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.]

8 thoughts on “Icons Are Not “Written”

  1. With respect to the honored professor, I disagree. The phrase ‘to write an icon” is seredipitously excellent at the very least, does no violence to the English tongue and is not in the least silly. Speaking to an English language culture generally unfamiliar with Orthodox iconography the phrase aptly captures the tradition regarding iconography, that is, to paint an icon is not an arbitrary task acoomplished according to the whim of the painter. This connotation is beneficial in a culture that experiences a limited self discipline and minimal respect for tradition. I do not know when, where or from whom this phrase originated in English, whether intentional or otherwise, but praise God it is most apt. We should rejoice and retain the writing of icons!

  2. Well, I suppose this is a matter of taste, as much as it is a matter of linguistic accuracy. There is nothing inherent in writing that makes it superior to painting, or any less arbitrary. One can write heretical doctrines, or sinful stories, or slanderous accusations. I do appreciate that people have projected onto this artificial writing/painting distinction some genuine deeper meaning — that icons visually teach, that they are inherently theological, and that they are created in a manner different from secular art. Still, the fact remans that

    1) “Iconography” is a Greek word.

    2) The suffix “-ography” most certainly does not always mean “writing.”

    3) Both “writing” and “painting” are neutral activities that can be used for good or evil.

    4) The term “icon writing” is historically very new and appears to be an American innovation (although I am open to correction on this point).

    I personally prefer “icon painting,” because the word “painting” simply means to create an image using paint. I find “icon writing” to be inaccurate because “writing” means to create letters and words. But, at the end of the day, this is a rather small issue.

  3. I tend to default to simply referring to ‘iconography’ and ‘creating icons’. ‘Painting’ doesn’t sound right because there is little freedom of expression; it’s more like paint by numbers, in some ways, it’s a craft that is an end in itself and not a means to some other end (self-expression, commentary, portraiture, decoration, etc.) Than again, ‘writing’ just seems unduly pretentious.

    However, I can go either way and see value in both understandings. Correcting a mistaken or overly literal translation is important, as is a brake on excessive exoticisms (orientalism?), but so, too, is the impulse to delineate the difference between Orthodox iconography and ‘religious painting’ of other kinds. A better argument for the use of ‘writing’ in English is that the anglophone world is a mission field, and primarily (historically) a Protestant mission field at that. ‘Writing’ connects better with the at least general tendency in Protestantism toward artistic minimalism if not outright iconoclasm Thus anything that can explain “that icons are to be understood in a manner similar to Holy Scripture—that is, they are not simply artistic compositions but rather are witnesses to the truth the way Scripture is” is helpful. Since veneration of icons looks like an christianized paganism to most modern anglophones, these “creations of the iconographer…are more like scribal copies of the Bible.” A ‘writing’ context also tends to ease the conversation toward the doctrinal bases of iconography and the veneration of icons since Theology = Books is a dominant assumption in the Western Christian mind.

    Like I said, I find ways around choosing either form, but I think it ‘writing’ is too often, unfairly used as a cudgel against know-nothing-traditionalists-and-converts. In some ways, it’s an example of the sort of grass-roots, organic development of a uniquely local perspective on Orthodoxy guided by the Holy Spirit as cultures interact.

  4. Is it improper to admit the providence behind the fact that the Greek words for oil and mercy sound alike? The Fathers did not think so and used this ‘unrelated coincidence’ as a springboard for theological reflection. That is, they saw the hand of the Holy Spirit in what are otherwise unrelated terms, from a purely historical and linguistic standpoint. I see no great damage in seeing ‘blessed coincidences’ like the double meaning allowed by the terms ‘graphí’ and ‘pisánie’ to be translated as ‘writing’ and ‘painting’ in English as may be fitting. The same argument is often used against the ‘late’ development of a mystagogical understanding of the Liturgy, but, again, this is simply the organic piety of the Church that sees the continued guidance of the Holy Spirit in the Body of Christ and the world – “there are no such things as coincidences”, as a Greek nun once told me.

    • One man’s “organic piety” is the know-it-all “piety police” of another! :)

  5. Our Deacon, who is also the head of the political science department at a local university, tells the story of a parish argument. One group says the tradition is to bow at a certain point in the service, the other says a full prostration is the tradition. They almost come to blows, but agree to take the matter to the Old Man of the parish (or a local monk, I can’t remember). They go, he greets them, they ask him the quetion, “We say this, they say that. What is the tradition? We are almost coming to blows over this.” “Ah, my children, that is the tradition!” This may have been a joke Abp Peter used to tell – I’ve been told he had two.

    My favorite follow-up is the Orthodox man discovered after many years on a desert island. He’d made a good life for himself. He had even built two churches. His rescuers asked why there were two church, was anyone else on the island – had there been? “No”, he said, “it’s just that this is the church I go to, and this is the church I don’t go to”. :)

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