Sunday, June 25, 2017

Discerning Icons: Good and Bad

Icon of Saint Seraphim of Sarov

The purpose of an icon is to take us into the realm of the Spirit, where we can experience the transforming power of divine grace (John Baggley, Doors of Perception).
In response to my post Icons as Resistance, one of the readers in these Woodlands asked for some guidance as to how - or rather, from where - one can find icons to acquire if one wishes to get a few for the home. In other words, which are good icons to get? And from which should one stay miles away?

I admit, this is a hot topic in this day and age of non-discrimination. It holds most true if one does not have thousands of dollars to shell out to acquire various icons written by known and reputable masters - or to settle a lawsuit alleging discrimination by having dared to prefer in public, in writing, some iconographers over others, without sufficient and documented 'empirical evidence.' But since it has always been my fortune - or misfortune? - to not be tongue-tied regardless of the hat worn at whatever point in time, I will answer the reader's question as best I can.

Choosing an Icon - A Brief Guide

Icon of Our Lady

The beautiful and the good, ultimately the beautiful and God, coincide. Through the appearance of the beautiful, we are wounded in our innermost being, and that wound grips us and takes us beyond ourselves; it stirs longing into flight and moves us toward the truly Beautiful to the Good in itself (Benedict XVI, The Spirit of the Liturgy).
First, when considering an acquisition, bear in mind that an icon is not just made for prayer, but has been made because of prayer. This is a vital factor in any choices to be made. So would you get an icon "Made in China/Vietnam/Taiwan/wherever," or one written by an independent iconographer who tries to follow the life of the Faith?

Ask around for the latter. You might be pleasantly surprised by the terms some 'small' or lesser-known iconographers might give you, in particular if they are creating icons for love of God (as they should be), rather than just being out to make money no matter what. Do not be shy to use that time-honored tradition known in more popular parlance as haggling. Iconographers being craftspeople, for the most part, in the old school mindset understand it very well. That said, please bear in mind that holy icons of the portable variety take about 45 hours to write and that does not include the time spent waiting for them to dry and varnishing them with olifa when ready (larger icons obviously take longer).

Second, do not restrict yourself to your locality, region or nation, when looking for an affordable icon. Prices differ hugely between independent iconographers in the West and their counterparts in Eastern Europe or Russia. For example, I have managed to get icons from the latter group of iconographers for about one-fifth of the price often quoted by iconographers in the US.

The icon of the Mandylion in Icons, the Church and the People of God and the icon of the Theotokos of Kazan in Icons as Resistance came from 'unknown' iconographers in Ukraine and Russia respectively. The Mandylion icon was written by an old female iconographer known only in her own village; the Kazan icon was written by an advanced iconography student in Moscow. But both icons are very beautiful and they cost less than $200 each, including shipping-with-tracking charges. These icons were both laboriously handwritten from prayer and all the materials used were natural. Meanwhile, the first icon shown above of Saint Seraphim of Sarov only cost $50 excluding shipping and yes, it is a genuine icon, not a piece of paper or cardboard glued to wood. It too was written by a iconography student in the same manner, this time in Bulgaria.

But how can one find these kinds of icons - icons that should have been (and have been) written, rather than just produced - without having a trained eye or just plain, good old-fashioned knowing people?

Third, look at the face. I cannot stress this enough. Look at the face. The face and its expression in an icon are a dead giveaway as to whether that icon has been written or not as a result of prayer. What does that face do for you? What do you experience when you look at that face, that expression? Do you feel stricken in your soul? "Wounded by love," as Benedict XVI said? Or do you feel repulsed? Do you feel peace, calmness, quietude - joy, even - when looking at that icon? Or do you feel fear or that "something's not quite right;" unease? This is the key to discerning proper icons from diabolical ones. Yes, the latter do exist.

An icon is a handwritten image that is often the result of direct or indirect revelation to the heart of the soul - the nous - of the iconographer before and during the writing process itself. And that image bears upon it the 'imprint' of the Icon of God through the divine energeia as discussed in an earlier post. But so does your soul if you are in a state of grace! The icon and your soul, therefore, should be 'speaking' to each other in an analogous (albeit not similar) manner to when Christ 'spoke' to John in utero and John 'recognized' Him, through the Holy Spirit, when Mary and Elizabeth met while pregnant (Lk 1:41). If the icon does not somehow 'speak' to you when gazing upon it, what, in that icon, is missing? Is it just an apparent lack of technical skill (something easily attained with further practice) or is it something else altogether?

If, on the one hand, the iconographer is pursuing holiness, that pursuit is going to be seen and felt, one way or another, in the icon regardless of skill level, because one of the effects of genuine iconography on the painter is the opening up wide of one's heart and, at times, the nous by the grace of God. So this is going to come through even in icons written in the crudest way. The aforementioned process occurs because it is the Holy Spirit who is, in reality, the divine iconographer and genuine icons (for lack of better terminology) are intimately related to the various stages and processes of both theosis and deification.

If, on the other hand, an iconographer is painting an icon under the influence of false light, there is going to be a closing, not opening, of the heart and that closure is going to be transmitted to the final product. This becomes most evident in the depicted face and its expression, since it is precisely there that defacement - destruction or eradication of the image, iconoclasm of the imprint within an icon itself - first occurs and with the greatest intensity possible. In other words, what is present in the depths of the heart and soul of the iconographer is going to come out without fail in the icon, and if you are in a state of grace when gazing upon it, you should be able to easily discern its underlying origin.

Fourth, given all of the above, you can reach some conclusions as to what or what not to acquire and from where. If you see an icon of the 'cardstock variety' that is beautiful and it really 'speaks' to you, and you also see a handwritten icon that you feel pushes you away, it is the former that you should acquire despite its materiality, not the latter. That for reasons now obvious.

Enjoy your journey with icons.

© Marcelle Bartolo-Abela, aka Bald Eagle.


  1. Now I'm really curious about icons and wish I could see one that was not just cardstock. I would have no idea where to begin to find such an icon. I can definitely see myself scammed by some "artists" in some far flung country though, lol. I once asked a local artist to sketch my mom, and the result was a cartoon. I wouldn't want to repeat that experience.
    Thank you for talking about this. I find it absolutely fascinating!

  2. The ones I have been posting, none of them are cardstock. As for where to begin, I would suggest starting from the internet. You'll develop an 'eye' for them and you won't end up scammed.

    1. Thank you. I really didn't know there was any difference in icons, so this is new information for me, and as I said, I would really like to see one actually "written" and not printed.

  3. Thank you.

    It seems to Owl that more than a bit of your advice revolves around the premise of like calling to like. That is to say the icon that is man responding to can calling out to the written icon when the individual is in an illuminated state of grace.

    Owl agrees.

    However, what about those who are not as advanced in the spiritual life and even those who are still farther off...not in the Church and not in a state of grace? Is their only recourse, should they desire an icon, to rely on the advice of a known holy person who can properly discern a true icon from a false?

    Belatedly, there are certain well known monastery icons that Owl finds to be aesthetically pleasing enough for Owl's budget. A few were acquired for personal use and more for gifts. After which, Owl discovered that said icons have a dubious origin. The internet is good for research when it come to the bigger sources of icons, but not so hot with smaller sources. As Bald Eagle indicated, one often has to know someone.

    So perhaps, as Bald Eagle wants to avoid playing favorites and warning away from specific places, perhaps Bald Eagle could simply give the websites of those places where Bald Eagle has purchased icons..a list of card stock variety and written. Take the question not as where to buy from, but rather "the icons in your shrine are lovely, where did they come from?"

    Bald Eagle flies higher in the sun than the other birds and can see things more clearly. Owl flies low and in twilight. Owl cannot see what Eagle can, and the vole that was lunch could see even less than Owl.

    1. Here is one evidence-based explanation about Monastery Icons:

      Speaking for myself, I would not get icons from there. But I shall qualify that by saying that is my personal preference. I infinitely prefer getting icons from Orthodox Christian Supply, if I ever wanted a laminated one instead of writing an icon myself.

      For smaller sources of icons, look on the internet and this includes Ebay - do not discard the latter. You will be surprised at what you can find there, once you know what to look for. Search for icons from Eastern Europe and you will find them. Look at Ukraine, Russia and Bulgaria if you want them depicted in the Russian-Byzantine tradition. Many iconographers and workshops from the East, in fact, have their work on there. If you want icons written in the Greek tradition, obviously look at Greece.

      A good place for Greek icons is Nioras and has both originals, silk-screen, laminated, and so on. Do not neglect the Mount Athos monasteries, either; reached through Monastiriaka. They have very beautiful icons and the money earned supports the monks, even those icons made of laminated or cardstock variety.

      Side note about Athos: let's not talk about the communion wine they produce from their own vineyards under 'Nama Byzantina,' which is to die for. Since the day she discovered it, Bald Eagle never fails to order some, generally for Christmas and Easter. Plus the very affordable pure beeswax candles, compared to prices elsewhere.

      For handwritten icons in the US, look for past and present students of Vladislav Andrejev. You will find them all across the country. Their work is superb.

  4. My husband and I know an icon-writer here in Ottawa, and we have several of her icons. We asked her to paint one of the Holy Trinity for us - the traditional form, of the 3 Angels who visited Abraham. In our icon, Sarah is off to the side, looking at them from behind a pillar of the house, because I've always liked the scene where she laughs as she hears the angel tell Abraham that she will have a son. She's had a very interesting life, and came to icon-writing during the 1970s when it was a risky endeavour under Soviet communism:

    1. Beautiful. Absolutely beautiful, the story of Tatiana. Very familiar, too.


Moderation is On.

Featured Post

Judging Angels Chapter 1 Read by Author

Quick commercial for free, no-strings-attached gift of a professionally produced audio book of Judging Angels, Chapter 1: Last Things, read...