The word “iconography” is 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. Iconographers may need to be satisifed with icon books or viewing collections online, unless they are able 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.
Early iconographers left behind “Pattern Books”, essentially their working notebooks, detailing garments worn, colors used and objects pertinent to the Saint being depicted. These pattern books makes it possible for contemporary iconographers to see exactly how a Master Iconographer in the 1500s or 1600s would have written an icon.