Ikona Pantokratora, VI w., klasztor św. Katarzyny na Synaju

Icon differently

Please think now about an icon. Yes, a Byzantine and a modern one, too. Close your eyes… What can you see? I bet you see a picture painted on a wooden board. Definitely on a board. And painted using the tempera technique. Plus, a lot of gold. Especially the background has to be all golden. And you probably see Christ with Mary and the saints. Everyone frontally. Stiff. Also the robes are stiff. There is no light and shadow modelling. And definitely no three-dimensional feel. “But it has to be like that!” – an overwise voice whispers you in your head – “This is what the ancient iconic canon demands!” Besides, an icon is written, not painted, right? But perhaps it’s worth otherwise?

Look at the 6th century Pantokrator icon from the St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai. The artist perfectly forms cheek bones, the forehead and the temples with light. The effect is achieved thanks to spots of white pigment on the face of Jesus. Are you sure there is no light and shadow modelling in icons?

“But we have frontalism here!” – you will probably shout.

Have a closer look. The God’s face vibrates. It happens thanks to the phenomenal left and right asymmetry of the face. It is very human. There is surely no stiffness. More than twenty years ago professor Anna Różycka-Bryzek warned about erroneous equating icons with plane and linear values in her article Against stereotypes of thinking about the Byzantine art [Przeciwko stereotypom myślenia o sztuce bizantyńskiej] (1994). But we know better, don’t we?

There is no tempera technique – it is encaustic and uses bee wax binder. True, that icon is painted on the tree.

– “See?”

However, the First Council of Nicea of 787 that sanctioned the iconolatry, referenced by next generations of theologians – did not require that at all. The clergymen said then:

“(…) A subject of cult should be (…) hallowed and holy images [eikonas] painted [chromaton], arranged in a mosaic [psefidos] or made otherwise [heteras hyles epitedeios], that are placed with reverence in holy churches [eklesiais] of God, on liturgical vessels [en hierois skeuesi], on garments [esthesi], on walls [toichois] or on wooden boards [sanisin], in houses or roads”.
[translation by T. Wnętrzak, at: Dokumenty Soborów Powszechnych, 2001]

– “Therefore an icon can be made with an «other method» than on the wood? An icon can be placed «on garments» or «at the roads»? And finally: an icon can be «painted»?!!”

Do not be surprised. The Greek word “γράφω” and its Russian equivalent “писать” mean both an act of writing and painting.  I wish you could hear the suggestion of faulty translation at a icon “writing” course.

Now have a look at 17th and 18th century icons: Holy Mother with Emmanuel by Karp Ivanowicz Zolotaryov (Карп Иванович Золотарёв) from the late 17th century, Pokrov from the village of Sulimivka near Kiev (1735), a Saint Nicholas icon by Gabriel Sławiński (1774) from the Orthodox Church in Tyszowce-Zamłynie or the tier of prophets from the 18th century iconostasis.

A tier of prophets from the 18th century iconostasis, NMK
A tier of prophets from the 18th century iconostasis, NMK

– “Ooh, no! These are certainly not icons! But here we have a realistic portrait in Baroque style! This is how an Italian, Pole or Frenchman can paint, not a genuine icon-writer or… the icon painter, however you like it…”

Are you sure? Or: perhaps the attempts to determine historical opinions on the modern cult pictures of the Orthodox Church are more important than your today’s belief in what is an icon and what is not, huh? What do you think?

Archimandrite Paul from Aleppo (17th century) said the following words to admire a modern icon in its formal layer of Theotokos in the Orthodox Church of St. Anthony and Theodosy in Vasylkiv near Kiev:

“The Mother of God looks as if she could speak, she is so perfectly painted (…). On the red velvet there are bright wrinkles, completely similar to wrinkles on a real material. Jesus in her arms looks (…)  alive. Cossack painters took the beauty of face painting and colours of clothing from French and Polish painter-artists and now they paint Orthodox icons, being skilful and experienced. They have such great skills in presentation of the human faces with total affinity”.
[translation by M.  Kowalska, at: Ukraina w połowie XVII wieku w relacji arabskiego podróżnika Pawła, syna Makarego z Aleppo, 1986 and A. Gronek, 2000]

Note that for this Orthodox clergyman modern icons were orthodox and their style did not surprise him as it surprises you today.

Jerzy Nowosielski, “Paraskeva the Martyr”, 1974, MNK
Jerzy Nowosielski, “Paraskeva the Martyr”, 1974, MNK

– “You better show Nowosielski…”

Of course, I can show. For example the image of St. Paraskeva the Martyr (1974) from the collection of our Museum. You like it, don’t you? There are lots of lines, planeness, contrasting colours and there is no annoying shadow and light modelling and the frontalism. I think I know how you would like to name the style of this picture.

– “What? Icon-like… or painted in the icon style… something like this.”

I know you may not like what I say here and in my articles for the project Icon differently – the Orthodox Church art of the time [Ikona inaczej – tegowieczna sztuka Cerkwi] at the National Museum in Krakow. However, I believe that our historic responsibility is to stop filtering painting of the Eastern Church into thoughts of ahistorical perception of an icon and to start rebuilding the modern beliefs and aspirations, especially those of 18th century clergy, artists and the faithful of the Orthodox Church.

Perhaps one day I will show you much more at the exhibition of icons of the time. Will you come?


MLudera_100 Magdalena Ludera, PhD – art historian, master’s degree (2008) and PhD (2014) at the Institute of Art History of the Jagiellonian University, scientific worker of the National Museum in Krakow, the author of several publications on late-modern art and post-Byzantine art. She was a lecturer at the universities in Krakow and Katowice and carried out lessons and workshops on art from 12th to 21th century as a long-term associate of the Education Section of the Museum. She is interested in late-modern graphics and painting of Central Europe and modern orthodox art, especially the painting of the Orthodox Church in the Commonwealth of Poland in the 17th and 18th century and the methodology of its study. www.magdalenaludera.pl


All photographs are in the public domain as faithful reproductions of two-dimensional works in the public domain.


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