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Icons On Mosaic, Icons On Walls, Icons On Wood, Icons On Glass, Icons With Beads?

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 1 2

Religious art

Beads used instead of yarn

Being born and raised in a Greek Orthodox family, icons were not a curiosity for me. Well, there were curiosity when I started to understand things. However I never understood why did people in the house, once in a while went to the icon standing, or kneeling in front of it, seeming to talk to it at different times. I noticed that in every room of our apartment, there was an icon hanging on the wall. Some were bigger some were smaller, but one was present, especially in the bedrooms. Later on I noticed that none of those were visible in the living room, or dining room, or any other place in the house where guests were coming.

Images on the wall


At my grandmother's place, I noticed that icons were present all over the place, no matter if it were a bedroom or a common room open to guests. What I also noticed was that the icons, again, no matter how big they were, always had a candle underneath. Well, they were not really candles, they were small containers with oil on which a wicker was floating, and it was light at all times. As a matter of fact, I remember that there was no electricity in the house. We used hand lamps running on kerosene. Every other day or so, I was supposed to inspect them and see if they needed more kerosene. Of course I was supposed to do it in the morning, so they could be filled up for the next evening. In my inspection rounds, I was supposed to check the oil at the icons. It did not burn as fast, yet it had to be replaced once a week.

Early nineteen century icons from Wallachia

I never understood why they had to have the wicker burning during the day, there was enough light from the outside to see in the house, and even during the dark Winter day, the icons could be seen without any light on them.

Well, it took a while to understand the meaning of that light under the icon, and once I could understand things explained to me, I had an idea of the why. However if I understand the symbolism, I still question the wisdom of having unattended open flame in a house... Fire danger. But it seems that the cases of fire were very rare and far apart, and people were keeping the tradition without thinking too much about safety.

Understanding the icon reason was even harder to get. In the end, I still did not get it, however I learned to accept certain things without finding the logic in them. The more I learned, the more confused I got, but after all I never said that I am not confused.

My friend's icon in his guest room

I asked once my father, but in spite of the fact that he was the son of a priest, his religious knowledge was not worth too much. He was, and still is when I write this lines, an artist. We all know how artists are. OK, I should have known better, but I risked it any way.

“Dad, why do they make icons, I read the Bible (Old Testament) and whoever wrote it thundered against idolatry. What in the world is an icon but some form of an idol? A graphic representation of God, or Mary with baby Jesus, or a peace-loving saint with a spear, or a sward, depending on the region, killing a dragon. So where is the love?”

My father looked at me, at first like to an unknown stranger he met in the street, than with understanding and he replied: “You really want to get in trouble telling people you read the Bible? Now if you don't care about yourself, why do you want me to get in trouble if people hear that you waste time reading it?” He must have been in a bad mood that day, and the conversation was left hanging...

Detail of my the icon from my friend's house

However things had changed, got less strict, and having or displaying an icon was not such an act of treason as it was a sure way to be classified as a mystic or a religious nut!

Well, I discovered in time that my family was part of the mystics or religious nuts, because my father started to collect old icons all of a sudden. He was traveling the country-wide, and he always came home with one of them things in his begs. Some of them were old, some of them were in good condition, some of them were covered in silver, or copper, some were just plates of wood, almost all washed of their content.

Actually, it was a weave of spiritual liberation going on, and the trends changed. It was still not Kosher to be mystic or religious, however the icons were considered by that time “objects of art” and they started to be an item of interest on the tourist market.

Now, I think that it is time to define what an icon is and to talk about the topic of this writing.

There are two meanings to the word, one as a religious painting, which are used in the worshiping process by Eastern Christians, and they are also small symbol, graphic representations used in computer programs as navigational tools.

Of course I am going to talk about the first category. Icons are a typical Christian art form, and they represent a portrait of saints. Usually they represented Jesus, Mary his mother and Mary with baby Jesus, and later his apostles started to show on those paintings.

Although graphic representation of religious nature existed before Christianity, those were not showing human faces, as much as symbols or pagan gods.

The New Testament mentioned icons of God, Jesus to be more precise, however at the dawn of Christianity, they were considered idolatry, and not ready accepted all over the place. After the New Testament made mention of them, actually icon is a Greek word translated into “portrait”, in time they got acceptance. The first icon was supposed to represent Jesus, although it was recorded a few good years after his death, but the graphic representation was believed to be his face. Than new characters emerged, although they are quite limited in number In general the icons represent, Jesus, Mary and baby Jesus, and his apostles as saint. In time, the faces on the icons have been substituted for a lot of living people at the time they were painted, however the general composition did not vary too much from the original portrait, mainly with a head.

Because they are supposed to represent an image of Jesus, more or less during the centuries, the face stayed the same variations being recorded with the saints which were not standard from the beginning.

Now, just because these icons are essentially the same design executed over the century, one may be amazed to find out that if the face, generally is the same, Jesus', the rest of the composition varies with the period and the art form in vogue at that time. It is amazing how much chromatic and composition variety can be found in using basically the same core of the painting.

The icons were originating in the East, and for most part they remained in the East or to the Christians of Eastern rites. The Catholic don't use icon as much, they preferring statues in the worshiping houses.

Although in the Catholic word, paintings with saints showed up in abundance, they were mostly lay compositions with the saints being rendered like regular beings, taking part in scenes from the bible.

Due to their nature, wood, the first icons ever painted did not survive, but a lot of mosaics and wall paintings in churches made it to our days.

The icons came out as portraits made on wood plates covered with paint.

These graphic representations followed all the steps the painting world went through. At first the rendering was very primitive, the artists not being aware of the perspective, however in time they changed, and some of the work is remarkable. In the Eastern rites, the icons are used during the worshiping, and they have been following certain strict rules in design. Basically any Easter type Christian church has to have icons inside. Some people painted saints faces, and biblical scenes on the outside of the churches, establishing a tradition and a particular architectural style. The icons started to pop up in private houses. It was believed that an icon which was blessed by a priest during a service, would be a protection for the house and its inhabitants.

Where the East met West, roughly at the border of the Austrian Hungarian Empire, along the Carpathians, the two cultures met and created a new style of those icons. They were made on glass. What was interesting was the fact that the paint started to be applied on the glass in reverse. The front is clean. While on the front the design is done starting with the background that the scene is built on, and the last layers are the finite details of the painting, on the reverse painting on glass the artists starts with the fine details, going backwards toward the background.

I got into the icon business by accident. I had once a tourist who was chasing icons, especially icons on glass, or reverse paintings on glass. Luck threw me in her way and for the following three weeks after we met, we traveled the country looking for the reverse painting on glass.

Everything I know today, is due to that person who needed a guide to take her and her husband around. It was a fascinating time, however it was hard work for me, because I had to know the topic and I had to learn it very fast...

I am not going to get into details here, because that is a totally independent topic, and I treated it before, however I could have not reached the topic of today's post, without giving some background information.

During the years I have seen a lot of styles of icons, and every single one, I should say has its charm. It would be difficult for me, as it would be for those who have a professional background on the topic to decide which one is better, because each one is different.

However I got interested in a new form of icon representation, that I did not see before a couple of months ago on a social networking: beaded icons.

I was fortunate enough to run into this artist, a young mother who stayed home to take care of her new-born baby girl and who spent a lot of time creating art using beads.

She is from Bulgaria, a country under the Greek Orthodox sphere of influence, as much as Romania is. So, icons are not anything unheard of in Bulgaria, however icons made with bids are unique.

The interesting part of this particular form of art is not its originality in general. They are goblins, cross stitching on pre-printed canvas. It is a form of embroidery whose subject usually turns out to be images created using yarn as the oils on a painting.

The subjects of those goblins are presented in big varieties with a multitude of topics. One may call them a form of tapestry, however, they are not made using the same technique, and generally their size is limited to the size of a small wall painting.

This sort of embroidery was practiced mostly in the Western world, and that is why the religious topics are very much influenced by Catholicism. When their subject is a saint, generally those are presented with the usual elements of icon design, so common in Eastern Christianity. Those goblins, I never knew them used as ritual items, have in common with the Eastern Christian icon, only the face of the saint, and the fact that the head is always surrounded by the typical saints' hollow.

Stela , the name of the artist, presented one day on one of her posting a picture of a beaded icon. It was something new for me, she replied that they were done before this was just a personal experiment. Instead of using yarn to stitch the pattern designed on the piece of canvas, she used beads. She followed the pattern, however she did not cover the face of the saint with beads. Because we always like to compare things we see to things we had seen before, when I saw it I asked her why she left the face just printed. Her reply was that it was a goblin, and there was no need to do the face in beads. Actually she was right. Usually the print on the canvas is very detailed, the purpose being the use of proper color yarn, to create the scene. It reminded me right the way of the icons covered in silver or copper. The only difference being that the support is not a wood plate, the metal is replaced by beads, and the metal was not used to correct parts of the icon damaged by different causes.


Stela , who works as a secretary, being in maternity leave, decided to do something new while taking care of the baby. So she started doing all sort of little crafts using beads. Her first work was a small tree, which by the way looks very much alive, using beads. She also created pieces of feminine jewelery like ear rings. The work is very delicate and the results are fantastic.

Stela's goblin

To tell you the truth, I fell in love with the icon. My wife has a small collection of regular icons on wood reverse painting on glass, even those that are covered with silver on wood. This new kind of goblin will fit her collection.

I asked for a quotation for that piece. It was in the two hundred and fifty Euros range, which may seem high in absolute value, however considering the work put in creating it, I don't think that it amounts to too much per hours.

The beads as a medium of art creation is not typical to Bulgaria. We have plenty of it in this country. Native American Indians are famous for their objects done with stitched beads on a textile support. In Romania they were using beads as ornaments on embroidered attire, and I can name a lot of places using the same technique.

What I found interesting was the association among the goblin technique the religious design and the use of beads.

She told me about the difficulty of finding the right quality beads to use. They are coming in different shapes and colors, some are opaque, some are transparent, but all of them are coming also in different size. The smaller they are in size, the more expensive to produce and more difficult to handle.

While beads are in abundance, good quality beads are not common, and when one finds one, there is a steep price attached to them.

Following her FB page, Ste la (Art) I saw her productions and a series of other beaded icon goblins also. Her work may not be original, she is right others did it too before, however I think that she was choosing the proper mix of bead to create an icon which is not too loud considering the fact that she is using beads. If one visits her FB page, one can also see some of other productions of hers, and one may find a link to the on-line store on Etsy where she sells her art.

I have to thank Stela for her kindness to let me use her art and the information she provided me in writing this article. I am glad that an old art form is picked up by the young generation and is passed for the the future. I am not sure how much religious significance the new generation attach to the icons, but for sure everyone appreciate the art.





Aug 25, 2013 10:51pm

I love Christian symbolism as much as an atheist hates it. I don't know a whole heck of a lot about Eastern Orthodox churches, but I've some friends from Eastern Europe who've sure made it sound a lot more sane than the Roman Catholics; and mostly because the priests can marry.

In my parents home, and in my late grandparents homes...there weren't ever any religious icons or religious art, just scriptures here and there; and lots of bibles.

When it comes to visual art...I'm a very uninformed person. It's not that I don't like any of it, it is more that I've always gone for stories and songs; but I can easily see why other people may not like music and literature so much, they may be more receptive to visual things.

That bead art is fantastic, and I hope the Lady sells a lot of them.
Aug 28, 2013 3:16pm
Todd this is a misconception: "I love Christian symbolism as much as an atheist hates it".
There are plenty of Atheists who love the art without drawing any parallel between its semantic and artistic value.

I am not sure that Catholics are misogynistic, however the structure of the church is different. In the upper echelon of of the Greek Orthodox hierarchy marriage is not allowed either. The priest could have been married at one time, but when they enter the way to the upper hierarchy they should not be attached to another human. Mostly they have to be hermits. The last head of the Romanian Orthodox Church forty years ago was a widower, however he had a daughter. She was lay person, she was married she had a little baby girl and she had a father who held an important position in the church. It was a known and not so known fact. I knew about it because he was from a region my family was and some members of my family knew him at the time he was a regular parish priest before he advanced.

Catholic priests were not celibate from the beginning. They marries also, however along the years some frauds were recorded and some women were put on the Holy See and things had to change. You see, the Vatican was not just a little church, it was a church state which controlled a big chunk of the world, and the inheritance had to stay within the church. When marriages are involved, there are a lot of alliances and shift of powers...

Personally I think that if it is quality, people don't make any difference on the art form. One thing you should keep in mind, until the advent of the Internet, visual arts were not really accessible on such a large scale to every one. A song is easier to carry over from place to place, all you need is an instrument, or to know how to reproduce the tune... The written word travels as well on a book, but the visual art is different... .
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