It is said that it takes 25 years to master the art of iconography. By that
standard I am a mere novice, as I have been painting/writing icons for only 5
years. I am thus always striving to learn more and to improve my
As I cannot afford the expensive workshops that are offered around the
country- and would not be eager to be separated from my family for the weeklong
classes even if I could- I learn mainly by studying existing icons, stopping at
every Orthodox or Byzantine Catholic church I can, buying books when I have a
bit of extra cash.
To that end I recently purchased three books.
The first of these, A Brush with God, is by Peter Pearson, a well
known iconographer. Though he begins with a discussion of the theology of icons,
the bulk of the book consists of instruction in the technique of icon painting,
apparently intended for beginners. As his technique is very different from what
I had learned, and as I like the look of his icons, I tried a few of the things
he teaches. I would say on the basis of that experience that a beginner would be
thoroughly confused if he tried to paint an icon using this book as his sole
guide. As with other iconography instructions I have tried to follow the author
does not address the problems one inevitably encounters. Further, Mr Pearson inexplicably omits certain essential steps that are needed to avoid disaster. To
cite one example, he instructs the student to use a compass to draw the circle
for the halo, but does not mention that you need to protect the panel from the
stylus if you don’t want a small hole in the middle of the forehead of the
figure you are portraying (I use a guitar pick and masking tape).
While the book is lovely to look at and is a helpful addition to the
library of the experienced iconographer, I cannot recommend it to a
In the text of the book Mr Pearson mentions in passing his friendship with
Brother Robert Lentz, OFM, the controversial painter who paints so-called icons
that stray far from canonical iconography. Besides traditional subjects- which
he paints with great skill- Br Lentz has painted "icons" of Christ as the horned
pagan god, and of "saints" like Albert Einstein, Cardinal Bernadin, and the
murdered gay activist Harvey Milk. Catholic "iconographers" like Br Lentz and
the Jesuit Fr William Hart McNichols, who hijack Byzantine painting styles in
service to their own religious and political agendas, scandalize Orthodox
believers and no doubt contribute to the opinion held by many Orthodox
Christians that only the Orthodox can paint icons.
To Mr Pearson’s credit, I have never seen him stray from the accepted
models, but the comment raised suspicions.
At the end of the book I read that he is a priest of the Diocese of
Bethlehem, PA. Having never heard of such a diocese I googled it and discovered
that the only such diocese is in fact Episcopalian. Mr Pearson mentions in his
book that he grew up Catholic, and I had heard from a fellow iconographer that
he is a former Benedictine monk.
Although it does not seem to be reflected in his iconography, which is
traditional, for a Catholic to move to and be ordained in the Episcopal Church
is an act of apostasy. His book still has value, but this fact casts a shadow on
The second book, The Mystical Language of Icons, by Norwegian
iconographer and Catholic convert Solrunn Nes, does not pretend to be an
instructional manual, though there is a brief overview of the steps involved in
painting an icon.
Rather, it is a lavish full color guide to the major icons, with Ms Nes’
exquisite works as examples. She paints in a variety of styles- Greek, Russian,
Cretan, Italo-Byzantine, and Bulgarian- in a luminous palette, and her work is
As valuable as the ancient icons are- and it is doubtful that anyone will
ever surpass the heights achieved by the medieval Russian iconographers- one can
learn much from studying the work of contemporary iconographers, whose work is
unfaded by time. I expect that Mystical Language is a work I will
return to time and again for knowledge and inspiration.
I ordered the third book, Icons and Saints of the Orthodox Church,
by Alfredo Tradigo, expecting a modest addition to my iconography bookshelf.
Instead, to my surprise and delight, I acquired the most comprehensive reference
book on iconography I have yet encountered. Its 375 pages are packed with full
color illustrations of just about every conceivable icon, with an exhaustive
commentary which includes a text from Scripture, the Liturgy, or the Saints, the
historical sources for the icon, and a theological discussion on its
significance. It is a thorough and systematic guide to the subject, part of the
J Paul Getty Museum’s series Guide to Imagery. Other works in the
series include volumes on Angels and Demons, Saints, and Symbolism in Art.
The work was originally published in Italian, and all of the names
associated with it are Italian, and presumably Catholic. Let us hope that such a
labor of love will help undo the harm done by aberrational Catholic
A caveat, though: the volume is 5 1/2 X 7 3/4 inches in size. As it
includes many intricate and highly detailed icons, some with vast numbers of
figures and scenes (think The Last Judgement) I found it irksome and a
strain to the eyes to use. However, when I reflected that a more appropriate 11"
X 14" size would place it outside my price range I did the logical thing and
bought a magnifying glass, which solved the problem handily. (Incredibly, I
bought this book from Amazon.com for $21, which included shipping!)
All three of these volumes are a welcome addition to my library, the last a
particularly rich find. I recommend the last two books without qualification,
and the first to iconographers interested in expanding their technical