Sacred and Secular Art in Light of Tradition
“For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things…” – Romans 11:36
Art is a divine gift to man, an illumination, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights…”(Jam. 1:17) Therefore, it reaches its loftiest heights when it becomes once again a gift, an offering, a sacrifice of praise, a doxology, returned back to God as Eucharist. We see the divine image in man not only in his nous, speech, free will and capacity to love, but also in his works of craftsmanship. For the Archetype of man is the Divine Craftsman, the Logos, “by whom all things were made.” Hence, as craftsman, man fulfils his vocation using his gift liturgically, that is, by working in cooperation with divine energy, ordering, and shaping his soul in virtue harmoniously, thereby depicting within himself the divine likeness. This likeness is our reintegration in the Good, grounding in the Truth and participation in uncreated Beauty- the partaking of divine nature. Thus, man becomes a living icon mediating the divine Presence. In the icon we find the convergence of life and art as ultimately sacramental creative activities. Indeed, the highest function of art is to mediate between the Divine and human, to give access to the Divine in the realm of culture. Art then, as attested to by all major world civilizations, is essentially inextricably related to religion (religiō) – which etymologically can be said to mean to bind fast to the Sacred – hence, to an act of liturgical worship, to cult. It is often overlooked that cult-ure arises from cult, even secular man has his rituals, shrines, relics and “icons.” So we begin to know the underpinnings, the worldview and devotion of a civilization, by discerning the forms of its art. “…By their fruits you shall know them.”(Matt 7:20)
As Orthodox Christians we tend to live in two spheres at the same time, and more often in between them. We might hold traditional perspectives in some respects, but use secular standards in others. At times we even rely on secular presuppositions to judge Tradition, without realizing it. We tend to suffer from a lot of these cultural blind spots. This, I think, is most apparent when it comes to the question of “art.” For the iconographer things tend to be a bit black and white, at least most of the time. Isolated from contemporary developments in the realm of non-liturgical art he guards his spiritual integrity. But for those who don’t have a calling to engage in liturgical art, such an insular attitude is not enough. What are they to do? How are they, as Orthodox Christians, to approach their practice as artists? And, what about those who have not become part of the Church? What are we to make of their work? Is non-liturgical art capable of conveying intimations of the Sacred? Hard questions, to say the least, but ones worth asking, although the answers might not be so readily available at the moment.
Tradition, Temperament & Culture
Perhaps we can begin answering these questions by calling to mind the catacombs of Rome. As the Church suffered under the great persecutions its artists simultaneously experimented with vitality, frescoing their secret places of worship in varied and unusual ways. These Christian artists took forms readily available to them from their Greco-Roman culture and with creative dexterity reshaped them, in a manner that would later impact the development of the pictorial language of the icon. Hence, Church culture baptized existing visual forms, distilling from them that which was in accord, and useful in communicating, the new life in Christ. Initiation into this new life is the entering into and participating in the mystery of Tradition, often referred to as, “the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church.” Tradition also entails the “handing down” of the revelation, the “mystery hidden before the ages,” that is, the Incarnation of the Logos, through whom we become partakers of the divine nature. In short, ecclesial art can be said to have “revalorized” contemporary modes of expression, thereby making them efficient conveyors manifesting Tradition.
It goes without saying that things are a bit different now. Some might contend that the Church is no longer in its “primitive” stage and consequently not as flexible in its interaction with immediate culture. As it is often emphasized, the pictorial language, and other aspects of the Church’s liturgical art, has reached a level of maturity, clarity, of crystallization needing no arbitrary and willful revision. This is very true in many ways. Yet, we should also bear in mind, and it is hard to deny, that iconographers throughout history in creating a “…integrated and complete painting system based upon the ground of the Hellenic cultural tradition and its trends…never abandoned the dialogue with other artistic and cultural traditions. Therefore, many elements and artistic solutions were borrowed by the icon painters in order for their work to be always in a process of renovation becoming more functional and fresh…icon painting in the past was always alive and in a natural progress and enlargement of its body.”[ii]
In making this point we are not just welcoming and excusing an “innovationist” spirit. Rather, what we are saying is that Tradition cannot be trapped into just one approach or mode of expression, no style or school can claim monopoly to the “most authentic” formula, although it might be firmly grounded on, what can called, the “timeless” pictorial principles of iconography. Moreover, these principles are not to be taken as purely static, but rather as extremely flexible and expandable. Also, we should remember that these are not the Tradition itself, but that which makes up its glorious garment, the efficient grammar and letters of a language, giving clear expression and manifesting the unfathomable depths of Tradition.[iii] The principles derive their timelessness and accuracy from participation in immutable Tradition.[iv] From this participation they become the unifying components in the diversity of styles. The styles can perhaps be called the “unique modes of receiving” Tradition.[v] So iconographers of ages past have not been as insular in their practice as we might like to think and as some expect them to be today. In the course of history Tradition has found expression in a variety of personal and cultural temperaments, as iconographers have creatively confronted and resolved immediate needs. This, among other factors, clearly shows the Church as truly the living Body of Christ, composed of different members, each with unique functions and gifts, contributing to the edification of the whole organism.[vi] This, of course, happens organically, not for the sake of individualist “self-expression,” or mere novelty. In short, there is room for dynamic creativity in cooperation with the Holy Spirit. Obedience to Tradition does not stifle or deaden, but paradoxically transforms, purifies and resurrects, persons and cultures to the fullness of their potentials. Hence, with this in mind, Ouspensky would encourage his western students not to limit themselves by superficially copying the Russian style, but to also look at their cultural forebears, such as the Romanesque masters, for pictorial possibilities closer to their unique temperament.[vii]
The Catacomb painters were surrounded and imbued by the Hellenic artistic heritage, but today we have a plethora of artistic models via the internet, instantly made accessible through an image search by the mere push of a button. The many schools of iconography, and art running the course of many centuries and cultures, can be viewed simultaneously as we scroll down our computer screens. Who can deny the positive sides of this information technology? What iconographer nowadays has not availed himself of this vast resource? We have also seen in the 20th century major developments in the history of painting. In particular its reassessment of naturalism, exploration of “primitive” art and abstraction, which in some respects parallels and affirms the pictorial language of the icon. Even the sacred art of non-Orthodox cultures can be studied more readily, as we consider pictorial problems in iconography. Some iconographers would even argue that the breakthroughs of 20th century painting, and elements of contemporary secular art, can be revalorized, put to the service of the icon.[viii] Others might prefer to find inspiration and clues in the parallels found between the sacred art of the East and the icon. However, these two alternatives are not necessarily mutually exclusive, an iconographer can perhaps embrace both possibilities. The visual culture of our contemporary world is larger than it has ever been. It seems to me hard to deny that these factors will have some degree of impact on contemporary iconography, but only time will tell. Things are not so neatly compartmentalized along cultural lines anymore in the “global village” of our postmodern world. So an insular attitude towards iconography seems to be insufficient, if not a stifling denial, within our current predicament.
It is unquestionable that various national cultural temperaments have left their mark in the life of the Church. These are to be rightly cherished as contributing to the richness of the Orthodox liturgical experience. It is then worth looking at the question of culture from another angle, which brings us back to the catacombs. For the Church creative engagement with contemporary culture did not just end at the catacombs. Rather, it would eventually transform the entire Roman Empire. Maybe we should pause for a moment and consider whether or not we are taking things for granted as we isolate ourselves within an ecclesial ghetto, forgetting that Church culture can still have major impact and shed some light on the state of the civilization surrounding us, particularly the state of contemporary art. Some might resist dialogue with the contemporary art community, but in doing so are they just breeding a fundamentalism that deprives both the liturgical and non-liturgical artist of unexpected revitalization, positive convergence and cross-fertilization? And believe me, by raising these concerns we are not here opening the doors of the Orthodox Church to the modernist trends that the Roman Catholics have suffered from for many centuries now, but that became rampant after Vatican II. We are definitely not advocating liturgical reforms or the creation of “modern” icons! Yet, in resisting arbitrary novelty or modernism in iconography we should be wary of the other extreme, a static and ossifying formalism in liturgical art, which is another way of taking the letter for the spirit of Tradition.
Yes,Tradition stands above contingencies and not to be thought of as bound to historic determinism. However, it continually generates new forms of ecclesial art, as it accepts and revalorizes useful aspects of the surrounding culture, albeit in slow increments and subtle ways, perhaps indiscernible at the given moment. But creative participation in this dynamic, as we have said, always presupposes obedience to the mind of the Church, an obedience which is paradoxically liberating. This creativity does not demand from us to first become saints, in order to then theologize in color. No, we first make choices in humble submission to Tradition, to the best of our capability, then the Church tests and decides on their efficacy. I doubt St. Rublev considered himself a saint when he decided to edit the composition of the Hospitality of Abraham to its bare essentials, in order to articulate theological nuances previously overlooked. Yet, he saw beyond the letter and dared to depict what he apprehended of the living Tradition with his noetic eyes. He saw the prototype, not as the outward form given to him to be reproduced, but as the inner meaning, the logos, contained in the composition.
St. Paul’s Vision on the Road to Damascus, by George Kordis. Contemporary icon.
In this icon can be seen the confluence of traditional pictorial forms, along with the revalorization of 20th century painting. That is, we see some aspects of the Byzantine style and Romanesque “mannerism,” along with the use of flat and broad fields of color reminiscent of Van Gogh and 20th century abstraction. All of this tends to have a sense of “expressionist” vigor, wish clearly conveys the sense of dynamic and transformative encounter of the sacred event.
How lifeless it would be for the Church, if we were all to sit around and wait for some kind of authorization, as to the legitimacy of our sanctity, before we did anything creative in our work. So we act in spite of our weaknesses, as we struggle towards deification, offering the gift of art back to God. Hence, those who try to make a contribution in this creative effort, as they serve the Church to the best of their capabilities, should not be hastily condemned or dismissed if their articulation seems to be for the moment imprecise and obscure, seemingly untraditional. We must be patient. The Church will decide in its own time. In the end, what enters into the milieu of liturgical art is vetted by the Body through the grace of the Holy Spirit. That which is not conducive to its edification and is pastorally harmful, not in harmony with Tradition, inevitably falls to the side as dross. That which remains is the purified gold that adorns the glorious garment of Tradition.
To be continued…
[i]This article is an expanded and revised version of On the Gift of Art, which responded to the exhibition” Gifts” (December 2013 – January 2014), State Museum of Architecture, Moscow. See http://sacredmurals.com/texts/on_the_gift_of_art.htm
[ii] This passage forms part of the statement of purpose of the IKONA group, mainly composed by iconography professors in European universities, their leader is Dr. George Kordis, Faculty of Theology, University of Athens. Their aim is to counter the static repetition of old models in iconography. Their statement further says, “Today unfortunately the art of icon painting in all Orthodox countries seems to be static and engaged in an uncreative repetition of its glorious past. Old masterpieces are reproduced again and again and the art of icon painting looks unable to continue the real tradition of the Church and its attitude against the different painting modes of the world.” For the full statement see: http://eikona.org/
[iii]Titus Burckhardt explains, “Granted that spirituality in itself is independent of forms, this in no way implies that it can be expressed and transmitted by any and every sort of form. Through its qualitative essence form has a place in the sensible order analogous to that of truth in the intellectual order; this is the significance of the Greek notion of eidos. Just as a mental form such as a dogma or doctrine can be the adequate, albeit limited, reflection of a Divine Truth, so can a sensible form retrace a truth or a reality which transcends both the plane of sensible forms and the plane of thought.” A point to notice here is the notion of “adequate, albeit limited, reflection of a Divine Truth” (emphasis added). Titus Burckhardt, Sacred Art in East and West: Principles and Methods, Perennial Books LTD., Middlesex, U.K. 1986, pp. 7-8.
[iv]As V. Lossky says, “The dynamism of Tradition allows no inertia either in the habitual forms of piety or in the dogmatic expressions that are repeated mechanically like magic recipes of Truth, guaranteed by the authority of the Church. To preserve the ‘dogmatic tradition’ does not mean to be attached to doctrinal formulas: to be within Tradition is to keep the living Truth in the Light of the Holy Spirit; or rather, it is to be kept in the Truth by the vivifying power of Tradition. But this power, like all that comes from the Spirit, preserves by a ceaseless renewing.”As quoted by C.A. Tsakiridou in Icons in Time, Persons in Eternity: Orthodox Theology and the Aesthetics of the Christian Image, Ashgate Publishing LTD, Surrey, U.K. p. 65.
[v]Tsakiridou, Ibid., p. 64.
[vi]Lossky also notes, “The pure notion of Tradition can then be defined by saying that it is the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church, communicating to each member of the Body of Christ the faculty of hearing, of receiving, of knowing the Truth in the Light which belongs to it, and not according to the natural light of human reason.” Ibid.
[vii]Chantal Savinkoff, “Une leçon d’iconographie avec Léonide Ouspensky: Extraits d’un entreitien avec Chantal Savinkoff,” Paris, February 1974. In The Orthodox Messenger, Special Issue, “Life of the icon in the West,” No 92, 1983. Our translation from the French text. http://www.pagesorthodoxes.net/eikona/iconographie-ouspensky.htm
[viii]The IKONA group is a case in point. On this regard their statement reads, “The IKONA group… attempts to give a motive for an interchange with contemporary art, tracing the possibility of adopting elements from secular art. The main goal is not the creation of modern icons outside the tradition of the Church, or the replacement of the old mode. The continuity and the enrichment of the tradition is what is intentionally pursued by the members of the Group IKONA.” http://eikona.org/, op. cit., n.2.