“For me, iconography is just like prayer”

Olga Spiridonova on her life’s journey to iconography

​Olga Spiridonova, the iconographer ​Olga Spiridonova, the iconographer   

An iconographer is a creator, while an icon is the piece of art presenting to the world the Beauty that points directly to God,” says Olga Spiridonova, the icon painter. As a graduate of the Fine Arts Faculty of the Institute of Cinematography (VGIK), she worked in the movie industry, advertising, animation, and as a book illustrator. At the same time, she sought her path in iconography, and learned to understand icons.

Art couldn’t be measured away from the Church”

Righteous St. Alexiy Mechev Righteous St. Alexiy Mechev Olga, as you were growing up in the Soviet Union, did you know anything about icons?

—I was admitted to the children’s art school at the age of twelve and saw icons for the first time during art history lessons there. I remember the icon of the “Vladimir” the Mother of God, and the impression it made: something of a superb nature, strangely one-dimensional yet beautiful, requiring specific knowledge to understand and maturity to grasp its meaning. After I graduated from art college, I had someone order an icon of Christ that had to be painted on a brass plate. I diligently painted it using oil paints with all due honor and reverence. I had been recently baptized. However, as I understood it later, I knew nothing about iconography at the time, so whatever I made at the time had nothing to do with icons.

So, were you baptized as an adult?

The Synaxis of New Martyrs and Confessors of the Russian Church. The Synaxis of New Martyrs and Confessors of the Russian Church. —Yes, during perestroika, when the whole country went to church to be baptized. I felt the need to choose whether I am with the fallen angels or with Christ crucified. Our whole family was baptized in Novokuznetsk. The church there looked gloomy and its walls were covered with odd-looking and poorly executed oil paintings of biblical stories. It took another seven long and eventful years before I became a conscious, religious Orthodox Christian.

Long before that, there were childhood memories, such as the beautiful words like “Pascha,” “Christ Is Risen!” or “Trinity.” It was when the women working at the Soviet collective farm would secretly snatch away some meat patties at the worker’s canteen, cooked pastry, and then took their kids far out in the surrounding meadows to set up a feast on the long table clothes stretched out in the middle of long grasses, right on top of lungwort and forget-me-nots. There were also the words of a famous song that went: “Except that it is a pity that Christ was crucified” and I usually ended up asking: what for, what for? All I’d hear in response was: “For our sins.” No details.

Later on, when I had already moved from my native Novokuznetsk to Moscow, I still knew no “details” for a long while. “She is a seeker,” I overheard my landlady Tatiana Nikolaevna once telling the priests who came for a cup of tea. I recall how I came home that day, and fearfully seeing an impressive row of men’s boots in the hallway, shut myself in my room.

St. Apollinaria St. Apollinaria My serious awakening as a Christian took place when Tatiana Nikolaevna was no longer alive, when I visited the churches restored from ruins, and held conversations with the clergy of the 1990s. That was the time when I studied at the VGIK Fine Arts Faculty.

It was as if I had been through a complete system reboot, including logout and update. I had ceased being a secular artist by that time and had cut off my social links to the past. Even my health declined. Everything, including books, art, films, former favorites and authorities in art, had to change in order to be replaced with different content. Anything that was of value before had suddenly lost its meaning. What I never noticed before all of a sudden became vividly colored and imbued with particular beauty. It turned out that, on the whole, art outside the Church couldn’t be evaluated. Any distancing from the Church is exactly what at first makes art substance trivial and graceless—the aesthetic definition goes downhill next.

Was it when you grew interested in icon painting?

—Yes. I was fortunate enough to meet Fr. Nikolay Chernyshev, the icon painter from the St. Nicholas Church in Klenniki. I just walked into this church and met the priest. He gladly took me under his wing and became my guide in iconography. It was useful to see how his disciples worked at the icons as it helped me to understand a lot about it. By then, I already made earlier attempts to break into the world of the icon painting but it wasn’t a consistent effort; it was full of temptations, and in general nonproductive. Like a voice at voice training, a beginning iconographer should learn to cultivate his taste.

When I received my introduction to the world of icon painting in the icon halls of the Tretyakov Gallery, and saw their mysterious, fine lines and simplicity of trace drawing layering, there was no need for the redundant embellishments of later centuries. I finally saw the beauty and clarity of the prototype. That’s when I rediscovered the one and only “Vladimir” Icon of the Mother of God and the Pre-Mongol yoke icon of the Savior I had heard about during my art school lessons.

St. Myron the Wonderworker, Bishop of Crete St. Myron the Wonderworker, Bishop of Crete At the same time, I was working in animation, advertising, the film industry, and as a book illustrator. I needed to be a jack-of-all-trades in order to earn a living. Even though I was getting better at icon painting, no one knew me as an iconographer. Meanwhile I still needed to survive and pay the rent.

One day, I jokingly asked my friends: “Do you know anyone who needs an iconographer?” The word spread and I received my first order. I never had a more demanding customer than my first one, but I gained invaluable experience.

Soon, I got lucky again: I typed in the search line, “employment as an iconographer” and saw an offer by the “Sobor” art studio. They were running a promotion offering collaboration with beginning icon painters. It was a good opportunity, so I quit working for the film industry and started off as an iconographer. I got acquainted with Valeriy Kabykin, the studio director, and Svetlana Rzhanitskaya, the leading icon painter, who were my creative support team during the next chapter of my life.

Beauty that bears witness to God

St. Athanasius St. Athanasius What are your thoughts about the diversity of modern icon painting?

—I think it is good. The diversity and irregularities are likely working to our best advantage in the current situation. Its level can hardly be called high in comparison with the golden age of iconographic art, but it does have the flexibility that implies the future ability to change and to grow. At this point, we have already gained enough experience by copying the prototypes. However, devoid of the fine taste and intellectual education on a large scale that should be required of such a great country as ours, we are currently going through a period of massive decline in culture. As a result, only great talent can become visible today.

The rest of us will at best prove the skills they received and polished during our years of training. Some artists, who can follow their creative urges but don’t have enough professional training or fine taste, end up creating a quasi-icon, at times infamously popular but more likely just a small-town “big nothing”. Anytime there is a combination of “fine taste” and “insufficient training,” it also results in mock iconographic art. I don’t personally know any naturally ingenious icon painters. Our best-known masters neither skipped the art training and learning the icon painting basics, nor were they born artisans. We do have some professional artists who excelled after schooling—the so-called masters of brushstroke, who are capable of handling complex architectural projects. On the other hand, they often repeat themselves and, once their work is produced en masse, they find it impossible to create a truly original iconographic work. As a result, their work becomes thoroughly predictable, and at one point, they end up dealing with disengagement and detachment. Luckily, only a few artists are in danger of that.

Baptism of the Lord, 2017 Baptism of the Lord, 2017 Clearly, I lean toward the idea that we must keep the following in mind: an icon painter is a creator and an icon is the piece of art that manifests Beauty, the one that bears direct witness to God. There is no point in making icons that copy the prototype and are sealed with a new signature. Yet, if there is such an icon painter who managed, by force of his talent, to create beauty, then it means he succeeded at uniting both the school and the talent. It is an exception that proves the rule. I am not saying that one shouldn’t practice by copying, as it is the requisite of the study process. Still, we mustn’t think that’s enough.

How did you find your style in icon painting? Is self-expression possible in icon art?

—For some time, “self-expression” was confused with “artistry” in iconography. We can also discuss whether creative thinking is allowed in this genre. I have expounded on this subject earlier. An icon painter’s goal is to create the means, or the language, of communication with the prototype, and beauty should be that language.

I must add that we’ve got the canon or, in other words, the expertise of our predecessors and the treasure trove of materials, so we must use it as a wonderful toolbox, assisting the creative search.

We learned about self-expression just recently, as it arrived in tandem with the commercialization of art. It grew popular when the art critics bullied us for the “replication” while the restless and insatiable art of advertising and commerce declared our professional ineptitude. In the past, an icon painter had to present a creative idea that couldn’t be anything but original since it was conceived for a particular space with a given rhythm, scope, and color decisions. It was a natural process. Sometimes, it was so impressive that we now refer to it as the style of an epoch.

Apostle and Evangelist Mark Apostle and Evangelist Mark I find it interesting to observe how an artist searches for his icon’s subject matter. I would wish there was no fear but only a genuine forceful endeavor to find beauty using our art. Interestingly, no matter how much we argue about the canon, a fundamental reference point, it doesn’t allow for any major mistake during the search for the ideas. For example, the icon’s color scheme is associated with warmth, the Eternal Day of the Divine Light. The color scheme outside this rule, sunless, deadly, or tinted dull grey, cannot be part of an icon that embodies a window to Eternal Life. This doesn’t necessarily mean a narrow, “scorching hot” palette, but it can easily incorporate freshness and light, or both deep and contrasting colors. In other words, the vocabulary is vast.

Whenever there is a necessity to include a verse from, say, the Gospels or the Akathist, it becomes the main focus of an icon, including the color choices.

Do you have any favorite subjects?

—When I was a child, I enjoyed painting children. Later, when I was a street artist on Old Arbat Street, the children’s portraits became my specialty. It is easy to find common ground with children, and we get along really well. So, for me, this theme is just as eagerly sought in iconography as well.

For instance, I was once asked to choose what to paint on an empty church wall in Surgut, and I decided to paint child saints—martyrs, passion bearers, and monastic saints. When I researched that topic, I was astounded to realize how remarkable and inspiring it was.

Half of the icons I painted for the “Joy Of All Who Sorrows” Cathedral Church in San Francisco are either the icons of the children saints or made for the children. It includes the “mernaya” or “measure” icon.

Sts. Artemius and Paraskevi of Pinega Sts. Artemius and Paraskevi of Pinega I enjoy looking for iconographically acceptable novelties. Once I was asked to paint St. Artemius of Verkola. As I was doing research, I discovered another saint in his family, his sister. So, I painted both Artemiy and Paraskevi, the Wonderworkers of Pinega.

I love to paint St. Spyridon. He is our family’s patron saint. I don’t replicate when I paint him, because I enjoy finding different artistic solutions for the same saint, and I work hard to explore new styles.

Holy Hierarch St. Spyridon, 2017 Holy Hierarch St. Spyridon, 2017 Overall, whenever I create the saint’s icon, I make sure to learn not only about his life but also collect historical facts about the time he lived, his country, the area he came from, and so on. My experience studying in VGIK helped a lot, because as future artistic directors, we were trained to work with literary sources exploring literature and cultural artifacts. This process was called the “rendition.” Fortunately this process of “rendition” can also be used in icon painting.

Once, I was asked to paint the icon of the Holy Martyr Vassily, Wonderworker of Mangazeia. He wasn’t part of the general icon-painting order and I could work freely on the stylistics of his icon. The more details I learned from reading his life account, the more exciting were the palette options for his iconography. There were two churches—one of them, in the abandoned town of Mangazeia, was fine-line painted, and another church, traditionally painted a little further away, was the place of his relics. I instinctively followed the spring theme of Pascha in the snow-covered north as the icon’s background, and only later did I find out that he suffered martyrdom on Pascha.

St. Vassily, Mangazeia Wonderworker. Fragment of the icon St. Vassily, Mangazeia Wonderworker. Fragment of the icon How does your work as an icon painter help you understand more about your faith?

—I am not sure how to answer this. Icon painting for me is like a different kind of prayer. It is a conversation.

But when you are painting the church interior, especially if you are up in the scaffolding during the service and you can observe all its beauty and depth from up high, you feel as if you are caught right inside the Liturgy. Your experiences differ from simply attending the church service. Choir singers would agree that you are overwhelmed with very poignant feelings and you sense even more acutely that church art is liturgical.

How important is it for an icon painter to hear the opinion of professional colleagues while working on a project?

—As a matter of fact, it is very important. It happens that you are working on an icon and your mentors suddenly interrupt your work, asking you to think more about it—or they say it is still too raw, etc. Besides, they can suggest making truly meaningful changes, without which your work simply won’t look complete.

Venerable St. Cadoc of Lankarvan Venerable St. Cadoc of Lankarvan One summer I was working on an analogion icon of St. Nicholas the Warrior for a military church on Sakhalin, having arranged my workspace right in the middle of my dacha’s garden under the cover between a bathhouse and rows of flowering potato plants. The vibrancy of nature and the holiday appeal of my dacha disposed me to choose a plein-air color scheme. I noticed how I steadily wandered off the icon’s character, so I called my friend and he gave a piece of excellent advice to “add some wintry notes and more metal.” It quickly brought my mellow hues back together under the “masculine” tonality.

Do you still do secular art?

—I do, and quite assiduously—be it a canvas or watercolor paper, I keep the surface to work on always at hand. I recommend the same to other iconographers. This way, we can keep a wide array of tools in our creative toolkit. Not just like some form of art therapy, but consciously making an in-depth study of a certain artistic episode as another method of expressing beauty.

The experienced muralists know what the tonal uniformity of a wall painting is about, but more often than not, they end up using only a tonal blending, or even an increasingly popular strong softening of color depth. As a result, modern wall paintings end up looking monotonous, if not “piquantly” washed out, when compared with the examples of ancient art. That’s why concurrent work on graphics or oil painting projects, for instance, with the aim to improve the picturesqueness of plastic vision, the beauty of full-strength color, and the painterliness of tonal groups, could become a powerful impetus for further advancement to the higher levels of monumental art.


Oksana Golovko
spoke with Olga Spiridonova
Translation by Liubov Ambrose



Carl Anders Breitholtz12/17/2022 1:07 am
I found this article very interesting as it goes to depth with icon painting. Many thanks for publishing it. I have fairly recently started to paint (or write as it should be called as I understand) icons, so far only three, but with traditional technique (egg tempera on wood etc), but the technique is of much the same value as a pen to a writer. Reading about how an icon painter works and thinks about icon painting and her faith is quite valuable. Many thanks, and God bless you. More articles would be appreciated.
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