Having done calligraphy as religious art for 17 years now, I have finally tried my hand at another highly traditional art form of the church: icons. Icons are windows into heaven, and are not meant to be relatistic representations of the figures, but more stylized forms that allow the viewer to center and contemplate the figure represented and beyond.
I’ve always found it interesting that iconographers “write” icons, whereas we calligraphers draw letters. In either case, the procedures for both are fairly strict, and both are exceptionally meticulous. The process of writing an icon is rich in symbolism. For instance, once the wood board is prepared for painting, the base coat of dark earth red is layered over the board. From that point on, the icon is built up layer by layer with dilute acrylic (or traditionally with tempura) always going from darker colors to lighter – this represents our own journey in life from darkness into the Light of God. Of course, before the icon is even begun, the iconagrapher must prepare him/herself through prayer and fasting.
Writing an icon can take anywhere from a week to several months, especially if tempura is used because of the long drying times. And because of the translucent layers going from dark to light, an icon may require hundreds of layers before it is finished.
Historically, icons have been somewhat controversial within the Church. One the one hand, you have those that read the icons as a form of prayer and centering. Showing reverence to an icon is a matter of showing reverence to what the icon represents and can inspire within us. On the other hand, there are those who see icons as merely idols and directly contrary to monotheistic religion – these are the iconolcasts. There have been several iconoclast persecutions throughout Church history in which the iconoclasts gained strength and imperial or military backing. Most notably, iconoclasm resurged in the 8th to 9th centuries and from the 16th century there after following the protestant reformation.
Unforntunately, iconoclasts usually disparage icons and those who use them because of what they are assuming of the situation. Hardly would anyone who uses icons say they are worshipping an icon because it is God. We use icons because it is a means to focus on and worship God. Iconoclasts believe that our worship goes as far as the icon, when in fact it goes through and beyond the icon.
Nonetheless, I have always found icons to be beautiful works of art and tremendous tools for prayer. Now that I’ve tried my hand at one, I think I’ll be writing many more in the future.