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THE ICON:TRUTH AND FABLES - Chapter 5 - Spiritual vision and the icon

Spiritual vision is considered, and not without reason, as a fundamental element of this phenomenon that we call the icon. Let us take a closer look at what this vision consists of, so as to avoid confusion and misunderstandings.

I would start with a series of quotations from the well-known work of Father Pavel Florensky (1882 - 1943): Iconostasis. A gifted Russian scientist, Florensky was ordained priest shortly before the Russian Revolution. During the ‘30s he was interned in the gulags, where he died. He belonged to that exclusive circle of educated believers whose theological and philosophical thought greatly influenced the Russian emigration, including in the area of ​​the icon. Iconostasis was written in 1922 but was published only in 1970. Although the author himself visibly abandoned it and never intended to publish it, it is considered a classic in its field. Anyway, Florensky's emigrant friends have kept and developed, often uncritically, certain ideas that continue to be promoted to this day.

Let us also remember that Florensky was not the only person, before the Revolution, to take a serious interest in the icon, and especially the Byzantine icon that reigned pretty much supreme in Russian workshops to up to the mid-17th century, before giving way largely to the Academic style. This interest in "Byzantine" icons grew continually from the second half of the nineteenth century. Publications by scholars of ecclesiastical antiquity like I. Snyerigov, D. Rovinsky, P. Muratov, N. Kondakov, P. Bouslayev, N. Pokrovsky, and I. Troitsky remain even today an irreplaceable source for the history and theory of ancient Russian icon painting. These old icons, as well as some newly painted ones in this style that had real artistic value, were sought by knowledgeable collectors. The tradition of good painting of icons of this style was still alive and well in many traditional workshops, as well as in the artist villages of Palekh and Mstyora. And historians looked with interest on these "nature reserves" of traditional Russian culture (see the works of S. Prokhorov and G. Filimonov).

But Florensky's work was conceived away in total isolation from this scientific and cultural environment, contemporary to him, that carefully preserved and studied traditional icons. Iconostasis is not linked to this environment either by method or by the mind. It cites no author from it. In it Florensky puts forward his own original vision, that of a particularly gifted personality, especially in the sciences. His research and the novelty of his philosophical viewpoint very much impressed that part of the Russian intelligentsia   that, later, during the emigration, created a specific school of icon painting and theology.

The key objective of this theology, its pretext and its purpose, has two focal points: first the defense and proclamation as the only true and ecclesial icon painting the ancient or "Byzantine" style, second the rejection and condemnation as false and harmful to souls of icon painting in the Italianate or Academic style.

This distinction is based on Florensky's idea that the "vision" of divine things which is expressed in an icon is rooted in the revelatory visions granted to great saints, visions transposed into the icon by the icon painters working under their dictation. I quote: "The Church can accept to consider the holy Fathers as true iconographers. It is they who make art because they have contemplated what needs to be depicted in the icon. How can he paint an icon, someone that not only does not have before him but has never even seen an original model, or in artists' language, a model from nature” [1]And again: "The painting of icons is fixing celestial images, the crystallization on a board of the vaporous and animated cloud of witnesses around the Throne." [2]

In this way the canonicity of an icon is deduced from its proximity to prototype-icons derived from these visions of the holy Fathers: "The icon as crystallization, announcement and proclamation of the spiritual world through painting, is already, in essence, the business of those who have seen this holy world. For this reason, it is obvious that the art of the icon belongs only to the Holy Fathers [3] . "

For Florensky the truth and value of an icon are assessed by its canonicity: "The Church does not ask whether the truth presents itself in an old or new form, but always asks the question "Is it true?" (...) "When this universal artistic canon, which is indeed common to all mankind, has been found and clarified, then we can have, with respect to a specific icon, the formal guarantee, either that it simply reproduces something that is already recognized as the truth, or that it reveals a new element, which also appears as something true."[4]

Florensky nowhere gives any definition of the "found and clarified canon." Why bother? For him everything is clear: a canonical icon is one that originates in the visions of the holy Fathers, and has nothing in common with Academic realism. This style, for Florensky, severs all links of the image with the visions, and without these links the icon is no longer an icon. He shuttles constantly and boldly from theology to the history of art, presenting simple hypotheses as axioms and protesting against the current style of his time. He places in the same basket the works of Vasnietsov and Niestierov, both approved by the Russian Church, and others, impregnated with another spirit and rejected by the Church, like those of Vrubel. "Contemporary artists", says Florensky, “do not clearly see the heavenly image painted by them (...) they cannot certify the truth of their images, and are not even sure of them themselves." Refusing to see anything positive in the creative searches of Academic painters, he sends them an sharp reproach: "What matters is not whether a woman is painted well or badly, but whether she is truly the Mother of God ... [5] "

Let us note closely that, for Florensky, the term "contemporary artists" covers only Academic artists, although among his contemporaries were many brilliant iconographers who worked in the "Byzantine" manner: Y. Bogatyenko, Z. Brikin, G. Frolov, the masters Dikaryov, Tchirikov, and Gouryanov from the artists' village of Mstyora, artists who did not merely copy medieval or seventeenth century painting, but are recognizable as specific to the early twentieth century. It is they who later, through their restoration work, passed on their valuable experience of the theory and painting of icons to all those who still loved beautiful religious paintings during those years so difficult for Russian Orthodoxy. It is not our intention to criticize Florensky for his strange and sad ignorance of this current of church painting in which high quality artists had remained faithful to the iconographic canon and to the Byzantine stylistic tradition. It is a known fact that certain phenomena of contemporary cultural life can sometimes curiously escape the view of the learned, and are only recognized later, by subsequent generations. It may well be that, without the disaster that caused the dispersal, isolation, or extermination of many Russian scholars, those who concerned themselves with iconography in a historical, aesthetic, philosophical, or theological perspective could have reached a consensus that would have included both icons painted in the traditional style and those executed in a more Academic style. In this way, the Russian theology of iconography would have developed in close cooperation with icon painting itself.

But the opposite happened. The living artistic tradition of icon painting on the one hand, and the other attempts to treat it theologically on the other, found themselves on opposing sides of what would later be known as the Iron Curtain. This artistic tradition, having survived a long winter, is now coming back to life and blooming again before our eyes. By contrast, the theology surrounding icons, trumpeted by the works of V. Lossky and L. Uspensky, has since degenerated to become, in the mouths of its interpreters and popularizers, an unending repetition of sterile and incoherent incantations. Sterile because icon painting in Western Europe, the visible embodiment of all these theories of the icon is, with very few exceptions, in a situation of extreme decadence. This decadence, unparalleled in the history of iconography, people try to make into a tradition, carefully preserved and presented as authentic.  To defend this desperate daubing, people argue with very high-sounding phrases of the type that we have cited earlier.  From them people deduce that adherence to the canonical scheme and Byzantine style are per se sufficient for obtaining a "true icon". These two notions, both poorly understood, have become the only requirements for the icon, and compelling arguments used to justify very bad painting. This forces us, the representatives of the contemporary Russian school of iconography and of the theory of fine arts, to re-examine everything ab ovo and to ask fundamental questions about the very roots of icon painting.

So what do we, iconographers, see? And what connection can be made between this vision and the icons we paint? Do we really perceive with certainty the subject of our painting, as Florensky suggested that the Holy Fathers did? Can we confirm that what we portray is indeed the Mother of God herself, or the Lord Himself?

An iconographer (regardless of which school, whether Byzantine or Academic) who claims to see the object of his painting, and therefore asserts that the woman depicted is truly the Mother of God, is undoubtedly in a serious condition of delusion of mind and reason (prielesty in Russian ascetic language). Fortunately, true iconographers are very far from this attitude towards themselves and their work, unlike a number of dilettantes who see iconography as a fast track to heaven. The vision of an iconographer, in the sense of that of the Holy Fathers of which Florensky speaks (i.e. an inner spiritual vision), is no different from that of other non-visual artists (musicians, poets, etc.) and even people with no particular artistic gift. This is a subtle vision: we call it spiritual precisely because it is not based on the senses, and besides the very term vision is only a stopgap. Yes, it is possible that this phenomenon is manifested from time to time in apparitions accessible to our physical vision, but only very rarely so. In any case such apparitions are beyond our effort of prayer or contemplation, and moreover are also often granted to people who are miles away from prayer or contemplation. More importantly, the ascetic tradition of the Church, while recognizing the existence of such apparitions, strongly discourages the search for them, emphasizing the spiritual dangers attached to them.

The main task of the iconographer, the goal of his spiritual and creative development, is not to learn to open his "third eye" to a hidden reality for his or her work to be successful, or to go searching for heavenly visions . Even the so heartily descried relations with nature of artists from the Academic school is much more complex than this frantic search for a model, of which they are accused. In any event, the invisible world is for the iconographer by no means a "model" in the direct and banal way that a nude is on the podium in front of a group of Fine Arts students. The iconographer cannot, parce Florensky, simply transfer onto a board his or her own more or less strong spiritual vision.  One does not fix spiritual images as one fixes a butterfly with a pin. In the spirit of a simple peasant, this "poetic" image might be permitted, but in the mouth of a Florensky or Uspensky it becomes vulgar materialism. In any event, this formulation bears little similarity with what really takes place in the creative consciousness of the artist who ventures to portray the invisible world.

Every artist is first of all a spectator. It is as such, under the influence of icons painted by his predecessors, that he comes thirsty to get to know God with his brush in his hand. And throughout our lives as artists, we remain spectators, ever more subtle and sensitive, perfecting at the same time and reciprocally our personal art and our perception of the art of others. But what do we see in the icons of others when we say "Yes, this is indeed the Christ, the living God," or "That's she, the Mother of God"? We see, or rather we feel, because physical vision is only the starting point of this feeling, a matching, a very subtle, inexplicable resonance, unexplainable by the theory of Fine Arts alone, between the image of God printed deep inside our soul and His image as projected on the board before us. But what do this matching , this resonance consist of? Where are they found? In the inscriptions and gilding? In the position of the body and the gesture of the hands? In the color of the garments?  In the painting technique? It seems ridiculous to mention all this when we are taking about the intimate matching, calling-one-to-another, between the painted image and the image of God that we carry within us.

No formal loyalty to the canon or to particular stylistic features can automatically match any spiritual image. Only the harmony and life that permeate a truly artistic icon constitute this "sympathetic magic" that is necessary in order to enter into contact with the living and harmonious image of God present in all of us. This life and harmony can be expressed in all kinds of ways: in fresco and mosaic, in egg tempera and encaustic, by translucent or opaque paint, by stretched or foreshortened proportions, by a palette of bright or dull colors, highly stylized or almost natural. Two millennia of Christian art are so fabulously rich, both stylistically and technically! The image of God can be made incarnate with any material and in any historical style, through the life and harmony that will make it recognizable by any human soul. The various forms taken by this artistic harmony are called "styles" in the theory of fine arts.

We have already listed a number of features of these styles, but we can also describe the harmony of icon painting in its emotional aspect. This harmony may seem lit from within, refined and perfect, like the icons of Andrey Rublev, an educated monk of noble origin. It can be a bit pushy in its desire to convince, as in the early Byzantine icons or Russian icons of the pre-Mongol period. It can be based on animated movement or exude a sweet sereneness.  It can be as simple and naive as in the icons of the Severnie pisma (Northern Russia) school, audacious and joyfu, as in the mosaics of Ravenna, it can be developed and decorative, a little cold and abstract as in the works of the Palekh and Mstyora masters. It can be the sublime and refined harmony of a genius, a unique phenomenon in artistic language. It can also be simplified, approximate, and almost ornamental. It is always in line with the personality of the author, and yet in line with the Lord Himself and His Kingdom. Man is not equal to the Lord, he is "proportionate" to Him and in the same way the harmony of the icon is proportionate to the celestial harmony. It is all this that we gather through the patches of color. Without this harmony, there is no question of spiritual contact. The spirit of the viewer meets and responds to a kindred spirit, that of the Church, which is expressed through the artist, resisting any attempt to be attracted with other baits, baits that give, in the eyes of some, a formal guarantee that the icon displays what is already recognized as truth.

But in the spiritual realm there are no guarantees, no stamped certificates. The iconographic canon — that certain "theologians of the icon" naively and simply confuse with the "Byzantine" style — being perceptible to the eyes, is addressed to the faculty of reason, and that alone. It does not touch the subtle realm of the spiritual: additionally it is accessible only to those who know how to read it, those who have some theological knowledge. The canon is not accessible to children or the mentally disabled, nor to pagans, nor to those who have lost their Christian cultural tradition, or even simple Christians unfamiliar with the dogmatic subtleties. None of them asks whether an icon is fully canonical or not, but still its spiritual content is accessible to all of them!

When the ambassadors of the Holy Prince Vladimir saw for the first time the icons in the church of a religion that was still foreign to them, they knew nothing of the meaning of the cruciform nimbus or the symbolism of the colors of the clothes of Christ. The saints on the icons were unknown to them. The compositions of the icons of the church feasts or the scenes from the Gospels escaped them. To the souls of those pagans who soon would choose Christianity as the religion of the Russian state, the icons had spoken of Truth, not in the abstract language of canonical patterns, but in the living language of harmony and beauty. Observe that, in the music, too, it was not the texts, but again the musical harmony that touched these ambassadors. The painting and church music influenced them, not indirectly by theology, but directly, that is to say spiritually. And it is this influence that proved decisive. It was not the homilies of the preachers that attracted to Christ Prince Vladimir Equal-to-the Apostles but the testimony of those who saw the beauty of the church: "We did not know where we were, in heaven or on earth.[6]

Fortunately, the meeting of the Russian searchers of God with sacred painting occurred at a time when there was no need to defend this art by proclaiming a "theology in colors." Sacred painting in a truly Christian society needed no explanation or justification because its artistic level far exceeded the level of all other visual art, marginal in relation to iconography.

A millennium later, when iconography itself has become marginal, the most talented artists have abandoned traditional iconography, and the Byzantine style has appeared, in the eyes of certain iconography theoreticians not only far removed from reality but even opposed to all reality, it has ended up using theological rationality to explain the icon. The next step has been the replacement of iconography by theology, and the adoption, with the utmost seriousness, of the thesis that faithfulness to the canon guarantees the veracity of the icon. This idea has been followed by the even more disastrous thesis that the professionalism of craft painters, which assured in any event a minimum harmony, was no longer mandatory.

If fidelity to the canon, that is a correct theology of the representation of the invisible world, were really sufficient in itself, then the ultimate of plastic representation would be manifest in the podlinnik, these verbal descriptions of iconographic subjects, often illustrated with simple schematic drawings. But podlinnik have never replaced icons, either in churches or in private homes. In the Middle Ages as nowadays, these sketches are considered only as skeletons, which are yet to be covered with flesh, in order to become icons, object of veneration and means of coming to a knowledge of God. So-called canonical schemes are secondary to the icon, first of all historically because they were developed, and are still developed today, based on previously painted icons approved by the Church. Secondary also for our perception, because what is special about the icon is above all the artistic image perceived by the senses, not a theological theory.

To insist on the essential role and the sufficiency of the canonical scheme would in fact be to violate the decision of the Council in Trullo of 692, which forbade the veneration of images that symbolically evoke Christ but do not show Him.  The council's decision was aimed in the first place at the allegories of the vine, the fish, the Good Shepherd which had served as a secret language in a clandestine and persecuted church, but had become obsolete with the end of the persecution. This decision can be applied to any image that evokes Christ without showing Him: for example all these so-called "icons" with their sullen or misshapen faces, but marked by haloes and the letters IC XC, and which though canonical at the formal level, attempt in vain to show Christ. They fail to really show Him because the technical incompetence of the painter and the lack of the deep consistency that points to the true appropriation of a particular style screen out the true vision, the fruit of the Holy Spirit at work in Man.  For believers, these icons will be at best an obstacle to prayer, or worse, they will present the Good News not as good but as ugly, boring, rigid, stupid, and unnecessary.  And for others, the lukewarm and the hesitant, these icons will be counter-productive.

If for the medieval Christian, religious art was the only opportunity to bathe in artistic beauty, modern man has much wider possibilities. He can visit a museum or exhibition, or flip through reproductions in an album if his cultural demands are more developed. If they are less so, he can pin to his wall any image or poster, devour comic strips or soap operas, or play graphics games on his computer. It would be incorrect to stone him for that. For it is in this way that he can quench his natural thirst to contemplate beauty, to sense this particular palpitation of the heart that says to every human being: the world is harmonious and you too participate in this harmony; the Universe has meaning, organization and purpose. The mind gains mastery over material and transforms it.

But can we integrate, with this invigorating pulsating, with this proof of the immortality of the soul, the idea of ​​a Creator, Lord of the harmony that surrounds us? Can we see through this harmony the image of Christ, who, for Pseudo-Dionysius, is "Perfect Beauty, Supreme and Total, without beginning or end, without spot, and original source and image of everything beautiful and all beauty. Just as Good is the beginning of everything, so Beauty is the fulfillment of everything”?[7]

Alas, usually nothing like this happens. The attraction to beauty, the sense that it exists, is no more than the revelation of a diffuse capacity given to every one as a starting point, as a basis from which to move forward and upward.  A diffuse capacity in the same way as others, like the sense of justice, morality, nobility. It is not really possible to rely too much on that sense, but we cannot despise it either, especially in painting and the theology of the icon, because beauty is one of the most important components of spiritual feeling. For certain theologians and philosophers, it is even in the most critical component.

As a professional artist and art historian, and as such trained in the contemplation and expression of beauty, I find it unethical to evoke the arguments of prominent Orthodox theologians who saw the supreme spiritual function of man in the very contemplation of Beauty. There is no question of the author of these lines presenting herself as one of the elect and thus automatically saved! Let us evoke here the philosophical thought of a philosopher of Antiquity and as such not suspect of bias: "The real life of man consists in the contemplation of eternal Beauty ... By way of sublime love, man rises from step to step, from the contemplation of earthly beauty to perfect knowledge of supernatural beauty, to arrive at the very essence of Beauty. When you see this, all the rest will lose all its value. The extreme happiness of man is to contemplate the divine beauty in the uniqueness of its formal nature.[8] The Orthodox icon has no other purpose than to give us access to that divine beauty.

How do we define "Beauty"? Whatever the embodiment of beauty for one person or the other, "beautiful" means harmonious, internally consistent, and blessed by heaven, attractive, loved and desired. "Ugly" means the contrary: lacking any order, absurd, dead, broken down, repugnant. The first term is the image of eternal life and Paradise, the second evokes that of death and Hell.

If a Christian believer tolerates, through laziness or theological naiveté, the poor artistic level of the icons surrounding him, and he goes pecking for crumbs of beauty elsewhere, it is only half-bad. The real misfortune, the new iconoclasm is when Christians, in the name of a misunderstood humility and a totally artificial "theology of the icon", seriously argue that all beauty prevents piety, that artistic professionalism is alien to the icon and even injurious to it, that the icon cannot appeal to the human sense of beauty and other virtues, or that "the Church struggled always, not for the artistic quality of its art but for its authenticity, not for beauty but for the truth.[9]

To separate beauty from truth, and going as far as to oppose them, something the Church has never done, would mean handing over to the enemy, and to the success of his games and pitfalls, the precious divine gift that is the miraculous sensitivity to beauty. It would append ugliness to the image of God, because an icon without artistic beauty is not merely indifferent. It is truly ugly, before which the everyday Christian, with his or her "spiritual radar" can only feel darkness, chaos and the stench of non-being.

The true witness to the Kingdom must be speak to the fundamental sense of beauty and ugliness, "primitive" in the good sense of the term, which lies deep inside the human soul. Only icons, and indeed Christian art in general, that can do this acquire strength and fullness, and will eclipse the weak and uncertain reflections of divine Beauty by which secular art seeks to attract men and women.

[1] Pavel Florensky, op. cit. p. 46
[2] ibidem, p. 47.
[3] ibidem, p. 60.
[4] ibidem, p. 64.
[5] ibidem, pp. 65 and 66.
[6] Povyest vryemyennikh lyet 1377, Moscow, 1950, p.76.
[7] Cited by Georges Florovsky, Отцы V - VIII веков, Paris, 1933, p. 106.
[8] Plato, Banquet, Chapter XXIX.
[9] L. Uspensky Bogoslovie Pravoslavnoi Tserkvi, Theology of the Orthodox Church, Paris, 1989, pp. 5-6.
Tags: the icon: truth and fables, ликбез

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