Iconography

The word “iconography” is simply a Latinised compound word, from the Greek, “eikon” and “graphia”. Icon means “image” and graphy is “to write”. Any fine art activity (other than sculpture) is referred to in the Greek and Russian languages as “writing”, not painting. Some other examples of words ending in “graphy” are geography, calligraphy, photography, cartography, etc. and all mean “to write”, with the method or subject matter used as the first part of the word. So, iconography is to “write” an icon, even though we use paints, brushes and various other “painterly” methods to create the icon. Over a thousand years before the creation of computer “icons” there were icons in existence!

The designs that contemporary iconographers use must come from a Church approved prototype. The Eastern Orthodox Church considers itself the sole arbiter of an authentic icon and has usually commissioned the first icon of each subject. Those iconographers unable to travel to where the ancient icons are kept (mostly in Greece, on Mount Athos, Hagia Sophia in Byzantium (now Istanbul), in Sinai at St. Catherine’s, Monastery or in Russia, mostly in State Museums or warehouses) must be satisfied with books of icon photos or viewing collections in those places via the Internet.

Contemporary iconographers are also fortunate that some of the early iconographers left behind what they called “Pattern Books”, essentially their working notebooks, detailing garments worn and colors used and objects pertinent to the Saint being depicted. These pattern books have been translated and reproduced so that it is possible to see today, exactly what a Master Iconographer in the 1500s or 1600s would have done with an icon.

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