What is an Icon?

Icons are constructed in a way that contains several elements that are intended to draw the viewer away from the ordinary towards another, more spiritual level of understanding.

As early as the 8th century, St. John Damascenus claimed that “images speak.” He said “that they open the heart and awaken the intellect” (Didron 1965). It can be said that icons can be used as a form of prayer and meditation. To study iconography is to begin to “read” the meanings of the images, their content and subject rather than their form.

Traditional and modern icons are sometimes described as “windows to heaven.” Instead of reaching out to an icon and trying to grasp its meaning, it is best to stand peacefully before it and let the meaning come to us. An icon is a “showing forth of God” and after some time spent in contemplation, we may feel that it meets us in quite a special way. Rather than stimulating the senses and the emotions, an icon is meant to exert a calming influence, allowing the viewer to step free for a moment from all the concerns of everyday life.

Icons are not photographs; they are paintings that invite you to meet God through events that happened and people who lived long ago. They are not painted as you might actually see somebody, or something, but use symbols and colors to tell you important truths about God and his relationship to us.

A traditional icon is usually painted on wood although other materials can be used. In an icon, the central figure is always the largest. Other people are smaller. In this way the painter tells you who the most important person is in the story.

The smaller figures and things on the icon are there to tell the story. They are also there to remind us that we do not travel on our own to God but are surrounded by other people who are making the same journey, and who are our companions on the way. The figures in icons stare out at us. They throw no shadows. They stand in the eternal realm and, if they do come to meet us, it is to take us back with them into that realm. The many elements of rhythm, color, composition and harmony lead us into the stillness of contemplation.

The Art

When you visit Ludmila’s exhibit, here are things to look for:

Eyes – In classical icons, the eyes are exaggerated a bit – bigger, rounder, more luminous than they are in life. In Mila’s art, eyes often dominate. Eyes, she says, are considered windows into the soul. “But it’s not just you looking at the eyes. It’s also someone watching you (in a good way). You are not alone.”

Blue – It’s the color of the sky, and in traditional icons it symbolizes heaven.

Gold – Mila uses gold leaf, with its lustrous glow. Traditional icon painters do, as well. Gold makes all light warm. It’s a precious element.

Red – Mila’s reds, deep and rich, symbolize passion.

Texture – Mila’s process starts with special, high-quality plywood from a Swedish manufacturer. She adds layers of gesso as a ground, then starts building up texture with pastes, fabric and thick paints. Sometimes she carves into her surfaces. Often she implants precious metals, base metals and shiny minerals. Color usually comes last.

Surface light – Mila lavishes love on her surfaces. She often uses special metallic paints. They catch every scrap of available light. They glitter in strong light, glow in softer light.

Cut-outs – Sometimes Mila plunges a saw blade right though her pieces and cuts out spirals, crosses and other shapes. They invite the viewer to look within the piece and to wonder what is inside. “We all have something inside,” she says, “the spiritual feeling. We’re all on a spiritual journey.” Sometimes looking at art, looking within art, can take a viewer miles down that road.

Stones – Many of the stones implanted in Mila’s work are a special, fossil-rich limestone that is common where she lives. “Stone is timeless,” she says. It carries the memories of the ages.

The inspiration – Mila’s show comes with a collection of traditional icons made at monastery workshops in the years since a measure of religious freedom returned to Russia. They will be sprinkled in with her work so you can see the influences for yourself.