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Home / Impressions / Travel Stories / The Icon Painter
The Icon Painter

"Byzantine art is a holy, spiritual art" says Kóstas Falkónis, one of the last icon painters in Greece, who still works according the strict Byzantine school. To an outsider it may seem as if we are just copying one icon from another, but in fact an icon is living art.

It is self-contained and original, made according to a given type but interpreted by each painter’s own sense of piety.

Kóstas Falkónis, pupil and assistant of Fótis Kóndoglou (1894 – 1965), Greece’s most important icon painter of the 20th century, studied painting and icon painting at the School of Fine Arts at Athens University. His impressive works of icons, wall paintings and mosaics include assignments for churches all over Greece and Europe, even as far as America and Japan. Since 1989 he has returned to his roots in Crete, near Neápoli, where he paints new icons and restores old ones, assisted by his son Níkos, with a passion and patience only a true devotee can bring to light.

"To make an icon is like coming closer to God” he continues. “With the shapes, the mystical colours, with seemingly paradox movements the icon painter wants to express the divine love that surrounds the saints he is painting. Whatever act the saints on the icon depict, their attention is always directed towards God and each gesture is inspired by Him. Byzantine art is steady and has an eternal character with no desire for change. You paint with a humble feeling, with your heart and soul; not to impress, but almost like praying."

The Byzantine school has nothing in common with the secular Renaissance art, where we encounter naturalistic elements and images that represent a carnal and materialistic ethic and where religion is only the motive for painting. The beauty of liturgical painting is a beauty of the spirit, not of the flesh. There is no art more strict; disciplined and austere, liturgical painting expresses richness through poverty and is lacking every excessive ornamentation and vain display. Everything has become standardized. Old religious painters fasted when they painted, so as to be pure both internally and externally. The artist does not exist, he is assimilated in the portrayal of an entity that absorbs him and annihilates him.

"In icon painting nature essentially does not exist. The background is neutral, gold or monochrome. Stances are frontal and hierarchical, with faces that have a rudimentary expression: severe, even grim at times. The drapery is executed with straight lines with here and there a few light curves."

Kóstas talks with as much passion about his art, as he is passionate about choosing the right materials. To make the carbon with which to draw, he uses the wood of dry hazel or myrtle; for the panel on which to paint the icon he takes cypress, walnut, chestnut, pine or some other fragrant tree. The background for the icons is provided by a 22 carat gold leaf that he brings from Venice where it is still worked in the old way: hammered endlessly, between sheets of leather until it becomes exceedingly thin. The paints are handmade, with only the best dyes that are derived from minerals, plants and metals, ground in a stone mill and which he brings from the Netherlands, from a workshop where this is still done the traditional way.

Additional materials used in icon painting are egg, wax, pine resin, mastic, honey and almond gum.

"The egg tempera," Kóstas explains, "is made of egg mixed with some vinegar to make it more fluid and to prevent it from smelling. Apart from its sticky consistency and becoming hard, it also makes colours shine, like enamel, giving them a certain glow. For wall paintings we use asbestos in a technique the Italians call "fresco" (fresh): the painter works on freshly plastered walls with colours that are mixed with asbestos and that are applied to the still wet walls; the walls absorb the colours that are left to dry there, giving it a soft looking effect. A fresco has to be made with metallic colours, as natural and chemical colours would be destroyed by the asbestos."

Another, almost forgotten technique Kóstas uses is the so called wax caustic method: colours are mixed with melted natural wax that makes the icons look very soft-focused. This ancient technique is very rare today; fine examples of it can be seen in the monastery of Sinai in Egypt while the monastery of Kerá in Kritsá holds one icon of the Crucifixion of Christ.

As Kóstas returns to his paints and brushes, we leave with an overwhelming feeling of having met an artist with immense knowledge about the eternal art of Byzantine icon painting.