Text and images excerpt from the catalog “Old crafts in Serbia”
Author: Lazar Predrag Marković
PERSONAGES BEYOND FORCES OF GRAVITATION
Both icon and shovel come from the same wood.
The term “icon” (derived from the ancient Greek word ei???) meant image, representation, or portrait in ancient times. In the era of the Byzantine Empire (330–1453), the term had come to mean portable paintings of personages and events from the Old and New Testament, and afterwards, of saints and events from the later history of the Church.
The icon stemmed from the Christian church as an integral part of its liturgical life aimed at conveying its universal message through the theologically formed artistic language. It represents a visual equivalent of Holy Scripture and theological teachings of the Church. Therefore, it is not the aim of the icon to reflect the reality, but to present and anticipate the central reality and the future event – the realization of the Kingdom of God – through its distinctive visual language (inverse perspective of space, diffuse light, absence of natural shadows…).
Broadly speaking, in addition to icons painted on panels, iconography also encompasses wall painting on fresh or dry plaster (the so-called fresco or secco technique), miniature painting in manuscripts, icons painted on textile or glass, and those carved in stone or precious materials (e.g. ivory), with the aforementioned subject matter. The oldest existing wall paintings, from around 180, are found in long underground corridors with graves – the catacombs. The oldest icons on panels, from around 550, are preserved in the treasury of St Catherine on Mount Sinai (Egypt). It is believed that much older icons were destroyed in the period of iconoclasm (726–843), at the time when heretic emperors fiercely persecuted image worshippers, while Mount Sinai remained beyond their reach.
In the territory of modern Serbia, the oldest wall paintings, from the 4th century, are found in the early Christian crypts in Naissus/Nis and Viminacium/Kostolac. As of the 9th century, that is, from the moment when the Slav tribes living in this region adopted Christianity, development of the Serbian medieval art commenced that would reach its peak in the 13th and the 14th century wall paintings of the churches of monasteries Studenica, Mileseva, Sopocani, Patriarchate of Pec, Gracanica and Decani. Few icons have been preserved until today and most of those are not signed. From the subsequent hard times of the Ottoman domination, when iconography developed with great difficulty, there have remained names and works of important painters: Longinus, Radul, fresco painter Jovan, Georgije Mitrofanovic, Andrija Raicevic, and many traveling fresco painters, the last holders of the art tradition of the former Byzantine world. Since the mid18th century, especially in the territories north of the rivers Sava and Danube, different aesthetics has commenced its domination with a breakthrough of the topical baroque stylistic expression from Western Europe. During the 19th and the early part of the 20th century, elements of topical West European artistic expressions remained conspicuous. The attempt to create a specific national style (the so-called Serbian-Byzantine style) met with little response between the Wars. After World War Two, iconography almost entirely died out, except in the monasteries of Celije and Zica. While there were around ten iconographers in Serbia of the time, there were about thirty thousand of them in Greece. As of the mid-1980s only, with increased interests in national topics and Orthodoxy, a true market appeared as well as a larger number of iconographers of whom there are thousands today.
The reason for expansion of icons in the Serbian milieu might be also sought out in the celebration of the family patron saint’s day, which is inconceivable without the icon.
Although in Serbia in the early third millennium, icons are made in iconographic workshops of certain monasteries (Gradac, Kovilj, Decani, Zica…), as well as at the Academy of the Serbian Orthodox Church for Arts and Conservation, the largest portion of the production is still represented by works of iconographers from urban communities. Today, iconographers, with perhaps majority of them being women, work in all larger settlements throughout Serbia. In addition, almost every professional painter also, at least occasionally, paints icons, often for additional income.
Unlike some other artistic crafts, iconography is not endangered. Having survived long periods of hostile authorities and totalitarian ideologies, it seems that iconography will exist as long as Christians and the Church.
The process of painting an icon begins with the preparation of a panel, most frequently of linden, which was earlier treated by a carpenter. The panel is isolated (impregnated) with an adhesive of animal origin – hide glue, and then treated (prepared) for the painting with multiple layers of a preparation. It is made by mixing glue with filler (chalk, slaked gypsum, etc.) and a white pigment. A freehand sketch is then drawn on the preparation, or it is simply copied from the pattern by means of tracing paper. Based on this drawing, gold leaf is applied onto the background. And finally, the painted layer is added. The paint is a mixture of a finely ground mineral coloring substance (pigment) and an egg yolk made based on various recipes needed for painting. Ideally, after the painted layer has been dried for three to six months (which is often disregarded because of the client’s hastiness), the icon is covered with a coat of varnish, which protects the painted layer of the icon against external influences. The varnish is a solution of plant gums in a vaporizing solvent.
Recently, icons are almost exclusively made to order. It is believed that every Orthodox Christian home should have at least three icons – those of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Holy Virgin and the family patron saint’s feast day. In front of them, a vigil lamp is placed, which burns on Sundays and other holidays. Understandably, orders in Serbia usually call for icons representing family patron saints (and St. Nicholas, St. John the Baptist, St. Michael the Archangel, etc.).
As a model or a pattern, an iconographer usually uses a photography or a photocopy of an icon taken from books or from the Internet, which often does not meet the necessary requirements in terms of sharpness, detail visibility or color fidelity, which can negatively influence the final result of the work.
In addition to egg tempera, icons are also painted in acrylic, other modern tempera techniques or, less frequently, combined techniques, sometimes on a high density foundation (e.g. MDF and other modern-day materials). Also, in addition to icons on panels, icons of a picturesque naive style are made in tempera on the back of a framed piece of glass, which is a tradition in some parts of the Banat region.
Today’s iconographical production in Serbia could be roughly divided into four categories:
- copies of poor quality,
- high-quality copies,
- reserved interpretations of medieval icons,
- new and authentic icons.
More or less high-quality copies of old icons are most frequently works of authors who have acquired their skills and knowledge in one of numerous private iconographic workshops and do not have the need to engage in the uncertain search for new solutions. Although some believe that with the copying process itself, they continue the centuries-long tradition of iconography, it should be noted that such a practice, at least until the 20th century, was not inherent in Orthodox iconography. Namely, the existence of two completely identical icons is unknown in the history of icon painting.
Artistically valuable and authentic icons are now mainly created by academically trained painters, some of whom claim that they do not see any sense in making hand-painted and completely identical copies of old icons, when with modern techniques of the reproduction print industry, it can be done with far more fidelity, as well as in a cheaper and faster fashion.
New and authentic icons represent the works where, unlike with the previously mentioned, it is not clear which of the concrete old icons was used as a pattern, but they rather represent original works of contemporary authors, who bring elements of the certain 20th century artistic trends into the world of icons. Although by the nature of their art, these authors do not feel the need to follow the latest art trends, they, however, still manage to leave the contemporary mark on this category of today’s iconography and thus continue an uninterrupted historical development of iconography. It must be said that similar visual poetics is rarely seen in contemporary iconography in other parts of the Orthodox world. These are still largely dominated by the copying of older icons.
However, new and authentic icons often encourage questions about their compliance with the existing canons of iconography. It should be noted that there are only two universally valid canons of iconography, which are the result of the Seventh Ecumenical Council (held in Nicaea in 787). Other frequently mentioned canons (such as the so-called Hundred Chapters Council held in Moscow in 1551) are local in character and therefore do not have universal validity for all. These two canons require that the icon must have the image and the caption -which identify the painted figure. If, due to fadedness or damage to a painted layer, the image and caption on the icon are no longer visible, such a damaged icon is not an object worthy of veneration, and as such, according to St. John of Damascus, can be freely thrown or burnt, because respect is not shown to wood and colors, but to a personage that was painted.
Besides the two aforementioned canons, there is also the third, unavoidable element that must be taken into consideration – the hitherto tradition of icon painting. It consists of the diversity of styles and poetics developed over the centuries (on the basis of which, inthe absence of other facts, the time, for example, may be approximately specified when an old icon was created). In addition to these three inevitable elements, everything else is left to the freedom and the talent of an author, with an imperative of the theological message – that by artistic means, icon should anticipate a future, new, eschatological world in which nature and people are freed from slavery to laws of necessities of this world. Consequently, it appears as if personages on icons are free from the force of gravity, and the light in the art area of the icon is not subject to the law of linear propagation, but goes behind objects and obliterates the shadows.
Essentially, iconography should not be a craft product, but art. And whether it will reach those heights depends on the personality, talent and effort of the authors themselves, and perhaps even more -on the attitude and requests of the customers, who unfortunately most frequently demand only faithful copies of the old icons. Such works then really do not belong to the domain of art, but to the craft production. However, renowned museums throughout the world, (such as the Louvre, the
British Museum, or the Metropolitan Museum), which have Orthodox icons on permanent display, testify to the fact that the final result of the complex iconographical process can be a work of art.