What is the role of the icon painter? We can only begin to answer this question by turning to the fact of the Incarnation—“And the word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Christ is the “icon of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). It is because the second person of the Trinity became man and allowed man a glimpse of the divine glory of heaven that we are able to represent something of the spiritual realm on a piece of wood.
And so, if the icon is meant to call us to communion with the Divine, the icon painter must be more than a professional artist. In order to perceive and convey a universe that has been transfigured through Christ, he himself must be transformed by prayer and fasting; his own personal reputation as an artist must be irrelevant. As early as 787, at the Second Council of Nicaea, it was ruled that icon painting was to be seen not an invention of artists but an inherited and established institution of the Church, entrusted to men totally committed to God. Before beginning their work, icon painters would first purify themselves by fasting and prayer, confession and communion. Their work was to be seen as a kind of spiritual pilgrimage. The practice also developed of copying particular types—icon painters were to avoid the production of likenesses that might be recognizable as being made by them in particular, and were not to sign them.
Please join us next week in our office to find out more about more about the theology of icon painting! We will have an exhibit from the workshops of St. Elisabeth Convent in Minsk, Belarus, as well as a presentation by two sisters on the creation of sacred images. Find out more here.
Bianca Czaderna is assistant editor at First Things.