1. Father Theodore

    A helpful and sensible article. Thank you!

  2. Great discussion Mary. In french we have similar linguistic differentiation, that is the verb “peindre” is for fine art and the word “peinturer” is for fences and walls, both have the same root but are distinct in usage. So in french we see more clearly the jargon use of “write” because although we have similar though not identical distinctions in the language, many Orthodox still use the word “écrire” (write) and it is clear there is some kind of elite feeling of somehow showing we know what icons are by demonstrating we are “initiated” to the special language about them. Luckily for me, I often have the opportunity to put people in uncomfortable neo-Orthodox situations. When looking at my icons, many stutter and hesitate because I can hardly be said to “write” icons in any way. I CARVE them! Problem avoided…

  3. John Auger

    Great article. It helps to clarify the use of the term “write” when referring to “painting” an icon. I have experienced firsthand what you described when you wrote: “every material component of the icon and every technique used to accomplish it are given a special a tag that purportedly reveals not only cosmic mysteries, but also the situation of one’s soul when painting/writing an icon.” I have since learned that this is indeed Gnostic and forcibly esoteric, purportedly based upon personal Divine revelation. These so-called revelations are now being discussed openly in Russia as being truly heretical and based upon personal theology not found in authentic Orthodox teachings. Thanks again for posting this article as it was indeed helpful to understand the reason why “write” is used when describing the creation of an icon.

  4. o. David

    If one insists that iconographers “write” iconography, I would suggest that he or she be consistent and say that photographers “write” photography, cartographers “write” maps, and pornographers “write” pornography.

    1. Really, O. David? I hardly see how that follows. But your comment is a good discussion point that I look forward to seeing others address.

  5. o. David

    If some will insist (and sometimes, in a very belligerent way) that the “-graphy” in “iconography” needs to be translated as “write” then why not the “-graphy” in other words? It’s the same root.

    I suppose it speaks to the penchant we Orthodox have for creating secondary and tertiary meanings that–while pious and nice–have little grounding in our real history.

    To share a personal anecdote, I was once accosted by an employee at an Episcopal cathedral’s gift shop for asking who *painted* an icon in their store. As I was being schooled by this nice old lady, I couldn’t help but think “Listen, I’m *Orthodox* and you’re not. Don’t tell me about my own tradition!” I was much more polite than that, though!

  6. Great article, Mary. Thanks.
    I use the word ‘make’ icons. It avoids the paint/write icon dance. However, when the technique to be used is petit lac the lines, which constrain the spread of color, are enscribed with a pointed tool. There is actual drawing, an actual type of writing going on. It may just be that a certain word defines an action appropriate to the task. Translations, or American usage, write or paint, lets be gentle with one another. “I would rather love than be right” In heaven it is how we treat people more than what we called our labors that counts.

    1. Bess, thank you. The nudge to be gentle is why I wrote the article. As one associate told me, “I never realized these were fighting words.” Neither did I, but for some the use of “write” summons passionate opposition. My purpose in writing the article was to defuse the argument either for or against by exploring its origins and both its positive and negative implications for English-speakers. Personally, it is a non-issue, but the conversation is worth having and I welcome the engagement. BTW, I also like to say “make” an icon to avoid “fighting words”.

  7. […] See full article HERE. […]

  8. As a painter (and professor), I do find these kinds of semantic discussions pointless–or, I should say, missing the point. In my art history lectures, I have a section devoted to the connection of image-making and written language. Written language began as pictures and over time became more abstract and symbolic, to the point that now in order to read the “pictures” of, say, English, one has to know how to decipher the “code.” For an example, I draw a little picture of a generic “tree” and then I write the word “tree”. Then I ask the students which is more abstract. They often say ‘the picture’–but this of course is wrong. The only reason they pick the ‘word’ is that they know the English language’s code (to anyone not knowing English, the word is incomprehensible), whereas nearly anyone who has seen a tree would understand what the picture ‘represents’. So are icons written? Yes. Are they painted? Yes. But we would say the same thing of any art, no matter how ‘realistic’ or ‘abstract’. Written language is, after all, the most abstract way to ‘re-present’ (picture) the world (notice, too, that we re-image the words in our minds as we read). I would also add that the effort to distance the icon from aesthetic considerations both diminishes the power of beauty and beauty’s connection to worship. To say the icon is primarily a ‘written’ theology is, I think, again, to miss the wholeness of the Orthodox worship experience, which is always both aesthetic and theological at once.

    1. Excellent comment, Prof Adams! ” … the effort to distance the icon from aesthetic considerations both diminishes the power of beauty and beauty’s connection to worship. To say the icon is primarily a ‘written’ theology is, I think, again, to miss the wholeness of the Orthodox worship experience, which is always both aesthetic and theological at once.” I hope that my reference to icons “as statements of dogma” in no way “diminishes” their aesthetic role. My intention was to demonstrate that their imagery accords with Church teaching, which we receive from sacred texts. But as we know, the earliest icons actually sprung from oral tradition, and, in the case of catacomb portraiture of saints such as those of Peter, Paul, Andrew, John, etc., from contemporary witnesses of their physiognomy, which the Church preserves through Her iconographic art when depicting them. Your point is well taken, nevertheless: the “wholeness” of Orthodox theology is experienced in Beauty expressed through auditory iconography (liturgical poetry sung and the reading/chanting of sacred texts), the architectural icon of the cosmos composed of structural material, and the pictorial imagery that inhabits it. Semantic quibbling over write/paint/brick-laying/harmonics is missing the purpose of the means to Orthodox worship “both aesthetic and theological at once”. Thank you, come again.

      1. No, insisting on the icon’s theology in no way diminishes its beauty. I certainly did not wish to imply that, but simply that you cannot–without distorting the incarnational basis of the icon–separate the two. The real problem in a lot of these kinds of discussions is in how people understand Beauty. Like you, I prefer to capitalize it. I do not see beauty as some kind of adornment that exists on the surface of things, but rather as a manifestation of Divine presence, the essence of being, a manifestation of the Kingdom of God. Beauty can, as Soloviev said when writing about Dostoevsky’s conception of Beauty, become an idol when it is artificially separated from Truth and Goodness. I think the icon, in this sense, serves as a symbol, a “binding together”, of these three ideas. The individual icons don’t do this alone, however, but exist as part of a much larger “Icon” that begins in the dome of the church with the Christ Pantocrator, down through the various hierarchies of the Apostles, saints, the iconostas, the clergy, the gathered faithful, and from there out into the world. This attraction of beauty (its power) then gathers all of reality, like a solar system, toward the center, which is Christ, the “Sun of Righteousness”.

      2. Ah, Mary. Thank you for your gentleness and gentle way of being. It seems to me a Christly way to live.

  9. […] Is “Write” Wrong?: A Discussion of Iconology Lingo Mary Lowell, Orthodox Arts Journal […]

  10. […] of American Orthodox terminology – especially the problematic phrase “to write an icon.” Her article describes the technical problems with this translation very clearly, while acknowledging its appeal […]

  11. […] Is “Write” Wrong?: A Discussion of Iconology Lingo Mary Lowell, Orthodox Arts Journal […]

  12. […] it is hard not to jump in and offer some of my own insight.  In reading both Mary Lowell’s first piece as well as Andrew Gould’s answer, it is difficult not to see how there is much bubbling […]

  13. Marianne Poulos offers a timely comment on the discussion: “Etymology of the Greek word -graphy ‘process of writing or recording’ or “a from Greek -graphia ‘description of,’ from graphein ‘write, express by written characters,’ earlier ‘to draw, represent by lines drawn,’ originally ‘to scrape, scratch’ (on clay tablets with a stylus)

    Graphia originally related to both pictures/glyphs/lines used for both drawing and writing. [This is the reason the Greeks still use Greek in the Divine Liturgy. It’s like sacrilege to go from the original to the watered down version in translation. So much is lost!]”

    While I limited my remarks to the etymology of Russian verbs (because I hang out with Russians), Marianne Poulos has elucidated the Greek origins of the Russian construction. Thank you!

    And just a memo in defense of my objective in writing the article; it was intended to be a synthesis of both positions in the debate, not an either or partisanship for the “left” or the “right” hand. Both Andrew and Jonathan have masterfully dissected the implications of partisanship and extended the conversation to epistemological dimensions. What delightful results!

  14. Dana Ames

    Good article; thanks.

    No matter which word one prefers, I think the most important thing is to seek humility and avoid snobbery and condescension.

    Interestingly, the etymology of the English “write” is traced back to Old Saxon “writan,” which developed into the modern German cognate “ritzen,” to scratch, as in what a quill pen does on paper, or to carve (Ave, Jonathan…). Modern German for “write” is “schreiben,” which of course derives from the Latin “scribo,” whence we also get the English “inscribe” as to etch. So it all goes around in a circle in English, too.


    1. Nice! I didn’t know these etymologies. Great comment.

  15. My wife and I are preparing an essay on this point (stressing the Greek terms and their change over time, among other foundational matters), which we hope to finish sometime this calendar year. In the meantime, we have the various recently published essays listed here:

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