Letting the Light of Christ Shine Through: Icons and Iconographers


by Janet Jaime

We are each uniquely blessed with gifts from God. Some of us have many gifts and others, only one. My gift is iconography. When we offer our gifts to God, we are really only returning what was given to us, that which we do not own nor can take credit for. God provides us, out of His creation, the materials needed to create.

When making Holy Bread, for example, we use the gifts from the earth – wheat, yeast and water, with a pinch of salt – and return it back to God as an offering which we made with our hands. In iconography, our materials are also taken from the earth – pigments, precious minerals, animal hide glue, whiting, wood, gold and eggs – to create, with our hands, an image to be venerated, an icon created as an act of devotion and prayer to God.

Sometime after I became Orthodox, my priest, Fr. Constantine Nasr, suggested that I should learn how to write icons. He said this in a very matterof- fact way, and through his encouragement gave me an open door into a wonderful world.

I began to observe icons closely and soon realized that they appealed to my particular temperament, which is naturally drawn to doing tight, detailed work. At that time I was an illustrator who worked in a photo-realistic style.

I rather naively didn’t see such a great leap between being slavishly accurate in representing detail recorded by a camera, on the one hand, and being slavishly obedient to the rules of iconography, and following prototypes, on the other hand. Icons, I observed, were classically rendered subjects that obviously required a detailed, exacting, time-consuming process. What a perfect fit for me, a lover of anything tedious, I thought.

I was challenged by the idea of making light come from the figure, in the same way I had spent years perfecting and studying the way light fell or was subtly reflected onto a figure. I soon realized that East is exactly the opposite of West in technique and approach.

Icon of St. Gabriel by Janet JaimeIcon of St. Gabriel by Janet JaimeIn the West or, I should say, post-Renaissance art, you start out with the light and work toward the dark or the shadows, always concentrating on atmospheric light. In Eastern Byzantine art, you start out dark and work, transparent layer by transparent layer, towards the light, because the light radiates from within. This is a unique and completely different idea of light – uncreated light. Always the pragmatist, I thought this would be easy.

I estimate that it took me about ten years to get to a point at which I really began to master the art of writing icons, moving beyond merely copying prototypes. So it was, after all, not very easy. Very few of us ever fully master iconography. There is always so much that is beyond our grasp and capabilities. This is certainly true for me.

The aspiration to make light radiant and luminous, which is best done in egg tempera, is much more involved and elusive than I would have ever imagined. The light of Christ should always shine through every image.

An iconographer must learn how different colors are layered and allow for the transparency of each different, underlying color to show through each thin fl oat, progressive highlight and glaze.

If an artist is looking for a challenging experience involving the use of color – cool colors alternated with warm colors, or contrasting colors layered over each other with geometric “shards” of highlights in between – tempera painting is certainly the way to find it.

Colors have a tendency of doing things you do not anticipate when you use this technique of sheer layering, and only endless practice and experimenting can really teach you. Except for a few mixtures, there is no recipe book out there. Fortunately, egg tempera is a very forgiving medium and areas can be removed, with some patient effort and time. I’ve had lots of practice at that.

I am a self-taught iconographer, who learned by collecting prototypes, asking questions, reading books, investigating sources for hard-to- find materials, practicing patiently in order to master egg tempera, and mostly by studying the translucent icons of the old masters. I experimented, with trial and error, and made use of every piece of information I could find.

In years of experimentation I faced what seemed like every mistake or disaster possible, and enjoyed many happy discoveries, gradually learning the hard way and expanding my knowledge of the medium and techniques. I also learned there is more than one way in which to write an icon, because, like Orthodoxy, it is a living organic tradition.

There are instructors who can demonstrate the basic steps, but in the end, constant practice and dedication is the only thing that can really teach a person iconography, and there are no easy shortcuts. Some instructors pass on ancient methods, others do not.

The journey of becoming an iconographer parallels my own journey of salvation – allowing the light of Christ to shine through the layers of my life just as I discovered luminosity and how to let the light of Christ shine forth in the icons I wrote. While I was learning the ancient methods of writing icons and discovering Eastern “light” and luminosity, however, modern technology and attitudes were influencing iconography in many innovative and sometimes disturbing ways.

Andrew Tregubov discusses the subject of modern iconography in his book, The Light of Christ. He writes,

In these images the precious wholeness of the living person of Christ, which shines in the ancient icons, has been replaced by an empty form; the depth of space and transparency of color have been replaced by a flat opaque surface; the meaning of the icons, which was translated by the very harmony of the visual image, has been reduced to a collection of superficial symbols; the mysterious life of the icon has become a stylized and empty mask. This view of icons has inflicted great damage on the life of the Church in the twentieth century, since it hides behind the external resemblance of the ancient icon, yet in place of the open door into the Kingdom of God we find ourselves standing in front of the whitewashed wall.

Demonstrating the application of water gildingDemonstrating the application of water gildingI was sobered by reading this early on, and have noticed that it is unfortunately true. I believe it is the great responsibility of an iconographer to learn and pass on the old traditions through study of the ancient icons, concentrating on traditional methods of applying thin, transparent pure pigments over gritty, mottled earth pigments, to achieve luminous uncreated light coming from the figure.

An iconographer should aim for luminosity, keeping always in mind the Light of Christ. We should shun the use of quicker methods, done in opaque paints, seen too often adorning our churches. The writing of icons is a process, much like our spiritual journey – there are no short cuts or quick fixes. Each newly gessoed, bright white board offers the chance to start over, to do better, to allow the Light of Christ to shine through.

In the world we live in, we have become accustomed to instant mass-production. I believe iconography has benefited from this, by being brought into the mainstream, but it has suffered as well.

I have talked to many people who see no difference between a print of a photograph of an icon and a hand-painted icon, even for the purpose of adorning the walls and iconostasis in our churches. Reproductions are a good thing for the home or a small mission or a young church struggling to become established. I have heard, however, some Orthodox people remark that prints of icons are perfectly fine to “decorate” permanently our sanctuaries, or worse, they simply cannot see the difference.

Would we ever take this attitude with our hymnology and replace the choir with digital recordings? Or use store-bought bread for the Holy Bread? We would not accept a modernized translation of Scripture that diminishes the meaning of God’s Word.

Our icons tell the story of the Incarnation of Christ – that God became man. They tell us that we can become one with God and reflect the uncreated light of Christ. When we use reprints in our churches, the uncreated light of Christ does not shine through. Icons are Scripture in color and form, and the color and light are diminished each time a print is made from the original or from another print.

Janet Jaime working on an icon in progress.Janet Jaime working on an icon in progress.We can now photograph and reproduce any icon and mass-produce it, over and over, in chemical inks. While it is good that each of us have affordable access to these images, I wonder if we risk losing our awe and undercut our veneration by making them into a commodity, mass-produced prints (of any size, for any need) for churches, cards, bulletins, T-shirts, and so forth. Do we always treat these printed images with respect, or do we sometimes see them lying casually about, forgotten or discarded as commonplace items?

As with so many other elements of modern culture seeping into our lives and changing our ways of thinking, we should question these developments in regard to icons. We need to guard our traditions concerning icons and never lose the sense of the sacred concerning our holy images.

Janet Jaime
Co-Chair, Sacred Arts Committee
Diocese of Wichita and Mid-America