My first impression of an iconographer goes back to my childhood. On my way from school and through the winding, cobblestoned streets of the old castle in Yannina, past the silversmiths’ workshops there was a bearded young cleric who worked on his icons right by a window which looked on to the street.
He paid no attention to the staring faces of curious kids on the other side of the glass. It seemed to me that he was in a bubble focused as he was on the world he was creating with his fine paintbrush and showing not the slightest in what was passing by his window.

It is an image that has remained etched in my mind and nothing has shifted it until last week when I went to Rejoice, the exhibition of the work of Uriel’s Workshop is being held at the Darebin Arts Centre in Melbourne until 19 December.

The theme is Rejoice: An Iconographic Celebration of Festivity and Ceremony, an apt title given the approach of Christmas, and it reflects the work of Victorian iconographers – most of whom are women.

“Women fought hard against clerical and imperical bans and they kept safe works that were being destroyed during the Iconoclastic periods of the Byzantine empire,” said Eirene Stamatogiannis the founder and director of Uriel’s Workshop and an iconographer in her own right.

With Christmas on the horizon, we focused on the depictions of the Nativity in icons. The Nativity, which focuses on the birth of Christ was part of Christian art from the early years of Christianity.

Anna Prifti, the master iconographer who is the teacher and inspiration of Uriel’s Workshop and one of the great lights of iconography in Australia, said the earliest representations of the Nativity in the west are to be found in the catacombs of Rome dating back to the 3rd Century AD. Although it was a theme in Byzantine art from the early days of iconography, the best examples of a Nativity scene, says Prifti are to be found in the 12th Century fresco at Astrapas in Mistra.

“The Nativity encompasses so many things. Everything has meaning and nothing in the picture is accidental,” says Ms Prifti.

“It is very complex, sometimes there are between 40 to 50 elements in an icon. It is a fantastic allegorical scene and it carries information about the future. Scenes are mainly from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke,” she said.

The choice of subjects, their postures, the settings, the colours used all hold symbolic values.Icons were there to communicate to the faithful many of whom could not read.

“You will find icons that tell people to hold on to their faith and stay firm in the fact of difficulties, to protect themselves and their church from invaders and if you were not in church, you were in the presence of an icon to pray,” said Ms Prifti.

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St Luke is credited as the father of iconography. Once he had written his gospel, he forsook the pen for the paintbrush. The flattened image of the icons were a radical departure from the from the naturalistic painting of classical portraiture as seen in the frescoes of Pompeii and other parts of the Ancient Roman world.

“In the Byzantine nativity, the Theotokas sits on a cushion, which is almond shaped and is a portal. The newborn child is often in a coffin-shaped structure – not a manger as is common in Western art. This is a reminder of the crucifixion to come. And its purpose is to remind us of incarnation.”

There is no “sugar coating” the message of a Byzantine nativity – it points to the future of the child which is a grim death followed by the resurrection.

The nativities are often attended by the ox and the ass with the ox representing patience, the nation of Israel, and Old Testament sacrificial worship while the ass represents humility, readiness to serve, and the Gentiles.

In an icon the setting for the nativity is a cave and not the manger that is the setting for a Western nativity art.

In Western art, the nativity scenes of Giotto and Di Bonansea take place in a manger with the baby in cradle lined by hay. The change was partly a reflection of the schisms between the Eastern and Western churches and partly as a reflection of the settings in which the nativities are created. Western Europe has softer climate, plentiful rain and forests from which there is plenty wood to build mangers and cradles. The harsher, drier climate of the Middle East means that caves are the more likely setting for a nativity.

Ms Prifti said the icons are also influenced by the locality in which they have been painted.

“In Greece the skin tones are warmer and lighter. In Russian icons the bodies are elongated, taller and the skin tones are greener and cooler.

“In Australia the icons are full of joy and celebration. They carry great positive messages of hope and love.”

Iconography is flourishing in this country and a many artists are women.

“In secular Australian society, we have to be more careful around icons and religious expression. Here the women are keeping iconography alive. In Greece there are lots of women who prepare icons and who pass on the knowledge,” said Ms Prifti. “Women have a gentler touch to their icons.”
And the study of iconography is a key factor to the study of contemporary art, Ms Prifti many artists have seen the understanding of iconography as vital to their study of art.

Ms Stamatogiannis said the resposnse to the Rejoice exhibition has been so good that Uriel’s Workshop is considering relocating it from Darebin Arts Centre to the workshop studio at 140 Elizabeth Street in Coburg North, Melbourne and is open Tuesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays between 11am and 5pm.

“Of course, it will be a smaller show as many works are being sold,” she said.
The exhibition also features the works of master guilder Joseph Refalo, Master Church carver Mikahil Brendrychev and jeweler Jimmy Ikonomou. It also has a display of the materials used in the painstaking process of preparing an icon canvas for painting.

Close up of Sr Mary Burke’s icon of the nativity.
A wood cut by Master Church Carver Mikhail Brendrychev on display. Photo: Eirene Stamatogiannis
Display of some of the materials used in the preparation of an icon at the Rejoice exhbition of the works of iconographers from Uriel’s Workshop.
An icon of the Nativity by Amal Farah.