Friday 12 September 2014

E is for Encaustic Icons

Encaustic Painting
A 6th-century encaustic icon from Saint Catherine’s monastery, Sinai 

You wouldn’t think that a blog on Churches in Greece would lead to a question about the invention of oil painting, but it does.

While having a close look at the wax and mastica icon of Mary in the Mega Spilaio Monastery I got interested in just how it was done and why the Evangelist Luke (1) and many others in ancient times did not prefer egg tempera (a fast-drying painting medium consisting of pigment mixed with a water soluble binder medium such as egg-yolks) or oil paints. 

 It was a revelation to me that while he could have used the water soluble egg tempera, oil painting (particles of pigment suspended in a drying oil) was not an option:  as an art medium oils originated much later, in the 1400s.

What is Encaustic Painting?

Encaustic painting, also known as hot wax painting, involves using molten refined beeswax to which coloured pigments and a resin have been added.  The word encaustic comes from the Greek word enkaustikos which means something burned in.

The technique was described in the 1st Century AD by the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder in his Natural History and the oldest surviving encaustic panel paintings are the fabulous Romano-Egyptian Fayum mummy portraits dating from the 1st Century BC to the third century AD.

Wikimedia  (Milwaukee Art Museum)

 A Fayum mummy portrait. As you can see, Orthodox icons are indebted to the Fayum mummy portraits for far more than the encaustic technique!

A fayum portrait ‘in situ’ from the Brooklyn Museum

In the case of the Mega Spilaio icon and other early Greek icons, mastica, a resin indigenous to the Greek island of Chios was added to the mix.

 Versatile mastica is still an important product of Chios; it is famous for its medicinal properties and its flavour is loved in everything from ice cream to toothpaste to mojitos in trendy bars. I am indebted to well known painter and teacher Hanna Ward for the following about mastica as a resin in encaustic painting. She tells us:  mastic was used in ancient Greece as a main resin. There really was no other option at the time. The colour stays clear if the mastic is well refined.  She also notes that today even more durable damar, which comes from South West Asia is used instead of mastica.

Once heated and mixed, the resulting liquid or paste was then applied to a surface -  wood in the old days because the backing had to be hard. The mixture has to be kept hot during painting so a certain amount of speed is required. 
A metal plate placed over hot coals would have done the trick for Luke.

Because of the beeswax, encaustics can be sculpted in relief as well as painted with brushes.  The painting, whether sculptural or flat, could be reworked. The encaustic method ensured an attractive sheen, a depth to the pigments and, unlike egg tempera, and an admirable resistance to damp. This last quality would have endeared it to many an unheated monastery or church back in the day.

As you can see by the above examples, the colours under the right conditions remain vibrant and do not become brittle or crack like old oil paintings.

There has been quite a renaissance in this technique in modern times and the results are stupendous.

Here is a 1922  effort by Diego Rivera:

La Creation

Here Jasper Johns has used the relief possibilities along with collage to good effect:



Googling encaustic relief painting will show many more examples. At this point I urge you to take a few moments to look at this wonderful video showing a modern artist, Aaron Acker at work:

The Virgin Megalospiliotissa

(Η Ιερή Εικόνα της Παναγίας της Μεγαλοσπηλαιώτισσας)

But wax is wax and when used on icons, the soot from candles could do extensive damage, darkening the pigments, and fire was a hazard too.(2) Mega Spilaio’s Mary has survived intact but her pigments have not. (Well, there is a tinge of red still visible to optimists on her cloak) The fact that only her pigments deserted her but not her shape is something of a miracle all by itself and one that the monks at the monastery attribute to her miraculous powers along with many other miracles over time. 

The highly decorated but blackened icon of Mary
Like another of Luke’s efforts, the Black Madonna of Poland (who also underwent trial by fire) she is still revered, still performing miracles, and visited by thousands yearly.


(1)  During the Middle Ages some 600 icons were attributed to Luke. He is generally depicted in icons in front of an easel.

 How did he have time for all that painting and to write his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles I wonder? Many scholars do too.

(2) In ancient times the wax’s melting point was raised from 60 degrees Celsius to 100 degrees Celsius (from 140 °F to 212 °F). This occurred after boiling the wax in a solution of sea water and soda three successive times.





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