Painting the Icon of Our Lady “Igorevskaya”

Friday 7 February 2020

Melissa Parkinson, Communications Office
‘To create an Icon in the Catholic tradition, we are not merely painting it’, says Iconographer Philip Davydov of Sacred Murals who has taught the art of Iconography in Melbourne for ten years with his wife. ‘We are writing it.’
The Icon of Our Lady “Igorevskaya” icon painting workshop I attended was rich in both technique and theory and was part of Philip Davydov's summer Iconography workshops held at ACU over January. 
‘In Russia, it is more than painting. Painting can be anything fanciful and lovely. But to write an Icon is to convey a message’, he said.
To understand what this means, we must look back into our Church’s history and this centuries-old art form and begin to understand what Philip refers to as the ‘grammar’ of Iconography.
I was first drawn to the beauty and power of religious art while travelling in Spain when I laid eyes on the most majestic sight at Santa Iglesia Cathedral in Toledo, a heritage-listed medieval city. What caught my eye was a carved-out hollow in the ceiling articulating an other-worldly aesthetic which conveyed a convincing peek into the realms of Heaven. It gave the impression of looking up at the angels dancing from the earth to the sky. A focal point inside the hollow, a Baroque fresco, spoke to me. This enabled me to see the value of the Icon as art and tool for spiritual nourishment. 
Our Church tradition teaches that the first iconographer was St Luke the Evangelist who painted the face of the Virgin Mary, a holy image he had seen himself, and while those in the studio over at ACU last week may not have experienced that apparition two millennia later, this echo of the past is still relevant today in the deep places of our hearts.
The icon we worked on was called ‘Igorevskaya’, an Icon of the Mother of God that Prince Igor of Chrnigov in Russia prayed before prior to his death on 19 September 1147.
We were informed about the careful consideration given to each element of the Icon being written, for each part of the image must embody a sense of purpose, from the negative space through to tone, shading, body language and positioning, along with facial features and expressions.
The process is deliberately precise and methodical in order to create a more contemplative experience for the Iconographer as they transition from the research phase into rendering.
‘Each Icon written is as unique as a priest’s homily’, said Philip.
As we progressed hours into the workshop, despite rigid instructions, no two images depicting the facial expressions and features looked quite the same. The images had become personal windows to divinity through the eyes and hands of each individual.
During the research phase, we explored the creation of the formation of the human skull facing forward and at a three-quarter angle.
One of the most prominent features in an Icon painting is the stylization and geometric forms using precise circular, rectangular and oval shapes. This is to create a sense of the divine from human form. These shapes were measured, marked out and drawn with a compass for each feature from the eye sockets to the nose and chin.
These geometric shapes also helped form hands, eye sockets, nose, and chin. As we ‘chiseled’ away with our pencils, we eventually moved from paper to cardboard.
This was important as the latter steps moving the planned piece to gesso is a smooth transition as using egg tempera and fine pigment can be easy to mess up. A process of trial and error is crucial and was found helpful for those learning under Philip’s thorough guidance.
During the week, we learned that it was a case of one step forward and two steps back until individual challenges were gradually overcome during the learning process. It was hard to believe at times what we were achieving in such a small amount of time and the skills imparted are almost two millennia old.
As we journeyed through the tougher lessons we gradually encountered a more contemplative phase of the process as we began colour-rendering our pieces further with layers of tempera, highlighting and shading. By the end, we added warmth to the skin of our depictions of Our Lady and baby Jesus and added detailing. Lastly, we added a message in Greek. In the era of Church history when Iconography became popular, Greek was the most commonly spoken language among the faithful.
This complex form of art is considered by Greek icon painter Photios Kontoglou as ‘theology in line and colour’ and depicts saints not as they were in their physical life on earth but as they are in Eternity. The workshop was a thought-provoking experience that provided an informative and deeply spiritual journey for the novice or the expert artist.
Philip continues his Iconography workshops throughout the year. For more information, visit
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