Sacred Art Glossary
Basma (Russian)
Ornamental strips of precious metal nailed on the background of an icon
Beautiful Corner
Every Russian home had its “beautiful corner” (krasniy ugol), in which the family icons were placed. It often contained a corner shelf holding icons draped with beautiful cloths. Guests entering the house customarily venerated the icons in the corner by bowing and crossing themselves three times. The term krasniy ugol is often mistranslated as “red corner.” The confusion stems from the Russian word krasniy. It is a homonym meaning both beautiful and red.
Pertaining to the Christian Roman Empire initiated by Constantine the Great in A.D. 330, and lasting until the fall of Constantinople in 1453
A gemstone of convex hemispherical or oval form, polished but not cut into facets
To decorate metal objects with engraved designs or simple indentations
Chrysography (Greek)
Literally “writing in gold,” it is a form of linear hatching executed in gold leaf which is applied as the last stage of painting. The most frequent occurance is on Christ’s garment and the Mandrola surrounding his image when it is used to denote the radiation of divine energy
Deisis (Greek)
Literally “supplication,” the term has two main applications in connection with icons. On single images it usually consists of the interceding fugures of the Virgin and John the Baptist flanking Christ. This is also known as a Trimorphon. Occasionally the composition extends to include more figures. In the context of an icon screen, the term refers to a series of icons placed on the first row above the Royal Doors
Egg Tempera
The original type of tempera paint, for which the binder is egg yolk. the traditional medium for icon painting.
A compound of powdered chalk or marble dust and glue mixed with water providing a brilliantly white and absorbent surface for tempera paint layered on a material support (such as a wood panel). It is applied in numerous coats and polished smooth before painting
Gold Leaf
Gold that has been beaten until it is millimeters thin. It is applied to a surface with an adhesive
A circular disk or ring often of gold and surrounding the heads of sacred figures
Hesychasts (Greek hesychastes - quietest) were people, nearly all monks, who defended the theory that it is possible, by an elaborate system of asceticism, detachment from earthly cares, submission to an approved master, prayer (especially perfect repose of body and will), to see a mystic light; which is none other that the uncreated light of God. The contemplation of this light is the highest end of man on earth; in this way is a man most intimately united with god. The light seen by Hesychasts is the same as appeared at Christ’s Transfiguration.
A screen hung with icons separating the sanctuary of an Orthodox church from the congregation. In its simplest form it can consist of two icons on either side of the Royal Doors, whilst in the most developed the icons can be arranged in up to five tiers or registers with a series of icons on each, such as the Deisis, the Feast Days, the Prophets and the Patriarchs.
Imperial Warrant
The mark used to indicate that the manufacturer of a marked item was commissioned to work for the Imperial Family. The Imperial Warrant mark consists of the double-headed eagle inside a circle.
The central square or rectangle in which the main image of an icon is often painted. Carved lower than the surrounding borders or margins, this hollowed out interior surface takes its name from the Old Church Slavonic word for “Ark,” as in “ark of the covenant,” and later was used to designate a reliquary.
The depiction of radiant light encompassing a sacred person. The light can be in the shape of a diamond or almond. Also referred to as an “aureole.”
Maphorian (Greek)
Woman’s outer robe covering the head and reaching down to the feet. Always worn by the Virgin
Oklad (Russian)
Metal revetment of an icon. Also known as a “riza.”
Old Church Slavonic
The traditional language of the Orthodox Church in Slavic countries is Church Slavonic, a modified form of Old Church Slavonic, the language used by the early Macedonian missionary monks Cyril and Methodius. It is written in the Cyrillic alphabet, named after Cyril. This language is used in the bible, in the liturgical books of the Church, and also for the inscriptions on icons. It is closely related to modern Russian but differs in many respects
Omophorion (Greek)
A long white cloth decorated with crosses worn as a stole around the neck and shoulders by Orthodox Bishops
Paste Gemstone
A simulated gemstone, usually glass
The technique of making relief decorations on metal by working from the back
A metal ornamentation (usually one piece) covering the surface of an icon. Often covering the entire surface except the face and hands. Also known as an “Oklad.”
Royal Doors
A pair of doors or gates at the center of the icon screen, giving access to the sanctuary; revered for the clergy, their opening and closing punctuates the liturgic drama.
From the Latin sanctus meaning holy. A person officially recognized by the church as being entitled to public veneration and capable of interceding for people on earth
Six-winged angels of the highest rank believed in ancient Judaism to guard God’s throne.
Gold plated silver
Wooden crosspieces (shponki - Russian) inserted across the back or into the top and bottom edge of a wooden panel on which an icon was to be painted. They were added to prevent warping
An art object consisting of three panels, either overlapping when closed, or with two lateral wings half the width of the central panel
A Russian term used to describe a decorative metal crescent suspended from the neck of the person depicted on an icon
One of the two lateral panels of a triptych
Writing an Icon
There is often much debate about the correct term to use when describing the act of creating an icon. Some contemporary icon enthusiasts in English-speaking countries speak of “writing” an icon. The confusion stems from the Russian word pisat, which means both painting and writing. The English translation is then determined by the subject. Therefore, when translating from Russian to English, one would say that you paint a house, not write a house, or you paint a portrait, not write a portrait. Although some modern theological excuses are often made for use of the term write, when speaking of icons it is best avoided as an affectation.