Christmas, Epiphany and the New Year are three wonderful ways to offer us hope and opportunity to approach life with a fresh, new outlook. Beginning January 8, 2020, Trinity will offer four Wednesday evening “Praying with Icons” classes taught by our Master Iconographer, Father Jon Buffington.
Learn about icons and how to use them as a liturgical aid for prayer and meditation on Wednesday nights.
December 17 is dedicated to the O Sapientia, O Antiphon as part of Advent. In the first centuries, the Church had a custom of praying seven great prayers calling afresh on Christ to come, calling him by the mysterious titles He has in Isaiah, calling to Him; O Wisdom. O Root! O Key O Light! come to us! This is the first of them – O Sapientia. “The Great Os”, on which the Magnificat antiphons used at vespers on the last seven days of Advent are based, praise the coming child.
In this icon, we see Christ as the Messenger of Great Counsel/Wisdom — one of two times in which he is He is shown with wings. His face is red because He is filled with the fire of the Holy Spirit.
This icon praises the wisdom of God, through which creation came into existence, and which is found, personified, in Jesus. It is unusual to find a depiction of it, but the title is one that is often ascribed to Jesus. When the earliest Christians were searching back through scripture for references to Jesus, the figure of Wisdom in Proverbs 8 and in the Wisdom of Solomon 7 resonated.
In the icon, the figure of Jesus stands just above Wisdom, claiming and affirming her as an insight into His own character. Mary and St. John the Baptist stand either side of Wisdom, and also attest to her as the likeness of Jesus, with all the authority of the mother and the forerunner.
Wisdom sits on the seven pillars on which the universe is founded; she is dressed in vivid colors, making herself available to us, full of energy and passion. There is nothing insipid about Wisdom: she is forceful and attractive.
The attention and praise that are given to her are channeled upwards to the figure of Christ, and from Him still farther up to the Father’s throne, where the angels echo earth’s praise.
There is no embarrassment at all about the identification of the feminine Wisdom with Jesus. St. Augustine talks about the “breasts of the Father” from which we are fed; Julian of Norwich describes Jesus as a mother pelican, tearing her own breast to feed her children; Jesus describes Himself as a mother hen; Hosea pictures God as a mother helping her infant with its first toddling, unsteady steps.
The O Sapientia
LATIN: O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodidisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviter disponensque omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.
ENGLISH: O Wisdom, who came from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from end to end and ordering all things mightily and sweetly: come, and teach us the way of prudence.
Another Sophia, The Wisdom of God
At the center of the composition is a representation of Sophia, Wisdom of God, as a crowned Angel with a face of fire and wings. Sophia is surrounded by an aura of Divine Glory and sits on a throne supported by seven pillars. Under the feet of Sophia there is a stone, as a symbol of all Creation being subdued to the Word of God. The right hand is depicted in an act of blessing, while the left one holds a scepter.
To the sides of Sophia, in typical Deesis composition, stand the Mother of God and St. John the Baptist. The Mother of God holds the text ‘My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices…’, while St. John’s text says ‘This is the Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world…’. Both the Mother of God and St. John the Baptist are represented with wings and they are wearing crowns.
Behind them follow St. John the Evangelist (‘No one has seen God except His only begotten Son…’) and St. John Chrysostomos. Bringing these two saints together emphasizes the same idea of an ongoing Revelation. The Evangelist and the composer of the Divine Liturgy are depicted in identical manner, with no difference of glory. This is a strong visual statement about Tradition understood as a path of ongoing Revelation as opposed to tradition reduced merely to a museum of ancient beliefs.
Higher still, the Lord Sabaoth sits on a throne of Cherubim and is surrounded by a choir of Seraphim. The text in His left hand has the ancient call: ‘Listen to me, my people…’. Around the glory of the Lord Sabaoth there are the typical symbolic representations of the four Evangelists (the angel, the lion, the bull and the eagle), the angelic hosts, the sun and the moon.
The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”
Mary Oliver (September 10, 1935 – January 17, 2019)
The holidays are an especially busy time of year that can leave us feeling breathless and bereft of creativity. This article came to me by way of a dear iconographer just at the moment in time when our instructors are discussing ways to keep peacefulness, interior calm, and concentration in the classroom, in a season when the world outside bustles.
You are in charge of your creativity, your power and your time.
So this week, I am linking to an article intended to inspire the artist within to to avoid self distraction at all cost — a quest to find creativity in solitude and moving toward the source.
For me, the takeaway message was that we have the power to control the degree to which we allow ourselves to be distracted. We choose whether or not to give priority to errands, chores and the “busy-ness” of life. We are also in charge of our inner voice and whether or not we allow it to be a distraction.
Mary Oliver wrote that creative work requires solitude, concentration without interruptions, including those interior behaviors and voices who can be the most difficult; they are negative self talk, criticism, doubt, to do list reminders, and behaviors that interfere with mental, emotional, and spiritual privacy.
Over 200 years ago, Eugene Delacroix lamented the necessary torment of avoiding social distractions in creative work — long before social media & screen time.
Animal + Vegetable +Mineral = humble tools used in iconography. Among them, ochres, or raw earth, are the most beautiful, and simplest of pigments.
Early Futures – This amazing archive is an attempt to collect and catalog every ochre in the world, an idea that came to Heidi Gustafson as a calling, which is one of the reasons this is such a lovely story, as Iconography also comes to many of us as a calling.
Over 550 Samples
Heidi’s ever-growing archive has become a collaborative project with contributions from archaeologists, scientists, and creatives from around the world and includes over 550 samples of ochres. To see the collection of fabulous colors on her website, click here: Early Futures.
To read the article on Heidi’s work posted in The Colossal, click below:
Trinity has a beautiful tradition of displaying icons in the Labyrinth at the beginning of Advent. You do not need to be a member of this church or part of the Iconography program to attend. Everyone is welcome!
There will be a short program at 6pm, followed by an open walk of the labyrinth.
ICONOGRAPHERS: If you wish to display your icon(s) during the Icon Labyrinth Walk, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. Set up begins at 4pm on Monday, December 2; icons will be available for pick up after 8pm.
The classical Greeks devised a code of hand gestures that were used by orators and rhetoricians when they gave speeches to the senate, the agora, public audiences and in the classroom. “Chironomia” is the art of gesticulations or hand gestures in supporting oratory, or conveyance of unspoken meaning understood by the audience.
As we know, Romans adopted many of the traditions of classical antiquity and it is possible that early Christians modified and used some of these gestures for the same purpose.
are several common hand gestures and their respective meanings, used in
ICXC – Christ’s Initials
addition to shaping letters, the gesture of blessing made by Christ also
conveys doctrinal truths. The three fingers used to spell the I and X also
represent the Trinity, the Unity of One God in three Persons, Father, Son and
Holy Spirit. The Bringing the thumb and the ring finger together to touch
not only forms the letter C, but also
symbolizes the Incarnation, the union of the divine and human natures in the
person of Christ.
One of the most commonly used hand gestures depicted in Eastern Orthodox icons is the “blessing hand.” As you can see in the photo above, it represents a specific arrangement of fingers that form the letters “IC XC,” which stands for the first and the last letters of the Greek words IHCOYC XPICTOC, meaning Jesus Christ. Thus, the hand that blesses reproduces the Name of Jesus. However, since this gesture comes from ancient times, it is often associated with classical oratory and means that the speaker is going to say something important, which can also be applicable to all icons of Jesus Christ and His saints.
Pointing Out Specific Text
This gesture, bringing the middle and ring finger to the thumb, is used to point to or emphasize specific parts of text, or a message.
Denotes the Beginning of Speech or Sermon
Palms of the Righteous
Those who lived holy and righteous lives are often depicted with a characteristic gesture: an open palm facing the one praying. The palms are open to viewer, to denote sincerity and the absence of secret evil thoughts or feelings in the saint’s heart.
Open Palms at Chest – Oranta
Open palms held at chest height have two meanings. The first one is a prayer to God; the second is the acceptance of grace.
Hand on Heart
The hand-on-heart gesture means that the depicted person spent much time in heartfelt prayer to God, which puts them on a par with ancient hermits. It means that the Saint pictured succeeded with prayer through heart.
Arms Crossed on Chest
This gesture looks like the St. Andrew’s cross and is similar to the one used by Eastern Orthodox Christians when going up to receive Holy Communion. It means repentance, submission, humility and faithfulness to Christ. It also means that the Saint has endured the test. An example of this gesture is this icon of St. Mary of Egypt, whose ascetic life was a feat of repentance.
Raised Index Finger
In ancient times, this may have meant criticism. Ultimately, it was an attempt to gain the audience’s attention.
For more information on Chironomia (in general and not specific to iconography), click to view a reference from 1644 written by John Bulwar called Chirologia, which explores the intuitive form of communication through gesture.
Many thanks to Aidan Hart for granting permission to repost his talk to the School of Economic Science in Waterperry, Oxford in March, 2000. Click the download link below to read the pdf of his talk. A bullet point summary follows the download link.
Summary of Key Points in Aidan Hart’s Talk at the School
of Economic Science, Waterperry, Oxford, March 2000
Icon and Art
profane view of art is:
art is here to entertain us
by the artist as his/her creativity or innovation
you hang on a wall
vs. Sacred in this context simply means secular vs. sacred]
philosophy focuses on the Eastern view because it was the East that had to
define its experience with sacred images and defend them under iconoclasm,
which the West did not.
the image passes through to the Prototype, according to St. Basil, a 4th
Style of an Icon
Flatness – an icon does not represent or
replace reality, and therefore is represented in two-dimensional flatness.
Perspective – In
contrast to art of the Renaissance when perspective was developed using a
vanishing point to create distance between the viewer and the subject, requiring
the eye to travel, Icons use inverse perspective where the vanishing point may
actually be behind the viewer to draw the viewer into the icon, capturing the
viewer’s eye to establish a relationship between the person and saint.
Perspective – Icons
present subjects from multiple views simultaneously, because God sees all from
every angle at once.
– lines that parallel
in nature are also parallel in the icon.
– The uncreated light
of Christ causes shadows to flee, hence there is no external light source in an
& Profane –
Kronos (clock time), Kairos (Divine time) – the same person can be depicted in
multiple scenes in an icon simultaneously because the eternal significance of
an event is not dependent on the human construct of clock time. The icon portrays Kairos – Divine time.
– size is dependent
upon spiritual importance. The higher
the spiritual significance, the larger the subject.
– are both harmonious
and abstract; curved drapery lines are broken into a series of straighter
Modern Art’s Foundation
means art from the Renaissance, Age of Enlightenment forward. The Age of Enlightenment shifted the
philosophy of art from God-centered, to man-centered, developed from the
artist’s own imagination or creativity, depicting subjects from the inner state
of the artist’s feelings or consciousness, with its primary objective to provide
aesthetic pleasure, whether it was pleasant, unpleasant, stimulating, soothing,
confronting, shocking, etc.
The idea that
the artist created something out of nothing (like God) originated in the
Renaissance under humanist philosophy.
Key Elements of Sacred Art
Humility – “Every good endowment and every
perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of Lights.” James 1:17
Holy – Sacred Art does not merely represent
intellectual expression of rational ideas, but a description and embodiment of
Perception of Logos – Sacred Art’s purpose is to help the
viewer apprehend the Logos.
Depicts Transfigured World – not the material world.
Not Utopian – may show sadness and the reality of
Bright Sadness – shows the bright fruit of paradise
but requires repentance for the viewer to enter it.
Universal Principles – based on beauty, goodness and truth
and not novelty in expression.
Communal – Sacred Art is part of a tradition,
not the result of isolated genius.
Participates in sacred process – has liturgical function.
Connects us to the Cosmos – Sacred Art weaves the cosmos into the
garment of the church.
Liturgical – Sacred Art is man’s expression of
worship expressed in color, form and music.
Inspires Inquiry – explores dominions of truth and
genuine beauty and through its communal nature, does not allow the artist to
fall into solipsism.
Peaceful & Vigorous – peaceful because the artist is cast
off (no egotism/individualism) and vigorous because he seeks the truth, which
sets us free.
Deep – does not offer platitudes. What makes it sacred is not what is
depicted, but how.
Imperfection & Incompleteness – that which is mathematically perfect
and complete offers no room for the viewer.
Perfect imperfection beckons the viewer to seek more information. It is dynamic and alive.
Transports us – Sacred Art leads us to the threshold
of another world and affirms the primacy of love over aesthetic.
Harmonious – utilizes principles of divine
Quality not Quantity – Sacred Art is communal in nature. Profane art this is developed from secular
individualism boasts self-sufficiency and therefore cannot expand beyond
Hierarchical Importance – Sacred Art does not exist in
isolation, it is part of a hierarchy, existing in a relationship with something
greater than itself. The Icon participates in the Divine Liturgy.
Channels Service – Sacred Art does not strive to create
something never created before. As the
artist dies in his own self-interest, the more he channels expressiveness and
freshness. “Dying to himself he finds
himself in the other.”
Screen from the Spiritual World – Sacred Art is a screen onto which
messages from the spiritual world are projected.
Abstract – meaning it abstracts the invisible
essence of its subject. Sacred Art is
the union of the inner world with the outer world, invisible with visible
eternity in the present.
In this dynamic blog section we’ll post educational information about iconography techniques, history, news and events. Just hover over the “News” tab to the top right of this page and click on the article you wish to read. Most current will be on top. If you think there is something we should share, contact us at email@example.com.
“Color is a power which directly influences the soul.”
Once you begin painting, you no longer see Fall leaves simply
as beautiful colors, instead they transform into shades of Venetian red, golden
ochre, vermillion and morellone, because now you’ve entered the vivid world of
Color attracts us to apprehend beauty, then speaks to us in a visual language of symbolism that conveys the meaning of the subject. For example, in iconography, when we see a vibrant cobalt blue garment painted from ground Lapis Lazuli, we know we are encountering the Virgin Mary, or Theotokos; when Christ is portrayed in a radiant white robe, we know He has risen.
But how did we codify and systematize our current color choices? Where did these pigments originate?
This post addresses:
the discovery of a fascinating 17th century 900 page anthology of hand painted color swatches;
three informative books on color;
a link to a short video from the National Gallery in London; and
a link to an open-source forum where you can find many digitized books.
Traité des couleurs servant à la peinture à l’eau
Traite des couleurs servant a la peinture a l’eau, has an intriguing back story. This 17th century manuscript is a 900 page comprehensive color study of hand mixed and painted water color swatches created specifically for artists by Dutch artist A. Boogert in 1692. It includes instructions on how to mix watercolors in every color of the spectrum. The fact that it is the ONLY copy, undoubtedly limited the number of people who had the opportunity to study it, although it is believed to have influenced Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s art history making studies and possibly even Syme’s book of Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours (see below).
“The obscure book disappeared in the archives of the Bibliothèque Méjanes in Aix-en-Provence, France. That is, until its discovery recently by Medieval book historian Erik Kwakkel, who posted scans on his Tumblr and translated some of the introduction from the original Dutch.”
The original manuscript still resides in a Library in France at Aix-en-Provence, as does the digitization, but when I tried to access it through the archives, I found that the library’s site had crashed years ago after Professor Erik Kwakkel’s intial Tumblr posting. Clearly, inquiring minds worldwide really wanted to see it.
Last month, I wrote to Professor Kwakkel to inquire about another possible avenue for me to pursue, because I really wanted the opportunity to look at this book. Alas, the answer was negative, as his experience was the same as mine…the site had crashed and hadn’t been repaired.
Earlier week, I received a wonderful surprise email from Professor Kwakkel which included the following link to view this 17th century book in its digitized entirety!
Click above or here to view: 898 pages of high-resolution digital scans at the Bibliothèque Méjanes site. It is a really dedicated undertaking to systematize and present such a comprehensive collection of colors in such beautiful form. A. Boogert is the real inventor of the Pantone paint deck!
Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours
Edited by Patrick Syme
First published in 1814, Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours was the result of the work of eminent Geologist/Mineralogist Abraham Gottlob Werner (1749-1817). In his first textbook, On the External Characteristics of Fossils (minerals were also considered fossils then), he developed a guide for identifying minerals, addressing key characteristics of color and luster.
Patrick Syme (1774 – 1845) studied natural history under Robert Jameson at Edinburgh University where he saw Werner’s work and matched Werner’s descriptions of the actual minerals to color names, descriptions and color charts. This helped to begin the process of codifying color and standardizing the names we use today.
For example, Prussian Blue is described as the “Beauty Spot on the Wing of a Mallard Drake,” and the “Stamina of the Bluish Purple Anemone,” and “Blue Copper Ore.” Chances are that an artist had seen at least one of these examples of Prussian Blue in natural flora and fauna, thereby standardizing the meaning or true color of Prussian Blue.
Werner’s Nomenclature of Colour was used widely by artists and naturalists, most notably Charles Darwin, who used the color references in this book on his expedition on the HMS Beagle during 1831-36. Darwin included Werner’s terminology for his zoological descriptions, describing natural scenes and species both new and known. He understood that the specimens he collected would deteriorate during the long voyage and an precise written description would provide the most accurate detail. Using codified color names created an accurate visual picture for readers.
The Secret Lives of Color
by Kassia St. Clair
This is a fun compilation of short vignettes addressing approximately 100 colors. The information ranges from some information on chemistry/mineral composition to the significance of the color throughout history. It is interspersed with random fun facts (cochineal/carmine required 70,000 dried beetles for a pound of red pigment). The edges of the book are color matched to the sections discussing roughly the same color. It doesn’t address color theory or composition, but I thought it was fun and filled with interesting trivia.
Do you know why medieval illuminated manuscripts/prayer books/Psalters are often called “miniatures”? St. Clair discusses this in relationship to “minium,” the pigment used for the bright orange-red headings in manuscripts (Red Letter Days) as follows:
“The pigment used was minium. The person who worked with it was called a miniator, and his work was an eye-catching symbol or heading in a manuscript, was called a miniatura. (This is the origin of the word “miniature,’ which in its original sense did not mean small at all.) Minium was used extensively in manuscript illumination during the Middle Ages, and use of it only gradually died out as vermilion [page 144] became more readily available from the eleventh century.”
from page 108 Minium, Secret Lives of Color, Kassia St. Clair
Color – A Natural History of the Palette
by Victoria Finlay
“Color” combines color history, with the author’s travel to conduct first hand research, organized by color. I enjoyed the historical information about dyes and interesting facts like Green Celadon was a seaweed green porcelain that only the Chinese emperor could own, or that the most vibrant purple comes from Tyrean mollusks. The stories are written travel-log style, which makes it both entertaining and informative.
Video: The Ethereal Short Life of Malachite Pigment
This 3 minute video from the National Gallery in London explains why some paintings that used forms of Malachite pigment have changed over time. This segment addresses Venetian painter Giovanni Bellini’s “Agony in the Garden,” (1458-60), painted in egg tempera on a poplar panel. In particular, this video focuses on the discarded cloak of St. James, which is thought to have been painted with malachite, but now seems to be a dark brown. David Peggie, Senior Scientist at the National Gallery gives a scientific explanation.
Goethe’s Theory of Colors: The 1810 Treatise That Inspired Kandinsky & Early Abstract Painting
You can read this and 700 digitized and audio open-source books here by clicking: Open Culture.
Christian cosmology seeks to integrate the study of patterns and the rhythm of planets and stars with ordering our daily lives to be in alignment with the heavenly liturgy. The purpose of the “earthly liturgy” is described as being able to grasp its harmony with heavenly dynamic and cosmos. Numbers are important through rhythmic repetition, prayers with words, through posture, beautiful music, art and architecture…they create patterns.
This tradition began in ancient Greece. The word “Cosmos” is Greek meaning both order and beauty. This Greek ideal, patterns in the cosmos, like the motion of the planets and patterns in musical harmony, was accepted by early Christians as part of what made the natural world beautiful and harmonious, as they incorporated classical tradition into their own line of thinking.
Numbers are very important not only in sacred liturgy and music, but especially in their qualitative representation and symbolism in sacred art and iconography. Here are some of the important numbers that have meaning not only quantitatively, but qualitatively (symbolism). To give an example, 6 may mean 6 in number, or could represent the creation of the world over 6 days, in sacred art.
ONE: is a circle, unity, transcending all.
TWO: is a number of polarity and in Christian symbolism, can be a separation of matter and spirit. But it also represents the dual nature of Christ as human and divine, the division of the visible from the invisible, etc.
THREE: a triangle is the simplest shape that can be repeated in a two dimensional plane. It is a fundamental building block in patterned, geometric art along with the square, circle, and hexagon. Naturally, the trinity is one of the most important qualitative numbers in Christian iconography. When combined with a rectangle or square, this becomes an important shape in iconography.
FOUR: quarternity represents the entire earthly material order (Earth, water, air & fire) as well as the four states of matter (solid, liquid, gas, plasma) and the four end of the Earth (North, South, East, West ), which form a cross. It’s also the fundamental shape of a rectangle and square. Four also represents the four evangelists, who are typically represented in this geometric shape used for the Christ Enthroned Icon, an example below. When combined with a triangle, this becomes an important shape in iconography and is the underlying sacred geometry beneath many themes in iconography, for example the Transfiguration. (See below)
FIVE: is the number of flesh and represents the living order – five fingers, five senses. It also represents the five physical wounds Christ sustained at crucifixion.
SIX: is considered a “perfect” number as it is the sum of its aliquot parts (1, 2, 3), representing the number of days of creation, Divine power, majesty, wisdom, love, mercy, and justice. It is also a hexagon, comprised of 6 equilateral (perfect triad) triangles, the third shape that can be repeated in a two dimensional plane without leaving space. See an example of the qualitative representation of six in the cosmati floor patterns of the Santa Maria Cosmedin. (Cosmati floors are named after the family of four generations of artists who created geometric patterns in mosaic from the 12th to the 14th century.)
While the fantastic cathedral floor of the Santa Maria Novella in Florence, Italy may simply appear to be artistic, an aerial view reveals various shapes with sacred numbers and harmonies.
SEVEN: is an important number because it combines the earthly symbol of 4 with the Heavenly symbol of 3, and also represents the seven sacraments, seven deadly sins, seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, seven tones in the Western musical scale, as well as the liturgical prayer cycle, the seven canonical prayer hours (Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, Compline) and ordering of the day. Seven = totality. Seven is the number of charity, grace, and the Holy Spirit.
Seven is used geometrically in Western art and iconography. This arrangement appears as the geometric foundation of Raphael’s Transfiguration, and also the iconographic transfigurations.
EIGHT: represents a new day, resurrection, a fresh start, which is why baptismal fonts are octagonal. It is also the foundation for the liturgy of octaves.
NINE: is the sum of threes and represents the nine choir of angels, nine days between Ascension and Pentecost, and the nine days the Apostle and Blessed Virgin Mary prayed until the descent of the Holy Spirit, hence the “Novena” or nine days of prayer. Nine is a number of mystery.
TEN: commands authority with its most symbolic Ten Commandments, but also because ten can create an equilateral (perfect) triangle. It is a “Decad” or “Tetractys” and the sum of its first four numbers (1, 2, 3, 4).
TWELVE: is the next most symbolic number and represents completeness: There are 12 lunar months, 12 signs of the zodiac, 12 apostles, 12 patriachs, 12 tribes of Israel, 12th night is Ephiphany, on which the church celebrates the manifestation of God. Twelve also divides hours of day and night. Twelve is represented by the dodecadon, or 12 pointed star of equilateral triangles.
THIRTEEN: is the number of faithlessness and betrayal. At the last supper there were thirteen at the table: Jesus and twelve Apostles, including Judas, who had already agreed to betray his Master.
TWENTY EIGHT: is the second “perfect” number as it is the sum of its aliquot parts #1, 2, 4, 7, 14. There are 28 days in a lunar cycle, on which the liturgical cycle is based.
ONE HUNDRED: as ten times ten, is the number of plenitude and completeness.
But it is also a format used in the Christ Enthroned icon above. The Quincunx was a common pattern used by medieval cathedral floor masons. It was also the pattern on a Roman coin of the same name in about 200 BC.
Special acknowledgement to David Clayton for his chapter on Numbers in his book, The Way of Beauty, Liturgy, Education, and Inspiration for Family, School, and College, 2015.