The Novo-Tikhvin Women's Monastery
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Hand-painted icons by the sisters of the Monastery

How to Describe the Indescribable

St. Iustin (Popovic) used to write to a certain nun-iconographer: I wish you, my child, lucidity and enlightenment from the Lord, so that you would study as best as you can the art of sealing in colors of the ineffable beauty of the Lords image. Indescribable, He let Himself be described, taking upon Himself the human body. He the Impregnable Light descended to us, having become accessible to us, people, through the veil of the body. To express this in colors is what the holy art of iconography is. How can one learn this great, holy art? How does one describe the Indescribable? The sisters-iconographers of St. Alexander Nevsky Novo-Tikhvin monastery in Ekaterinburg speak about their experience.

Sublime beauty cannot be adequately expressed via regular artistic means: special methods of expression and special symbolism are essential. Iconographic language kept being generated by the Church for ages. As its model for emulation, our monastery chose the Byzantine icons of the Palaiologos period (second half of the 13th century-first half of the 15th century) and the Old Russian icons, 13th-15th centuries. This period was the golden age of iconographic art.

When you look at a canonically written icon, where every detail has its spiritual meaning, then, even without knowing the exact meaning of every symbol, you are imbued with the sense that the depicted Images and Events are not of this world. Such icons are truly theology in colors.
On the picture: Descent into hell fresco in the Chora monastery (Kariye Djami) in Istanbul, former Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire. XIV century.

During their trips to the ancient churches of Greece, Serbia, and Macedonia where the best samples of the Byzantine iconography of the 13th-14th centuries are preserved, the sisters carefully study the frescos of the Byzantine masters and their disciples: the composition, the color spectrum, and the details of the depictions.

In churches, spend hours thoroughly copying the images written by the ancient iconographers.

Thanks to this work of theirs, they get to master the unique iconographic language.
-It is important for us not simply to learn to copy ancient icons but to create new images, utilizing the methods we studied, -- says nun Anna carrying an obedience at the iconography workshop.

-Most of all, we are impressed by the freedom with which the Byzantine icons are written. Ancient iconographers would write so freely, as if a person speaking his native tongue. Their mastery is incredible: how subtly they would apply their colors, how artfully they would place the strokes, how well they knew anatomy! The faces on their icons are living, not a convention. The silhouettes are not static but actually lively, very emotional.

- This could be compared with the study of a foreign language. At first, one must learn the letters, then words, and then one learns to construct sentences. Gradually, if the person spends a lot of time practicing, he becomes fluent. The same thing happens with the iconographic language. In order to learn speaking it fluently, we must spend a lot of time practicing copying, studying, and making sense of the details.

The nuns-iconographers were busy with the same work studying and copying of the ancient icons in the Tretyakov Gallery, where one of the largest collections of the Old Russian and Byzantine icons in Russia is located, including the icons written by St. Andrey Rublev.

-Here is an interesting fact, -- tells nun Anna, -- on the icons written by St. Andrey Rublev, the specialist were unable to discern the traces from the paintbrush even under the microscope. Unlike on the icons of other iconographers. His icons are not made by hands, as it were What width was his paint brush? In what direction did he make the strokes? This has remained the holy iconographers mystery.

The sisters consult experienced specialists. For over twenty years they have been in communication with leading art historians and restorers. The monastery is regularly visited by specialists who give lectures and conduct practical training.

Of course, the iconographers constantly have to perfect their drawing and painting skills, plastic anatomy and composition, and the ability to express the live colors of nature. Professional artists work with them all the time.

The specialists also help the sisters to solve practical tasks developing the iconostasis projects and church interiors. On the photograph is the dome of the monastery church dedicated to the icon of the Theotokos The Joy of All Who Sorrow.

The work over the sacred images is impossible without a consultation with a spiritually experienced person. The sisters show their sketches and ready-made icons to the spiritual father of the monastery, schema-archimandrite Avraam who 25 years ago gave his blessing for the establishment of the iconographic workshop at the monastery. It was Fr. Avraam who right away gave the course to the workshop to be oriented towards the best patterns of Byzantine and Old Russian iconography, since their combine high artistic mastery with spiritual fulfillment, and inspire one towards prayer.

On the icon we see not only the exterior aspect of the event but, most importantly, its inner essence. Due to some special modes, everything on the icons becomes symbolic, polysemantic, forcing us to look at things differently (from the talk of Fr. Avraam with the sisters).

Several sisters participate in the work over each icon: one applies prime coating, another one makes the drawing, and the third one does the gilding.

At the workshop, they try to adhere to the ancient techniques of writing icons: colors are applied in a special mode, in several layers, in particular order.

The most subtle work is, of course, the depiction of the image. The purpose at which the nuns-iconographers aim is to write the images of the Lord, the Theotokos, and the saints in such a way that, with all the strict canonicity, they would look live and expressive.

The icon must have all the details meticulously elaborated: the halo, the letters.

For over ten years the sisters keep mastering the difficult art of the fresco painting. The difficulty comprises mainly the need to fill a large space with murals, both in the images of enormous dimensions (such as the diameter of the Saviors halo on the dome of the monastery cathedral, 4 meters long) and in the creation of compositions with many figures.

The sisters made the frescos in several monastery churches.

- The main thing in the iconographic art is, of course, not the techniques and not the colors, -- says nun Anna. How does one create the image of a holy person? How does one express through the icon the holy, sublime feelings and not the usual human emotions and passions? After all, icon is created for the purpose of prayer, it must ennoble the human spirit. How does one comprehend and feel what gaze should, for example, the Savior have? What face expression should the Mother of God have? For us, as for any other iconographer, this is the most difficult and the most essential question.
St. John of Shanghai spoke about the same thing: Icon is no portrait; a portrait depicts only the earthly image of man, but icon conveys also his inner state, his holiness and proximity to heaven. An icon must depict the invisible feats and shine with heavenly glory.

The Photo Gallery of the Icons written by the Sisters of the Monastery

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All of the icons on the site are painted by the sisters of the monastery

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