1. The work of http://tanjabutler.com/ immediately came to mind when I read this article – I have long appreciated the way her work draws on both iconography as well as cubism in seeking to represent scriptural narratives…

    1. Thanks Michelle for introducing me to the work of Tanja Butler, which i didn’t know. I shouldn’t be jumping to conclusions on the basis of a brief visit to the website but on first encounter I would describe her as an Expressionist rather than a Cubist (in the way I interpret that very ambiguous term). As an admirer of Emil Nolde (especially the landscapes) and Alexej von Jawlensky (again especially the landscapes) I don’t hold that against her but it isn’t what I have in mind. The emphasis is on an emotional engagement with the figurative image rather than on a principle of construction that can exist independently of the figurative image, which is what I think is the positive, as opposed to negative destructive, side of Cubism.

  2. Dr. Brooke,

    thank you for making some important distinctions that help me. First, that the deposit worth valuing in Romanesque artistry is its rhythmic (as defined above) quality, not it’s naïve forms.

    Second, that if rhythmic paradigms are to be employed in Orthodox iconography, they must not work to the obscuring of the person depicted. I do suppose that some measure of rhythmic rendering can be employed by the skillful iconographer to good effect in the making of an icon – perhaps even enhancing the emphasis on the person for veneration – but I am also cautious of attempting to marry the two poles in a given work.

    I have a follow-up question, which is to call into question the place of ‘contemplation’ (as defined in this article and your previous article) in the realm of Orthodox worship. My view – though almost everybody knows more about this than I – is that the focus of our tradition of worship is to bring us back again and again to the person whom we venerate, who is closer to us than our own thoughts. What we are striving for is continual repentance every minute: turning our mind to God, showing our deepest truest self to God, turning our real face towards the face of God. This pursuit requires every virtue: love, humility, perseverance, courage, hope, etc. And every form of understanding ultimately pales in comparison to the reality of communion with the person whom we seek.

    I am not learned or experienced in these matters, but I am cautious to value the pole or rhythm and contemplation equally with the pole of likeness and veneration (or I prefer ‘communion,’ for the love flows both ways). I do however accept a necessary balance (and spectrum) of abstraction and naturalism in the orthodox icon in order for it to best fulfill its role of connection viewer and depicted, and I suppose rhythmic principles may come into the toolbox of abstraction methods.

    Why am I saying all this? What am I getting at? I want us all to be careful not to spin away our time set aside for worship with daydreaming, or misdirect it towards an exercise of impersonal meditation. I believe we all know there is a difference between the activity of looking up at the decorative patterns on the ceiling (noticing their repeats and inconsistencies, their possible symbolic meanings and their standard of execution) and the activity of looking at the face in an icon and begging for help in my brokenness. We also know too that there is a difference between yoga and hesychastic prayer, both in practice and in fruit.

    So in the context of a physical environment designed for worship, does cultivating contemplation of rhythms as defined above really lead us deeper into communion with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, or does it lead us down innumerable rabbit trails of fantasy, theory, memory, daydreaming? “He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.”

    Or y’all may correct me that there a season/time/place for everything?

    Forgive me.

  3. Many thanks for this, Baker. I found it very useful and I think you have a good grasp of exactly the problem I’m wrestling with as someone who came to Orthodoxy through engagement with a kind of painting which is in its principle non-representational, and who still regards that principle as useful. I don’t say indispensable. The personal encounter you evoke can occur through an entirely naturalistic, or an entirely Italianate, or a simple ‘folk’ icon. Or of course an icon covered with a riza.
    I entirely understand and sympathise with what you say about the danger of spinning off into a sort of New Age contemplation of ‘the decorative patterns on the ceiling (noticing their repeats and inconsistencies, their possible symbolic meanings and their standard of execution)’. In fact one can end up similarly contemplating the damp stains on a ceiling. There is a distinction to be drawn between ‘fascination’ and contemplation. They both involve staring over long period of times but fascination is a sort of hypnosis. It goes nowhere. The contemplation I’m trying to envisage is a reminder of the fulness, the dignity of our human nature, which opens up to the possibility of communion with God.
    I see this as one of the great functions of the arts. Since this really is intrinsic to human nature as created by God it can exist outside a liturgical context, outside Orthodoxy and even in the lowest depths of our abjection – a recurring theme in Dostoyevsky. I’ve just been reading Isaac the Syrian saying that the souls in Hell suffer through their love for God. Obviously no work of art can embody the actual experience of communion with God, which most of us only know in a fragmented manner but which finds its highest level this side of the grave in the experience of the deified saints. What we are talking about here is only an intuition of that fulness and it is when we have this intuition that we become aware of how far short we fall, of, as you say, our brokenness.
    There are artists who would say we should give expression to that brokenness through a broken art and, outside a liturgical context of course, I wouldn’t totally reject that. But we can also try to get as far as we can towards realising that intuition, to rise as high as we can and I do think that the interaction of stability, mobility and circular form is an aid to doing that, whether in a figurative or non-figurative context. And that the very act of doing it is an act of prayer.
    Apologies for a rather sketchy response to the very profound question that you raise.


  4. Perhaps we should not be looking to combine the two poles in one painting, but rather to appreciate their combination at the architectural scale. I commented previously that I’ve found Orthodox icons with Celtic knotwork details to be unsuccessful, because the knotwork competes with the Byzantine figure, desiring our attention in very different ways. However, on the architectural scale, ornamental borders painted between iconographic murals can introduce rhythmic ornament very successfully.

    Metalwork in Orthodox churches (chandeliers, lamps, reliquaries) has always had rhythmic patterns. And in hybrid cases, like a gospel cover, or an embroidered vestment, it is often the case, even in the best historic Byzantine examples, that the ornamentation visually overwhelms the iconography. This is okay for liturgical objects designed to be seen in motion, as the icon could never really be the focus of sustained veneration.

    In my series of posts “An Icon of the Kingdom of God – the Integrated Expression of all the Liturgical Arts” I sought to show how each element in an Orthodox church expresses a different aspect of the vision of Heaven. If we consider that panel icons were never meant to be seen in isolation, but amongst ornate metalwork, wood carving, etc, then perhaps we need not consider their lack of rhythmic movement to be a shortcoming.

    1. When I first encountered the OAJ I read Andrew Gould’s series on ‘the Integrated Expression of all the Liturgical Arts’ and was very impressed. I was pleased that this comment gave me an excuse to read them again. I’m giving a talk here in Wales shortly on the Orthodox Church – History, Iconography, and Music, and I shall probably pillage these articles (ideas and illustrations) ruthlessly!

Comments are closed.