Religious icons are something that I have come across over the years and have always liked, but they’ve never been something I’ve known much about. This changed when I saw the truly outstanding exhibit of a selection of orthodox Christian icons at the Ballarat Art Gallery.
Mother of God Tikhvinskaya. circa 1560.
Icons were never intended to be accurate representations of the people they are depicting, nor were they ever designed to be venerated in and of themselves. They were intended to be a point of communication. Icons were windows to heaven.
They developed over centuries as Christianity evolved. Geographically icons usually originate primarily in Byzantium, Russia, Greece and surrounding areas. These are the centres of orthodox christianity. They became the provence of orthodox Christianity when it split with western Christianity following the Great Schism of 1054. This was the parting of the ways of east and west when a representative of the pope and the Patriarch of Constantinople excommunicated each other. Icons also survived, in one form or another, several iconoclastic regimes.
I’m going to briefly consider a handful of the icons that are on display at the Ballarat Art Gallery. Essentially I’ve chosen the ones I liked the most and which I think are most interesting.
Mother of the God of the Passion c. 1300
This is one of the earliest icons in the exhibit and you can really see the difference in the styles when compared with later icons. The images are more stylised and less realistic. It is known as the God of the Passion because Jesus can be seen gazing backwards at what would have been a jar containing the unguents used at Jesus’ burial, the nails from the cross and an image of the cross itself, the outline can still be seen. So Jesus is literally gazing at the instruments of His Passion. This icon is an early example of this particular type. A later and better known example is the Lady of Perpetual Succour.
Saint George and the Dragon c. 1700
This is a slightly naive version of the St George and the Dragon, but all the elements are there. The princess can be seem standing off to the right and her parents watch her rescue from the balcony. This is not a work intended for great palaces, it was created in a workshop that makes no pretence of particular finesse. However I think it is actually one of the most dynamic of the icons, it was certainly one of the ones that drew me in immediately and it has an almost undefinable presence.
The Image not made by Human Hands: also known as the Mandylion or the Holy Face of Edessa.
This icon is a much later version of what can be considered the icon of icons. It is the impression of the facial features of Christ which He is said to have made in His last days. The original Mandylion had been in Muslim hands since 638 but the Byzantines recovered it when they besieged Edessa in 944. It stayed in Constantinople until the western christians took the city during the fourth crusade of 1204. By then however it had been copied and disseminated all over the orthodox world.
Mother of God c. 1600
This is a work of high quality and the fact that she is alone and looking down suggests that it might be one of a triptych. The sorrow on her face is truly compelling and you can see how much more detailed and realistic it is than the earlier Mother of the God of the Passion.
Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker 16th century
This is a depiction of Saint Nicholas who was one of Russia’s most beloved saints. He was bishop of Myra in Asia and was known for being the friend of the common people and showing generosity and compassion towards the poor. He was the patron of many cities and trades in Russia and is the orgin of our modern Santa Claus.
The Gospel book of Theophanes c. 1125-1150
As you can see this is not an icon, but I am passionate about illuminated manuscripts and it is part of the exhibit so I thought it was worth including. It is one of the more significant works from its time and the illumination is typical of Byzantium of this period when it was enjoying a cultural and political revival. The page that is open is beginning of the gospel of Mathew.
I wanted to conclude with a brief discussion of how these icons were made. The majority in the exhibit are wooden panels with egg tempura and linen.
It was a specific process.
1. Have a prepared wooden panel, good quality timber of reasonable hardness. Olive or cyprus for example.
2. Apply a coat of egg tempura, which was egg yolk mixed with powered mineral and plant derived pigments which might have been thinned with some kind of alcoholic spirit.
3. Sand down the panel.
4. Apply gesso, a mixture of powered calcium carbonate and animal skin glue. Each layer of gesso was sanded back.
5. In some cases a layer of linen was then applied and covered in gesso. This created a stronger panel.
6. In some cases the panel was then braced along the back
7. In many cases gold leaf was then applied. However the surface needed to be totally smooth so a fine grained clay called bole had to be applied first. The bole influences how we see the colour of the gold leaf, but we are not aware of it.
8. Apply the pigments themselves. These were created from things like malachite, lapis lazuli and cinnabar which create vivid colours. The preparation process could be toxic and when semi precious stones, such as lapis lazuli, were used they would be very expensive.
This was the process that produced many of the icons in the exhibit. In the photo below you can see some of the layers, and you can actually see the linen. It is the bottom of the Mother of God Tikhvinskaya from the beginning of the post.
All the information for this post came from the Art Gallery of Ballarat exhibition. If you are in Australia it is well worth visiting. It’s open until the 26th of January and more details can be found here at http://artgalleryofballarat.com.au/exhibitions-and-events/exhibitions/eikon-icons-of-the-orthodox-christian-world.aspx
There is also full text of the information regarding the icons at