Thursday, April 12, 2012

Confronting the new iconoclasm of the mass-produced

(Hexaemeron) - Perhaps it was inevitable. The technology has been in place for decades. It was only a matter of time before the sacred art of the icon became an inexpensive do-it-yourself room makeover. For those of us who support sacred arts through training iconographers and encouraging high quality work crafted from noble materials for our churches and homes, the creation and dissemination of icon wallpaper is a cause for mourning.

We recently received an advert email for “Priests and Wardens” that touted the benefits of a process for manufacturing “images that go on your church walls like wallpaper. MUCH cheaper than real frescoes!”

We were even warned “there is an ‘imposter’ out there using cheaper materials, so be careful!”

Imagine, an “imposter” of the “MUCH cheaper than real.” Really?

There is a story told about Henry Ford that comes to mind. You remember the businessman from Detroit who made it affordable for just about everyone to own an automobile. After the inventor of assembly-line production amassed so much wealth he didn’t know what to do with it, his financial advisors suggested he invest in fine art. But the acquisitive Ford was taken aback by the sticker price on the art pieces brought before him. So, he ordered photographs to be taken of the art and the paper copies placed in fancy frames to hang throughout his mansion[s]. The idea caught on and the art reproduction business was launched. Once again Ford had succeeded in finding a way to make something of value accessible to the masses. Now, everyone can own a Rembrandt that is “MUCH cheaper than real” because it isn’t.

Ford’s ingenuity worked well for auto assembly and we are thankful for it, but aping his thrift in artificial art production (whether high-end imposter or low) is a tragedy for iconography. Ironically, no one has ever argued that the artificial imitation of fine art works is real. That argument seems to be reserved for the sacred rather than the secular...
Complete article here.


  1. St John of Damascus said that when two sticks were bound together in the shape of the Cross, he venerated them as a symbol of his salvation. But when they were broken apart he cast them on the pile with the other kindling.

    Obviously if we can, we ought to buy hand painted icons. But it is unrealistic to insist that every icon be handmade. And just as two twigs bound together becomes a symbol of salvation, so a piece of paper that bears the Lord’s image is just as much an icon as the Christ of Sinai. The icon is holy because of what it represents, not because it is made of certain substances.

  2. I have mixed feelings about this. I really don't like the idea of wallpaper frescoes, and there is something important about using natural materials in a traditionally sanctioned manner (i.e. I am hesitant about iconographers who use acrylic paint etc). And it is important that good iconographers are supported. But then there is also the reality. If our parish were only to use proper painted icons, we would simply not be able to afford them. Moreover, I am not sure that a bad painted icon (which is what we would be forced to use) is any better than well-made reproduction of a good icon - in fact I am inclined to think that it is worse.

  3. I have news for those against acrylic (even though I'm not the biggest fan myself) - the vast majority of painted icons out there are done in acrylic. It is because it allows icons to be painted fast and cheaper. How many parishes are willing to wait years for egg tempera or frescoes? Very few. To be precise, unless the painting is done in the proper frescoe method, on wet plaster (hence the term frescoe), it is not a frescoe. Many icons called "frescoes" are in fact acrylic on canvas, and then glued onto the walls.

  4. I am an iconographer who works in acrylic. I don't think there is are sacred materials or a sacred method for the painting in iconography. Many different styles have produced not only blessed icons, but even wonderworking, holy icons that have endured and been copied for a long time. Some of these wonderworking icons are in a folk style that is not really as refined as the classic Bzyzantime ones.

    I have heard of and seen myself icons made out of paper streaming Myhrr. Usually these seem to be copies of other wonderworking icons, but some of these were exactly the cheaper mass-produced icons I used to be upset to see in churches. I would like to see people choose the best art for their churches, and to at least give the struggling iconographers a shot at it. I for one can come close to the price of the large mass produced ones, even though I should sell them for more.