Our Lady of Fontgombault Abbey

Writing an Icon

The Support

The icon requires a very particular technique handed down through the centuries, consisting first of a careful preparation of the support, often a plank of lime or oak wood, poplar or beech, or cypress, but not cedar, pine or fir.

Marouflaged boardThe board is first "marouflaged" with a thin cloth (used cotton cloth, old sheet, gauze, muslin, etc.). For this operation, the support is first coated with a thick layer of undiluted and very hot base glue (a mixture of rabbit glue, or hare glue, and hot water, prepared in a water bath); immediately after that, the canvas, which itself has first been soaked in glue, is placed on the board. A thick layer of glue is added on top of it and left to dry.

Coated boardThe next step is to coat this support. This traditional coating ("levkas", from the Greek adjective leukos which means "white") is a mixture of glue, and whiting or chalk, diluted in water and heated in a water-bath. Between 12 and 15 layers of it are applied on the marouflaged board. Finally, the surface must be thoroughly and carefully sanded, until its texture is perfectly smooth and of a bright white.

Drawing the Subject

Paper studyDrawing requires a lengthy preliminary study of models, in order to become imbued with the principles of traditional iconography. For an iconographer should not give himself up unrestrainedly to his personal creativity, but rather very humbly seek to be part of a centuries-old tradition closely linked to the Revelation and the faith of the Church, in order to be a true interpreter of the invisible.

Drawing on tracing paperThe drawing of an icon is first made with a pencil on tracing paper; it is then transferred on to the board, and the contours are brushed with a colour, preferably red earth, diluted with water.

Then, using a drypoint, the outlines of the drawing are engraved. This is a mere incision in the thickness of the levkas, not a deep engraving line.


Gilding before paintingBefore adding the colours, it is necessary to lay real gold leaves on the whole background of the icon where the characters will stand out, or simply on the nimbus that surrounds their head (hence the term "aureola", since "aurum" means "gold" in Latin). It is a difficult and painstaking technique.Gilding before painting The most traditional technique is called "water gilding", which allows to "burnish" the gold, namely, to make it shine by rubbing it with an agate. A more recent technique using gilding paste is faster and easier, but it precludes from burnishing the gold.

Adding the Colours

Medium in a seashellThe colours used for writing an icon come only from natural pigments, either of mineral or organic origin. Icon painting has used for many centuries (at least since the 8th or 9th century) the technique of egg tempera: the coloured pigment is mixed with an emulsion called medium resulting from a mixture of egg yolk and clear water, with a few drops of vinegar for preservation. This mixture is made in a seashell with the finger; we avoid using anything that would not be natural.

In the Christian East, there are at least two quite different techniques for applying colour to the design of the icon. In the Fontgombault Abbey, the traditional Russian technique dating back to the Middle Ages, known as "puddling", is used for the complexions (i.e. the face and hands of the characters), playing on transparency.

The iconographer at workIt is advisable to start with a very transparent layer of yellow ochre over the entire surface to be coloured, in order to subdue the white background. Then the different colours are applied, each one in its own place, in very transparent layers containing a lot of medium diluted in water and very little pigment, somewhat like a watercolour. The layers are superimposed, taking care that the drawing (folds of the clothes, architecture, etc.) should always remain visible under the various layers of colour; if necessary, the lines must be enhanced.

Dormition of Our LadyThe  lights of the folds are then tackled, a work that requires great mastery. There are three zones where the light becomes gradually more and more intense. The last zone is pure white. Care should be taken that the shadow areas be transparent, and the light areas more opaque, i.e. with ever more pigment.

Face of ChristPainting faces and hands comes last. It is the most difficult of all techniques. It requires a very careful execution, for the face is the most noble part of the human body, where the spirit is reflected. The entire surface of the face and hands (and possibly the feet) is covered with a rather dark base colour, resulting from a mixture of natural umber, yellow ochre, and a touch of red ochre. The greenish colour thus obtained, called "proplasm", is deposited in large puddles of fairly liquid paint, but rich enough in pigments not to be too transparent. A second layer can be applied, but the facial features must remain slightly visible under the two layers, even if it means retracing them.

The iconographer at workThen the areas of light are placed, always in the same precise places, and always in successive puddles of superimposed layers. This work has a deeply symbolic meaning: it is the symbol of our own spiritual journey, from the shadows of our earthly nature towards the light of the divine world. Finally, very bright strokes of light with pure white are placed on certain parts of the face, making them extremely luminous, as if they were lit from within.

Icon of St. Mary MagdaleneWhen all surfaces have received their colour, care is taken of the details of draperies, architecture, and the elements of the decor: plants, animals, etc., which are part of certain scenes such as, for example, the Nativity, the Transfiguration, the Resurrection.

The Inscriptions

The Mother of GodWhen the work of painting is completely finished with all its details, the name of the Lord, of the Virgin, of the Saints represented, or of the mystery illustrated, is inscribed, either in Slavonic, or in Greek, or in Latin, or more recently in vernacular language.

Some abbreviations are traditional, as at the top of this icon where the first and last letters of the Greek words Mater and Theou are simply indicated on either side, which means "Mother of God".

Varnishing and Blessing

It takes between a month and a month and a half before the icon can be varnished with olifa, a linseed oil cooked with a siccative.
      Finally, the icon should be blessed according to its proper rite, which marks its belonging to God and the Holy Church.

Colour Symbolism

In iconography, colours have a symbolic language.


Gold, which has no material colouring, is the pure reflection of the brilliance of the divine light. If the other colours live from the light they receive, gold has its own radiation. That is why it plays an essential role in an icon. It is suitable to reflect the divine world. The gold in the background of icons signifies this divine space, and the gold of the nimbus, holiness.


White also symbolizes the divine world because of its lack of colouring, which makes it very similar to light itself. In an icon, white dominates the image, it seems to emerge towards the viewer with more power than the other colours. This effect is often exploited in the icons of the Transfiguration or the descent into hell, where Christ appears clothed in an immaculate white, standing out from the circle that surrounds him; it is also the colour of the Angels' garment.


Purple has been the royal colour throughout antiquity. Traditional iconography represents Christ robed in a purple tunic with golden lines, symbol of his divine nature, on which is placed a blue-green mantle, an earthly colour which symbolizes his human nature. The Mother of God wears a large veil, the maphorion, adorned with a golden braid, of a dark purple colour which symbolizes her royal dignity.


Red is an incandescent colour that seems to advance towards the viewer. Its dynamism is close to that of light. It symbolizes blood and life: martyrs are often clothed in bright red coats. Eastern emperors signed official documents with red letters, as if to attest them with their blood.

Blue and Green

Blue is the colour of the earthly world, and green that of nature, a symbol of growth and fertility, also a symbol of hope.


Black represents the total absence of light and symbolizes nothingness and death. Black is classically found in the icon of the descent into hell, in the lower part on which Christ stands in his bright white garment, victorious over death and sin. In the same way, in the icon of the Nativity, it is the colour of the background of the cave on which the newborn child stands out, as the Eternal One bursting into the nothingness of the corruptible world.