Distraction & Creativity

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.

Click here to read this interesting article on “The Third Self: Mary Oliver on Time, Concentration, the Artist’s Task, and the Central Commitment of the Creative Life.”

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.

Click here to read a summary on Mary Oliver’s essays in the collection called “Upstream.”

I hope you enjoy this moment of peace.


The Earth’s Natural Palette

Animal + Vegetable +Mineral = humble tools used in iconography. Among them, ochres, or raw earth, are the most beautiful, and simplest of pigments.

Photo of Heidi Gustafson from her website, www.earlyfutures.com.

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.

Some of the world’s ochres Heidi Gustafson is cataloging.

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:

Ochre Samples

December 2 – Advent Icon Walk

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.

December 2 | 6pm – 8pm | Kempton Hall

Our Lady of Vladimir

Click for more information on this Advent Tradition

ICONOGRAPHERS: If you wish to display your icon(s) during the Icon Labyrinth Walk, please email iconography@trinity-episcopal.org. Set up begins at 4pm on Monday, December 2; icons will be available for pick up after 8pm.

Labyrinth in Kempton Hall
Trinity Episcopal Cathedral
147 NW 19th Ave
Portland, OR 97209

Chironomia (the Language of Gesture)

Hand Gestures in Iconography

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.

Here are several common hand gestures and their respective meanings, used in traditional iconography:

ICXC – Christ’s Initials

In 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.

ICXC – Pantocrator’s Blessing

Pointing Out Specific Text

Used to point out specific parts of 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

Holy Blessed Matrona of Moscow
The open palm means trust, sincerity and absence of evil.

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.

Chirologia, 1644

Chirologia, 1644

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.

The Icon and Art

Speech by Aidan Hart

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

The Icon and Art

Today’s profane view of art is:

  • That art is here to entertain us
  • Defined by the artist as his/her creativity or innovation
  • Something you hang on a wall

[Profane vs. Sacred in this context simply means secular vs. sacred]

Aidan Hart’s 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.

Honor paid the image passes through to the Prototype, according to St. Basil, a 4th century saint.

Style of an Icon

  • Flatness – an icon does not represent or replace reality, and therefore is represented in two-dimensional flatness.
  • Inverse 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. 
  • Multi-Point Perspective – Icons present subjects from multiple views simultaneously, because God sees all from every angle at once.
  • Isometry – lines that parallel in nature are also parallel in the icon.
  • Radiance – The uncreated light of Christ causes shadows to flee, hence there is no external light source in an icon.
  • Divine & 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.
  • Scale – size is dependent upon spiritual importance.  The higher the spiritual significance, the larger the subject.
  • Garments – are both harmonious and abstract; curved drapery lines are broken into a series of straighter lines.

Modern Art’s Foundation

“Modern Art” 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

  1. Humility – “Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of Lights.” James 1:17
  2. Holy – Sacred Art does not merely represent intellectual expression of rational ideas, but a description and embodiment of experiences.
  3. Perception of Logos – Sacred Art’s purpose is to help the viewer apprehend the Logos.
  4. Depicts Transfigured World – not the material world. (Eschatological man)
  5. Not Utopian – may show sadness and the reality of suffering.
  6. Bright Sadness – shows the bright fruit of paradise but requires repentance for the viewer to enter it.
  7. Universal Principles – based on beauty, goodness and truth and not novelty in expression.
  8. Communal – Sacred Art is part of a tradition, not the result of isolated genius.
  9. Participates in sacred process – has liturgical function.
  10. Connects us to the Cosmos – Sacred Art weaves the cosmos into the garment of the church.
  11. Liturgical – Sacred Art is man’s expression of worship expressed in color, form and music.
  12. Inspires Inquiry – explores dominions of truth and genuine beauty and through its communal nature, does not allow the artist to fall into solipsism.
  13. Peaceful & Vigorous – peaceful because the artist is cast off (no egotism/individualism) and vigorous because he seeks the truth, which sets us free.
  14. Deep – does not offer platitudes.  What makes it sacred is not what is depicted, but how.
  15. 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.
  16. Transports us – Sacred Art leads us to the threshold of another world and affirms the primacy of love over aesthetic.
  17. Harmonious – utilizes principles of divine harmony.
  18. 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 itself.
  19. 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.
  20. 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.”
  21. Screen from the Spiritual World – Sacred Art is a screen onto which messages from the spiritual world are projected.
  22. 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.

Hear the Latest News…

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 iconography@trinity-episcopal.org.

St. Luke (The First Iconographer)
Simone Martini, about 1284-1344, Siena, Italy
on display at the Getty Museum

Color Studies

“Color is a power which directly influences the soul.”

Wassily Kandinsky

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. 

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). 

1692 – A. Boogerts, Dutch Artist’s hand painted color swatches of over 900 pages

“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. 

Click to View the Digitized Manuscript

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

Werner’s Nomenclature of Color

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.

Werner’s Nomenclature of Color
Arranged by Color

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

Secret Lives of Color
by Kassia St. Clair

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.


Chapter on Minium
Secret Lives of Color

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 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.

Malachite in Art | Why this paint didn’t last 500 Years | National Gallery

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.

Qualitative Numbers in Christian Cosmology & Iconography

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)

Christ Enthroned with Saints Paul and Peter, 12th century Mosaic in Palatine Chapel, Palermo, Sicily
Saints Peter and Paul are labeled with their Latin names.
Christ’s label comprises the Greek abbreviations for “Jesus” and “Christ.”
The book on his knee is a common feature of images of this type.
Photographed at the site by Richard Stracke, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.

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.)

See example of “six” in the lower center & right examples of Cosmati floors in Santa Maria in Cosmedin

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.

Grouping for #7
Raphael’s Transfiguration, 1516-20 in the Vatican’s Pinacoteca
16th Century Greek Byzantine Icon

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.

The Octagonal St. John’s Baptistery,
Florence Italy

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).

Geometric Representation of ten

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.

ONE THOUSAND: is used to denote eternity.

Just for Fun

What’s a Quincunx? You’ve seen it before.

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.

Fr. Gregory Kroug – An Exhibition Honoring the 50th Anniversary of his Repose

Reposted with permission from the Orthodox Arts Journal. Original Article, click here.


The Exhibition

In late June, I was blessed with the opportunity to spend a week in Paris, attending an exhibition in honor of the 50th anniversary of the repose of iconographer monk Gregory Kroug. The event ran from May 14th through June 30th, and included a curated exhibition of Kroug’s iconography displayed in the Russian Cultural and spiritual center of the Holy Trinity Cathedral; tours to the various churches that are home to his icons and wall-paintings; and various lectures and publications. In my 2016 OAJ interview I discuss the influence Fr Gregory’s work has had on my own iconography. I have studied his work from photographs for years, but nothing could have prepared me for the experience of encountering his work in person.

The exhibition was organized by Emilie Van Taack, my gracious host in Paris, herself an iconographer and teacher in the tradition of Leonid Ouspensky, who was her teacher until his repose in 1987. Emilie organized an exhibition of Ouspensky’s icons in 2017. Kroug and Ouspensky were lifelong friends and colleagues, venturing together into the study and practice of Orthodox iconography. The depth of their search for Christ through the icon has made these two men among the most influential iconographers of the modern era, whose impact we are still only beginning to see.

Mother of God by the hand of Fr Gregory Kroug.

Father Gregory’s Life 1

George Kroug, the future Fr Gregory, was born January 5, 1908 into a prosperous family in St Petersburg. His father Ivan Feodorovich, was a Lutheran who worked in industry. His mother, Paraskeva Souzdaltsev, was an Orthodox Christian and a pianist. George and his sister Olga were raised in the Lutheran tradition, and received a progressive education that emphasized the arts. After the 1917 Revolution conditions worsened and a devastating famine arose, causing the family to flee to Estonia where they were able to obtain citizenship following the 1921 Estonian independence.  There George enrolled in art preparatory schools and studied drawing, watercolor, and printmaking. At age 19, George attended an Orthodox retreat where a mystical experience led him to convert to the Orthodox Church.

In 1929, the family learned that Leo Tolstoy’s daughter, Tatiana Lvovna Sukhotine-Tolstoy, had founded a school of fine art in Paris which focused on oil painting, taught by well-known artists. George was eager to go. Together with his mother and sister, he emigrated to Paris in 1931 only to find the school closed. However, some of the teachers, led by Nikolai Milioti, had agreed to continue teaching a zealous group of students free of charge. George joined this group. Leonid Ouspensky was one of his classmates, and the two became lifelong friends. They spent the summers at the dacha of their teacher Konstantin Somov, where they executed many lively portraits and drawings. 2

Pencil portrait of Ivan Feodorovich Kroug, the artist’s father.
Despair, woodblock print.
Still life with Pears, oil on canvas.

Ouspensky soon had a powerful conversion experience as well, directly related to his encounter with iconography. Before long the two artists began their journey into the icon. Ouspensky was quicker to abandon all other forms of art in favor of iconography, while Kroug maintained close ties with the avant-garde. He continued to work in the studio of Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova, leaders of the Russian avant-garde movement.

Like most of the Russian émigrés, Ouspensky and Kroug lived in poverty, but zealously pursued their spiritual and creative aims. Both joined the Brotherhood of St Photius, a group of theologians and creative intellectuals who attempted to articulate their Orthodox faith in and for the western society surrounding them. They brought their work before this interdisciplinary group for review, in search of what iconography should look like in their modern western context. At first, by Ouspensky’s initiative, the two attempted to develop a Western Orthodox iconographic style influenced by Romanesque. Together they produced little-known frescoes and an iconostasis for a small house-chapel of the Protection of the Theotokos. They worked together on the frescoes and iconostasis for the Three Hierarchs Church on rue Petel, at first also in a western-influenced style. The two iconographers collaborated often, sometimes working on the same panel together.

Icon of the Trinity in Western Orthodox influenced style, from the original iconostasis at rue Petel

George was deeply sensitive by nature, and from his various difficulties—the effort to paint in the Western Orthodox  style that was unnatural to him, the cultural tensions involved in immigration, and the beginning of the Second World War—he became mentally unstable. A major spiritual crisis and depression brought him to a mental asylum. This took place in the early 1940’s, during the Nazi occupation of France, and the Nazi-led asylum aimed to let the inmates starve as useless to their regime. George’s sister Olga kept him and other inmates alive by trading some of the numerous drawings and watercolors George made in the asylum in the marketplace for food scraps, which she chopped, boiled, dried and ground to a powder she could covertly distribute.

George made copious drawings during his term in the mental asylum, in which one can perceive a deepening of his compassionate and reverent vision of the human person.

During this time one Hieromonk Sergei Schevich, who knew the Krougs, began to visit George almost daily, comforting and encouraging him along the path of healing in Christ. The staff there saw George’s health improving, and eventually granted him permission to return to society, at Fr Sergei’s persistent request and under his supervision. George lived with his sister, and Fr Sergei counseled him to focus on iconography as a means of healing. Soon George moved to Vanves where Fr Sergei was founding a monastic skete. He became a novice in 1945. Three years later he received monastic tonsure with the name Gregory.

The newly tonsured Fr Gregory with his Abbot Sergei

In the Monastery

Though the monks lived in very strict poverty, here began a prosperous time in Fr Gregory’s life. Besides the usual monastic cycle of services, he painted icons almost continually, both in his small studio and on church walls. Fr Gregory carried out this labor of love with increasing inspiration until the end of his life.

Fr Sergei described Fr Gregory’s working method as such: He would first consider his subject, look at various examples of icons, read relevant texts, pray, and be still to envision his icon. Then, seeming to have the icon fully inside him, he would go to his panel or wall and with great speed draw it out in its entirety and lay in the colors. The icon would be nearly complete within a short time, but he followed this with an often long, slow, and caring process which he called “polishing,” whereby he brought the icon to completion.

Fr Gregory’s patron Saint, Gregory the Iconographer of the Kiev Caves.

Because of Fr Gregory’s intense battle with his thoughts, Fr Sergei would read to him from the Fathers and the lives of the Saints while he painted in his studio. No one but Fr Sergei ever saw him at work. It is said that while he painted away from the skete, for the new iconostasis at Rue Petel, he would recite psalms continuously so that it sounded like the buzzing of bees. If anyone visited him, he would stop painting and wait until he was alone to begin again. Later, when Fr Sergei was no longer living at the skete, Fr Gregory would listen to classical music as he painted. He had a special reverence for the host of the radio station, Michael Hoffmann, whom Kroug affectionately referred to as “Misha Goffmann.”

Fr Barsanuphe, who was a young monk at the skete during the later years of Fr Gregory’s life, gave this description of him:

The thing that struck you when you met father Gregory for the first time was his absolute detachment, his renunciation of the appearances and conventions of the world, and at the same time his total openness to others, the warmth and concern towards others. His interest in what everyone had to say to him was shown by the attention he showed to each individual, his presence, which made him entirely available to the person who spoke with him.

As for his detachment, it was almost spectacular, having reached such a high degree that Father Gregory paid no attention to the way he dressed, to the worn-out of state of his clothing or conventions related to cleanliness, neatness and appearance. This was all the more evident when he was painting icons, for he was so absorbed in his work he would often wipe his hands or his paintbrushes on his monastic habit or his hair, leaving the most diverse colors about him. But what could have been an object of ridicule for some was, for us monks, a source of edification. When you spoke with him, you completely forgot how he was dressed and his appearance in general. 3

Fr Gregory Kroug

Father Gregory’s Work

Fr Gregory is known for his great freedom of expression in visual language and subject matter, as well as his strict adherence to the tradition of Byzantine iconography and Orthodox theology. While he neither taught nor wrote much, he was in close contact with profound spiritual leaders, theologians, and iconologists, including Leonid Ouspensky. Vladimir Lossky, a friend and fellow member in the Brotherhood of St Photios, would speak with him in detail about theology, and once remarked, “he understands every nuance with such finesse!”

Fr Gregory never named a price for his icons. His abbot Fr Sergei would manage his commissions, which were generally paid for as a voluntary gift to the skete. Fr Gregory would often give away icons freely to people who asked him, however poor. The poverty of the community of Russian refugees in Paris, in which Fr Gregory shared both physically and spiritually, is one source of the pastoral inspiration of his work. We see this in the warmth and immediacy of personal presence in his icons; the combination of deep poverty of spirit with joy in the victorious light of Christ.


Fr Gregory made most of his work for this Russian community in exile, people whose lives were very difficult. It is through his ministry to this very specific context that Fr Gregory’s icons are able to speak more universally to people of our often turbulent and psychologically complicated times. He painted the icons for a shed-turned-chapel on a small farm which Mother Maria Skobtsova turned into a refuge for the homeless in Noisy-le-Grand. In Montgeron, an orphanage for Russian children who lost their families during World War II, Fr Gregory painted icons whose tenderness and warmth have made them beloved throughout the world, including his famous icon of St Seraphim for whom the orphanage is named. He made his greatest program of wall-paintings for the small Skete of Our Lady of Kazan in Moisenay which housed an old folk’s home along with a small group of nuns.

Saint Seraphim from the orphanage at Montgeron.

Before his monastic years, Fr Gregory also painted icons for a shack that was used by a community parishioners at Rue Petel, which for a time included Fr Sophrony Sakharov after the latter’s return from Mount Athos. The spiritual quality of these icons so impressed Fr Sophrony that he asked Fr Gregory to make the iconostasis for the monastic community he began in France. This iconostasis now stands at the monastery Fr Sophrony founded in Essex, England.

Last Supper icon from the shack mentioned above, which served as inspiration for Elder Sophrony.

In his later years, Fr Gregory rarely left his cell, but painted icons continually despite suffering from numerous and unusually painful illnesses. In the Spring of 1969 Fr Gregory was very ill and in the hospital, suffering from long untreated diabetes and stomach cancer. His ailments were incurable, and he returned to the Skete, where he decided to paint an icon for his doctor: The assurance of Apostle Thomas as he touched the wounds of the Risen Christ.

This large panel icon is brimful of an intense and otherworldly light, astir with the gentle surge of mutual desire for encounter between the human and the divine. On the day of Fr Gregory’s repose his fellow monks came into his room to find that he had quietly died in his hospital bed, the nearly completed icon on his knees, and his paintbrush in his hand.

Fr Gregory died while painting this last icon of Thomas’ encounter with the Risen Christ. This icon was present along with many others at the central exhibition in Paris.

Wall-Paintings and Iconostases

In addition to the curated display of panel icons, the recent Paris exhibition included tours to a number of churches where Fr Gregory painted: The Church of the Three Hierarchs at Rue Petel, The Skete of our Lady of Kazan in Moisenay, the Church of St Seraphim in Montgeron, and the Skete of the Holy Spirit in Mesnil Saint Denis where Fr Gregory lived. I include a few pictures to give a sense of each place. This list includes every place where Fr Gregory made wall-paintings, but his iconostases and panel icons also exist in other churches and private collections.4

Iconostasis of the Three Hierarch’s Church where Kroug and Ouspensky painted together.
Sanctuary at rue Petel, Painted by Fr Gregory.
Iconostasis of the main nave at the Skete in Mesnil Saint-Denis where Fr Gregory lived.
Sanctuary at Saint-Denis, featuring Pentecost behind the altar.
One of the small side chapels of the Skete church at Saint-Denis.
Nave of the Church of Our Lady of Kazan in Moisenay, Fr Gregory’s fullest program of wall paintings.
Sanctuary at Moisenay. Photo by Fabian Da Costa.


What impressed me most in my encounter with these icons is their transparency, not primarily of paint layers, but of spirit. It is a thing difficult to translate into words, but I will try to give some sense of what I mean by “transparency of spirit.”

As a devotee to whom Fr Gregory’s icons appeal deeply, my impulse was first to analyze, to store and memorize a catalogue of ideas and strategies for future reference. This created anxiety in me, especially as these aims are manifestly impossible. Fr Gregory apparently eschewed every formula in favor of continual poetic visual responsiveness, always looking with fresh eyes in readiness for an unexpected solution or revelation.

Icon of the Trinity

With time and some guidance from my host Emilie, I gradually let go of this impulse. As Emilie says, we can only imitate Fr Gregory “from the inside;” that is, by learning from him to love that transparency of spirit. As I struggled to part myself from the Chapel at the Moisenay Skete, wishing I had more time to look, I noticed a bird’s song kept interrupting my anxious mind, and I remembered a phrase of Ouspensky’s that someone had quoted to me – “Fr Gregory paints as the bird sings.”

Meeting of Mary & Elizabeth

Creativity in icon painting can take the form of finding impressive or unusual styles; of calculated drafts from ancient iconography or modern art, or of making display of skill and virtuosity. Such approaches receive all the more fuel from the mass availability of models through Google Images, Social Media, printed publications, and the like.

Kroug and Ouspensky had limited access to models. They looked for old icons at the Paris antique market and studied these deeply for hours. Both men turned to the icon first of all through their own need for healing in Christ, and icons became a conduit of this healing both for them and through them for their community. The vitality of this need motivated them to seek the essence of what speaks and heals through icons.

The methods Fr Gregory finds may appear inexplicable and bizarre, however beautiful, when we study his work as an end in itself; an object of study or artistic analysis. But they begin to make a new kind of sense when we encounter them as they are – as a meeting place with the divine, a conduit of personal contact with Christ. The whole icon, as a unified composition, with its own inner order and emphasis and spirit, as it were, joins in the movement of prayer, allowing one’s spirit to pass freely. This is the meaning of that transparency for which Fr Gregory labored in everything – he was whisperingly sensitive to anything that might interrupt that flow of love through the icon – any visual imprint of showing off, of impressiveness, prettiness, sentimentality, or preciousness, as well as any show of carelessness, crudeness, or irresponsibility.

However countercultural, an iconographer labors to “get out of the way” – to be a channel rather than a fountainhead of the image. Fr Gregory’s own story of the need for healing in Christ opened to that of his specific community and time, and it is from there that his icons speak universally.

Icon of the Resurrection, located behind the altar in one of the small side chapels at the Skete in Mesnil Saint-Denis where Fr Gregory lived.
  1. I received most of the biographical information here from my host Emilie Van Taack, in our conversations during my trip to Paris. This is supplemented in places from various texts, in particular Fr Andrew Tregubov’s The Light of Christ; Fr Barsanuphe’s Icônes et fresques du père Grégoire; Fr Michael Plekon’s Living Icons; and Fr Patrick Doolan’s Recovering the Icon.
  2. Nikolai Milioti and Konstantin Somov were students of Valentin Serov and Ilya Repin respectively, who are amongst the most important Russian artists in history. Milioti and Somov were prominent Russians in the contemporary Paris art scene.
  3. Higoumène Barsanuphe, Icônes et fresques du Père Grégoire, Marcenat, monastère Znaménié, 1999 p.26 
  4. For a full list (in French) of the places where Fr Gregory’s work is found, click here.

Icons at Maryhill Museum of Art (part 2)

(part 2 of 2 posts)

This is the final continuation of the first post on the icons at Maryhill Museum in Goldendale, Washington. These icons were gifted to Sam Hill by Princess Marie of Romania in 1926.

Mother of God, Joy of All Who Suffer

Mother of God, Joy of All Who Suffer
Mother of God, Joy of All Who Suffer, 19th Century
Egg Tempera on Wood Panel

The original icon of this type was in Moscow by the middle of the seventeenth century. In 1711, it was brought to St. Petersburg and the Tsarina Elizabeth Petrovna built an ornate church for it there. The image was popular throughout Russia during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and was used as a protection against all kinds of illness.

The Mother of God is shown here wearing a crown and holding a scepter in one hand and the crowned Christ Child in the other. A congregation of suffering humans is gathered below her.

Saints at the left:

  • Saints Zosima
  • Theodosia
  • Basil, Paul
  • Peter
  • Haralampos
  • Antipas

Saints at the right:

  • Nikita
  • George
  • Anna
  • Cosmas
  • Damian
  • Nicholas
  • John Chrysostom

The figures in the left border are: Saints Basil the Priest, Makarius, Demetrios and Theodore the Monk.

At the far right are: Saints Artremios, Anastasia, Basil and Mary of Egypt.

The Slavonic text below the Mother of God reads, “O all hymned Mother, bearer of the holiest of the holies Word, accept what we offer now, deliver us from every attack, and deliver from the coming torment all those who cry to you.

Quadripartite Icon with Mandylion

Quadripartite Icon with Mandylion
Quadripartite Icon with Mandylion, late 19th Century
Egg Tempera on Wood Panel

Upper left corner: The Mother of God, The Life-Giving Spring (or Well of Living Water).

Upper right corner: Is a scene reproducing an icon of the Mother of God of Unexpected Joy. It alludes to the story of a man who was praying to the icon as he contemplated committing a misdeed. Noticing wounds on the Mother and Child, he asked, “Who has done this?” The Virgin replied, “You and other sinners.” This conversation is shown coming from the mouths of the man and the Virgin.

The inscription below the icon provides the context – “A sinner was in the habit of praying daily to the most Holy Virgin, reciting the words of the archangel.”

At the lower right and left are two very popular Russian icons: The Fiery Mother of God and the Kazan Mother of God. Our Lady of Kazan is considered the protectress of all Russia and of the Tsarist house of the Romanovs. Miracles have been attributed to this icon since 1579, when the image was dug up by a young girl. It is also thought that the Kazan Mother of God (Kazan Madonna in the West) was first written by St. Luke the Apostle, the first iconographer.

The Mandylion (Icon Not Made by Human Hands) is at the center showing a cloth bearing a miraculous image of Christ’s face. We know this icon in the West by many different names, Veronica’s Veil, Christ the Physician, Christ the Healer, etc. The Mandylion is considered to the be first of all icons, made by the icon Himself, Christ.

Left Border: St. Theodore the Righteous, St. Peter the Apostle, St. John the Evangelist and Archangel Michael

Right Border: St. Mary of Egypt, St. Eudocia, St. Parskevi, St. Charalampos

Sign Mother of God

Mother of the Sign
Sign Mother of God, First Half of 19th Century
Egg Tempera on Wood, Glass Beads, and Glass Jewels

Beaded icons are common in the East, often embroidered with pearls and jewels. This is a form of an Oklad (Russian, meaning covered) or Riza (Russian, meaning robe), which are more typically silvered metal coverings with openings designed to reveal portions of the underlying painted icon. They are designed specifically for the icons they cover as a way to protect them.

This icon depicts the Mother of God during the Annunciation, as she responds to the Angel Gabriel (Luke 1:38): “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to they word.” The terms “Virgin of the Sign” and “Sign Mother of God” refer to the prophesy of Isaiah 7:14, “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” The image is also referred to as a “Platytera” (Greek, meaning wider or more spacious) which is why she is shown in the orans position (hands open to the sky). By containing the Creator of the Universe in her womb, Mary becomes Platytera ton ouranon (Greek, meaning “More spacious than the heavens”).

The practice of using rizas originated in Byzantine times. They were meant to honor and venerate icons and the Holy figures depicted in them. In churches and in private homes, candles and oil lamps burn near icons. Incense is also a frequent component of church services and personal prayer. Rizas help protect the painted portion of the icon, which can darken over time with this exposure.