All Creativity Builds on What Came Before…


“The student is not an isolated force. He belongs to a great brotherhood, bears great kinship to his kind. He takes and he gives. He benefits by taking and he benefits by giving.” These words clarify a feeling I myself have not been able to put into words before. They are from a great American painter and philosopher Robert Henri. Particularly in iconography, where we are taught it is so important to paint in a certain stylized manner, it is easy to sometimes feel that we are only a link in a chain, with nothing new to give or offer. But, if one steps back from a particular teacher or a particular school, it is easy to see that icons can be the same and different at the same time. That there can be as many recipes for apple pie as there are bakers in the room. And that eventually, when you have baked enough pies, you will have a recipe of your own, and that is only your own. Not out of vanity, but by nature. And this is the marvel and the miracle of the thing. That we as human beings are alike and we are different. If we take the Gnostic view…we can work on ourselves as our own icons…and work to find God within ourselves. The icons we write outside ourselves can help to direct the icons we write within our interiors. Humility, contemplation, mercy, prayer…this inner icon will never be completed. But, we are in the brotherhood…helping you helps me.

“…take pains and pleasures in copying the best things which you can find…” — Cennini
This is the advice Ceninni gave to persons wishing to become fine artists, and the advice still holds true today. Your eye cannot discern the grace in a line, the refinement in a color without study and recognition, and finally, through practice, assumption. For us, we are told the greats to be names like Rublev, although there are many names unknown to us of those monks who painted in the Kiev caves so long ago.

In the 20th century, certain world events took place that seeded the practice of icon painting in the new world, and spawned whole new schools of painters. Famines and wars caused generations of people to flee the Baltic states for the U.S. And Canada. When the Stalinists and then the Communists took hold, they banned the practice of religion. But, absence did make the heart grow fonder in this case, as iconographers practiced their art in secret to keep it alive. Some were able to finally make it out of communist held lands, where they could be free to worship and paint. And, it is here that these master iconographers spawned a revival of this venerable art. The collective spirit of Ukrainian, Czech, Romanian, Polish, and other immigrants came from a culture at least a millennium in the making, that made them seek out and respond to a deeper spirituality through iconography. The first fleeing generation arriving in the new world had the task of survival, but it is now, that the second generation has the ability to choose to pursue iconography, and to contribute to this tradition.

Although the Orthodox like to claim Byzantine iconography as solely theirs, in reality it has never been so: it has always been a part of the Greek Catholic history, all the way back to St. Vladimir and St. Olga, and St. Andrew, one of the original 12 apostles. And now, iconography is achieving its gift of being a window to heaven for all with an open heart, regardless of denominational labels. Christ welcomes all who seek him.

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About Olga Dytyniak

artist, librarian poet, byzantine icon painter, perennial student. Join me on
This entry was posted in Creativity, iconography--history and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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