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Women's Iconography in the 21st Century

Welcome to the first digital archive of women's iconography! Here you can find out more about the lives and spirituality of women across the world, who have burst onto the scene of Christianity's most ancient sacred artform in the last fifty years!

Iconography is the oldest sacred art practice in the Christian tradition and was the only artform in use across the global Christian church until the Great Schism between the East and West in 1054. Although Western Christians from a variety of denominations engage with a range of sacred art traditions, iconography remains the only art practice that is used by Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant churches. As such, it is the most widely used, cross-denominational Christian artform in the world.

Christ Pantocrator
Christ Pantocrator, c. 6th century. Encaustic on panel (Saint Catherine's Monastery).

Throughout their history, icons have been produced in male monastic communities, and in the Orthodox Church belong to a formalized ministry that was not made open to women until the twentieth century. Prior to this period, women could assist male iconographers, including their husbands, in their studios. Nuns would occasionally work alongside monks in neighbouring monastic communities but would be assisting "maestros" in the development of large and complex works of art.

Of course, it is possible that women created icons privately, but very difficult to know definitively. Iconographers do not sign their work because they see themselves as divine instruments who record a revelation of a holy figure, or spiritual event, to which they have paid witness.

Iconographers depict these revelations faithfully, using materials, techniques and practices that have been passed down for over two thousand years. These practices are said to have been developed by St Luke, the Apostle, who painted the Virgin Mary from life as the 'Holy Evangelist' (Panagia Evangelistria). This portrait - believed to be the first icon in history - is said to be housed, and venerated, at the Shrine of Tinos in Greece.

Panagia Evangelistria, Tinos
Panagia Evangelistria, Tinos.

Historical icons are signed with the names of the holy figures they commemorate as marks of the iconographer's humility and veneration. Most male iconographers have also been lost to history with the exception of a few great masters, who shaped and developed the tradition, like Andrei Rublev.

Today, female iconographers outnumber male, and women are holding practice. Yet, they are minimally represented in the canon of images committed to Orthodoxy: there are fourteen sanctioned images of women in a body of approximately five hundred that are formally recognized by the official doctrine of the Orthodox Church.

This project asks: How do women reconcile their faith in the spiritual revelation that is made possible by icon-making with the demand that they use techniques, symbols and practices that have historically been reserved for men and largely depict male figures?

The women featured here are from a variety of denominational backgrounds and they define the icon in different ways. Some remain faithful to parameters laid out by the Orthodox Church, while others bend the tradition to accommodate the techniques they use, or the figures they depict. The scale of their intervention is determined by their religious beliefs, their understanding of the inclusivity of the tradition, and their personalities - how traditional, or how radical, they are.

Pentecost by Mary Jane Miller
Pentecost by Mary Jane Miller.

But they all share one thing in common: they see the sacred image as a window into an invisible world where they can encounter a holy figure from history, who inspires their veneration.

We have divided this archive into two sections: Traditional Iconography, and Iconography-Inspired Sacred Art, which includes work that does not conform to the stylistic and dogmatic principles set out by the Orthodox Church. Given that traditions evolve over time and across cultures, and congregations, many of these more unconventional images are nevertheless regarded as icons by their creators and viewers. In both sections of this archive, you can find biographies, interviews, and photographic images relating to the careers of women who engage in the iconographic tradition.

This archive is part of a larger project, funded by the AHRC Impact Accelerator Grant, which strives to use the practices and techniques associated with traditional iconography to promote women’s work, foster interfaith dialogue, and expose a range of community groups from varied socio-cultural and religious backgrounds to an artform that they might not otherwise have access to.

In today's secular world, we all understand an icon is a figure worthy of praise. Creating sacred images of such figures together allows us to learn more about one another’s beliefs using methods and techniques that are inclusive and non-confrontational. As we celebrate the spiritual leaders who have enriched our lives, we share our encounters with these figures with one another through participating in the journey, or pilgrimage, of icon-making.

We want to connect with as many female iconographers as possible, so please be in touch if you would like to be included on this archive. You can also learn more about the history of the icon, and how it is defined, here.

What is an icon?

According to St John of Damascus: “An icon is a visual image of what is invisible.” Through engaging in a prescribed, twelve-step process where each phase symbolizes a stage of the individual's journey towards salvation, the iconographer pays witness to the holy subject, who resides in the invisible world. Indeed, an icon is colloquially known as a "window to eternity" from which the holy figure gazes out upon the iconographer and the viewer, encouraging them to encounter, and converse, with them in prayer.

Holy Trinity
Troitsa (Holy Trinity) by Andrei Rublev, c. 1400-1410. Tempera on wood.

For the iconographer to meet their subject, they must use the artistic materials, rituals and techniques that have been passed down from the fifth century and which have been written into Orthodox dogma. If the iconographer is to faithfully depict their subject as they appear in eternity, they must first eradicate any tendency towards self-expression.

By rejecting self-expression, iconographers diverge from other sacred artists, who depict their own feelings about their faith and represent how they imagine the subject looked in their lifetime, rather than in the invisible world.

The twelve-step icon-making process is a portal through which the holy subject reveals themselves; it protects that subject from becoming distorted by the iconographer's imagination. The techniques and tenets of iconography were developed by early Christians, who encountered Christ face to face. These techniques are seen to be the evidence of experience, which produces the most accurate representation of the kingdom of saints possible.

The Christ Pantocrator of the Deesis mosaic, Hagia Sophia (Istanbul, Turkey)
The Christ Pantocrator of the Deesis mosaic, (13th-century) in Hagia Sophia (Istanbul, Turkey), photograph by Myrabella / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Since the iconographer depicts a world that has different metaphysical laws from our own, their depiction is figurative, rather than literal. The icon combines abstraction and realism to convey the dual nature of the subject as both human and transfigured. The image is deliberately distorted because the spatial and temporal laws of the material world do not apply. Icons make use of a technique called inverse perspective where there is no vanishing point at which all lines on the horizon converge.

The iconographic subject possesses unnatural features that signify their transfigured status. The eyes and ears are disproportionately large to represent the subject's visual perception of God and their reception of his word. Conversely, the mouth is excessively small to indicate that the subject is not concerned with the pleasures of the flesh. The hands communicate through a type of theological sign language that is immediately visible to Orthodox believers.

Icon making process
Painting an icon. Photograph by Atelier St. André

We say that an icon is 'written', rather than painted, because the iconographer 'transcribes' the image as it appears to them. They create their image on a flat wooden board, which resembles an altar and requires them to hold the brush in the same manner as one holds a pen. The message of the icon is conveyed through a unique set of symbols that are read by the viewer. For example, the bump on the head of the Christ child denotes his wisdom.

Eleusa, c. 1550-1600, by the circle of Andreas Ritzos

If the iconographer is a scribe, or witness, to a higher truth, then it stands to reason that the holy figure looks out on them. The iconographer, or viewer, does not look at the subject. If we look at a work of art, we regard it as an inanimate object, or even an idol, who acts as a receptacle for our gaze. The icon is framed like a window, with no backdrop, because the subject looks out at us from the invisible world. Their gaze never quite meets our own, so it’s hard to tear our eyes away from them. This experience of being fixed by their gaze encourages us to contemplate the image for an extended period in prayer.

As a window, or door, to eternity, the icon straddles the material and spiritual worlds, and allows both iconographer and viewer to inhabit a liminal space between these two worlds. It resembles the dream space we occupy when we are physically situated in the temporal world, but our minds and spirits express themselves on another plane. Somehow, in the icon itself, the subject, iconographer, and viewer, meet across the boundaries of time and space.

Iconography therefore provides a space where women can record and transcribe their intimate, and personal, encounters with the divine. In religious institutions where women do not share the power and authority of men, they are nonetheless empowered to share their own revelations of the spiritual world in visual form. Some female iconographers, like the Episcopalian practitioner, Mary Jane Miller, challenge male-dominated depictions of the spiritual world by creating traditional icons of women in sacred history, who are not incorporated into the Orthodox canon.

Christ Teaches the Women
Christ Teaches the Women by Mary Jane Miller

Such women are arguably part of a long tradition of women's mysticism. Female mystics used their personal and private revelations in prayer and meditation to assume positions of spiritual authority: indicting the church for its corruption or conveying a new interpretation of Christ's message, or the scriptures, that championed female wisdom and insight. They did not actively disrupt the church hierarchy and so were often allowed to remain in the Church. At times, their spiritual authority was even respected and championed.

St. Catherine of Siena
St. Catherine of Siena, c. 17th century. Oil on canvas.

Today, however, women's mysticism occupies a marginalized place in our culture: female mystics are often seen to be insufficiently feminist by Women's Studies scholars because they did not attempt to dismantle the hierarchy of the church, while they are often branded as being 'too feminist' by traditional Christians, who are skeptical of the ways in which they did challenge church authority.

Female iconographers occupy a similar space between modern and orthodox ways of thinking and living in the world. They remain part of their church communities but create a space for themselves in an artform that wasn't always open to them. There are many different ways in which they do this and with varying degrees of radicalism. Some female iconographers create work that would be accepted by the Orthodox Church, while others challenge almost every tenet of the tradition itself. What all of these women share is a belief that they have the right to encounter the holy figure who inspires them through the 'window to eternity'.

Mary Jane Miller at work
Mary Jane Miller at work

Through looking at the work of these artists, we hope you will learn about the ways in which women of faith represent themselves, and their communities, in church spaces where they haven’t always been fully visible. In our workshops with the public, we endeavor to expand the canon of sacred art to include people and groups that you won't always see represented on church walls. We're using techniques inspired by iconography, so that members of the public can have the opportunity to spiritually encounter the forgotten women in history who inspire them!


UKRI Arts and Humanities Research Council

The Women's Iconography project team gratefully acknowledge the assistance of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) in funding the full project (2023-) through its Impact Acceleration Account scheme.