How an Icon is Written

Just as medieval monks copied ancient sacred texts, icon painters copy ancient icons, following ancient traditions and using traditional materials. Each step in writing the icon and the materials used have sacred meanings. Traditional Russian icon boards are made of poplar or linden with a “kovcheg” (the hollow within which the image is written). Each board is covered with linen and many layers of gesso made from marble dust. The linen speaks of the shroud of death, and the marble of the tomb. The whiteness of the gessoed board speaks of the uncreated light of God which turns the darkness of death into the light of eternal life. It is this light which the iconographic process allows to shine through the image that will be written upon the board.

An image is etched into the gesso as a line drawing. Red clay symbolizing the earth from which God created Adam and Eve is painted around the edge of the board, and under each halo in the icon. The clay is then sanded, burnished, and gilded with 24K gold leaf which is “breathed” onto the clay just as God breathed life into Adam and Eve. A line of red is drawn around each halo, symbolic of the human life that is the gift of God, waiting to be further shaped by the love of God. Now egg tempera is made from an egg yolk and wine. Traditional mineral pigments are mixed with the tempera and the first layer of color known as “roshkrish” (“chaos”) is floated onto the icon board. This  represents the chaos of Genesis 1, the chaos which is the ground of all new creation in our world and in our lives. Lines are then painted, following the inscribed lines, separating colors from colors and beginning to impose order and offering a glimpse of what this new creation might become.

The first of three highlights is applied. The first symbolizes the natural order, and gives shape to the forms. The second symbolizes human intellect and will, and creates facets of light. The third symbolizes spiritual light, and is sharply focused, calling attention to that which is most important. After each highlight, a transparent wash of color is floated over the icon, creating successive veils. Mistakes are not corrected, but are left to be transformed by the successive layers, just as in life we cannot erase the consequences of poor choices but must leave them to God’s grace.  Lines are now repainted, details, names and inscriptions are added, and the final highlight, the “prosopon” or “uncreated light of God” is drawn as tiny lines. A white line is drawn around each halo, symbolizing the completed transfiguration of the human by the divine. 

The icon must be left to dry, which can take many weeks or even months. When dry, it is anointed with “olipha” (a linseed oil varnish) which is poured onto the icon in the form of a cross, reminding us of our baptism. As the oil is rubbed into the icon, the pigments becomes even more brilliant and translucent. When the oil has dried, the icon is ready to be consecrated by placing it upon the altar during the Eucharist and subsequent blessing with ancient prayers.

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