Some English-speakers will say that an icon is “written” or that one “writes” an icon. The verbiage has been adopted from the Russian fine arts vocabulary and adapted to English usage. Other English-speakers strongly object to the verbiage. This article, published in the Orthodox Arts Journal, attempts to survey the positive and negative implications of the usage.

See full article HERE.

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Inscribing the halo on the icon of St. Anthony

Excerpts from the article “Is “Write” Wrong?: A Discussion of Iconology Lingo”.

“Saying that one ‘writes’ an icon can be, and sometimes is, ‘affected jargon’ – a kind of NEON Orthodox-speak of the cognoscenti who insist upon the verbiage as the only proper way to refer to the process and the product.”

“At the same time, those who police the verbiage to exclude the use of ‘write, writing, written’ in English can be equally totalitarian to the point of correcting Russians.”

See full article HERE.

Ksenia Pokrovsky fell asleep in the Lord on Sunday, July 7, 2013. Her long-time student and assistant instructor Marek Czarnecki composed this tender tribute to her. May her Memory be Eternal!

After a long weekend of iconography lessons with Ksenia Pokrovsky, my inner monologue had a Russian accent. It’s the same this week after her funeral. I’m trying to remember the sound of her voice. Not just what she said, but how she said it.  She was self-conscious of her English. I reassured her, “Don’t worry, you are always clear.” Besides, no one who lives here is without an accent, that’s the music of American English.

Thinking about her as a teacher, I wanted to write about an ongoing conversation we had between us.  It started many years ago, and continued for more than a decade. It’s connected with a greater dilemma – what to do now that she’s gone?  I never imagined it would be so hard.

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Marek Czarnecki with his teacher Ksenia Pokrovsky

I bought my first book on Russian icons while I was in art school, many years before studying iconography.  Even then, the contemporary icons by Mother Juliana and Father Zenon were my favorites. Ksenia was showing me a folder of her drawings when a simple pencil drawing of a hand fell out. “Ah, Marek, this is one of Mother Juliana’s drawings, she was teaching me about hands”.  When she told me Mother Juliana was one of her teachers, and Zenon one of her friends, I wanted to fall off my chair. Thank you, God. This was more than I could have ever asked you for.

Many iconography students ask where they can find the “canons” or rubrics of iconography.  I repeat what my teacher told me, “mostly inside old icons, there are some manuals of rules, church council teachings, pattern books, in churches and museums, and in the writings of the saints.” The best place, if you are lucky enough, is to have a living canon in front of you, in the life and example of your teacher.  It’s not in any book, or any one icon, but synthesized in the reality of a human being. Ksenia was my canon.

I loved how she put together all the pieces of iconography and life. “The icon connects us to reality” was one of the most important things she taught me. When we were studying hands, or hair, she would pull out a scrap book full of her “photo-pictures”- hands and hair cut out of fashion magazines, advertising flyers, wig catalogues, the Boston Globe.  “Let us look at our reality” she would repeat, “now we will open it up, inside the vision of the icon”.  She looked at students’ icons the way an English teacher would correct an essay. First she checked for content, then grammar, and lastly, graceful expression.  The highest compliment Ksenia could pay anyone about their finished icon was a calm “yes, fine, that’s just the way it’s supposed to be.” When someone asked her about the “secrets” of iconography, she looked bewildered. “What do you mean? The icon must be open,” she said.  “The expression on the faces must look open. The meaning should be direct and open. Otherwise, how will it penetrate our minds and sink into our hearts?”  I had never heard anyone talk about icons like this. Open, yes, of course. Icons must be open…

She knew what authority she could claim, but also had enough self-awareness to know where she lacked understanding.  “We can’t be perfect; we need to be good enough. The problem is most people are not good enough.”  When I told her she was the best iconographer alive, “no,” she replied (firmly, modestly, honestly) “there are many living iconographers much better than me”, citing Father Zenon as the prime example. “I’m the only iconographer you’ve known. There are some things I understand very well. Those things I want to be able to leave somewhere, so it’s not lost.”  Provocatively, she added, “I want my students to jump over me”.

My exact reply to her was “That’s impossible!”, and I added, “you must be high, lady!” She answered even more provocatively, “then I don’t want to teach you”.

Maybe she said this, because I said she was high?  Thinking about this now, I know she was high, but not the way I jokingly meant at the time. She was talented and smarter and wiser above and beyond anyone I had ever met.  When I admitted that I could never live up to her standards, she said “Then promise me you will be a good place keeper. Otherwise, we will go backwards together.” I’ve never seen her happier than when she met another iconographer whose work she admired, or when a student’s work was successful. She beamed.

I read her this passage from “The Joy Luck Club”, about parents and children: “We’re like stairs, we go up or down, but we are all going in the same direction.”  We talked about the playground game of leap frog. She explained how all the generations of iconographers that lived before us are lining up like that human chain, interceding and pushing us forward with their momentum.  Like those invisible witnesses, she wanted to build a good foundation in a new country that lacked roots or foundations, where “iconoclast” was high praise. She wanted to give criteria that was stable, simple, direct and authentically Orthodox. She knew that is was thankless and invisible work but it’s what was needed here. “Just don’t fall backwards, and don’t take me with you if you do.”

We didn’t build the “staircase” of iconography.  Generations of anonymous icongraphers and saints paved it with their real human lives.  It’s their selfless gift to us. It transcends us individually and will be there after we are long gone. Ksenia’s provocative challenge was please leave this path cleaner, more clearly lit and sturdier than you found it. Make it smoother and easier to travel for the next person, so they can go higher than your limitations (“…what took me thirty years to learn, I teach you now in a week”).  She knew she had a responsibility to something bigger than herself – to God, of course, to her students yes, and, looking back over her shoulder, to the expectations of her teachers.  If you don’t fall backwards, prepare to let someone crawl over your back, and stand on your shoulders.  Iconography is a tradition without a ceiling. Like all spiritual work, it’s hubris to imagine it can be realized in one lifetime.

Today, I doubt Ksenia would put out such a challenge, “jump over me”. With time, she became very discouraged about the lack of understanding of iconography, a lack of awe for its integrity.  Few advanced its depth or quality.  Especially worrisome were the ambitious commercial websites of iconographers who had studied with her once or twice (it’s one thing for you to claim your teacher; it’s another matter for your teacher to claim you).  She was happy that students worked independently, but at the same time, deeply saddened that what she saw was regressive. She astutely observed “this is the exploitation of the icon,” for personal profit of one kind or another.  If we think of iconography as a language, she was like a great author reading a newspaper full of misspelled words and garbled sentences.

Recently, a 22 year-old student complained to me “I’m too old to start; I wish I had begun earlier”. The bell in my mind rang “good potential here!”  He’s right. It can be overwhelming, but it shouldn’t be paralyzing – this is why we pray “Lord have mercy on me” while we work, over and over.  No one is worthy, and no one will get it all done. At a workshop, a very discouraged student was crying after her first frustrating, clumsy icon. Ksenia very patiently explained “It’s only your first icon. It’s like the alphabet, A-Z.  You just started on “A”. She pointed at me and said, “Marek is starting ‘B’, Anna is on “C”, I’m on ‘D’” she said, “but no one gets to ‘Z’”.

Right now, I am wondering whether we will be good place-keepers, or weak links.  “We put ourselves in the hands of God as a tool, but our work makes us sharp tools. Maybe then he can use us.” She smiled when saying things like this, because she knew how simple her directive sounded, but how hard it was to put into real practice.  “It’s so hard to become invisible, to be completely transparent! It takes years of hard work”.
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Spasiba Bolshoi, Ksenia. We will work with hope in our hearts that we won’t be perfect, but good enough.

News that Ksenia Mikhailovna Pokrovskaya had fallen asleep in the Lord on Sunday, July 7, 2013 was a profound shock. Though she had chronic hypertension, she had not been ill. She was tired, yes, for many years, but still actively sharing her wisdom and knowledge with clarity and generosity.  For both her family and friends and for those who only knew her by reputation, a light has gone out of the world. The universal response of those closest to her and of her many students is that of having suddenly become orphans.

Ksenia Pokrovsky: May her memory be eternal!

Ksenia Pokrovsky: May her memory be eternal!

Ksenia’s funeral on Wednesday evening, July 10 at St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Salem, MA was followed by the all-night chanting of the psalter. When morning came she was carried from the church to St. Tikhon of Zadonsk Monastery in northeastern Pennsylvania to be buried beside her son Dmitri († 2001). Keeping the Russian custom, the mourners themselves closed the grave with shovels and hands full of earth. The labor helped to lighten their burden of grief.

The main elements of Ksenia’s biography (see Wikipedia) are well known. She was born in Kirghizstan in 1942 during World War II when many Muscovites were evacuated because the Nazis were less than 100 miles from the city. Ksenia’s heritage flowed from many streams, including Tartar and Jewish ancestors, as well as Russian, Polish and Bulgarian. She described her mother as “a romantic communist.” It was her paternal great aunt Katya who taught her what a Christian is and cultivated in Ksenia a love of art.

Ksenia met her future  husband, Lev Alexeyevich Pokrovsky, while they were students at Moscow University. They were married in 1960 and lived together for 53 years. Lev became a teaching professor and researcher of theoretical physics while Ksenia pursued biophysics. As she completed her studies and worked in the field, Ksenia realized she was more interested in the laboratory of metaphysics than in gathering data in the halls of science. The Pokrovskys were a part of Fr. Alexander Men’s parish in the village of Novaya Derevnya located a short distance from Moscow. When Ksenia told her dilemma to Fr. Alexander, he was forthright, “Alright then, you will be an iconographer!”

Her life’s work as an iconographer reflected a scientific mind that constantly investigated every field of knowledge from chemistry and geology to psychology and history, to philosophy and theology.

After Fr. Alexander was murdered in September of 1990, the family with the exception of one son immigrated to the United States in June of 1991. Together Lev and Ksenia reared four sons: Yevgeny, Dmitry, Nikolay and Ilya; and a daughter Anna.

Beyond the facts of her life there are stories, a bottomless repository of stories that would fill many books. Her family, friends and students will be telling these stories for the rest of their lives. Besides being one of the finest iconographers of contemporary times, Ksenia Pokrovsky was one of the great personalities of the 20th and 21st centuries. Everyone who met her recognized this instantly. For all her great knowledge, she remained simple and approachable. She was very clear about the vocation of the iconographer, and she was keen to separate it from the sometimes ego-satisfying aura of the artist.  “An iconographer can never have ambition,” she would say.

Her long-time student Marek Czarnecki tells this story which illustrates Ksenia’s goal as an icon painter.

“I once told Ksenia that I thought she was the best iconographer alive. ‘No’, she said (modestly and honestly) ‘there are many living iconographers much better than me’, citing Zinon as an example.  She did know, however, where she had authority. ‘I understand some things well, and I want to be able to leave what I do know somewhere, so it is not lost.’  She said she wanted her students to “jump over” her. ‘That’s impossible, I said, ‘you are too high to jump over.’ Playfully but emphatically she answered, ‘then I don’t want to teach you.’”

As an iconographer her influence is immeasurable: a hero and pioneer to many generations of icon painters in Russia; a consummate teacher of the sacred art and a peerless example of the profession to hundreds in the West. Truly the light of her accomplishments continue to shine forth in the world and will only grow more bright as future generations come to know her.

Synaxis Of All Saints Who Have Shone Forth In North America

Synaxis Of All Saints Who Have Shone Forth In North America

Ksenia Pokrovsky was the author of many new icons. Her “Synaxis Of All Saints Who Have Shone Forth In North America” has become famous as the prototype for iconographers to follow. The icon is owned by the Archdiocese of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) and is housed in OCA headquarters in Syosset, New York. It was commissioned by Metropolitan Theodosius after Ksenia arrived in America. It is fitting that Ksenia fell asleep on the Feast of the Saints of North America, Sunday, July 7, 2013. The icon appeared on the OCA website that Sunday. For us it was an unforeseen synaxis of events, though surely appointed by God since before the foundation of the world.

Besides having busy commission schedules Anna Gouriev and Jonathan Pageau are teachers of their art. Anna and her celebrated mother Ksenia Pokrovsky have been teaching courses in iconography for Hexaemeron for the past ten years. Jonathan will offer his first course in icon carving for Hexaemeron October 13-19, 2013. It is in Maggie Valley, North Carolina that the two will meet in a shared initiative to raise the standard for traditional Orthodox arts on the North American continent. Anna, formerly of Moscow, lives in the Boston area and Jonathan in Montreal.

But the art of Andreas Ritzos has already brought Anna and Jonathan together. Read the full story in the Orthodox Arts Journal.

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Holy St. Michael the Archangel pendant by Jonathan Pageau in the foreground with icon painted by Anna Gouriev in the background. Pendant and icon are based on 15th century Cretan artist Andreas Ritzos.

 

The Degraded Iconicity of the Icon: The Icon’s Materiality and Mechanical Reproduction (Read full article published in the Orthodox Arts Journal)

Fr. Silouan Justiniano has written an article for the Orthodox Arts Journal that “examines how mechanical reproductions lessen the icon’s ‘iconicity,’ that is, its liturgical efficacy, full iconic potential, and symbolic power.”

In a much kinder way than in our April 2012 article “Much Cheaper Than Real”, Fr. Silouan clarifies how “the role of materials and craftsmanship affect the function of the icon as a concrete object within the aesthetic experience of liturgy.”

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As Fr. Silouan says, “We betray our dissatisfaction by creating mock antiques, attempting to make reproductions look ‘more real.’ We mount them on wood, add red borders, and apply cracked varnish with distressed gilding to conjure an ancient icon. Tempera layering is duplicated with silk-screening and mural reproductions are applied like wallpaper for those wanting instant ‘frescoes.’ These are fast and cheap solutions that seek to satiate consumer demand for holy images. Quality is sacrificed for quantity and affordability. While we might try to suspend our disbelief, we cannot escape our awareness that such images remain unconvincing shadows of the original, that we encounter a kind of ruse. Such ‘icons’ become yet another symptom of the hegemony of appearances in our age.”

Discussion of this article is lively and Fr. Silouan promises more on the subject.  Hopefully, we can realize something productive from his writing and discuss it dispassionately. Hopefully, it will not devolve into accusations such as left in comments on this blog when the subject was raised.

e.g. “Let’s get down to brass tacks and cui bono — iconographers have a huge interest in attacking reproduction icons. I probably would look at them with disdain too, if I thought my livelihood were at stake. That’s what this whole post is about, really, isn’t it? It’s about financial self-interest.”

“Traditional ecclesiastical pictorial embroidery is a unique art form. In the Middle Ages it was as popular as icon painting. Embroideries were favorite collector’s items and can be found in museums all over the world. Nowadays, very few people, mostly found in Russia and the Ukraine, master and practice this painstaking and time consuming hand work. Fast and cheap machine embroidery is replacing unique hand work all over the world. Therefore, it is of great importance to support, develop and spread the art of ecclesiastical pictorial embroidery in ancient style.” Dr. Inge Wierda, an art historian and Russian art specialist who teaches at several universities in the UK and the Netherlands.

Dalmatic of Charlemagne, the 14th century work of Constantinopolitan artists

Read about the efforts of Olga Fishchuk, a master embroiderer from the Ukraine, to “spur a revival of the ancient art of ecclesiastical pictorial embroidery.”

Since 2003 Hexaemeron has been an itinerant school of ecclesial arts. We will celebrate our tenth anniversary in Sao Paulo, Brazil, January 20-26, 2013. As our reach has lengthened to include venues in the western United States and South America, our curriculum has broadened to include ecclesial embroidery and icon carving. Our first course in ecclesial pictorial embroidery, taught by master embroiderer Olga Fishchuk, is scheduled for late September 2012 in Maggie Valley, North Carolina. Our first course in icon carving, taught by master carver Jonathan Pageau, is planned for mid-May 2013 in Santa Barbara, CA,  and is to run concurrently with icon painting and embroidery.

We are tremendously excited about adding icon carving to our offerings for Hexaemeron’s 2013 schedule. Fro​m the earliest sarcophagi to lavish ivory miniatures to the austere Russian low reliefs, icon carving has been a vibrant part of the Orthodox Tradition.

Jonathan Pageau

Our teacher, Jonathan Pageau, is a graduate with honors from the Painting and Drawing program at Concordia University in Montreal. His spiritual journey toward Orthodoxy led Pageau to icons and traditional Christian images. Though disillusioned with contemporary art, Pageau’s love of art was rekindled and he developed a passion for carving. He has been carving various liturgical objects in both wood and stone since 2003. He also studied Orthodox Christian theology and iconology at the University of Sherbrooke in Montreal.

Watch this beautiful video clip of Jonathan working.

As a carver of large icons and miniatures, Pageau’s desire is to renew the ancient art of icon carving that has been neglected in recent centuries. Likewise, Olga Fishchuk’s goal is to spur a revival of the ancient art of ecclesiastical pictorial embroidery. Hexaemeron has partnered with Pageau and Fishchuk in an effort to further their mission and ours.  By bringing serious students to our teachers, we fulfill the mission of the ever quotable Master Iconographer Ksenia Pokrovsky: “I need steady stream to fish. Bring me a steady stream and I will pull the best from it.”

Ground rules for the carving course

Pantocrator carved in linden wood

The course is open to 10 students per site. Pageau teaches this ancient art through both practical work and theory. Students will have the opportunity to carve either in either wood or stone.

Wood Carving

Those wishing to carve in wood are expected to have a basic understanding of woodworking as the course will focus on carving rather than technical aspects like laminating panels or sharpening tools.  Although tools will be available, students should bring whatever gouges they have, ideally 1 straight gouge, 1 scoop gouge and 1 “V” gouge.

Stone Carving

Tools will be made available for those who plan to carve stone.  Each student is expected to leave with at least one finished icon by the end of the class.​  ​​

St Nicholas of Myra carved from stone

Work and theory will intertwine through the week and will address following elements: ​ ​

  • ​​Icon carving in the Orthodox tradition, history with ancient and contemporary examples
  • ​Preparing a panel, choosing a pattern, tracing the pattern.​
  • ​The difference between icon painting and icon carving: drawing for relief, compression of space interpreting iconic style for carving
  • ​Grounding the image and basic shaping
  • ​Light and shadow in carving
  • ​Clothing, hands, hair, faces​​
  • ​​Inscriptions​
  • Finishing and polishing

For a glimpse at Jonathan’s work, visit his website: PAGEAU CARVINGS.

Jonathan is a contributor to the Orthodox Arts Journal; see his article on The Recovery of the Arts   Part 1 and Part 2), which clearly expresses the mission of Hexaemeron. Also see his article on Armenian Carving. We welcome Jonathan to Hexaemeron’s faculty of expert iconographers. We share his belief that “the arts can be a revealing of the Kingdom, the making present of the sacred – the visible, audible and tactile example of how Creation can become sacramental.”

For our 2013 schedule, visit us at http://www.hexaemeron.org

ImageHexaemeron is very enthusiastic about adding a new dimension to our course offerings this Fall. Master embroiderer Olga Fishchuk of Kiev will teach the art of ecclesial pictorial embroidery, September 28-October 3, 2012 at Living Waters Catholic Reflection Center in Maggie Valley, NC. The course is open to eight students who possess basic skills in embroidery. If you are interested in taking this course, it is recommended that you register immediately on Hexaemeron’s website. Click here to see course details and to register.

Fishchuk is a practicing artist and a graduate of the Pictorial Embroidery Department of the Icon Painting School under the Moscow Orthodox Theological Academy (Sergiev Posad, Moscow Region, Russia). Fishchuk’s work has been shown in exhibitions in Russia, Ukraine and elsewhere, as well as in a one-woman show in Amsterdam in October 2010.

The course not only gives instruction in embroidered icons and ecclesiastical textiles, but also provides an overview of the history of ecclesiastical embroidery and an understanding of the language of icons.

This ancient art is the perfect complement to Hexaemeron’s mission to offer the highest level of training in iconography available in this hemisphere. An article by Fishchuk about her work was published in Hexaemeron’s newsletter in February of 2011. It is well worth revisiting even if you have read it previously: The Ancient Art of Ecclesiastical Embroidery. Image


Overview of the Art

The history of ecclesiastical pictorial embroidery begins with the construction and furnishing of the Tabernacle in the wilderness that God commanded Moses to build. From then on, through the early centuries of Christianity, embroidered cloths were used in wоrship and for adorning the interiors of Christian churches. They were in widespread use in Byzantium, Medieval Western Europe, and ancient Russia. Ecclesiastical pictorial embroidery (or icon embroidery) replaced icon painting in situations where there was a need for a material more flexible and lightweight than wood: parts of bishops’ and priests’ vestments, podeas. shrouds, veils, covers for holy relics, mobile iconostasis, as well as banners and standards.

ImageThese pieces were made with precious materials: pure silk fabric; silk, gold and silver threads; pearls and semiprecious stones. Such materials were very expensive. Therefore ecclesiastical pictorial embroidery was an art of queens and noblewomen, who practiced it with the help of their maidens. Nowadays anyone can afford the luxury of practicing the ancient art of queens.

Course Description

The course will include practical work at three levels of mastery, as well as lectures on the history of ecclesiastical pictorial embroidery. Classes will be conducted in English in a small, friendly group setting. As stated, basic embroidery skills are required for this workshop. Students will be able to start and execute the most important and difficult parts of their projects in class, then complete them at home.

Level One: mastering all the basic techniques required for ecclesiastical embroidery; execution of an ornamental motif.

Level Two: execution of an icon (angel’s face, simple method).

Level Three: execution of an icon or bookmark (saint’s face and hands with shading).

Advanced students may work on a project of their own choosing, under the instructor’s guidance.

About Olga Fishchuk

Born in the town of Zhytomir (Ukraine), Olga Fishchuk is a former journalist. She is a graduate of the Pictorial Embroidery Department of the Icon Painting School under the Moscow Orthodox Theological Academy. During her four years of study there, she participated extensively in research in museums throughout Russia, learning to create original new works in the ancient style by using the ancient technology. Since graduation, Olga has lived in Kiev, practicing ecclesiastical pictorial embroidery.Her works are in use at the Church of the Protection of Our Lady at the Moscow Orthodox Theological Academy; the Church of the Archangel Michael in Moscow; the Kievo-Pecherska Lavra and Zverynetsky Monastery in Kiev; and in many other places. In 2010 her works were displayed in a one-woman show at a gallery in Amsterdam (Netherlands).

Olga’s goal is to spur a revival of the ancient art of ecclesiastical pictorial embroidery.

Photographs of Olga’s work can be can be viewed at: http://helgaembroidery.livejournal.com/

Perhaps it was inevitable. The technology has been in place for decades. It was only a matter of time before the sacred art of the icon became an inexpensive do-it-yourself room makeover.  For those of us who support sacred arts through training iconographers and encouraging high quality work crafted from noble materials for our churches and homes, the creation and dissemination of icon wallpaper is a cause for mourning.

Fresco of angel in St. Sophia Cathedral, Vologda

We recently received an advert email for “Priests and Wardens” that touted the benefits of a process for manufacturing “images that go on your church walls like wallpaper. MUCH cheaper than real frescoes!”

We were even warned “there is an ‘imposter’ out there using cheaper materials, so be careful!”

Imagine, an “imposter” of the “MUCH cheaper than real.” Really?

There is a story told about Henry Ford that comes to mind. You remember the businessman from Detroit who made it affordable for just about everyone to own an automobile.  After the inventor of assembly-line production amassed so much wealth he didn’t know what to do with it, his financial advisors suggested he invest in fine art. But the acquisitive Ford was taken aback by the sticker price on the art pieces brought before him. So, he ordered photographs to be taken of the art and the paper copies placed in fancy frames to hang throughout his mansion[s]. The idea caught on and the art reproduction business was launched. Once again Ford had succeeded in finding a way to make something of value accessible to the masses. Now, everyone can own a Rembrandt that is “MUCH cheaper than real” because it isn’t.

Ford’s ingenuity worked well for auto assembly and we are thankful for it, but aping his thrift in artificial art production (whether high-end imposter or low) is a tragedy for iconography. Ironically, no one has ever argued that the artificial imitation of fine art works is real. That argument seems to be reserved for the sacred rather than the secular.

We were further told, “This method of displaying beautiful iconography has been blessed by Bishops and supported by priests all over the world.”  Of this there is no doubt. But let us consider the inspiration for and the consequences of such blessings.

The argument for the artificial, with only a few laymen to oppose it, rests upon defunding the artist and capitalizing on his or her work, made easy because icons are rarely copyrighted.  This was Ford’s inspiration. Although he could easily afford a Cézanne, Ford placed a higher value on a paltry imitation because it served the purpose of providing decorations without paying big bucks for the real thing. While this is hardly the reasoning of bishops, priests and parish councils trying to adorn temples out of their penury, the effect is the same.

Since costly items of infrastructure cannot be substituted with photographs of furnaces, plumbing and electrical systems just because the parish can’t afford them, the “blessing” seems to indicate that the more essential elements of Orthodox worship can be illusory. The implication is that icons are merely decorative accessories like, well – wallpaper. A similar mentality reigns for individuals who shell out $1500 to $3000 on a widescreen plasma TV without batting an eye, but are only willing to spend twenty bucks on a photograph of the Sinai Christ glued to a piece of particleboard.

Fresco by Dionisy in Ferpontov Monastery

As our email advertiser educates us: Images are representations. The medium used does not play a role in the validity of the object/person being represented.

Thanks, Henry!

Of course Orthodoxy does not [officially] consider icons as decoration.  But this does not mean that Orthodoxy, which takes its very appellation from the victory over iconoclasm, is immune to iconoclasm manifest in new forms.

Consider the words of renowned Russian iconographer Archimandrite Zinon:

“In speaking about the icon, one could say that today it does not occupy its rightful place in the divine service, nor is there a proper attitude towards iconography. It has long ceased to be regarded as “theology in color”; people don’t even suspect that it is capable of conveying the teaching of the Church just like the word, and that it can likewise give false witness instead of witnessing to the Truth. The icon has become a mere illustration of the celebrated event, and for this reason it doesn’t matter what form it takes, because nowadays even photographs are venerated as icons.”

“A mere illustration of the celebrated event” sounds a lot like our email advertiser of wallpaper bargains.

And then there are the weeping paper icons so invincibly offered as proof that “themedium used does not play a role. We can talk all day long about the meaning of dripping photographic paper, and bishops, priests and monks do, regardless of what is at stake. In this strange twist of anti-materialistic logic the lesson gleaned seems not to be miraculous intervention but that we can replace the holy icons with a soulless materialism that merely illustrates what an icon is.

In photographic illustrations of icons, real gold becomes an RGB algorithm as do the other noble metals and semi-precious stones of the iconographer’s palette. The image is pixilated but the icon is absent. The prayerful dialogue between God and the human hand, between the bounty of the created world and its divine source are annihilated in the toxic vapors of print production.

Romantic, are we? Or are we simply defending the integrity of the icon against its falsification? Mounted photographs of icons may have a place in Orthodoxy, something akin to sturdy teaching tools for Church School children or illustrations for events, but in no way should they be permanently incorporated into our worship services.

As a succinct articulation of a profound objection to the faux-fresco industry and its like, we re-post here excerpts from an interview presented in a 2010 Hexaemeron Newsletter. The full article on Liturgical Renewal printed in Orthodox America explains among other things why “colored photograph is unacceptable for use in church” as are other forms of imitation such as artificial flowers. It is regrettable that the remarks below may be treated as obsolete fetishes of fanatics rather than guiding principles. This is obviously because our priorities have become more aligned with Henry Ford’s than we could ever have imagined. Under communism the icon was threatened with violence; under capitalism with banality. God help us!

This discussion occurred in 1990 between Archimandrite Victor, rector of St. Euphrosyne of Polotsk Church in Karsava, Latvia and Archimandrite Zinon, who was then serving as an iconographer of the Pskov-Caves Monastery. It speaks directly to the misleading mixing of terms in the statement “the medium used does not play a role in the validity of the object/person being represented.”  The self-deception imbedded in this bold claim is that it confuses the “validity of the immutable and transcendent prototype (person) with how the prototype is “represented.Attend closely to why the materials used to represent divine presence DO play a role in every image that serves as an encounter between God and man, be it the vestments of the clergy or the flowers we bring to express our love for our Savior’s accomplishments upon the Cross.

Fr. Zinon: In the Moscow Patriarchate Journal, 1989, No. 10, there is an article by L. A. Ouspensky about colors in icons. It explains very simply and convincingly why a colored photograph is unacceptable for use in church: it only imitates color; it has no color of its own. For this reason it cannot serve as a substitute for a painted icon. An icon must witness to the Truth, and here we introduce something false, artificial; this cannot be.

Fr. Victor: This is the same as having artificial flowers in church. Patriarch Alexis I asked that they not be brought into church, because there is no truth in them.

Fr. Zinon: Even earlier, Metropolitan Philaret (Drozdov) of Moscow said that imitation gems and imitation metals should not be used in church not because they are not costly but because they contain falsehood. Gold was always costly; where it was unattainable, ordinary but natural materials were used. For example, the traditional background for icons has always been gold leaf (or silver). In poor churches, especially in northern Russia, all backgrounds were painted with light colors. To be more precise, “background” is not a Russian word; iconographers call it “light”.

Fr. Victor: Because God is light.

Fr. Zinon: And lives in unapproachable light.

Fr. Victor: One can say that nowadays we see a decline in religious understanding; the dogma of icon veneration has been forgotten, supplanted with the veneration of artificiality. And this is not simply forgetfulness, but rather a rupture with the living Tradition of the Church, a scornful attitude towards the Holy Fathers and to the decrees of the Ecumenical and Local Councils. One must restore the veneration of icons in its genuine significance.

Fr. Zinon: This problem must be resolved at the Synod level; it should be a matter for the whole Church. Today churches are being returned to us, monasteries. They all require iconographers, but so far there isn’t a proper school for iconographers. I know many young people, talented and eager to study, but the means for this are lacking. Some are tied to families and can’t travel far, others are free but have nowhere to study. Our hierarchs have made efforts to increase the number of clergy: diocesan schools are opening, there are courses for readers, seminaries. But I have yet to hear of any school, even a small one, for iconographers. And this despite the fact that almost every week someone comes to me with a request to paint an iconostasis or fresco a church. Here is further evidence that the icon has been eliminated from the divine services; it is no longer given due attention. What is sold in church kiosks, the mass reproductions produced in the shops of the Moscow Patriarchate, do not comply with the requirements applied to church art.

In the Synodal period there appeared many depictions, which can plainly be called mockeries, parodies of icons. Last time I gave you to read some letters by Bishop Ignaty Brianchaninov. In one of them he writes that he saw not icons, but caricatures of icons. At best these could be called well-executed paintings, but by no means icons. This was written in the last century, when churches were filled with this sort of art and the Orthodox icon was branded as “Old-Believer” or barbaric art. (The well-known historian, Karamzin, seeing the ancient frescoes in Novgorod’s St. Sophia Cathedral, called them “barbarian”.)

Fr. Victor: L. A. Ouspensky, in his book, The Theology of the Orthodox Icon, accurately observes that in the iconoclast period the Church fought on behalf of the icon, while in our time of troubles the icon is battling for the Church.

Magi fresco, St. Sophia Cathedral -Vologda

As a non-profit organization dedicated to the sacred art of the icon, we see the other side with a clarity that transcends competition for market share among wallpaper imposters. Our students sacrifice not only thousands of dollars in pocket layout to study the theological and aesthetic goals of the ancient tradition that have been organically transmitted from the first icons painted on the walls of martyrs tombs, but they also offer up hundreds of hours of time away from their families and their employment to prepare themselves to serve God’s Holy Church with hard acquired skills and knowledge of temple adornment.

The reality from the other side is that even the best-trained iconographers are often passed over for “MUCH cheaper” amateurs, or they are asked by priests and bishops to donate their work. Many, many gladly do so out of willingness to serve, but at the expense of the tradition that should support them.  All this haggling over not wanting to remunerate real iconographers at the rate of legal minimum wage is destroying the future of iconography everywhere.  If, as our e-mailer suggests, priests and wardens turn to the “cheaper than real” catalog for adorning their temples, there will no longer be a need for icon painters. And just as every office and hospital wall is mounted with an artificial Degas or Cassatt, so will every temple have a cheap photograph of the Rublev Trinity smoothed large on drywall surfaces “like wallpaper.”

This glimpse into the realities of practicing iconographers is portrayed here in mere economic terms as a flip side of the Ford mentality troubling our parishes, but the greater issue of artificiality is as Fr. Zinon says, “a matter for the whole Church” to resolve.

Mary Lowell

Anna (Pokrovsky) Gouriev had the rare advantage of growing up in the household of one of the world’s most prominent icon painters, Ksenia (Xenia) Mikhailovna Pokrovskaya, her mother. And so Anna learned the art of icon writing in the gradual and natural way that daughters learn to cook by watching their mothers.

“I never planned to be an iconographer” says Anna, “it wasn’t a decision; it is just my life.”

Anna does not advertize her “life.” People find their way to her by seeking treasure. It’s hard to explain. You look over hundreds of same subject icons by as many iconographers and find one so full of grace your heart stops.

Anna had many years of training in the seriousness of icon writing before taking up the brush. From earliest childhood days in Moscow, Anna was surrounded by the steady coming and going of artists, theologians and intellectuals who were in one way or another involved in the clandestine operations of her mother’s network of secret iconographers. Describing those days, Anna considered the “real world” to be what was going in her parents’ flat. “When we came home from school” (there were five children born to Lev and Ksenia Pokrovsky), “and closed the door behind us, the fantasy ended.” Outside that door “we could never talk about what our mother did; we had to pretend we were a part of that strange outside world where everything that really mattered to us was forbidden.” During Soviet times creating new icons was a crime on same order as trafficking in firearms, narcotics and pornography.

Sought after as experts in icon restoration, the entire Pokrovsky family worked illicitly in various capacities to repair hundreds of icons brought to them from all over the Soviet Union. It was an education by discovery to uncover layer by layer the nearly lost technique and palette of generations of iconographers that preceded them. In her book “Hidden and Triumphant: The Underground Struggle to Save Russian Iconography”, Irina Yazikova traces the history of icon writing from the catacombs of First Century Rome to the bonfires of communism that consumed millions of icons in 20th century Russia.

Included in the organic chain of heroes who saved iconography is Mother Juliana (Maria Sokolova) and many courageous men and women, among them Anna’s mother.  Ksenia and her associates established Izograph Society in the 1970s and 80s, which became an underground fellowship of iconographers and iconologists who prepared the way for the “New Spring”, as Ksenia calls it, the great renaissance of icon-writing and restoration of churches currently enjoyed in Russia. At the first open celebration in Moscow of works produced by members of the Izograph Society in 1989, Anna exhibited her icons.

Ironically, the Pokrovsky family left Russia in January of 1991 just as the first signs of rebirth of iconography were becoming publicly visible. It was politically and culturally a volatile time, and for the Pokrovskys a time of great personal grief because their beloved spiritual father and friend, Fr. Alexander Men, had been brutally murdered in September of 1990.

St. Mary Magdalen Orthodox Church

News followed Ksenia’s arrival in the U.S. Articles in the Boston Globe and the patronage of the Metropolitan of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) and that of many priests who knew of her reputation in Russia led to her establishing a studio in Sharon, MA. While assisting her mother with grand scale projects for churches, such as St. Andrew Orthodox Church in Lexington, Ky., individual orders for icons started coming Anna’s way nearly two decades ago.  Ksenia and Anna continue to work as a mother-daughter team adorning the interiors of churches like the ongoing project for St. Mary Magdalene Orthodox Church in Manhattan. Other large commissions like the one for Holy Annunciation in Maynard, MA, keep Anna busy.

Anna also shares responsibilities for teaching courses in iconography with her mother and Marek Czarnecki, who has received world-wide recognition for his beautiful panels under Ksenia’s tutelage. While Ksenia often refers to Marek as her mouthpiece because his uncommon gift for articulating difficult concepts and imparting Ksenia’s teaching with great accuracy, no one complains that Anna’s method of teaching is practically wordless.

Watching this taciturn instructor demonstrate the glories of her brush and correct the stray passages of her students is the same way that Anna came to inherit a share of the mantle passed from her mother. If Anna never consciously chose to be an iconographer,  her work reveals the nature of gifts bestowed when there is no ambition to gain them for ones self, only years and years of practicing the life that is hers by both blessing and toil.

Mary Kathryn Lowell

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