Embracing, Saints Joachim and Anna

A heart -shaped slice of birch wood-  and the haloes of Sts Joachim and Anne merged as to form an actual heart after their embrace.
A very pious couple and a couple that loved each other dearly for many – many years. Our sources (mostly the Protoevangellion of James, a text that belongs in the Apocrypha ) tell us that both were especially tormented for being childless so,  St Anna at the news that she was with child: “…saw Joachim coming, and she ran and hung upon his neck…”

That is exactly the moment that this icon pictures, being a study from an older work made by an unknown master from of the 16th century, found in Sofia.

The use of a very bold, almost “explosive” red on the garments of Hannah, and the lines of the painting were ideal  in communicating  all this unexpected joy, all this energy gathered after countless years of longing and show it in this icon.

Byzantine art and expressionism

The art of the byzantine icons’ painting , an art form that  was expressionism centuries (maybe a millennium) before expressionism /symbolism or surrealism ever even existed. Some of the characteristic elements of this painting “genre” that point towards this direction are:

-The main figure/ feature Enlightened being -The saint, the Saviour or the Holy Mother) is bigger that anything else in the icon
You can see saints in the background that are bigger than the ones in foreground- You can see Saints on horses that are equal in size with the animal. Proportions in general are based on priority that is a sort of unrealism: But then again, we we seek meaning

-The background too- it may be buildings (which are always distorted or proportionally wrong, rendered with  reverse or inverse perspective ) it may have rough mountains – but the main mentallity is that the background shows a distortion a lack of space or time. That is also why gold is used symbolizing enlightement, eternity, something infinite and eternal.

We speak by symbols. As we alter proportions in space we also alter facial features or body proportions in order to highlight a spiritual quality.
So that is why the ears are longer lips are thin, eyes are big, noses are way to long
and that is also why bodies are “bodiless” – There is no muscular tone, and certainly no curves 🙂
The body is just like a cloth of convenience that would soon be thrown away.
 Finally in byzantine painting we are speaking of , we are narrating (the first word in Greek for painting icons is historein which means sayng the history of) the story of another reality, one that is more real than this one we are living in.


Byzantine icon making- The Icon panel

There are many recipes and various materials to prepare icon panels for byzantine icon making. This recipe is for  plywood panel in whatever size you wish to be covered that is covered with the white gesso paste and sanded in order to have its smooth, white surface ready for the egg tempera colors that are used in byzantine iconography.
Various sizes of prepared icon panels
What you need:
Rabbit skin glue (in flakes or in granules)
Zinc oxide
Stucco (not the acrylic the classic staff  that is also used in walls)
Both powders are cheap and we buy them in stores that sell paints and building materials.
Quantities used
1 spoonful- Rabbits-skin-glue for
1 cup of zinc oxide
1 cup of stucco

Preparation of gesso
We add the rabbit skin’s glue in lukewarm water and mix it (try to dissolve it completely)
and then we leave it overnight
Next day we put in a baigne-marie make it warm, and then we dissolve it again 
We always keep a part of this glue 

 In this mixture we add the cups with the powders and we also pass the mixture  it through a stiring tool (a plastic mesh like for tea) in order to dissolve any knots
We keep it in the refrigerator

For every application of the mixture we first put it in the baigne-marie so it becomes liquid

Making the panel
You take a plywood of the size you wish (sandpaper the edges a bit) and you add with a flat brush the melted Rabbits-skin-glue
Right afterwards, you add a piece of cotton cloth (a bit larger that the panel)
Leave it to dry for a day

Next day you apply the gesso mixture, You leave every layer to dry a day and keep the mixture refrigirated
In the second layer of gesso, you cut the cotton right on the edge of the panel with a scissor

After the fourth layer you will need to starighten the surface with a spatula. Usually 4-7 layers of gesso are added

Finally you have sandpapering (I really dislike this step)  with various types of papers (from a rough to very thin). In the end  the surface should look and feel totally flat.

It seems a bit complicated but all it needs is just patience . Best of luck with it!


A look of compassion – Saint Dymphna of Gheel

Saint Dymphna religious icon

When applying color -in our technique- you actually get a certain number of “opportunities” to actually intervene in the facial expression- I usually tend to avoid pronounced or easily identifiable expressions in my icons (for several reasons), but some works seem to take a course of their own like in the case of Saint Dymphna of Gheel, the patron saint of people with mental ailments

In every color layer this delicate”sadness” of a Saint, bathed in light was evident. Sainthood is a “phenomenon” that I cannot actually comprehend (maybe that is why I chose this painting genre, so I could maybe catch a glimpse of this experience) but this was a quality I could somehow relate with- explaining it as empathy, compassion and unconditional love.

Looking again at the work, I am glad for the course it took.

Giving a vintage look to an icon – St Alexios the man of God

Saint Alexios the Man of God
Vintage style icon of Saint Alexis the man of God

I always vintage Russian icons and I particularly loved one of the “popular” themes of Russian iconography and religious storytelling – The life and imaging of Alexis the Man of God.The  Saint’s story, a story of humility and anonymity is very moving let me quote orthodoxwiki.org here:

 “… The rare title, “Man of God,” was bestowed on St. Alexios for the manner in which he gave himself over to Jesus Christ…. He kept his true identity a secret for an entire lifetime rather than run the risk of betraying the Master through his own emotions and there is no telling how much mental anguish he suffered in silence for the sake of his commitment….”  (http://orthodoxwiki.org/Alexios_the_Man_of_God)

I tried to represent Him using a special technique to make the icon look old- The icon was hand painted, with several layers of egg tempera, on a special gessoed canvas that was wrinkled after painting, and then covered on edges with a special plant dye that gives the icon an antique patina. 

The wrinkled canvas with the painting of St Alexios on the wooden panel

The same dye was used to paint the wood that the canvas was attached on. Finally the icon was sealed with traditional wax varnish (or keronefto in Greek )made with turpentine and wax to add the  a scent – “the scent of sanctity” as it is traditionally done in byzantine icons.

Touch me Not, an approach of Mi mou aptou or Noli me Tangere icon

Noli me tangere icon – 13×18 cm egg tempera on wood
Jesus said unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.”(John 20:17)
The “Cretan” version of the “Mi mou aptou”, or Noli me tangere icon- The influence of this school (the Cretan School of iconography that flourished in my home town, Iraklion from 1400-1600) is evident in the bright colors chosen for the image and the long flowing hair of St Mary MagdaleneFor me it was a challenge to paint such a small version of the icon, to show all these mixed feelings in a beautiful woman with uncovered head – Plus my interpretation of the icon is that her head was uncovered as a sign of her grief and mourning.
The text written in Greek is “Mi mou aptou- (Touch me Not) ICXC and St Mary Magdalene and one more word: Rabboni, the single word that is uttered By St Mary, the moment she recognizes her Teacher.
Another version of Touch me Not orthodox icon

Finally, if you want to learn more about this unique orthodox icon you surely have to read a great article on its history and origins: https://iconreader.wordpress.com/2011/10/23/touch-me-not-from-west-to-east/

Coincidence and custom ordering

A custom order for two byzantine icons of Saints Euphrosyne of Alexandria and St Theodora, the Holy Empress

The Byzantine icons of Sts Theodora and Euphrosene

There is also a connection between them that I considered  a nice coincidence and  a good “omen” for this commission: the Holy Empress when retired chose the monastic life for the 8 final years of her life, in the Monastery of St Eufrosyni in Constantinople.

“Athivolo” Drawing

Sometimes icons seem to “choose” one another!


Saint Menas day and the Cathedral on his name

Today, 11/11 is a great feast- The day of our city’s patron St Menas!
Here are some of the wonderful frescoes that glorify his Cathedral – a sample of a living, vibrant tradition of byzantine iconography right in the Center of my town, Heraklion.

The dome with the Image of the Christ Pantocrator (IC XC ΠΑΝΤΟΚΡΑΤΟΡ) overseeing everything

View on the Iconostasis, on the top scenes from the Passions of Christ

A fresco of the Theotokos

Saint Menas of Egypt, riding his horse and his life of many Miracles

Note: The images are found on the web and are not my property- Nevertheless,  would love to have permission to share and give  the due credit to their owners.

Colors in iconography – another "How to" or byzantine icons 101


Egg tempera is the medium for byzantine iconography – But what about the mineral pigments? Despite the variety of colors available on the market, there are only  ten (yes, 10) mineral powders that tradition holds necessary for the creation of a byzantine icon.

And yes, I think its only natural for the art that tries to portray  divine order to wisely pick very few and very potent colors for its symbolism. After all, nature has achieved that with even less in a rainbow…

Powder pigments of byzantine iconography in a row

So depending the school, or the master, the colors used (with some variations from time to time) are basically the following (in random order):

1.Titaneum white/ Blanc de titane
2. Black/ Noir d’ ivoire
3. Yellow ocher/ Ocre jaune
4. Cinnabar Red/ Vermillion claire
5. Rouge Anglais (a sort of brownish red)
6. Cadmium Red (a sort of Carmin)
7. Cadmium Yellow
8 Turquise Blue (or Blue Cobalt)
9. Green
10 Ombre vert/ Green Umbre

For example, -if numbers are easier for you to remember- a ccombination of 2,3 and 5 (while other schools use 3,5,1 and 10 or 9) produces what we call “proplasmos of the face” or simply the brown flesh, the color of the earthly soil out of which Adam was made.

Egg tempera: One egg yolk and a spoonful of vinegar

The proportions of the colors are important as well as proportions in the mixture of powders with egg and vinegar; How thick or thin we need the paint to be. White, ochre and vermillion combined, very thinly -that is with al lot of egg and vinegar-  are used for the almost transparent in some spots — highlights of the skin- but that is a subject of another post!!!

August a "How to do" month- How to make byzantine icon panels

Make your own byzantine icon panel?-Well that is actually not as difficult as it initially looks!

Making wooden panels in angelicon’s workshop

First  (after choosing a wooden board of the size you like) we have the connective medium, a type of hide glue that is turned into a gel with the addition of water.
Then zinc and gypsum is added in it and thoroughly mixed and then the pure linen cloth is attached to the wooden board with the assistance of the above materials
After layers and layers of the white paste, there is a lot of sandpapering (I really don’t like this dusting part…) till the white surface becomes perfectly smooth.!

Finally we have the painting on the back and on the sides with glue and red color as a finishing touch.

And not to forget to add your metal hanger on the back. The panel is now ready!