Aesthetic Nepsis, Enargeia and Theophany: Looking for the Christian Image

By Lynette Hull on April 30, 2014


 This article was written by Dr. Cornelia Tsakiridou, associate professor at LaSalle University and author of Icons in Time, Persons in Eternity.  The content is based on the talk Dr. Tsakiridou gave at Princeton University on March 13th, 2014 which was sponsored by Princeton’s Orthodox Christian Fellowship and Florovsky Society.

Introduction (1)

Saint Porphyrios the Kausokalyvite used to say that when drawn by the hands of a holy man or woman, a simple line can perform miracles.(2) In a way that is characteristic of Orthodoxy, this ties the icon and its theological and aesthetic study to the ascetic life. This undated icon of Panagia Dexia, shown here in detail, is a copy of the famous 11th century Cypriot icon of Panagia Kykkotissa, and one of Thessaloniki’s most beloved, miraculous images.


 Measured against the rich lives of century old images like this one, our attempt to address the icon aesthetically seems insignificant; a mere intellectual exercise. It is not. In the long history of Orthodox iconography, exemplary icons invite us to rethink the Christian image.(3) And so does Orthodox theology. My aim in this talk is to align the icon as an aesthetic object with asceticism and the spiritual life, with the mysteries of the Orthodox Christian faith (the Eucharist, Theophany, and Theosis), and with the perfecting vitality that God in Christ awakens in nature and in human beings. I will follow the order of the title in reverse, discussing first why we are looking “for” rather than “at” the Christian image. The reason that we set out to discover rather than encounter the icon is that what is traditionally presented as its theology aims more to legitimize its existence than to celebrate its reality. This reality needs our attention. We have not said everything that needs to be said about the Christian image. We have not seen in painting everything that needs to be shown of the Christian world: how beings exist in a Christian cosmos, and how this mode of existence is embodied and realized by Christianity’s holy beings, and by its saints and ascetics, its holy men and women. A Christian, more specifically, an Orthodox Christian, iconography must approach all beings, all creation, dynamically. And yet, not all Christian images (e.g., icons) are actively, vitally Christian in the way that we will suggest. The content is there but the life is not. The first thing to ask, then, when we see a Christian image, when we see an icon is: Where is the life?


Take this well-known and much-copied 16th century icon of St. Anthony the Great, by the Cretan painter Michael Damaskinos. In aesthetic terms, our question can be asked from different vantage points: What happens in the space that the image creates and from which (where) it arises? What or who takes shape there? The figure’s interior manner of existence is evident; it stands remote and isolated in the luminous space that surrounds it. What comes to be there, and from where and in what manner? To whom does this being present itself? Where (if anywhere) is it going? If it is still, what kind of stillness characterizes it? Think of the stillness that precedes action, the stillness that suggests rest, or the stillness that suggests vigilance etc. What kind of existence does the being that comes before us lead? How is it constituted as a sensible reality? We ask these questions because we expect to be in the presence of a living image just like when we pray we are in the presence of a living God. The modality, then, of the Orthodox icon is liveliness, fullness of life. Aesthetics and theology converge.

I. Theology and Ontology

In Orthodoxy, theology is the encounter in prayer with God. It precedes and informs the study of the word of God. Fr. Georges Florovsky wrote that Patristic theology is “existentially rooted in the decisive commitment to faith (emphasis added).”(4) The theologian that has never met God in prayer, is tangled in word games and abstractions. This is theology without God. There is a parallel movement that is also of significance to art: it concerns ontology. An Orthodox ontology requires one’s encounter with beings, an encounter that holds the other sacred and thus in reverence (eusebeia). It yields to their being what or who they are. It opens itself to their lives. The ontologist who has never met beings in reverence, has only abstractions to work with. This is ontology without being. We live with God because ours is a living God. This is the God who, as St. Maximus the Confessor reminds us, is “identically monad and triad.”(5) It is He who is. He is, as Fr. John Meyendorff put it, “essence, hypostasis, energy;” at once “transcendent, tri-personal and present in creation.”(6) It is from Christ the Logos that all beings flow and in the Logos (word, utterance, expression, speech, voice, reason) that they have their end. And since where the Son is the Father and the Holy Spirit also are, all beings flow from God and have their end in God: they too are essence, hypostasis, energy. They are created in order to exist toward their perfection. In Christianity all beings exist in a Trinitarian modality; they exist as hypostases, as dynamic (energic) expressions of their ousia or essence; they exist expressively. It is in this triadic way that they theologize and partake of the life of God. And as hypostases, they carry their distinctive natures from the depth rather than the surface of their existence. Such a depth is implied, for example, when we summon ourselves at times to rise above our love of self, pride etc. Think of taphe and anastasis: one’s ascent from the darkness of selfishness, from the isolation of pride, to communion with other human beings and life. Beings have logoi, voices. They have thoughts (inner processes); they communicate. As hypostases (a stasis on the verge of becoming), they are open to becoming what they are, to the giving of themselves and to receiving from others. In this sense, they subsist eucharistically, liturgically. They open their being to eusebeia—to those who pause to listen with reverence, to see a sight worthy of wonder (thaumaidein), to stand in aporia, in a perplexity of thought and sense. Similarly, persons open themselves spontaneously where love is present—souls, according to Elder Paisios the Athonite, are informed of love and they come alive. And then, as St. Maximus profoundly puts it, in being known, beings become themselves subjects, hypokeimena. They participate in the act that thinks them and probes into their being; they suffer our knowing them just like we suffer their becoming known to us. In the case of the iconographer: beings suffer her painting them and she suffers their becoming painted by her. Vitality (this living, animating and fulfilling God, this living world) is essential to Christian ontology. Charismatic, plerotic ways of existence are contrasted with depletion and stagnation. When persons, speech, art are depleted, they exist only on the surface. They have no depth (perhaps they have abandoned, or forgotten it). They are hollow inside. They are idols. Theology and ontology have aesthetic implications. A Christian universe does not look like a Buddhist universe. In Christianity, the eternal is gathered in the temporal—beings live their own eternity, sanctified, deified.


In Buddhism, as we see in this 16th century panel form Myoshin-ji (Temple), Kyoto, Japan, the temporal is the site where eternity makes its appearance. Eternity puts beings on display in an instance, in a moment, at once presenting, encompassing and obliterating their time. In Christianity, beings encompass time and eternity. They live it from their own center and depth.(7) As humble a creature as a snail has its own time where it meets eternity. It exists fully the unique being that it is in the order of things, carving its path on this earth with its characteristic pace, clad in a certain kind of geometry—and so does a sunflower, a bee and all kinds of beings. But it is in persons that a being’s own time and that of eternity fuse most conspicuously. In persons, eternity is spoken, painted, thought, enacted, sang. The poet’s voice belongs to her person, her time and simultaneously to poetry itself, and to the human voice, to human history, to humanity. Similarly, the iconographer’s vision belongs to her person, her time, to human vision, to our history, to humanity… ultimately to language and art, to logos and eikon. When she paints, she stands in the midst of all the iconographers that ever lived, her hand and theirs draws a line as it has always be drawn in the face of the Theotokos but with the frequency of that singular moment and the rhythm and energy of her hand—as happened with Eulalios, Theophanes the Greek, Rublev or Panselenos before her. We call this union, this gathering of hands across time, tradition (paradosis)—and yes, it can also be called, in its synchronic dimension, ekklesia.

II. Aesthetic Nepsis

Nepsis, in prayer, in every day life is an ascetic virtue. It means vigilance, alertness, discerning attention to an object (mental or actual e.g., if the thought comes from God). It is the gathering of one’s self: concentration, focus, and stillness (hesychia); the posture of the discerning mind and heart. Aesthetic is that which has sensuous form as the manner of its existence; which vividly brings its existence and nature to my senses. I pay attention to how a shape exists as the particular shape that it is, to how a particular shade of blue is the blue that it is, a line is the line that it is. Taken together, blue, shape and line may constitute a certain kind of sea (e.g., where Christ’s disciples sail), or a certain kind of maphorion (e.g., worn by the Theotokos). This is not a formal exercise. Colors partake of the being of things. A communion exists between them. The blue in the maphorion of the Theotokos, has something of her nature, for in so far as she wears it and lives in it, it is her blue and not that of the Sea of Galilee, for example. And if she is wearing it under the cross, then it must have something of the mystery of Crucifixion in it—that is also her mystery. The aesthetic is not the stylistic (or symbolic in the sense of a theological code that the image translates). It is the expression of the life of substance. What is aesthetic nepsis? Resembling an ascetic who is on the look out for temptations, I bring my full, undistracted attention to these expressive moments in the image. I try to listen to its voice(s). The icons of the twelfth century Byzantine painter Eulalius were said to have colors that were endowed with speech (chromata lalounta).(8) This was not just a rhetorical trope. The chromatic and aesthetic sophistication of the Byzantine mosaic icons makes this clear.(9) In aesthetic nepsis, I look for the pulse of the image. I try to discern whether what I see, what stands before me, and speaks in the silence of the plastic being that it is. Is it, I wonder, a living space, or is it nothing more than a surface on which a likeness is caught dead, incapable of showing itself, of speaking for itself—a likeness without logos, without life, in other words, an idol (eidolon) rather than an eikon? Let us look at this image of Christ Pantocrator, 14th c., in the Byzantine and Christian Museum, Athens.


Physical intensity, pensiveness, corporealized light, the face and neck swelling from within, a sense of warmth, proximity, intimacy with the viewer, set in a frontal, dynamic presence. And there is more in it to see. It seems to me that this icon has logos, that it brings itself to life. It has enargeia.

III. Enargeia

Enargeia is a term that seems made for the Orthodox image (although we can also take it to Japanese Zen art and to Modernism). It is an ancient word, from the time of Homer, where it meant, as it did later for Plato, vivid presence, coming to life, shining, glistening, swift in motion—it was often related to the appearance of a deity or to the account of things divine. Enargeia was used in rhetorical exercises known as ekphraseis (expressions) to describe writing that makes its subject so lively that those reading or listening see it face to face—what Dionysios of Hallicarnassus, fl. c. 20 BC calls prosopois omilein).(10) They encounter it as one encounters an actual thing, incident or person. St. Maximus gives the term a theological and ontological sense, when he describes the resurrected creation. There “the unique divine power will manifest itself in all things in a vivid and active presence (enarge te kai energon parousian) proportioned to each one.”(11) Notice how divine power will be in each thing according to its nature—the humility of this living God. What beings will have in full in a resurrected creation, they have partially now. Enargeia suggests the presence of grace in things, their charismatic existence. Their coming to be from a depth that their existence at any give moment does not exhaust—we “spring” to life, we don’t just live. In ninth century Byzantium, speech that had enargeia was said to be alive or breathing (empnous) and in a fifteenth century ekphrasis, Ioannes Eugenikos used the term to describe the manner in which painted objects protrude from the picture plane, move forward, and engage the viewer.(12)  Enargeia brings the image it characterizes to a charismatic state of existence. Art too can be sanctified from within. It can assume in the being of this kind of image a holy modality. Let us take a second icon: The Apostle Thomas, mid. 14th c., in the Museum of the Holy Metropolis of Thessaloniki.


Like the Pantocrator, it does not only show a holy person. Rather, it exists, as image, in the modality of holiness, in a fullness of life that is proportionate to its content. Emerging out of pigment, color, light and form, the two icons come alive. We have not talked about light yet. Enargeia also suggests light and luminosity (in the sense of shining, glistening).

IV. Theophany (and theosis)

As St. Symeon the New Theologian and St. Gregory Palamas remind us, God is a living actuality and uncreated light is his presence. Palamas follows Maximus and Symeon in seeing theophany in the light of the Incarnation. Thus, creation anticipates theophany (it is configured to it; it does not receive it as something alien)—just as it anticipated and anticipates Christ. The life of beings is their participation in grace—we exist kata physin (according to nature) and kata charin (according to grace)—and it is this life that God perfects in theophany. Nature cooperates with God. Theophany is not a mirage but the gratuitous transformation of beings and of the human person. This is known as theosis. In theosis, the uncreated light is visible, sensible and yet transcendent. This has been and is the experience of the Orthodox Church. A sweet, soft, joyful, serene light appears in the face and the body of the ascetic or the one who prays—they become illuminated, bearers of light (photophoroi, as St. Symeon puts it).(13) This co-inherence of light and matter, the gathering in something concrete and particular of something fluid, discarnate and abstract, has aesthetic implications. In the theophanic, theotic image, matter is luminous and light is incarnate. This means that things must hold (contain) light but they must also be held (saturated, permeated) by light. The figure in the theophanic image stands between these two points, in an aesthetic and ontological ambiguity. It is as if it exists between heaven and earth, between divinity and humanity, transcendence and immanence, between the forever and the now. I would like to conclude by taking these reflections to the icon of the Apostle Thomas. If I may be allowed to quote from recent work, this is what I see in it: The “… youthful figure resonates with the gold field that surrounds it and their co-existence has a sonorous and yet quiet quality. Its complexion recalls the warm, lustrous and polished appearance of hammered copper. The refined highlights, the terse but expressive lines that outline the eyebrows, nose and lips and the pensive, mature and resolute gaze impart personal life on a being that seems to form out of a fusion of light, flesh and gold—part reality, part apparition and part incarnated color. The tones of red that are diffused in the cheeks, forehead, hair and neck, and concentrate in the delicate lips and tip of the nose, create an incandescent surface that appears lit from inside but also open to its surrounding light. Here pigment simulates and absorbs the layered gold which flickers at points with an inner intensity but also with a noetic presence that emanates from the eyes, the slightly raised eyebrows, tight lips and unevenly exposed forehead. Silent and withdrawn, as if lost in thought or recollection, the figure has a past and a present and is in full possession of its physical and noetic life. It is fragile and yet astute, youthful but solemn, with tender features but a cutting glance. Slender and austere when viewed from the perspective of its tall and lean body it seems to rest more on its inner reality than on its physical form.”(14)


1. Text and Photography © C.A. Tsakiridou2014. In memory of Fr. Joseph (Vasilios Moides) of Filotheou Monastery, Mount Athos. This paper is based on a lecture delivered at Princeton University, on March 13, 2013. I am grateful to Lydia Hull, the Orthodox Christian Fellowship, and the Georges Florovsky Orthodox Christian Theological Society for their kind invitation.

2. Relayed to the author by Fr. Agathonikos Nikolaides. Elder Porphyrios was declared a Saint on November 27, 2013.

3. I discuss exemplarity and related concepts in C.A. Tsakiridou, Icons in Time, Persons in Eternity: Orthodox Theology and the Aesthetics of the Christian Image (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013), pp. 27-48.

4. Georges Florovsky, Creation and Redemption (Collected Works, Vol. 3) (Belmont: Nordland Publishing Company, 1976), vol. 3, pp. 30-35.

5. Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1976), 63. John Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology: Historical Trends and Doctrinal Themes (New York: Fordham University Press, 1979), p. 184.

6. Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology, pp. 186-189.

7. For a comparison of Zen and Orthodox aesthetics, see C.A. Tsakiridou, Icons in Time, 297-318.

8. Tsakiridou, Icons in Time, p. 237.

9. Ibid. 236.

10. Ibid. p. 50, 49-71.

11. Ibid. p. 182.

12. Ibid. pp. 52-53.

13. Ibid. p. 249.

14. Ibid. pp. 266-267.

Posted in ,


  1. John B. on May 14, 2014 at 1:39 pm

    Simply wonderful. Is there a possibility to obtain the permission to translate this magisterial study in romanian?

    Thank you!
    John B,
    a romanian orthodox priest.

Our Sponsors