Atelier saint André Aesthetic outlines
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Origin and Tradition

The word "icon" comes from the Greek "eikon" that means "image", or "portrait ". Nativity of Christ marks the birth of the icon. The Word was made flesh, the Invisible became visible, God took a human face, a unique Face that is repeated through the faces of the Mother of God and the saints who are bathed in the same uncreated light.

Smolenskaïa The icon is the result of prayerful meditation patiently created by generations of painters. It is the fruit of tradition instead of being the result of an individual's intuition, impression, or abstraction. The iconographer is the instrument through which a work is executed, a work that goes beyond the individual. Nothing of the iconographer's state of mind or sensuality should be in evidence in the image. In fact not even an individual signature is permitted to appear on the front of the icon.
Mother of God of Smolensk, Atelier Saint-André

The beauty of the icon

The beauty of the icon derives essentially from spiritual truth, therefore from the exactitude of symbolism and from the necessity for contemplation and worship.
Although the icon represents the human form transfigured by grace in a stylized manner that respects realism, it never strives for naturalism. The person who is represented in any specific icon always refers back to the prototype. The human body is never depicted as carnal, but as transfigured. The terrestrial becomes celestial.
Pantocrator, Greece XIVth. century

A Spiritualization of the World

Mountains The tendency to spiritualise is also clearly shown in the details in icons. Icons are not intended to represent nature as it appears to the eye : the rocks of the landscape appear to defy gravity and the vegetation seems to have been created in heaven.

True function and realism in architecture are also suspended in the icon : for example, the baldachin in the illustration on the right. Natural proportions are completely ignored : doors and windows are often represented without taking into consideration realistic measurements.


The face, center of the icon

The face is the central to the representation : it is the place of the presence of the Spirit of God.

Polycarp The eyes are a reflection of the heart that beckons to us. Illuminated by the vision of God, they communicate the celestial message of greeting, mercy, truth and contemplation. Above the eyebrows, which reinforce the expression of the eyes, rises the forehead, seat of wisdom and intelligence. Often very high, curved and spherical, the forehead suggests the force of the spirit and the knowledge of the man of God. The nose is fine and elongated, a sign of nobility. The nostrils are light and discrete, expressing an inner control of the passions. Without too much relief or too much hollowness, the cheeks radiate interior light. Only those of the ascetics show deep wrinkles, outward signs of prayer and fasting. The lips are very fine, without sensuality. They are geometrical and always closed in the silence of contemplation. The ears listen to the divine word. The beard, thick and generous, suggests the strength and serenity of the saint.
Saint Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, Atelier Saint-André.

Proportions of the face

The Byzantine aesthetics of the icon is grounded in forms that reflect a world that is both ideal and almost abstract. These forms are restructured in order to reflect not only the material nature of the beings, but also their divine nature : the spiritual and divine essence is suggested through the use of geometric, rhythmic and chromatic elements. Until the Seventeenth century the faces in the majority of icons utilized the simplicity of these elements in their structures. After this time icons were more and more influenced by Western naturalism and these elements were employed less often. As a result faces became flat and heavy and lost their harmony and intense light of the older icons.

The Byzantine form is based upon the module that corresponds to the length of the nose. It is upon this module that all the proportions of the face are based. Thus the head is created with two radius of the nose module and the halo is often determinated by a third module. The nose length, or first module, determines the space for the nose, the eyes and the forehead. The second module indicates the volume of the head. The center of all the circles is positioned at the bridge of the nose, between the two eyes. The pupils are placed a half nose module from the center of the circle. A horizontal line drawn between the pupils can be connected with diagonal lines to the bottom of the nose to create a triangle. This geometric shape gives to the face a sense of nobility and balance. The use of the module acts as a guide for the artist yet still allows for flexibility. Contrast this with the more strict use of line that is used in the construction of movement of the hair. Thus the module acts as the mysterious basis that under-girds the icon and is one of the secrets of its harmony. Pantocrator
Pantocrator, Atelier Saint-André.

The three-quarter face

Arch. Michael The three-quarter face is treated like a frontal view face as a projection on a two dimensional plane. Through the use of planimetric representation, the face opens towards the viewer and the outside curve of the head becomes more powerful. Subjects are not conceived of as free and mobile in space but rather as radiating presence.

Heads on icons are rarely done in profile. When they are they are awkwardly drawn and the profile indicates that the character is less significant and perhaps even malicious.

Archangel Michael, Atelier Saint-André.
The Byzantine perspective

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Last update : Mon, Dec 8, 2008, P. Grall © ASA 2000 - 2009 All rights reserved.