, expressing spiritual wisdom. The ears are large to listen the words of God. The nose is drawn long and thin. The gentle lips indicate that the saint obeyed the God and also that he needed a small amount of food to survive. In Orthodox iconography the halo symbolizes the holiness of the person.
More than decorative elements, colors play a very important role in Byzantine iconography. The choice of color, even though it originates from iconographic Canons, has a certain symbolism. Gold is reserved for Christ and symbolizes divinity. In addition blue, red and green are also reserved for Christ and Virgin Mary. Christ's inner garment is red and symbolizes his true divinity. His outer garments are blue and symbolize his true humanity he put on. The stars on the Virgin's veil represent her purity and goodness. The colors of white, gray, blue, green, and light shades of red are used for other holy persons.

The Technique of Icon Painting

Choosing a good quality wood is very important. Bass, poplar or birch are good choices.

At first we begin by sanding the wood with fine sandpaper in order to attain a smooth finish. Then we coat it with a linen fabric dipped in lukewarm rabbit skin glue. This prevents the painted surface from cracking in the event that the wood as it gets old cracks. When the glue dries, we cut off the excess fabric hanging over the board.

Next we mix chalk with rabbit glue and apply several layers making sure that each dries before the subsequent coat is applied. After all the layers have dried (at least five layers, depending on the thickness of the gesso) we sand the ground with fine sandpaper to obtain a very smooth surface. The board is now prepared and ready to be painted on.

The next step is to transfer a sketch of the Saint or scene we are going to paint. First we draw the sketch adjusting it proportionately to the space we have been given. The composition is one of the basic elements that contribute to the final aesthetic of the icon.

Using the technique of oil gilding, several coats of shellac are applied to isolate and smooth the surface. Then we apply a glue, called "mixion" which is specifically used for oil gilding. After 3 or 12 hours we can apply the gold leaf. Gold gilding is a very delicate procedure and requires great experience.
Egg tempera is the basic medium in icon painting. By using egg yolk diluted with water, and adding natural pigments we paint in successive layers of color, creating subtle gradations from dark to light.

Acrylics or industrial colors should not be used because they not only fail to reflect the color tones but they also fade after a while. The natural pigments used by the first iconographers have retained their original color, allowing us to admire their work throughout the years.

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