“The ultimate aim of every wooden icon panel is to carry a little vision of the world full of God’s presence. The final step in preparing the board is setting aside a special space for that revelation. Turning the icon over again, a shallow recess is carved out of the front of the board. This space in Slavonic is called a kovtcheg, and in Greek is called a kivotos, but both words have the same meaning in English: an ark.
After marking the ark’s frame on the panel, the center of the board is hollowed out. While different iconographic schools vary on how deeply this is done, in the studio it is usually kept relatively shallow. Given the general flatness of the studio’s style of painting, a deep ark on the panel would be out of tune with the whole. However, even such a shallow ark creates a special space for the image to be depicted.
Just as the ark was a space set aside for the salvation of the world, the ark on the front of the icon is made for such a purpose. Traditionally, the symbolic understanding of this meaning is that in the icon’s ark divine revelation happens while its frame remains to ground it in the mundane. However, this dichotomy should not be taken too literally. Within the icon, God is understood as profoundly present in the everyday. As the mystic Maximus the Confessor (†662) wrote, “The whole world is a burning bush of divine energies.” In that context, it is usual in the studio’s icons to see a fingertip or shoulder of a saint extending beyond the border of its ark – the sacred and the common being present in each other.”
– Symeon van Donkelaar, excerpt from “The Sacred in the Common: Making an Icon Panel” in Issue Nine, available here.