Iconography Discussion

Houston-based international artist Joni Zavitsanos spoke to a group from St. Paul Orthodox Church in February about Byzantine Iconography’s roots, evolution and significance beyond the imagery.

At Yvette Michelle’s photo studio (ymportraits.com) north of Houston she explained that she inherited her obsession for the art form from her father, renowned Byzantine iconographer Diamantis Cassis. He saw Byzantine icons as “art for man’s edification.” She shared a portfolio with the group comparing side-by-side her father’s work with her own. This led to a discussion about bridging the gap between the ancient image and the modern image and still retaining the meaning of the art.

At the gathering hosted by photographer Yvette Michelle Keener, where wine, food and fellowship were shared, Ms. Zavitsanos showed the group the first icon she painted on wood with her father’s guidance. She let those in attendance touch and study the icon up close. Using her portfolio, she explained the symbolism behind the icons and the deeper meanings of the various images and color schemes.

Some of the symbolic points Ms. Zavitsanos explained include:

  • The use of reverse perspective in iconography puts the vanishing point in the eye of the viewer, who looks out into eternity.
  • There are set garment colors for certain figures.  For example, Christ is always in a blue/purple outer garment, signifying his Divinity, and a red undergarment, signifying his earthly nature.  The Virgin Mary wears the same colors in opposite mode, signifying her humanity through her outer red garment, and her divine nature through her subservience to God’s will through the blue/purple inner garment.
  • The faces of the saints are quite specific and reveal their heavenly nature, rather than a direct portrait or photographic quality.  Their eyes are large as they are windows into the soul.  They have large ears and small mouths as they hear the word of God and speak only when necessary.  The foreheads are large, signifying spiritual wisdom.  The bodies are thin from fasting.
  • Gold leaf is used for the halos and backgrounds of icons as it is an image of the heavenly, so the most precious metal is used to convey this.
Ms. Zavitsanos displays the first icon she created, an image of her patron saint, John the Baptist.
Iconography Discussion
The artist shares a portfolio illustrating modern images based on those from the ancient world.