Icons Are Not “Written”
Editor’s note: Today, we are pleased to present an article by Dr. John Yiannias, Professor Emeritus of Art History at the University of Virginia. Dr. Yiannias holds a Ph.D. in Early Christian and Byzantine Art from the University of Pittsburgh, and is a leading expert on Orthodox iconography. At the 2008 conference of the Orthodox Theological Society of America, Dr. Yiannias gave a lecture on iconography, and at the end of his talk, he offered the following addendum. He has kindly granted permission for us to publish it here at OrthodoxHistory.org. While, on the face of it, the subject may appear only tangentially relevant to American Orthodox history, it is actually rather relevant, in that the term “icon writing” is peculiar to American (or, at least, English-speaking) Orthodoxy, and may very likely have originated here in North America.
[Author’s disclaimer: I can’t claim for sure that the argument I give below is original. A few years ago I saw reference to an article that seemed intended to make the same point that I'm making, but I lost the reference and never actually saw the article. I’d appreciate learning of its contents and place of publication from anyone who may have read it.]
We’ve all heard, and many of us have used, the currently popular phrase “icon writing.” Whoever invented this expression must have noticed that in the Greek word eikonographia and its Slavonic translation ikonopisanie the suffixes (graphí and pisánie) very often mean “writing.” Our inventor thereupon thought it a good idea to speak of “icon writing,” probably imagining that the sheer oddness of the phrase would attract more attention than the prosaic “icon painting”and also convey a greater sense of the sacredness of the act of producing an icon. Ever since, this tortured translation has stuck to the lips of just about every English-speaking Orthodox Christian who talks about icons.
However, the suffixes graphí and pisánie both mean depiction, as well as writing. The first–more to the point here than the Slavonic term, which was formed on the basis of the Greek–is related to the verb gráphein/grápho and means any representational delineation — such as when you write the letters of an alphabet, but also when you sketch, say, a portrait. The precise translation depends on the circumstances. For example, “geography” does not mean “earth writing,” but earth description, whether verbal or pictorial. “Scenography,” from the word skiní, meaning a shelter, by implication a tent, and by further implication one of canvas, means the painting or other illustration of a backdrop, on canvas or similar material, for a theatrical production (whence our words “scene”and “scenic”); it does not mean “scene writing.” Whether the delineation referred to is verbal or pictorial, graphí implies circumscription, as when the Church says that God the Father is aperigraptos. That does not mean, obviously, that God the Father is “unwritable.” It means He is uncircumscribable, unbounded, undepictable, incomprehensible, unsusceptible to containment within the boundaries that we must impose on anything before we can comprehend or speak of it.
The habit of describing icons as “written” should therefore be dropped. Not only does the expression do violence to English and sound just plain silly, but it can introduce notions without basis in the Greek texts — such as, that an icon is essentially a representation of words, as opposed to a representation of things that words represent.
The theologically important fact that icons, which are pictorial, and Scripture, which is verbal, are nearly equivalent can be conveyed in other ways than by torturing English. It’s worth noting that in the Acts of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, the Greek word used for an icon painter is simply zográphos (in Slavonic, zhivopísets), meaning simply a depicter of life, or of forms taken from life: that the subjects depicted were religious was more or less assumed. It seems that when secular artists eventually gained higher social status than before, and zográphos could apply to them as well as to the makers of sacred representations, the term was superseded in Greek by the more specific agiográphos, or eikonográphos (in Slavonic, ikonopísets).
An icon is painted, pure and simple, or produced by some other technique, if made of enamel or ivory or whatever else. But it is not written, and never in the Church’s history until our day, no matter what the language used, has the Church said or implied that an icon is written. Let’s hope it isn’t too late to expunge the expression.
[This article was written by Dr. John Yiannias. Originally delivered as an addendum to a talk given at the Orthodox Theological Society in America meeting in Chicago, IL, June 13, 2008.]
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