At the beginning of the rediscovery of ancient icons, Prince Yevgueni Trubetskoy expressed in 1915 his ideas on this issue with his trademark emotionality: "He (man) cannot enter God's temple in his present condition: there is no place in this temple for uncircumcised hearts, for fat, self-sufficient bodies. This is why icons cannot be painted from live models."
The prevailing view is that both are unacceptable. In the first case, because the Church recognizes saints only after their deaths, and it would be quite inconceivable and indecent to make a portrait of someone in his lifetime in order for this portrait to serve one day as an icon after his death, and his eventual canonization. The second case is for many downright blasphemy: what is there in common indeed between a saint and the first comer? The appearance? It is obvious that what the icon depicts is flesh illuminated by the Spirit, not an appearance, a simple envelope deprived of spirituality. In addition, instead of the genuine contact with the personality - unique and irreplaceable - of the saint, it is with the personality of the model that the artist would come into contact and the icon would lose in this way all its mystical meaning.
But are these standpoints really valid? Are they really unshakably founded, in Orthodox theology and tradition of icon painting?
Let us examine the first case, that of portraits made during saints’ own lifetimes. Photographs, we know, are not recognized by the Church as icons, and never presented in churches as objects of veneration, yet many believers have them in their domestic iconostases alongside or instead of icons. We also know that the known portraits of St. John of Kronstadt and St. Seraphim of Sarov, in both cases painted during their lifetimes, have not become icons, even though the portrait of the latter by most iconographers is practically an identical copy, and the classical icon of John of Kronstadt perfectly matches his portraits, both painted and photographic.
On the other hand, church tradition relates that the apostle Luke made many portraits of the Mother of God during her lifetime, and that these became the first icons of her. Although experts deny the dating of a part, if not all of this series of icons to the first century, the very existence of such a legend, as well as that of ancient icons where Luke is shown at his easel in the process of painting an icon-portrait of the Virgin seated before him as a model, is sufficient to tell us that the painting of an icon from nature is not canonically prohibited. Moreover, the expression "icon-portrait" is a tautology: originally, the Greek word eikon (icon) meant precisely portrait, reflection in a mirror, likeness.
However, we cannot treat this example as a unique exception to the general rule, given the special nature of the painter and especially his model, whose holiness was unquestionable and perfect. In fact we have no idea how the first icons of saints where painted, whether from life or from memory. We have no direct evidence, but this indirect evidence and common sense tell us that they were painted from life, as normal portraits. For example, in book four of the Life of the Holy Emperor Constantine, it is written that his subjects “venerated him dead in exactly the same way as when he was alive, presenting, in a picture painted in colors, a view of the sky, and above the firmament the emperor resting in the ethereal dwelling.” As we see, is this posthumous veneration through pictures that strikes the hagiographer as remarkable, while veneration through pictures during the emperor’s lifetime was viewed as perfectly normal.
We are unable to determine today what these early icon-portraits were like, as a hundred years of iconoclasm smashed the artistic heritage of the earlier centuries. But even if tens of thousands of ancient icons had survived until today, we could not say with certainty that we would be able to distinguish among all these representations, which image of St. Nicolas or of St. George was the first prototype. Countless copies of the venerated images abounded at the time in the church, and the concept of copyright did not exist. If an icon is venerated it is for reasons of its relationship with its holy prototype, and equally with its painted prototype. Good copies were accorded just as much veneration as the "original" icon and very quickly this rapprochement turned into total identity.
We now understand better why the Church, based on the faith of the people and given the great miracles associated with certain icons of the Mother of God, continues to attribute them to Luke, even though experts have determined that these are later copies.
Fortunately we can draw certain conclusions from examining the portraits of emperors, builders of churches, donors, or priests, that have come down to us in icons, or mosaic murals. They are represented in prayer before God or a saint. These portraits were made in their lifetimes. They did not become saints and for that reason are not replicated in any subsequent copies. They remain unique, enabling us to say that they are indeed living portraits of their models. What do we see in this type of icon? No difference in style distinguishes them from the saints next to them. Their lack of holiness is not marked either in their type (typos) nor in any specific brutality of their features, compared with those of neighboring saints. The only way to distinguish between saints and other persons in a traditional icon is the nimbus and the inscription. Where they are omitted (which can happen in scenes with large numbers of figures), we are deprived of any opportunity to distinguish between the saints and other mortals unless we know the subject, the canonical or traditional disposition of the participants, their appearance or their clothing.
What then of the other people represented, apart from the sponsors or the high-ranking persons we just talked about? Many members of the "crowd" are present in festive icons, in the vitae of saints, or in narrative subjects from the Gospels. This "crowd", a necessary part of the narrative, is not always in very pious mood. Sometimes the artist is even obliged to represent pagans, sinners, or executioners. Even so the proportions of the bodies of the mob or of criminals are as noble as those of the bodies of the saints; nor are their faces marked by vile passions. In the scenes of the vitae of the saints, except in scenes of open violence, we cannot distinguish the good from the bad in the absence of explanatory inscription.
The artist paints the same way all these persons of different categories, whether saints or not, alive or dead, those who served as models to the artist, or those whose appearance is known to him by previous images, or whose appearance he "invents." The artistic manner remains the same, and type does not vary either. This indisputable observation already entitles us to state that the fact of working with a live model or from memory or imagination, whether the person portrayed is a saint or not, in no way influences how human beings are represented in icons, and does not leave any negative trace. This settles the question regarding the saints and the "non-saints," painted from life during their lifetimes. We can also leave out the anonymous "extras" that populate multi-figure scenes: prayer is not directed in any way to them.
Let us now turn to the second case. Is there really a mystical taboo that prohibits a painter from taking a noble old man with gray hair as a model for painting Saint Nicolas? Is it really wrong to drape the head of beautiful young girl in purple for painting the Mother of God? This is a complex and complicated issue. Before discussing here Orthodox mysticism, let us first check if we have not fallen into pagan mysticism. The significance in Christian culture of the production of portraits is the transmission of physical appearance. For pagans, summarily carved idols (two eyes, two holes for the nose and one for the mouth, a gender identifier) acted as sacred doubles and; as such, could act as objects of veneration or witchcraft. We are no longer there. We do not commission a portrait from the first artist we meet who is ready to spend a certain time in front of the model, contentedly receiving the "authentic" product of this contact on a sheet of paper or on canvas or in clay. The authenticity of the contact of the author of a portrait with his model is of little concern to us. What matters to us is the resemblance.
The difference between a professional and an amateur artist consists precisely in the fact that the professional does not try at all costs to achieve mystical contact with Nature, whether living or not. His task is to produce to the best of his ability the resemblance that is expected of his painting. To the extent of his talent, and according to his aesthetic, moral or spiritual ideas, he adds to his work the artistic quality of his touch, which will distinguish it from the clumsy attempts of any beginner artist. In other words, the artist can make his model more imposing, or give it fineness or emotional depth, piety or chastity, or indeed sexual attraction, spirituality or concentration. Portraits of the same person painted by different artists will show that person under different lights, each artist emphasizing a particular psychological, intellectual or spiritual feature, while all bearing his likeness.
The means used to achieve this similarity will also differ from one artist to the next. One will prefer long sittings with the sitter, while carefully keeping the pose, the lighting, the folds of the garment etc. Another will take a series of quick sketches as a basis for leisurely painting his portrait in the studio without his model. The artist can pay a model to pose dressed in the costume of the person whose portrait he is painting; he can also use a dummy or he can also draw inspiration from other previously painted, drawn or sculpted images of the person in question, done by himself or by others. He can even use photographs. However he goes about his work, this will be assessed on its resemblance and on the spiritual or psychological emphasis given to his portrait.
We will take the liberty of telling a little parable to clarify what we are trying to say. Imagine two painters invited to paint the king. The first paints an awkward portrait from life. Instead of admitting his failure, he insists heavily, saying that his work is valuable because of its mystical content provided by genuine contact with the kind during long sittings. He also accuses the second and more gifted painter of taking as a model for his monarch's portrait a man of questionable character that he found in the street. What are we going to respond to this rogue, at least if we find it worth the effort to respond to his bad faith? He will be told roundly that, of the two portraits of the king, the more correct is the one where the sovereign is recognizable even without inscription, and we can not only recognize him but appreciate the rendering of his nobility, wisdom and majesty. If the artist has been able to glimpse these qualities even in the humblest of the king's subjects, good for him and good for the poor man. The king will be in no wise offended. What could offend him is the obstinacy of the author of a clumsy, unworthy portrait, lacking any resemblance, in trying to force everyone to recognize this image as authentic.
Nothing could be more obvious in a secular context, but when it comes to icons, reasonable responses become rarer. This scam would appear to be widespread, surrounded by an unhealthy mysticism that takes us back to the days of primitive idols made of clay. So how did this opposition arise between, on one hand Raphael, denounced as a blasphemer for using a young woman of easy virtue as a model for the Mother of God, and on the other hand a host of "true icon painters" who avoid soiling by their art by... but, yes, by what? By imitating nature?
This expression "imitation of nature" is so often used in literally in discourse on icon painting, that we think that a momentary digression is justified here. What are we talking about when we say "imitation of nature"?
An artist never copies nature mechanically, as does a photo camera. We sometimes hear the stupid comparison with photography (or with the vision of Christ through the eyes of a spiritually blind crowd)  as "proof" of the impossibility for an artist to render Christ's divine nature by means of realistic painting. In fact, such a comparison proves nothing. All its hows is that its author does not know, or chooses expressly to ignore, the ABC interpretation of nature by the artist.
Even the pictures of hyper-realist painters who aim precisely at the impersonal, mechanical imitation of photographs (these artists being fully aware of the impossibility of copying nature mechanically) bear almost imperceptibly the traces of the individual manners of their authors. And "imitation" of nature, in the true sense of the word, is always creative and inevitably transforms this nature. The specific features of this transformation are the flesh and blood of art, its very reason for being. It is these features that open up to us the inner world of a painter, and provide data on his capabilities and professionalism, on his school, his period and his nationality. These data, that specialists can read like an open book, are the specific criteria for assigning work to the various schools. Those who are not blind could well see in their work further evidence of the existence of God and His incarnation by contemplating the indescribable and inexhaustible richness of these individual visions of nature embodied by artists, each of which visions is miraculous in itself. Every work involves the projection of the macrocosm into a microcosm, an authentic projection incarnated in the raw material.
What remains miraculous, and not yet explored, is the fact that each of these projections is formed unconsciously: the artist is seeking Beauty and Truth; his purpose is not to create a new style! The great names in the history of art are not those who stand chewing their brushes, wondering how to paint so as not to resemble Michelangelo or Chagall. Rather it is those that apply themselves most to transmit as sincerely as possible their worldview, that is, to pass on the truth as they understand it. Some people imagine that an artist's principal concern is to develop his individual style in proud isolation from the world and from his colleagues. This image, in its appalling banality, is the fruit of the blindness of dilettantes who do not even suspect what might be an artist's relationship with the world created by God, the same world that he wishes to represent.
Allow me to illustrate my point with two little bits of history. First that of the indignation of the London public at Claude Monet's painting, Impression, Sunrise, first exhibited in England in the 1870s, so new, so strange to the eye of the philistine. And yet, coming out of the exhibition, the same audience could discover that the mist over the River Thames, which it had seen a thousand times, was really pinkish like the mist Monet had painted.
The second and better-known story would seem to contradict the previous one: the pious Roman populace, to whom it was announced that Raphael had painted the Virgin using a less than suitable young lady as a model, rushed to his studio to plunder it, and to murder the artist. But suddenly, the crowd stopped, overcome by the beauty of the painting, softened and calmed because Raphael had been able to reproduce what he himself had perceived in this "in-decent" nature.
Beyond the difference in mentality between the eras and the causes of public anger we see in both cases the same situation: the public at first reacts negatively because its idea of truth has been shaken, but is then convinced by an idea that is more profound, more subtle, better founded, and skilfully transmitted. In both cases, the public discovers the vision of the world proposed by the eyes of the painter, a vision that turns it upside down. Both incidents occurred despite the fact that Raphael and Monet both painted directly from nature, or, according to the philistine conception, they imitated nature!
Let us recall once again the axiom without which all talk of fine arts remains so much dilettante banter: the artist, facing nature, does not see what a camera lens captures, but the Truth, to the extent that this is accessible to him. A thousand years before the appearance of photography and the scientific theory of art St. John Damascene stated that "any picture makes clear and shows things that are hidden.
So back to the "true iconographers" this "separate group of other artists" so named based on the assertion that they never painted from live models. Our first comment it that we really know very little about their working methods. Being scientifically accurate, we can only observe the absence of documents or other evidence on the question of painting "from nature." As we have seen, working from nature is not limited to long sessions in front of a posing model, or to outdoor outings with an easel. Any observation by the watchful eye of an artist of the world surrounding him is already "working from nature." Any practical utilization of this observation, whether a minute later or after one year, is also working from nature. And whenever an artist remarks in another person's work a particular way of making things more alive, more real, he continues, in a certain way, to work from nature, comparing the findings of the other artist to the observations he has already harvested for himself.
Can we really say that the great iconographers of olden days never saw chaste young men, or noble girls, or worthy old men? No one whose appearance conjured up ideas of beauty, nobility or peace of mind? No one who radiated wisdom, virility, an active love for his neighbor, humility, and mastery of his passions? Should we imagine that, as soon as iconographers caught sight of such models, they immediately closed their eyes to avoid any temptation to use their observations in their work? Were they so fearful of condemnation, knowing that any man who looks at a wife woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Mt. 5: 28). Would it not be more correct, more reasonable, both from the viewpoint of the theory of artistic creativity and that of theology, to assume that there is no adultery, no fornication in the fact that the artist, himself belonging to the world created by God, and having around him not angels but simply men and women, naturally finds beauty in this world, and in these men and women, and in this way comes to knowledge of the beauty of the other world promised to him, a beauty that he restores to us in his works?
To present as apostasy the experience of the encounter with God through His creation, to condemn the imitation of nature for depicting truth, describing it as mechanical and deprived of spirituality, is this not to commit a much worse infidelity to God and Truth? Entire epochs of sacred creation, the works of the most talented and daring artists, are in this way declared apostate. This obscurantism, bearing in itself the seeds of its own destruction, is happily doomed to disappear sooner or later, finding as it does no support in the hearts of spectators, who at best politely tolerate badly painted icons. Nor does this piteous and harmful error permit the spiritual and artistic development, through icon- painting, of those lost in it. Its dissipation is in the interest of all who are not indifferent to the future of the icon.
For a painter to work from nature has never been explicitly forbidden in any canonical document of the Church, nor has the likeness of the icon with nature. What was forbidden was to paint the icons according to the artist's imagination, and what was recommended was to paint them according to the models, or older pictures.
This prohibition and this recommendation can be understood in the Spirit and the Truth, but they can be treated as well, if you will, in a different spirit. During long centuries iconographers, correctly understanding the Church's encouragement to follow the old models, did not copy them mechanically, but learned to draw, paint and compose in the spirit of these models. While adhering to the canonical schemes, they brought these schemes to life again in each newly painted icon, filled it every time with the life-giving content of their spiritual experience and their creative knowledge of the world.
In this way, each new icon of the Savior showed Him majestic, gentle, strong, full of wisdom, and perfect in His flesh and spirit. And each new icon of the Mother of God showed Her majestic and beautiful in her love for her Son, and in her compassion for suffering humanity. The world of the traditional Orthodox icon is infinitely varied stylistically, but it is united in the Orthodox presentation of truth as beautiful and real. It is here that faithfulness to the old models is rooted, and it is in this way that the artist protects himself from "his own imagination" or, more accurately, a self-will of mediocre quality.
This deleterious self-will commences where the artist, iconographer or not, decides that it is not necessary, and indeed harmful, to aim for beauty and reality. When an artist no longer follows these basic criteria, no longer checks soberly and carefully what comes off his brush against the yardstick of these criteria, it is then that we can say that he has fallen into the temptation of his imagination, into prelest or planê — the going astray of mind and reason, in the language of Orthodox ascetics — because he has nothing left, no benchmark, no reference point to guide or to correct him.
"How so, nothing?", they will say to us. "And the fact of following the old models? What prelest is there if one simply copies these famous classical icons?"
This argument, solid at first sight, is in fact worthless. As we said earlier, traditional iconography drew its inspiration from the old models, but did not copy them blindly. To copy them mechanically, you do not need to enrol in an iconography course. In fact your would do better taking lessons from a hyper-realist painter, turning the model upside down to more completely distance oneself from its meaning, and to transfer point by point onto the board the exact position of the areas of color. It is only in this way that a man, a sensible and spiritual being, can make (we purposely do not say create) a copy that does not reflect in any way his inner world.
As soon as he stops playing a merely 'photographer' role, as soon as his relations with his model become conscious, he is immediately invested with the same responsibility and subject to the same dangers as if working from nature, that is, he is faced just as much with the danger of falling into arbitrariness and seeing in his model "his own truth", a truth that is foreign to the culture of the Church. He is in danger of failing to realize how much the iconographers of old days aspired to beauty and reality, and without seeing or sharing this aspiration he will inevitably distort, pervert and make ugly even the best models.
The similarity of such a copy with the icon that served as a model is like that which might exist between a corpse and a living man: the soul has gone, all we see left is rigid and decaying flesh. The soul of the icon, this invisible element that melts in a mysterious way into the "flesh" of the icon, into its colors, is the aspiration to Beauty and Truth. Without this thirst and without this aspiration, all art, whether sacred or profane, degenerates into occult games, and falls into godlessness and prelest.
In every age, what mattered was not the model from which the artist worked, not whether he took his bearings from the artistic tradition or rather found his models directly in the world created by God. What mattered was that he did not fall into his "own imagination" during the process of seeing and then handling his models. Learning to see Beauty and Truth in the classic icon, and the desire to connect into this idea of Beauty and Truth in our creativity is not any easier than learning to see them in the world and then passing them on in our art. The opposite would be very surprising indeed! The understanding of the beauty of the created world, and knowledge of the rules of the transmission of this beauty, have always been the basis of iconography. Apart from this basis, the artistic language of the icon will always remain a strange and foreign language for self-styled "iconographers" .
I end this chapter with a little folk story, full of wisdom.
Someone asked a village painter: "What is the most difficult subject to paint?"
"A rooster", he replied. "Why a rooster?" "There's one in every farmyard, and everyone knows what a rooster looks like. If I paint it badly, everyone will point at it and laugh." "And what is the easiest subject to paint?" "The easiest", the village painter answered "is to paint the Lord our God." "How can that be?" "No one has ever seen God. You can paint Him any way you want, and no one will dare protest!"
This sad and paradoxical story regularly featured found in collections of atheistic folklore. Those who compiled them interpreted this story from a cynical atheist perspective. They had forgotten that if the Russian people seriously thought that God was easier to paint than a rooster or a cat, it would not have composed such stories!
Those who think learnedly that we can paint images of God and His saints without any reference to nature do not compose witty little stories. No, they write entire books full of their pretentious, ill-founded statements, mixing, according to their whims, theology with a very amateurish theory of fine arts. By placing too much confidence in these writings, we risk losing our common sense that tells us at first glance whether the author of an icon is able to draw correctly a rooster or a cat or if, on the contrary, he has opted for iconography precisely because he lacks the talent and knowledge to paint cats and roosters!