Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Understanding Iconography

"Icons are relics of the past, you say? They are rather unchanging treasures in the spiritual warehouses of the 2nd millennium."  These are the words of a Korean priest the Chosun Daily profiles in a recent article.  He spent over four years in a Russian seminary learning the steps to teach iconography and the Byzantine liturgy.  He is the only specialist in the art of iconography now in Korea.

In English, the word 'icon' means an image. For the Orthodox Christian, painting and viewing icons is a spiritual, meditative act, used as aids in meditation, the study of theology, and deepening one's prayer life.  Since the first days of the Church the world  has become complicated. What the saints saw in those early years--the simplicity and self-restraint--is still alive in the icons.
The priest began working on creating a center for the study of icons and icon painting in 2003, but it was only last year that it was recognized by the diocese. There have been 150 who have finished the three-year course and have begun their work as icon painters.

He sees the close connection of the icons with the Byzantine liturgy. The liturgy begins with an icon of the nativity. On the altar, the holy of holies, after the consecration the King's door is opened with the images of the Gospel writers, saints and the Blessed Mother,  and through the door,  the priest approaches the congregation for communion. This symbolizes the New Testament times and when they leave the church, they gaze on the icon of the last judgement.

He reminds us that icons are not the exclusive possession of the Orthodox; in the 11th century East and West were united. Icons are part of our tradition and also our way of reading the Scriptures,

To paint one icon takes about 6 month, he explains. You prepare the wooden block, add layers of  glue to the block, cover it with cloth, put the mortar in place, make the coloring with powdered stone and egg yolks mixed with white wine, prepare  the frame, gold leaf where appropriate, and take the final steps to protect the surface of the icon. Great patience is required, a patience that many find too difficult, so over half of  his students leave before finishing the course. It's a long process and demands a great deal on the part of the artist.  It's not just  reproducing an image; every icon is an individual work, made  with prayer: a spiritual attitude in which you become enraptured with the icon.