The Three-Handed Mother of God, by George Panaiotov.

Features icon writing. A journey through time

It’s hard to say whether the revival of icons is the outcome of rising religiosity in general, a growing need to manifest one’s faith, or simply the search for some kind of salvation in a time of political and economic uncertainty. Nancy Westman went to St. Petersburg for a closer study of modern iconography; she also spoke to a couple of Swedish iconographers.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 1 2012, pages 11-14
Published on on April 10, 2012

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The man bent over a lectern has a very long beard. Thin and gray, illuminated from below, it becomes a halo that has slipped out of place, hanging down so low it nearly brushes the computer screen. We are in a room in the Engineers’ Castle, part of the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg. The “Holy Russia” exhibition is showing a rich collection of religious art, icons, exquisite textiles, and gleaming silver chalices. The exhibition, previously shown in Moscow, is said to have been the idea of President Dmitri Medvedev.

And here stands   a man, born in a time when no one dreamed it would one day be possible to use modern technology to peruse a book nearly a thousand years old. When the pages of the Ostromir Gospel turn by themselves under the glass, it is pure magic: in this, the second-oldest preserved manuscript of the Russian world, the uncial manuscript is itself a work of art. It is dated 1056 or 1057. The time perspective is slightly dizzying.

The schoolchildren being ushered around the stands filled with sacred contents are rowdy, like kids all over the world. The boys are goofing off; their gray blazers seem too uncomfortable. The girls’ pleated skirts are as prim and proper as their freshly pressed hair ribbons. A few listen intently as the guide drones on about the objects in the exhibition. Perhaps one of the girls will join the host of silent, fine-limbed figures in long dark dresses and headscarves in one of the major cathedrals of the city? One of their duties is to take care of all the icon candles. In the second-largest city in Russia, they live in a world where people encounter religious art as a matter of course. Handwritten icons, many of them new creations, are in demand for church walls, monasteries, and private homes. Icons are seen here, there, and everywhere — cheap copies are bought and sold wholesale and retail. The wide range of icon bracelets sold in the gift shop of the Russian Museum are a trendy favorite among young women — all over the world.

But is there  something that can be termed modern icon writing? The icons being created now are almost exclusively based on originals that have been around for 400 to 800 years. Or even more than 2000 years: after all, the tradition holds that the first icon is the one called the “divinely wrought” image of Christ, the image “not made by human hands”. As the legend goes, King Abgar, a contemporary of Jesus, was afflicted with leprosy and asked for help. Jesus wet his face and dried it on a towel, which he had delivered to the king. Abgar is said to have been partly cured by this very first “portrait” of the face of Christ. (The Veil — or Sudarium, meaning “sweat-cloth” — of Veronica is a variation on the theme.) Saint Luke is said to have made the first icon written by human hands.

The icon writing   of our time is generating keen interest in many areas and St. Petersburg is no exception. A publishing house was established here in 2007 that is exclusively devoted to works about icons and other sacred art. The publisher, Kolomenskaya Versta, arranged an international conference in November 2011 under the heading “Modern Sacred Icons in the World”, which drew 120 attendees. Most of the participants were from Russia, but many traveled from the US, Canada, Finland, Japan, Greece, Italy, England, Serbia, and Uruguay to devote three days to modern iconography.

Kolomenskaya Versta was founded by Elena Petelina. At first, it was part of another publishing house that had long been publishing books specifically about icons aimed at Russian audiences. Elena Petelina wanted to internationalize the publications and arrange conferences, exhibitions, and pilgrimages focused on the icon, and the contemporary icon in particular.

At a meeting   at the publishing house, which boasts a prestigious address on the famous Nevsky Prospect, I am shown a few of the twenty or so titles published in the last five years. The books they show me seem very lavish. The publisher’s English-speaking spokesperson and vice president, Natalya Loseva, tells me that the company has an expansive network in Russia, Europe, and the US, and that the conference held in November clearly showed that the icon writers of the world had both a need for and an interest in getting together to discuss their work. The next icon conference will be held in St. Petersburg in September of this year.

A trilingual publication was issued in connection with the conference. The participants and their varying opinions about what iconography is and should be in the 21st century were presented in Russian, English, and Italian. Conference speakers included authorities like Paul Busalaev, who began writing icons in 1982. Educated at the Graphic Art Faculty of Moscow Pedagogical Institute, Busalaev has worked in the United Kingdom and Norway and has co-written a book with the even more renowned Michel Quenot.1

Busalaev argues that icon writing is an integrated part of the liturgical life of the church, but must still develop its imagery, for two reasons:

The first and most important reason is reconsideration of the events of modern history of both the church and the state, such as the persecution of the church in the Soviet era and the Second World War, especially in association with the worship and glorification of the new martyrs. The second reason is a new interpretation and imagery in icon painting of personalities and events already manifested in church art.

Busalaev’s opinions have garnered support from quite a few others, including 22-year-old George Panaiotov, who emphasizes that the Assembly of Hierarchs held in August 2000 canonized an amazing 1,200 new saints — and so there are masses of new subjects for icon writers! Panaiotov has been writing icons since the age of six; one of his older colleagues calls him the “Mozart of icon writing”. George’s mother realized how gifted her little boy was from a very early age and his icons are now found in churches and the finest collections in the country. He seems to have any number of commissions to handle, both in Russia and abroad. He tells me this with pride while he serves olives and wine at his kitchen table. He lives quite simply by Western standards, in a one-room apartment with a kitchen and a little studio filled with some of the icons he is working on or has just finished. But in a city where collective housing is still a reality — where several families are crowded into an apartment with a shared toilet, bathroom, and kitchen — his home is comparatively luxurious. He earns enough from the icons to afford both the apartment and his studies in art history at the Ilya Repin State Academic Institute of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture. He paints in his spare time. He can usually write two icons a month and tells me that one of them is now going to be copied using digital photo technology. Forty copies are going to be sold by a hard-working entrepreneur in the icon business. George seems quite pleased with the arrangement, but I am appalled: what will happen to the divinity of the icons, I wonder? With some effort, I have managed to learn that icon writers certainly do not copy old icons when they write yet another image of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, or a saint who is very meaningful to the icon writer in question. Saint George and the Mother of God are two of George’s favored motifs. They may seem like portraits, but some call them religious meditation and others liken iconography to theological research. Everyone I talk to asserts that every element of writing an icon is a form of prayer, praise of the eternal and the divine. But how can a copy machine create true sacred art? Or for that matter, how much of a divine presence can a six-year-old child communicate in a conscious manner?

Putting good manners aside, I pose these questions, but they don’t bother George Panaiotov. He believes he has been given a gift from God and that his icons thus meet the right criteria. He shows me an icon he wrote many years ago, of Saint Anastasia surrounded by a Russian patriarch, a Catholic Pope, and two cosmonauts. The icon was written in honor of a peace project carried out jointly by the Orthodox and Catholic churches some years ago.

 The day after   my visit to young Panaiotov, I go to the Church of St. Pantaleimon, which blends in easily with the surrounding homes and stores. A couple of George Panaiotov’s recently written icons hang in the church. You almost have to know they are contemporary, unlike most of the sacred images here, to tell that they are so new the paint has hardly dried.

People prefer not to talk about money in connection with icons, and some seem not to need anything so worldly. Archimandrite Zinon, who works at the Pskov-Pechory Dormition Monastery, is a legend among modern icon writers. In an online interview, he says the only payment he wants is to be included in people’s prayers and the joy his icons give to those who pray before the sacred images.2

Today’s Russia lives in a strange mix of tradition and hyper-modernity. After the Soviet parenthesis of seventy years or so, it might sometimes seem as if nothing happened, as if people here still lived in a Byzantine era, even though Western capitalism is everywhere apparent. Could it be that people feel a deep need for comfort? Icons are still used in everyday life, as protection against evil, to call forth miracles, to help someone find housing or a job, or to cure someone from a serious disease. One Tuesday morning like any other, I go into the Kazan Cathedral on Nevsky Prospect, where I find lively activity with Mass in progress, people lining up in front of the icon of Kazan himself, people lighting candles before an icon or standing in the gift shop thinking about buying some kind of sacred art, or perhaps just a postcard.

Among those who have made icons the subject of their academic research, there are a few who are horrified by what they see occurring in modern society. Anastasia Trapeznikova is currently completing her doctoral studies, which are devoted to contemporary iconography. At the international icon conference in St. Petersburg in 2011, she did not mince her words: the paper in which she attacks the pop culture and superficiality that devalue icons was titled “Kitsch and Modern Iconoclasm”. She wrote:

When we talk about kitsch, we mean that the icon image is used by non-Orthodox people who deliberately devalue it. It is reflected in the creation of objects of pop art, which employ the idea of the image in comic interpretations or render stylizations of the contemporary art of postmodernism.

Trapeznikova also accuses parts of the Orthodox Church of being the iconoclasts of our time, because its priests do not resist newfangled ideas. She criticizes not only the way modern icons are far too often written, but also the fact that they are copied en masse and disseminated to the four winds. What should be done? One way to save the situation, she believes, would be if all icon writing henceforth and forever were permitted only under the aegis of the church. The church should take over all training and approve the new icons, according to Trapeznikova. Old-fashioned ideas? Maybe, but this particular scholar was born in 1987.

Icon writing is taught at universities and colleges, painting schools, workshops, and night classes at the hobby level in St. Petersburg. Philip Davydov is one of the most sought-after teachers. He and his wife Olga Shalamova run a respected icon studio in St. Petersburg, to which we drive in his ramshackle car. We enter through the back courtyard and it becomes obvious that the spruced-up facades along the larger streets of the city may be hiding even worse dilapidation. But once inside the studio, the place is warm and bright. The couple rent the city-owned space at a subsidized rate through the Union of Artists of Russia, to which they both belong. When we come in, Olga Shalamova waves happily at us, her hands white with the paint she is using to prime a large number of wood panels. Six or seven coats of priming paint have to be put on before the panels are sent out to a workshop in Australia.

The walls of the studio are covered with finished icons and shelves bowing under the weight of books about icons and art history. Philip Davydov’s doctoral dissertation, presented at the St. Petersburg State Fine Art Academy, was entitled Genesis and Evolution of Medieval Altarpieces in Italy. He learned to write icons from his father, a priest who was one of the first to catch on that icons were once again becoming popular in Russia. As Philip expands upon his thoughts about modern iconography, he emphasizes the importance of tradition, but also that medieval icons should not be cloned. And to clarify the difference between visual art and icon writing, beyond the sacred purpose, he says that the icon is poetry, while other visual art is prose.

History, theology, and practice are all important elements of writing an authentic icon — but there must be room for development. When I push him to explain what good, innovative icons might look like, he has one recommendation: the works written by Todor Mitrovic, from the Serbian capital Belgrade. Mitrovic has found a form of his own that Philip likes very much.

 Much of Philip’s   and Olga’s work is done on commission, but quite a bit springs from their own yearning to devote themselves to a particular motif. There are now about 150 icons, frescoes, and works in metal by Philip Davydov spread all over the world.

No shortcuts are taken in this studio. Everything is done meticulously, from the design of the panel and the size mixed of chalk and glue to the image painted in egg tempera, which yields the most gorgeous, bright, and permanent colors. The tiny pots of natural pigment in every color of the rainbow offer their own experience of beauty. The gold is of the highest purity and most heavenly glimmer. The icons written here have been praised to the skies by critics, students, and those who buy the works. Philip Davydov has been a professor at the Orthodox Institute of Theology and Sacred Arts in St. Petersburg since 2006. How he finds time for it all is something of a mystery.

Sweden has proud traditions in iconography, if not out in the churches, at least at the National Museum in Stockholm. Its icon collection is considered one of the finest in the world outside Russia. It is small in terms of the number of exhibited works, but the icons crowded into the small space are of the highest quality, of tremendous breadth and depth, and are only a tiny fraction of the total collection of 320 icons, of which 250 were donated by the “Red Banker”, Olof Aschberg.

Reading the learned   discourses of Per-Arne Bodin on an obscure saint like the Blessed Xenia of St. Petersburg is stimulating. Bodin is a professor of Slavic languages, and his book of essays Skruden och nakenheten [The robes and the nakedness] includes the tale of the remarkable Xenia, a fool-for-Christ who lived in the 1700s.3 Since she was not canonized until 1988, there are no ancient icons to fall back on: the icon writers are free to create to their own inclinations, which they do. You can see examples on the net from many places around the world.

There are a great many people in Sweden who can style themselves icon writers, and even more are taking classes to learn how to write icons. One of those who have been involved in iconography for a long time is Yelena Kimsdotter Kuzmina. She was born in Latvia, has a solid arts education from Russia — but learned to write icons in the Swedish provincial city of Sundsvall. She was taught by Father Olof Åsblom of the Catholic parish in Luleå. The education included masses, meditation, learning about old originals, and training in the painterly craft. She eventually took a master’s class at Valamo Abbey in Finland.

She now writes her icons in Visby and teaches courses in icon writing in various places in Sweden. Yelena Kuzmina also emphasizes that icon writing is not about copying, that for her it is a way of praying to God, of expressing her yearning to be with God and to become a better person. “Icon writing is a long, slow process, it’s impossible to stress out about it. On the contrary, as the work proceeds, you often find stillness, inner peace, and the answers to many questions”, Yelena Kuzmina explains.

Her thoughts are very much in agreement with what Dr. Margareta Attius Sohlman writes in a book about the icons of centuries past: “The icon is an image of the divine. The icon never depicts the exterior reality, but only the inner, the extracorporeal.”4  Attius Sohlman stresses that icons should not be regarded as art, but as part of the liturgy. It is the spirituality that gives the icon its quality, that conveys a message. For her part, she is drawn to older icons, which is chiefly where she finds what resonates with her.

 They say you   can call yourself an icon writer when you have devoted yourself to the process for seven years — and Jesper Neve has been writing icons since 1987. He started because he wanted an icon of his own. He had seen an exhibition of icons whose genuineness was guaranteed by a Soviet certificate of cultural historical authenticity. Instead of buying one, he decided to learn to write icons himself. As he has a doctorate in physics and a day job in IT, it was a struggle to find the time to learn and develop his iconography. He first approached the Right Reverend Bishop Johannes of the Orthodox Church of St. Constantine and St. Helen in Vårberg, south of Stockholm, and bought two icons there. He then signed up for an icon course in Kista, the “Silicon Valley” of Sweden, which gave him an understanding of the painting technique, but not the fundamental religious aspects. He went back to Bishop Johannes and began a course of training with the bishop and Theodora that lasted 17 years. For his part, Jesper Neve has chosen a classic, Russian/Greek style. Even within rigid confines, there is clearly room for personal choice — but always with one singular purpose: the prayer to God. This is one of the things Neve teaches at the icon writing courses he now holds. ≈


  1. Michel Quenot, Dialogue avec un peintre d’icônes, L’iconographe russe Pavel Boussalaev, Editions de Cerf.
  3. Per-Arne Bodin, Skruden och nakenheten: Essäer om Ryssland [The robes and the nakedness: Essays on Russia], Skellefteå: Artos & Norma, 2009.
  4. Margareta Attius Sohlman, Vladimir G. Platonov and Gunnel Vallquist, Ikoner från Novgorod till Ishavet [Icons from Novgorod to the Arctic Ocean], Umeå 1994.
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