Cultural Differences in Icon Writing

Ain Bourdai Icon of St. George

The tradition of the icon is very different than the art of the West. The icon is a “formulated story” – a structured moral tale told by paint on a wooden surface. The icon is tradition-bound by a complex set of “unwritten” rules which govern image placement, proportional sizes of subjects, use of color, and most other aspects of creative development. These venerable traditions are handed down from generation to generation.

Most icons of given saints or events will have common, shared story elements.

“Show me the icons that you venerate, that I may be able to understand your faith.” St. John of Damascus

Icons of St. George will most typically have 1) a white horse, 2) a smaller riding companion, 3) the beast arising from a crack in the ground, 4) a castle with the maiden and her father the King, 5) cross-topped lance, and 6) a heavenly blessing in the form of an angel or a hand above St. George. Like all icons, the images of St. George depict the virtues of spiritual love, humility, and meekness. It is perhaps the portrayal of meekness that is most striking. Geoffrey Ready notes that the saints are “portrayed with absolute serenity in circumstances that we normally associate with anger and excitement – like St. George killing the dragon, or the holy martyrs in the midst of horrible tortures.

(“Anthropology in Color: Orthodox Iconography,” Geoffrey Ready, Grail, Dec. 96 p 92)

In addition to these common elements – shared by most icons – icons often reflect the culture and tradition of the iconographer’s ethnic background. There are four readily recognized ethnic types of icons: Greek, Russian, and Arabic. When representative examples are placed side-by-side the differences become quite clear.

Greek-Style Icon Russian-Style Icon Arabic-Style Icon Coptic-Style Icon

Idealized youth or age

Sharp, angular features

Enlarged eyes

Specialized hand positions

Flat surface details

Little or no background

More “human” features

Softer, fuller faces

Rounded detailing

Little or no background

More earthy colors

Warmer “feeling” tone

Stylized innocence – babes

Fleshy, baby faces

Proportional facial features

More realistic details

Stylized backgrounds

Brighter, lighter tone

Almost a characterized image

Heads are proportionally too large

Very brightly colored with solid hues

Stylistically child-like, a primitive beauty

Ethiopian influence

“St. George and the Dragon” from the iconostatis of Milwaukee’s St. George Melkite Church painted by American iconographer Constantine Youssis – c. 1970

“St. George and the Dragon” now in the St. Petersburg Russian Museum, from Guslicky Monastery by Andrei Rublev – c. 1440

“St. George and the Dragon” from the Lebanese village church of Ain Bourdia – now in the Milwaukee church of St. George – unknown artist – c. 1870

A detail (orientation reversed for comparision) from a 15th Century Diptych of the Virgin and Child – Walter’s Art Museum

The Arabic style of icon tends to be rather rare, despite its long history. Syrian iconographers and some clergy claim that the whole tradition of icon writing originated in in Lebanon and Syria during the earliest days of Christianity. To be exact, one only speaks of “writing” an icon not of “painting” one. This distinction is made because icons are a form of moral story telling – as opposed to a “visual art.”

In the 18th century Arabic icons began to take on a flavor of the Arabic culture with oriental ornamentation and other Arabic detail features. According to the Melkite Bishop of Damascus, Isidore Batteikha, “When you look at a Melkite icon . . . the Mother of the Lord lays in a type of moving wooden bed which is famous in Syria and Lebanon and Prophet Abraham appears wearing clothes of an Arab caliph.” (Quoted in Syrian Icon Painters, by Sawsab Younis for Reuters)

Can you identify the origin of this icon of St. George?

This is a very difficult image of St. George to categorize.

Think carefully about the “traits” of this image and then go here to learn of its origin.

This is a very difficult icon to place, because, to some extent, it reflects all three cultural types Greek, Russian, and Arabic. That is perhaps to be expected of an icon purchased in the city of Kokchetav, in Kazakstan. The country today is about 60% Kazak and 35% Russian. The peoples of Kazakstan are heavily influenced by the Arabic cultures of their neighbors and the most of the people consider themselves to be Muslim. Despite the origin of purchase – the icon would be considered to be Russian in style having been written in Novgorod in the 15th century.