Copy or Translation? Writing Icons

from Psalm 107:

Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, his kindness endures forever.

Give thanks to the Lord who is good, whose love endures forever.

Give glory to the Lord, for He is good: for his mercy endureth for ever.

O give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good:  for his mercy endureth for ever.

Every translation of the Bible varies just a bit, according to the understandings, interpretations, connotations, etc., of the translators of the original texts.

An icon is “written” in an analagous way.  It is the Gospel written  in line and color rather than in words.  Icons are not copied, but are translated.  Each iconographer has his/her own style and nuances, but the message is consistent.  Each icon asserts and witnesses to the truth of Christ:  God Incarnate, true God and true man.  Each one is freshly interpreted for new viewers, with the same consistent message.

Our Lady of Smolensk

The image used as an example here is called a Hodegitria image, meaning “She Who Shows the Way”.  The first version is medieval Russian written through the hand of Dionysius, the second one a contemporary rendition written through the hands of N.&N. Bogdanovs, the third one a medieval Serbian icon.

The title of the icon is Our Lady of Smolensk, after the miraculous appearance of the image in that Russian town.  The icon’s feast day is July 28.  It is a ceremonial, formal portrait, fairly unemotional and totally doctrinal.  The prototype is traced back to one of the original icons of St.Luke the Evangelist.

contemporary Russian mosaic
J. Shtrarenberg & I. Lebedev

In the Hodegitria icons, Mary is shown as a guide to her Son: the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  She is labelled as the Mother of God (MP OV).  There are 3 stars on her cloak, indicating that she is a Virgin before, during and after the birth of Jesus.  (in the 2 older icons, the lettering and stars are wearing off but still faintly visible).  Her gesture is one of presentation. Her hand, the lines of her garments–everything points to the Lord, carrying the eye of the viewer to the Savior.

The Child is shown as God Emmanuel, not an infant, but the eternal God, filled with wisdom despite his small size.  He is alight with divine rays.  He, too, is labelled by name, Jesus Christ (IC XC). The letters in his halo stand for “I Am Who Am”.  These are the words that God identified Himself with to Moses in the burning bush.  The icon leaves no doubt that Jesus is God, the same God of Moses, of the Old Testament.

Archangels watch over them in some versions of this image, others feature saints worshipping or even the donors of the icon bowing to the Lord.  It is up to the iconographer, the composition, and the size and position of the panel as to whether extra figures are included.  The details, shades of color, etc vary, but the message of truth remains the same.


About reinkat

I am an iconographer, and have been studying Russian/Greek icons since 1995. I'm married with 3 children. I love hiking, camping, animals, my family and church--and icons.
This entry was posted in art, Catholic icons, Catholicism, Christian Prayer, Icon, Iconography, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Copy or Translation? Writing Icons

  1. Biltrix says:

    I really like the notion of translating, which to me suggests reinterpreting, kind of as we do with a text over time.

    I have to admit, though I get the IC XC for Iesuos Christos, I’m a at a loss as to how MV OP conveys Meter Theou. I just suppose ir must be Russian or Cyrilic, which I can’t read.

    Another great post! Thanks, Reinkat.

    • reinkat says:

      Thank you.
      but with a bit of chagrin, I realized that I transposed some letters which should read MP OV instead of MV OP. Maybe that added to the confusion. I always thought they were Greek, but could be Russian and/or Slavonic. But although Mary’s title is understood as Mother of God, I believe the actual word is Theotokos, literally: The God-Bearer. Does that make sense to you? (Perhaps more of the translation and connotation thing again). I could have the meaning of the lettering garbled, as I read/speak no Greek.

      • Biltrix says:

        Sorry! I did not realize that it was a mistake. MP OV makes since as Meter Theou, Mother do God in Greek (given transliterations and transportation that the Roman alphabet cannot account for).

        I asked, because I can get by in Greek, but know nothing of Russian or Cyrilic, which you sometimes see on icons, and I was always curious about what they meant, aside from similarities that thes languages have in some remote instances.

        Thanks for clarifying.

      • reinkat says:

        I am glad I was able to correct my mistake. It is difficult to decipher the script on icons. I rely on the research of experts to identify them and to “read” scrolls. There are Greek letters and Russian/Cyrillic letters, with fancy scripts and embellishments, and the use of abbreviations that every Orthodox presumably knows (like we know the meaning of “St.”). Frequently the Russian ones are actually in old Slavonic, undecipherable even to fluent modern Russian-readers. Old Slavonic for the Orthodox is somewhat analagous to the use of Latin in the Roman Church. A liturgical language, as I have been told, no longer widely understood or used except by clergy.

      • iconografis says:

        You should underline that M is M and P is the letter “rho” in the greek alphabet: lowercase is like a “p” and capital “rho” is “P”. There goes “Meter”. Especially must be told that O is not the letter “o” but “theta” pronounced “th”, and the capital letter is a “horizontal crossed O”. The “V” which can also be “Y” is the leter “ypsilon” , used as a final “i” in the alphabet, but with the letter “o” makes a diphthong pronounced “ou”.
        Please apologize!

      • reinkat says:

        Thank you for your concise elaboration. I am aware that the letters are Greek, and also aware that I do not speak or read that language. Although the letters are not the English MP OV nor MP OY, they do resemble them, and on a standard English keyboard, are as close as one can get. I think it suffices to identify the meaning and reason for the lettering on the icon in a way that most people I come into contact with can understand, to make the icon image more meaningful so that they can relate to it.
        After all, if I were to state that the letters were “rho theta ypsilon” that is not as clear as saying that the MP OV means this is the Mother of God. The Greek Orthodox already know this. Thanks for taking time to comment.

  2. Excellent and concise interpretation of the role of the sacred artist.

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