Types of hand-painted Orthodox icons

Types of hand-painted Orthodox icons

July 29, 2021

in icon painting studio

Even the non-Christians often get fascinated by the Orthodox hand-painted icons. Many get interested in this art form after seeing the famous icons painted by St Luke, which depict the Mother of God.

There is something mysterious about the images of different Christian saints. Most people notice, that there are various types of icons and icon painting styles which the artists have been using for centuries. In this article, we will try to give a brief summary of the most famous Orthodox icon types and styles.

Icons painted on wood

Painting on wood is the most popular way to create icons in the Orthodox tradition.

The painting of icons on wood is a multi-step, many-layered process, that is rich with symbolism. Icons are typically painted on boards made from linden or pine wood. The wood must be minimally resinous, without any imperfections.

The board is cut from the center of the tree with a vertical grain. Slats of harder wood are inserted into the back of the board at the top and bottom. They provide support and prevent cracking, as the board expands and contracts with moisture.

A recessed area is usually carved in the center of the board. It helps to create a raised frame around the perimeter of the future icon. It is called ‘the arc” and refers to the Arc of Noah, symbolizing the division between the sacred and the secular world.

Then the artist sands and scores the board, preparing its surface to apply the adhesive. After that hide glue is applied all over and a piece of linen is attached to it, in order to protect the icon and prevent the flaking of paint in the future.

Holy Apostle and Evangelist Luke

A handpainted icon of Holy Apostle and Evangelist Luke created in our Convent*

The next step is to apply a few thin layers of gesso (usually a mixture of chalk, glue and marble dust) and sand the final layer. That way the surface feels and looks as smooth as possible.

The icon composition begins on paper and starts as a simple sketch. There are a few methods to transfer the image to the wooden board. One of them calls for carbon paper, which can be attached to the back of tracing paper. The artist simply traces the lines of the sketch which leaves a faint outline on the board.

Have you ever wondered why on many icons the halo extends beyond the icon frame? Well, this is done to emphasize the difference between the spiritual and the mundane. The artist then traces the image with a sharp needle-like tool. The tracing remains there as a guide throughout the painting process.

The next step is covering the background or any other areas of the icon with a gold leaf. After that, the artist can proceed to actually paint the image. It is usually done with egg tempera, however, nowadays some artists may use acrylic paint.

Colors are applied from darkest to lightest. The artist builds up the layers to create luminosity within the icon. When the saint is painted, the artist adds inscriptions, like the saint’s name.

After the painting process is finished, the artist adds a layer of linseed oil to the icon and waits for it to dry completely. The drying can take up to a month, depending on the climate.

Icons painted on glass

Painting Orthodox icons on glass is something that we do not see very often. However, in Transylvania, in the Romanian Orthodox Church, there are artists (some of them are monks) who create unique Romanian icons painted on glass.

the Weeping Virgin Mary of Transylvania

Icon of the Weeping Virgin Mary of Transylvania painted on glass

There is a famous miraculous icon of the Mother of God called the Weeping Virgin Mary of Transylvania. The wonder-working icon was painted in the 17th century. After the Virgin Mary on the icon cried for forty days in 1699, the faithful wanted to own copies of the icon. At that time, it was easier for the artists to find glass to paint on, rather than wood. This is how the icons painted on glass became popular.

Just like with wooden icons, in order to paint an icon on glass, the artist sketches an outline by using transfer paper and a pencil. The sketch is then put behind the glass and copied to the glass’ surface. The artist must make sure that the sketch is then reversed because the paint will be applied to the back of the glass.

The artist paints the image with egg tempera paint, but they may also use oil paint. Oil paint is usually easier to work with.

Icons painted on stone

Hand-painted Byzantine Orthodox Christian icons painted on stone are even harder to come across. Painting icons on stone is not an easy process, which requires a lot of patience and artistry.

Some artists carve and then hand-paint Orthodox icons on stone. Others don’t do any carving at all, but paint the image on the surface of a mountain stone. In that case, the artist has to cover the stone with a clear solution to fill the natural holes and imperfections. Then the artist paints the image with tempera paint. One small religious hand-painted Orthodox icon for sale can take up to a week to create.

Stone Icon of Saint Anna

Handmade Icon from finely ground semiprecious stones created in our Convent*

Here at Saint Elisabeth Convent we also create beautiful icons using semiprecious stones. This means that we do not paint them on stone, but rather paint them with stones. We use different kinds of stones to create different colors. For example, we use marble and calcite for white, as well as malachite and onyx for green.

Hand-painted Christian icons on or with stone are unique and breathtaking. They usually make a perfect meaningful gift for a loved one.

Why are icons painted in a specific style?

Orthodox icons are very different from any other types of icons. They are not realistic portraits of saints, but abstractions. This unmistakable style developed during the Byzantine empire in the 6th century. Since then, the artists have been copying the same images to make new icons. This is why most icons look very similar, if not exactly alike.

The stylization of icons (in other words, making them less realistic and more abstract) makes the depicted saints look less earthly, representing their stronger connection with the divine.

icon painting process

Even when Russian artists started adding more realism to their icons and adapt some elements of Western European realism at one point, they still kept the same general form of Byzantine icons.

When it comes to Greek icons, they are more naturalistic. Greek artists usually use brighter colors and create sharper contrasts.

There are various styles of icon painting, notably the Russian, the Byzantine and the Greek ones. But different styles don’t mean different forms - an Orthodox icon is usually easily recognizable because of its distinctive form.

What does the style of an icon mean?

A specific style of painted Orthodox icons simply points to their origin, it rarely has a spiritual meaning of any kind. Most icons you might come across can be painted in one of the three main styles. You can find Greek, Byzantine, and Russian hand-painted icons.

While icon form is normally the same in all styles, there are different types of hand-painted religious icons, the most popular of which are icons on wood, on glass and on stone. It is up to you to decide which style and type of icon to purchase. What really matters is that any icon can truly become a window to the divine world and help you to make your prayers more meaningful and mindful.

* You can order this icon and other products of St Elisabeth Convent by clicking on this link.

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