So why all the fuss about the question of signing icons? The statement “artists never used to sign icons” is pure nonsense, repeated by the ignorant or transmitted by those who deliberately create legends in order to surround icon painting with an aura of mystery. Just take a well-documented catalogue of any large collection of icons to find a number of signed works listed there. For example, the collection of the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow alone contains signed works by more than sixty old Russian painters. Moreover, we cannot be categorical about the presence or absence of signatures on ancient icons. Ancient icons were generally signed on the back. Not being reinforced with fabric and plaster or varnished for protection, the backs of the boards suffer significant wear and lose in a few centuries all traces of what may have been written on them. Greek masters signed their works on the front side of icons - which is my so many more such signatures were preserved. Often they also signed frescos, such as in the 13rtd century Master Michael, Astrapas, Eutychius, who left their signatures in a number of churches of Macedonia, while in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Veria (the biblical Berea) near Thessaloniki (1315) one can admire the naive and boastful self-promotion "Kalliergis, the best artist of Thessaly" - so (and not without reason!), as this artist immortalized his name. Our task is therefore to understand, not why icons were never signed, but why signed icons are rather few and far between. There are several objective, historical explanations for this, which have nothing whatsoever to do with any mystical taboos.
First, in most cases, icons were not painted by one person but by a workshop, i.e. by a group of painters, each of whom specialized in one particular aspect: the head of the workshop or znamenchik did the preliminary drawing; "pre-face" specialists painted the clothing, the buildings, mountains and other details of the landscape; the "face-painters" took care of the faces and, more broadly, other exposed flesh parts; while the gilders covered in gold the areas in question.² The apprentices learned their trade with operations of a lesser level of responsibility, such as the preparation of the board, the transposition of the drawing onto the plaster and the laying of the first coat of paint following the master’s drawing. Whose name in such a case should serve as a signature?
Second, iconographers of old, working alone or together in a workshop, did not always know how to read and write. The old rule that required artists to bring each newly painted icon to a priest - so that he could, after ensuring that it resembled its prototype, confirm this resemblance by the inscription - was established precisely because the priests were often the only people capable of producing this inscription. Gradually, the monopoly of the inscription was recovered by artists, but that does not mean that there were no illiterates among them (in fact, these existed even among the priesthood). The inscriptions on the oldest icons (up to the start of the sixteenth century) are short and standardized; in the rare cases to the contrary, the value of the icon, for connoisseurs and on the market, goes up considerably. Moreover, in these inscriptions we observe a considerable number of errors visibly due to the mechanical copying of misunderstood signs. There are even more serious confusions, like when an artist has piously copied the inscription in mirror image from a tracing. Or again, even more frequently, has given the names of the figures to the right to the ones painted on the left, and vice versa. At this level of education, adding his signature to his work would have been one more chore for an iconographer. Especially as a signature served no practical purpose.
The identification of the author of a work of art is important when this work is placed on the market by an intermediary, or if it is expected to be sold on at a certain point in its existence. This identification becomes extremely important when the buyer's choice of works is no longer defined by the artistic quality of the item, but by the prestige and added value of its painter's name. In this case a certificate, signed by members of an expert commission, is more important than the signature of the artist himself.
Nothing like this occurred with icons from the "classical" period. The great iconographers worked only to order, and their works were meant to remain in one or the other church "forever;" And if a lesser known iconographer worked for the market, he could be sure that the buyer's choice depended only on the quality of the icon, not the author's name.
And finally, a man's name (in fact his first or “Christian” name) linked him only to God or his patron saint, and was of little use for identification, in Russia and elsewhere. For the purposes of identification, there were family names for the nobles, and for simple people nicknames, often somewhat arbitrary, sometimes several for one person; or instead of a nickname, a patronym could be added to the names of more respected persons. Fixed surnames passing from father to son became mandatory only fairly recently, when it was decided to maintain population registers listing the precise identity of every member of society.
It is as we move from the Middle Ages into the modern period that artists begin increasingly to sign their work, whether secular or sacred. The example of Russia, which moved late, but then very rapidly from the Middle Ages to modern times demonstrates clearly that the boundary between signed and anonymous works does not coincide at all with that between the traditional icons and the paintings of another kind. On the one hand, a number of secular portraits of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries are unsigned. On the other hand, an imperial edict (ukaz) of 1710 required all iconographers to sign their works. Like almost all Russian ukazi, this one was never fully respected everywhere and by everybody, but nor on the other hand was there any opposition to it, either theological or from the viewpoint of taste or tradition. And this precisely when a veritable war was raging in Russia on iconographic subjects, styles and the correct way to paint icons. We have many historical proofs of the intensity of this struggle in the form of polemical treatises for or against innovation in icon painting. If signing icons had been viewed as negative or destructive to the concept of the icon, we would certainly have had data on the discontent with this ukaz.
This ukaz was respected by renowned iconographers working in the well-known workshops in major cities. And indeed it was at them that it was directed, to ensure that they paid their taxes in a regular manner. But the artists of that level were signing their works well before the ukaz: already in the late 16h and early seventeenth centuries, signatures were not uncommon on good quality icons. In remote areas, if iconographers simply ignored the ukaz, it was not for any mystical reasons: simply a signature served no purpose in the prevailing medieval conditions. Similarly, even in the early nineteenth century, many portraits, landscapes or decorative panels were not signed when made to order and therefore normally intended to stay forever in the hands of the person commissioning them.
On icons for domestic prayer corners, and more often on icons intended as offerings to a church, was often added the name of the person commissioning it, along with his rank, title, and sometimes even his address (in other words to ensure he could be identified), but without necessarily indicating the painter's name. There is a certain logic in this: the iconographer is nourished by his work; when paid, he is no longer the owner of the icon he has painted, and the donor has donated what is his property to Church, relying on the grateful memory of the latter. Sometimes inscriptions of this kind, including those mentioning also the painter's name, were made (probably on the order of the commissioning party) not on the back but on the main face of the icon. Another way for the donor to perpetuate his memory and ensure the prayer of the Church for the salvation of his soul was to commission for a church an icon of his patron saint, or indeed of an entire group of patron saints of the members of his family, or of any subject which incorporated or was surrounded by these patron saints. Sometimes images of the donors themselves were incorporated into an icon, either in the margins or as figures contemplating one or the other of the canonical scenes. But these cases have remained rare exceptions, and for a very clear reason: one addresses a prayer to a patron saint, remembering the donor's name, but it is never the portrait of the latter which is the object of the prayer. However, the fact that pictures of this kind and such inscriptions were permitted shows us how the Church viewed the relationship between an icon and the people who had participated in its creation or its history, namely its owners or again the beneficiaries or witnesses of miracles produced through it. There are a whole series of icons of the Mother of God named after such persons: Bogolioubskaya, Igorievskaya, Kasperovskaya to mention just three.
The Church has never found anything wrong in preserving the link between the image of God represented in color on a board and its image found in every human being. The painter's signature on the icon does not destroy its mystical content. The presence or absence of the signature depends in part on tradition, and in part on the economic or social importance attributed to the author, whether of an icon or another work of art. And who knows, it may be that in a thousand years art historians will tell us, with tears in their eyes, that Picasso and Dali were so humble and so modest that they never marked their works with their individual bank account numbers!
The true humility of the artist, his or her submission to the artistic tradition and, in sacred art, to the traditions of the Church too, is not expressed in the fact that he or she signs her work. Similarly, a person praying in front of an icon carrying the name of its author, donor or his relatives, will not be splattered with any mystical defilement, and his prayer will go up to heaven equally well, and it is certainly not any signature on a board that will block it!
It is very important to understand this today. When a consumer magazine with a circulation of several thousand copies publishes an article on a contemporary iconographer, with photos and pictures of his works, no one sees anything wrong in this, and indeed there is nothing wrong in it. But when, in the same article, we read that the heart-warming words that the iconographer, like a real medieval master refuses out of humility, to sign his works, this is ambiguous and ridiculous. A signature on the back of the icon serves a thousand times less to perpetuate the painter's name and advertise his talents than an article about him in a large circulation magazine or indeed his own website!
Working in Russia today are a large number of good iconographers, some of whom have become world famous. Those who pray in front of icons painted by Mother Iouliana Sokolova or Archimandrite Zinon normally know who painted them, even in the absence of any signature. And those who have never seen any of their original icons are familiar with them through albums of reproductions that show, of course, the names of the authors. In any exhibition of icons, we put labels with the artist's name next to his works. And if you buy a contemporary icon in a church store, you will surely find data on the author glued to the back of the icon in order to identify it at the checkout. And all these phenomena — the existence of a market for contemporary icons, exhibitions, the popularity of certain iconographers, the fact of publishing reproductions of their works — are evidence of the development of the art of iconography, of widespread interest in this art, the fact that society sees in this art its living, creative, personalized side. To descry this personalized side as pride, unsavory vanity, or ivory tower isolationism, is pure obscurantism. To have the mystical or spiritual value of an icon depend on the presence or absence of the signature is equally obscurantist. To insist today that an iconographer not sign his or her icons, and to attribute spiritual value to the fact that an artist who has every means of informing the world of his or her activity does not sign them, is, to say the least, unreasonable.
In more general terms, this obstinacy to in attributing mystical significance to falsely traditional characteristics of iconography is always suspect. It allows us to forget that Orthodox mysticism, unlike exotic occult mysticisms, is not accessible to those who want to achieve it through any mechanical ritualistic activities.