BYZANTINE GREEK ICONS
Participating with my "Deesis" icon in the Byzantine Icon group exhibition in Serbian Heritage Academy in Toronto.
Photo with the president Sofija Skoric and with the curator Lily Otasevic . 2014.
My Greek Studio
THE LANGUAGE OF THE ICON - LEARN HOW TO READ AN ICON AS A TEXT ...
The icon of "The ladder* of Divine Ascend " This Old icon of a Greek master belongs to the collection of the Saint Catherine's Monastery, Mount Sinai.)
The steps toward "Theosis "as described by St. John Climax, showing monks ascending and falling from the ladder to Jesus Christ. The monks as they climb the ladder they are continuously assaulted by devils, symbolic of sins and temptations that do their best to make the monks fall from grace. (St. John Climax wrote a book about our stepwise journey to Heaven.)
The icon is mystical,can teach a lesson, it reveals something to us. Is a ladder that lift believers to the Heaven and fill our souls with faith, hope and consolation. Is a bridge of prayer between God and the human person. An icon give the viewer the occasion to commune with the divine. God is asked to inspire the painter and guide his hand because God is the true artist. Icons by bringing us in contact with holy persons, we are enthused to imitate them helping us to transform ..
*Climax in Greek (κλίμακα) is the scale ,to climb up or reach by a a means of a ladder.
During the depiction of the icon of Jesus ..
Jesus Christ holy icon :"The Bridegroom of the Church" the icon completed. (Egg-tempera and gold leaf ). The red color in Jesus
robe symbolized the Christ's blood passion and sacrifice.
BYZANTINE ICON TECHNIQUE
SYMBOLISM OF COLOR
THE LANGUAGE OF THE ICONS
"The vision of the St. John the Climax*, old icon (1663) by the Greek Icon painter Emmanuel Tzanes. Greek Orthodox Church St. George, Venice (www.istitutoellenico.org)
Look how vivid is the icon of "The heavenly Ladder of St. John Climax !" Is full of messages.
The Saint has a vision in front of him while he is writing a book. He is sitting in front of a rock cave in a black fond (meaning the darkness of the world) .He is writing his book known as "Climax" while the Angels bringing messages and illumination from God.This means the Saint John inspired by God to write this book in order to help the monks the stair climbers to reach with success the state of Heaven the eternal Kingdom of God. Did you notice the golden-yellow chiton of the Saint ? It represents the light which the Saint John brings to the darkness of the world cave with his book inspired by the Angels from God.The cave is like a womb and a tomb and is meaning also spiritual rebirth. Saint John in his book "The climax" testifies of his personal guardian angel: "Whenever i was longing for a greater advance in spiritual life ,the angel appeared in such a case and enlightened me."
The icon shows that the climb is difficult.Here is a sort of divine conveyor belt up whose rungs the faithful ascend,
constantly in peril of missing their step, falling prey, to the demons hook,shoot and pincer them from the Heavenly path.The mouth of Hades swallowing up those who have fallen off ,the angels trying to help and also lamenting over those who have fallen.Fallen angels that became demons are painted ,written in black represent evil .The dragon painted in black color and red color and the disastrous fire representing evil. "There is no repentance for the fallen angels after their fall, just as there are no repentance for men after death" Saint John Damascus said.Look how casually one demon strolls off with his prey.Feel how thankful the topmost climber reaches out his hands to a receiving God at the top of the ladder waiting for us to enter His holy Kingdom! Look also the church with the walls and the green trees (means the spiritual life and growth) above the rock cave it refers to a miracle.The mountain rock symbolizing the connection between heaven and earth, the encounter between man and God or mediator Saint. It's the Monastery (representing our Holy Church) that was built with stability "on the rock" in a stone strong foundation and it refers to our spiritual life which must be built on the true faith of Christ which is like the house in the parable of Christ that the one builder established on the rock
the strong rock is the faith of Jesus Christ and of the apostles 1Corinthians 3:11-15. It is the faith of Christ which Saint Paul established in Corinth, Greece. Saint Paul initially saw a vision a Macedonian man calling him to go in Macedonia, Greece in order to help the Greeks.
It is not by accident that the Church of the Monastery standing on the rock high above reaching and leading all of us to the Heaven. But mainly the rock, the living stone refers to Christ and His Church to Peter, Petra which means the Stone, the faith of Jesus "build in the foundation of the apostles and prophets" Christ said in Scripture (Luke 20:17) "The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone."
The spiritual life allows the spirit to enter the World of angels .All humans need an angel to help them overcome their passions since are not perfect.The main goal is to free ourselves from passions.The angels as we can see here in this icon their main role is the spiritual life of each person which they are responsible. Look the "happy message " (in Greek is an agelma haras /άγγελμα χαράς)" for the souls that was saved from the battle with the passions and demons in the colors of the Angels cloths and of the Lord in the icon. Look from above the movements of the Angel's and their hand all these are also meaningful. The major work of angels is to praise and glorify God but their partial work is to guard humans to direct them in the safe street of God and the universe that surrounds humans and they always bring messages from God for our salvation which has to do with the endless eternal life. In the Holy Scripture we read "When the stars were made all my angels praised me with a loud voice." Angel means herald or messenger and are executors of God's judgments.
The angels are active spirits with intelligence will and knowledge. They serve God to carry out his will and glorify him.
The angels are bodiless powers and invisible to our physical eyes.They have no bodily needs or desires and passions. They announce the mysteries and intentions of God and teach people to live virtuously and righteouσsly before God.They are appointed to guard each of us who believe. In the Psalm we read "God will give His angels charge over you to keep in all your ways."We receive a guardian angel when we are baptize. The angels are guardians of nations, countries, churches as well as individuals even of elements, stars and planets! Saint Basil the Great said: "The angels will not retreat from us ,unless we drive him away by our evil deeds. As the smoke drives bees away and stench the doves even so our stinking sin drives away from us the angel who protects our life." Saint John Chrysostom comment on this by saying "Look how God loves man so that he created Holy creatures to serve the man created according to his image!" The angels are glad for every man who is saved from sin.
That's why the message, the lesson of this icon is strikingly real! The icon is only a true icon when it conveys the content of faith and dogmas and life in the Christian life. Iconography is the most simple art form and all is about a revelation of the living presence of Christ and has eternal principles. In icons all is "being alive" and the mission of the icon is the soul salvation because this life is temporal but the eternity is endless. Read the icons as a text to receive it's message. For this reason many times we say that we writing icons instead of painting.
THE SYMBOLISM OF COLOR IN BYZANTINE ICONS
Domna's icons are entirely prepared and painted by hand following the byzantine traditional technique that is subject to strict rules of format and technique .She uses egg-yolk emulsion with vinegar ( as a basic medium ) with natural pigments and highest quality gold leaf 23- 24 karat (gold -gilding).The Egg-tempera is a medium going back thousands of years.This requires building many layers of color a process very demanding and time consuming but producing levels of luminosity.The natural pigments used by the famous old byzantine artist to create Icons that today their colors remain original .
I stick canvas (fine cotton or linen fabric) with glue on the well dried wood or wood panel with raised border, carefully chosen.
After I prepare a solution with chalk powder and this must be laid down with brush in 8-10 layers. After the icon is dry is polished with fine sand- paper to obtain a very smooth surface.
Then I create a sketch drawing of the Saint and prepare the icon for the gold leaf with several coats of shellac to insulate the surface.. Follows a coat with " mixion "a special glue for the gilding and then handle the gold leaf with a technique.
The first layer of color called "proplasmos" is made of the darkest colors usually green or umbra brown..The other layers of colors " lamata" go from dark to lightest colors. The idea is to build up the forms slowly, thinly deepening the colors gradually .
The "grapsimo" (darkest) painting is to outline the Saint sketch with a very thin brush and then paints the lightest colors.
We have to leave the colors to dry very well in order to apply with brush the final varnish which protects the icon against dust ,water and damages.
To create an icon needs to be in that "wonderful state".Needs a
preparation and prayer takes a lot of efforts and sleepless nights.
It is a spiritual adventure... It is like "creating a child" because you give something, you put something from yourself in your icons, your love and devotion,your experiences, your thoughts, your feelings .We visualize this icon before we start.. It is a statement of our faith and of a certain ethos. This mainly with the proper internal state can make the icons powerful. With this way opening our soul to the others...Turning natural pigments egg-yolk and canvas into a "breathing" icon and something "alive" is a difficult procedure. Every time we start an icon we feel incapable and unworthy because we are not the creators so we don't know the result and how at the end is going to look the icon. God inspire the icon painters.We want from Him to bless our icons and make them Holy.We must concentrate and ask from Him for what we want this icon to be. Icons shows a transformed humanity radiant with a Heavenly light and are not meant to be portraits in any sense. The icon must have hieratic quality and is thoroughly in the service of Theology, has an uplifting beauty,
a majestic simplicity, calmness of movement, rhythm and joyfulness of its colours.
Icons are seen as an explicit and silent form of divine speech in order to express the plerotic state of human experience and nature in "Τheosis". This is the view and experience of the art of Byzantium!
In Byzantine Art each color had its symbolism and value .Its symbolized a different aesthetic principle. One or several colors combined together had the ability to express ideas. The colors in Icons in Byzantium achieved a magnificence and austerity result .
So always the icon painter have to choose carefully the combination of colors.Icons opening up a world of light ,color peace and harmony.
The brilliance of GOLD in Icons made it possible, to feel the radiant light of Gold and the Splendor of the Celestial Kingdom where there is never any night . The gold color in icons is treated as a representation of the glory of the martyr's a reflection of the divine energy and symbolize the divine nature of God.
PURPLE is a very important color in Byzantine culture. Is a color of royalty of the Byzantine emperor ( hard to acquire color).Is a color that is present in icons on the clothing of the Mother of God ,the Celestial Queen,on St. Constantine royal cloths etc.
RED is the one most frequently used color in Icons symbolized the fire of faith. Used to symbolized activity ,passion ,torture and life giving energy. Is the colour of blood and the color of Christ's sacrifice-martyrdom.Martyr's are depicted in red clothing and also the wings of the Seraphim (Angels that are more close to the God's throne.)
BLUE color symbolizes the God's Kingdom not on Earth. The Theotokos Virgin Mary is shown wearing dark blue underneath a red cloak symbolizing her heavenly role and earth existence. Lapis lazuli, a very expensive stone ,was ground to create this blue color .
Green color represents the earth ,nature and hope and is a representative of growth and fertility. Is usually used in the robes of Martyr's and Prophet's. With blue represented Paradise and celestial realm.
BROWN represents earth and nature ,is used in mountains etc.
GREEN symbolized life,hope,vitality and youthfulness,growth of spiritual life
WHITE typically represents salvation ,heavenly love,purity and divinity. It is seen on the swading cloths of babies (at birth of Christ),robes of Angels at resurrection of Christ ,and the shroud of the dead Christ .After in death is shown in white as well.
BLACK generally represent evil and absence of life. The fallen angels are painted in black .Monks and great schema monks wear black garments as a symbol of their renunciation of all that is material .