When I attended a beginner’s workshop in iconography I was taught that it was imperative to follow the old icons. We used tracings of icons that have been “copied” hundreds of times across the centuries. The teacher was an elderly orthodox Christian, almost militantly so. I loved listening to the theologic metaphors embedded in the process (breathing onto the bole to make the gold adhere was like God breathing life into Adam and bringing light into his clay body). I loved learning esoteric theology. In fact, I loved everything about the class except for the rigidity shown toward doing or using anything “new”. This included modern art materials like acrylic varnishes, or any originality in the painting itself. This is no problem for a beginner, who, like every art student, learns by copying from the masters. But, as one proceeds through one’s 10,000 hours necessary to become really good, holes begin to develop in the “emperor’s clothes.”
Most icons which are copied are hundreds if not even more than a thousand years old. If we adhere to the prototype, we are using only the technology that was present in that day: a day when there existed no power tools, thermometers, arrays of pigments, copy machines or computers, beautifully crafted paintbrushes and the like. In other words, if one is to truly adhere to the old ways, one should should be using none of these.
Byzantine icons flourished for over a thousand years very much unchanged, until the orthodox world began to be threatened with western sacred art that was being created in Europe, once transportation and exchange of ideas became commonplace between the two worlds. It was then that the orthodox church decided to take steps to insure that only its canons were applied to the world of byzantine art.
Canon law is the tradition of canonical legislation, which governs Orthodox Church life. It touches on every area of Church life, including Ecclesiology, Liturgy, and Ethics. Although generally referred to as canon law, it is more correctly referred to in the Orthodox community as the tradition of the holy canons. This law, the canonical tradition, involves persons who are invested with authority (such as bishops) enabled with the means of creating, formulating, interpreting, executing, validating, amending and revoking these laws through synodical or conciliar action.*
In others words, the church took control of what was and was not considered to be byzantine art. These cannons are upheld to this day. The artist is not called an icon painter, she is called an icon writer. This means signing the icon is verboten. You may indicate only on the back that “this icon has been written through the hand of…” Authorship is said to denote pride. Next, originality is strictly prohibited, for most. Following a prototype with fidelity is the order of the day. Craftspeople love control. Rules for how to draw a straight line. Following rules is easy and requires no thought. And, there is a certain satisfaction in believing you are superior to those who color outside the lines. Preening and pride. An unbecoming smugness. You can be sure the Holy Spirit does not reside here.
God created man in His image. But we do not all look alike. We reflect God in all Her glory and variation. For icons to depict the spiritually transfigured, they must be guided by the Holy Spirit, and she is a reflection of the wisdom, inclusiveness and love of God. The icon shines with that Spirit, the Spirit with which it was made.
The Orthodox church embraces many sacred arts, including music in its praise of God. Yet, it does not harness any other art the way it does iconography. To do so would be to limit the depth and breadth of all the hymns that have been written. It would be like saying the choir could only perform the few hymns that had been created up until the mid 17th century, when the rules for recreating only existing prototypes were put into place.
Recently, there have been scholarly investigations into the authorship of ancient icons. A particularly interesting example is that of a monk who added this epigram to the back of one of his icons:
the humble monk Ioannes
painted with desire these holy images
which he gave to the famous church
where he found everlasting grace.
O Child, accept maternal intercession
and grant full redemption from sins
to the pitiable old man who asks it.**
An interesting footnote regarding the epigrams of this monk is that they were written in Greek using dodecasyllabic meter. This indicates that Ioannes was well-educated and most probably spent long periods in Constantinople, the seat of Byzantium and the Eastern Orthodox church. The icon bearing this epigram resides with the Sinai icons, and indicates his practice of “signature” to be contemporaneous in nature.
I have never been one to follow the rules. God gave me a mind and an intellect with which to live in the world. I like to use it. I sign my icons. I change a color or facial features if I sense the need to. I plan on painting icons that have never been seen before, using scenes from the New Testament, or even modern day saints. New does not have to mean wrong. It just means that people worship God in their own times and places with the gifts they are given. Monk Ioannes is fine company.
*Orthodoxwiki.org/canon_law, April 30, 2016
** The cited English translation of this epigram is by N. Trahoulia:”The Truth in Painting”, pp 272-273
***further reading may be found at Academia.edu: Lidova, Maria. “The Artist’s Signature in Byzantium. Six icons by Ioannes Tohabi Sinai Monastery (11th-12th century)”.