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Fr.  Anatoly Volgin is an iconographer and an Orthodox priest of a parish in the Moscow vicinity. He started writing icons in the late 1960s, many years before he was ordained.  Xenia Pokrovsky considers Fr. Anatoly as one of her teachers because he started learning iconography a short time before she did. Together they were among the initiators and founders of The Russian Iconography Society Izograph in Moscow and organizers of the first exhibition of contemporary icons in Moscow in 1989.

An exhibition of contemporary icons in an art museum would seem to assert that an icon is unquestionably a work of art.  This has been the attitude of our art historians for a very long time, and viewers have consequently also sought primarily aesthetic revelation, emotional impressions, and formal innovation in the icon–in other words, everything they are accustomed to finding in the works of artists.

Here, too, there is much that will disappoint us right away–repetitious subject matter and composition, familiar devices, and stylizations in the manner of the Byzantine, Muscovite, or Novgorod schools of icon painting.  Isn’t this copying? Not to mention the bright clarity of a fresh “product” instead of the familiar “noble patina” of ancient icons.  The practiced eye of art connoisseurs will undoubtedly find much else that challenges taste and disconcerts the mind.

But the aesthetic sphere is one of changing tastes and incongruent concepts of the good and the bad.  Therefore, some will take ecstatic note of the renaissance of national consciousness and true Orthodox art, others will appreciate and praise the artistic achievements of iconographers, still others will assume a fatherly, reproving tone, expressing indulgent hopes for the future, and some, perhaps, will consider all this unacceptable.

But is such an approach to the icon justified overall? The icon is above all theology.  Its function consists not in aesthetic contemplation but in participation in the act of worship, in bearing witness to sobornost (communitarian-ness) not through subjective but rather sobornyi (communitarian) experience, through the experience of saints about the highest religious truths.  And so, the significance of the icon for us can be correctly and rightfully appreciated only in these terms.

The language of the religious image and its content–that is, how and what it says–is determined by strict canons that are not subject to change and that are carefully preserved by the Church; and faithfulness to this canon is considered to be not despicable slavishness but virtue.

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Excerpted from Lesson 5 of  THE TECHNIQUE OF ICONOGRAPHY: Method and Teachings of Xenia Pokrovskaya and the IZOGRAPH SCHOOL OF ICONOGRAPHY. Text written by Marek Czarnecki, copyright 2003 held by Izograph.

Drawing, designing and composing an icon is the subject for an entire book.  As we begin to learn to write icons, paint icons if you will, the best way is to copy good, solid, classical, fundamental prototypes.  How do we determine which are the best to use?  For the outsider or beginner, all icons look the same ― whether Greek, Russian, classical Byzantine, Old Believer style, folk types, icons influenced by western naturalism and icons mass-produced in artistic workshops for tourism revenue.

Before we discuss technique, we need to establish some criteria.

What kind of icons will we write?

Today, iconography is at the stage of archaeology; we are rediscovering a phenomenon that for the most part remains hidden, remote and unpracticed. As you write icons, you will see the puzzled astonishment of family and friends who will say to you: “You mean people still make icons? I thought they were only in museums and old churches!”  Here in the United States where the tradition is very new, we know icons only from reproductions in books. We cannot venture off to St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai desert, the Benaki Museum in Athens, the Tretkyov in Moscow or even our parish church to examine prototypes first hand.  As an iconographer, one of your most important resources is your own library of books on iconography, which contain good clear, color reproductions of prototypes.

Nothing substitutes for seeing actual icons. If you are able, make every effort to travel to where you can observe the great icons masterpieces first hand.  Reproductions in books never accurately convey the living presence, the human touch, material construction, texture and subtlety of the colors in the real icon.  Books are a pragmatic, and for most of us, necessary tool, but they can only be trusted up to a point.  Try finding the same icon reproduced in different books and you will see this is not an argument about nuance or taste —the differences are radical.