For some years now, a group of foreigners has been studying icon drawing, as it is called, in Moscow under the auspices of the Prosopon school. I caught up with them in the Philippine embassy of all places in November where Irina Alexevna Vorfluseva was taking a group of ten students through the basic stages of icon writing. During a break for lunch, I talked to Irina and some of the other students about the course. This was their 4th week, and some of the icons were already incredibly beautiful.
Text and photos by John Harrison
How long has this group been functioning for?
About 16 years.
What is the school called? (Irina)
The school is called the Prosopon School of Iconology: www.prosoponschool.org
Prosopon is a Greek word that means image, or action of God. We use this Greek word because icon drawing came to us from Byzantium. The word means image, or mask of the unseen face of an unseen God. Some of the traditions are pre-Christian.
How do you teach this? (Irina)
There is a very well worked out method established in Russia by Vladislav Andreev who was born in 1938 in St. Petersburg. After finishing art school he travelled around Russia in search of groups of religious believers who still kept the traditions of icon drawing going, in the depths of Soviet Russia. He emigrated to America in 1979 and taught icon drawing in New York for ten years, and has become something of an icon master in the west, and in Russia too. At the present time, as art of the Prosopon School, about 20 icon drawers are working on various projects in Kostroma and Moscow. The classes we have here today are specially organised for foreigners to familiarise them with icon art and with the traditions of Orthodoxy.
Icon drawing is more than simply an artistic experience, it is spiritual in that it isolates a person from the material world and helps that person attain spiritual qualities. I can’t say that we do an awful lot on the spiritual side with this particular class, it is specific. Usually we hold all day classes where we spend half of the time studying Orthodox theory, and only then go on to the practice. Here the classes last for 6 hours, with a break for lunch in the middle. We spend most of the time drawing icons.
Most people here are Christians, but there is a substantial difference between the different confessions. It is easier to teach Catholics than Protestants because most Catholics have undergone some kind of religious training in childhood, and the canons of Church Orthodox belief are therefore closer to them.
How do you actually teach? (Irina)
There are 29 stages of icon drawing. Some of these are technical and some relate to invisible internal spiritual changes. Of supreme importance is the spiritual state of the icon drawer. There are seven visible steps which are deduced from the seven kinds of praying in the ancient religion, and 22 invisible steps as we call them. The Prosafon school does not distinguish before the 7 different kinds of prayer carried out by Orthodox monks and icon drawing.
None of what we are doing has anything to do with fine art. All we demand from the student is that he or she carries out the instructions of the teacher. Of course we would like students to understand that it is not possible to portray the face of God, but it is possible to portray an interpretation of God through action.
Our studies are based on icons drawing of the 15th century and beginning of the 16th century in Moscow and Novgorod. We use only natural materials such as wood, organic glue and mineral pigments.
There are 6 lessons in this course. During the first lesson, the outline of the face is transferred to the board, using templates of ancient icons. During the second lesson, the icon is “opened”, that is, colour is added. As we draw, the basic spiritual idea behind this is explained. The mere fact that students are drawing from a template and not from their imagination indicates that they have accepted that God cannot be imagined or portrayed directly, and in this the drawer is automatically accepting his or her place in the spiritual hierarchy of things.
Why is your group made up of women only? (Irina)
The majority of students are women at the moment, which is a reflection of the current level of spirituality of humankind at the moment. Women generally speaking have more time, and icon drawing takes a lot of time.
How much does it cost? (Irina)
1500 roubles for each lesson, which includes everything apart from the boards and the gold leaf used to complete the icons, because these are expensive. On the site there is a list of shops where the materials can be bought.
How do you, Davina, as a painter handle the discipline of icon painting? (Davina Garrido De Miguel , one of the students)
Icon writing is based on writing, not painting. When I said I was a painter, they said: “Oh, you’ll have problems, because you’ll try and do your own thing instead of just following the course. It’s about not expressing yourself and following the discipline.” Maybe it is, but for me, I gain a lot from doing this, about techniques, about many things which I can take back to me own work. It’s like learning another language, especially the language of writing colour. There is also the spiritual aspect which is interwoven into this, and which is amazing.
What was the most interesting stage for you? (Davina Garrido De Miguel).
The initial stage when we chose which face we were going to do. The end is lovely, but then you’re done.
Irina added: There is nothing wrong with individuality, and you can add that at a later stage, when you have mastered the basics of icon writing. The Church has an understanding of the spiritual meaning of each colour, which existed in monasteries in ancient times.
If you want to find out more about the icon writing groups which meet in Moscow, contact Irina Vorfluseva, on home +74997423845, cell +79153291138, or at www.raaad.org/prosoponschool.org/new/about.html