1. Jill

    There is a very great deal I could say about the shrill, psychedelic, grotesque “icons” painted by Fr Stamatios Skliris, but I shall limit my response to this:

    An iconographer is not a slave to artistic fashions which change constantly, he works in service to, and under the direction of the Orthodox Church. Too often in recent years, people have attempted to justify making aspects of Church life and practice “more relevant” to a “modern society”. OK, then that means it’s time we had rap music liturgies to encourage young people to turn up to church. Ridiculous? Of course it is! Christ and His Church are timeless and beyond time, “the same yesterday, today, and forever”. Innovations, be they in liturgical practice, iconography, or other areas of Church life MUST be within the teachings and the Holy Tradition of the Church, and develop organically, not on an individual’s whim or fancy.

    Man does not need a modern message since he cannot comprehend the ancient one.

    1. Fr. Silouan Justiniano

      Thanks Jill,
      I understand your apprehension and agree with you on the dangers of hankering after innovations in an attempt to be “more relevant” to a “modern society”. So the point in discussing the work of Fr. Stamatis has not been to promote a total disregard for Tradition or the teachings of the Church. Rather, the point has been to see how the work of Fr. Stamatis serves as a healthy challenge to our simplistic notions of what fidelity to Tradition means in the realm of icon painting. It seems to me that we cannot limit “traditional” icon painting to a merely mechanistic or “color by number” approach, which totally drowns the personal temperament of the iconographer. As St. Paul tells us, the Body of Christ is composed of different parts, that is, unique persons with unique gifts, all contributing to the edification of the Church. Indeed, the goal is not to embrace “creativity” at the expense of the liturgical function of the icon. But we cannot forget that the two are intertwined. Stylistic variety in the life of the Church throughout the centuries attests to this fact. Moreover, we should recall that the Church has never proscribed nor prescribed stylistic formulas. In other words, the Church in her wisdom has never “dogmatized” on style. In the end, the icon painter, if he really wants to follow the approach of his forebears, has to make unique choices in his creative act that are good pictorial solutions to the challenges of his given circumstances. It is inevitable. This, of course, involves aesthetic choices that aim to embody a theological perspective which reflects the mind of the Church. Whether the results are appropriate or not the Church will decide.  Yes, the Church is timeless, yet it touches time and participates in the cultural realities of history. Hence the creative endeavors of its participants will inevitably reflect their historical moment. This is neither good nor bad, but just an unavoidable fact. Fr. Stamatis might go too far at times, but his work cannot be easily dismissed as a denial of the mind of the Church. He has just been brave enough to experiment in ways that are unprecedented and jolt us out of our comfort zones. 

    2. Fr. Alexis Baldwin

      Dear Jill,

      A lot of us folks left behind the inanity of the bizarre and shocking in life when we converted to Holy Orthodoxy. Speaking as one of those folks, we are drawn to the Truth of what lasts; what is more of a universal in the life of the Church. Perhaps we’re just shallow in our adherence to tradition.

      As common, average lay people and clergy, I find we want to learn and live out this tradition as given. Personally, it becomes a huge burden riddled with no amount of confusion when we encounter such a “push” to experiment and “progress” things in our tradition. Innovation is nothing new though, so I look to Church history to for an answer to these kind of things. It’s pretty clear that overtime, most innovations just kind of fall away. What’s universal sticks. I plan on not paying much attention to the innovations. If it’s meant to stick, it’ll have to last longer than I live anyway.

  2. Thank you, Fr. Silouan, for bringing the unusual work of Fr. Stamatis to my attention. I read this with great interest, thinking about why there is such a likeability problem with his work, despite the many merits of his painting.

    Personally, I like some of his work very much. The ones I don’t like are the ones that use extremely saturated colors with a preference for colors that are quite rare in nature, like hot pink and neon orange. It strikes me that there are two errors in the theoretics that Fr. Stamatis uses to justify this work. One problem is the assumption that the work of avant-garde French painters from over a century ago somehow characterizes the aesthetics of the modern age. These painters have their rightful place of honor in the history of western art, but their styles came and went relatively quickly, and their penchant for bright colors did not universally persist in the visual art of the century following them. Nowadays, we happen to live in a period when super-low saturation is endemic in many fields of art. Luxury interiors are all white and gray, and big-budget action movies are filmed with an almost colorless palette, for instance.

    A second error is to treat icon-painting as a self-contained art. By the time the post-impressionists were painting, it had become possible to create canvases whose sole purpose was to hang in an art gallery – a space in which a painting need not coordinate with anything else. But an icon or fresco scheme has to fit into a wider aesthetic shared by all the other stuff in a church, and by the culture of those who use the church. Now there are places in the world where super-high-saturation colors are normal in churches (some parts of Central America, Ethiopia, India), and there’s nothing wrong with that. But to impose such colors in a place and culture where they aren’t normal creates inevitable discord and distraction.

    On the other hand, there is a case to be made for pushing colors a bit brighter than people are used to. After all, what people are used to is often soot-stained churches, old icons with yellowed varnish, and sun-bleached prints. Historically, colors were brighter than we now think. I can respect Fr. Stamatis’ efforts to bring vibrancy back into liturgical art, though I would prefer to frame it as revival as much as modernism. Looking at that way can help us understand which experiments stay within the margins of tradition, and which go completely outside it.

    1. Fr. Silouan Justiniano

      Well put Andrew. I think that your two observations about the theoretical problems are very important. And, yes, I agree with you that, when it comes to Fr. Stamatis’ efforts to bring vibrant color back to liturgical art, it is best to “frame it as revival as much as modernism.”

      Perhaps instead of reading Fr. Stamatis’ engagement with modern painting as a matter of somehow adopting what constitutes a “modern look”, we can look at it as a way of experimenting with those aspects of modern painting which converge with the pictorial concerns of the icon.

      Thus, for example, I think that for Fr. Stamatis the main concern with color has to do with its capacity to convey a visionary sense of eschatological Light and Paradisiacal joy and exaltation. His main model for this is the vibrant and saturated color harmonies of Vincent van Gogh, in which we get a sense that nature is perceived as a theophany. Van Gogh once wrote to his brother Theo: “I want to paint men and women with that something of the eternal which the halo used to symbolize, and which we seek to confer by the actual radiance and vibration of our colourings.” Perhaps Fr. Stamatis has taken on this challenge and exploited saturated color as a means of somehow capturing pictorially a sense of the uncreated Light, permeating everything in the cosmos with pulsating intensity.

      Your point about cultural/liturgical context and the icon not being a “self-inclosed” art is very important. I agree with you that “to impose such colors in a place and culture where they aren’t normal creates inevitable discord and distraction.” However, the fact that Fr. Stamatis has already painted many churches in his unique mode is evidence of a cultural sector and current within the Church that is open to his kind of work. The crucial question, as you note, is whether or not his idiosyncratic mode can be coordinated successfully with the other aspects of the liturgical context. But my sense is that whether or not something comes off as discordant and distracting has often more to do with cultural tastes and aesthetic education, than with theological problems per se. I think most of the time these two categories tend to get conflated in discussions about what is appropriate or not within a liturgical context.

  3. Jill

    “I think that for Fr. Stamatis the main concern with color has to do with its capacity to convey a visionary sense of eschatological Light and Paradisiacal joy and exaltation. His main model for this is the vibrant and saturated color harmonies of Vincent van Gogh, in which we get a sense that nature is perceived as a theophany. ”

    It is revealing that Van Gogh is invoked here. He was an artist as much beset by darkness and dread, as he was in “pursuing the light”. When I first saw Skliris’ so-called icon of “St Andrew just before his martyrdom” a few years ago, these were my observations:

    “This painting reminds me of Vincent Van Gogh’s self-portraits during his more tormented periods. There is no stillness or spiritual calm here, nor does it express the Apostle’s Christ-like acceptance of his impending death as a martyr as any good icon should, notably those of Christ’s crucifixion, the great exemplar of selfless and willing sacrifice.

    Instead, we see a man engulfed in a whirl of gloom, turmoil and fear. There will be no victory in this Apostle’s death. This is all the more ironic, as the hymnography for the saint is full of references to his bravery. Andreia (courage, bravery, manliness) is the source of the name Andreas. The first-called apostle truly lived up to his name.”

    Link to the painting: https://frmilovan.files.wordpress.com/2010/12/holy_apostle_andrew.jpg

    How, then, can Skliris justify calling this disordered, troubled painting an icon? How does it conform with the teachings and ethos of the Church? How is it the visual complement to the Church’s hymns and prayers to Apostle Andrew? On what grounds can it be considered suitable for veneration? And, most importantly, how does it bring us closer to Christ and the things of God?

    1. How can Fr. Stamatis call it an icon? How could he not? Icon is the Greek word for image. To a Greek-speaker, every picture is an icon. Your question implies a distinction between icon-images and non-icon images, but this distinction only exists in English. There is no cannon of the Orthodox church that asserts that some pictures of saints are icons and some are not, or that icons must depict saints in tranquility and not in anguish.

      For certain, most icons for liturgical use do depict saints in heavenly tranquility. But the church and her liturgical art certainly does not deny that saints sometimes suffered anguish, turmoil, and fear. Jesus himself blessed this reality of human life when he called out on the cross “My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?”. We sing extensively of these dark emotions in the hymnography of Holy Week. And in the historical record of Byzantine icon painting, examples can easily be found that depict saints in emotional anguish. These have always been outliers, never the core of the painting tradition, but they were always present. To say that modern iconographers may only paint in one correct way is to misunderstand the breadth of experience that the church embraces in her liturgical art.

      Does that mean I think that Fr. Stamatis’ icon of St. Andrew is the perfect archetype of the saint and should be given the place of honor on an iconostasis? Of course not. A liturgically prominent icon should be balanced and refined, both emotionally and technically. But is there room in some small corner of the church for an icon that shows a saint in his moment of fear and doubt before his martyrdom? And might this icon be a comfort for someone who himself suffers fear and doubt? Absolutely.

  4. I think Fr. Stamatis’ work is most successful as iconography when the human figures are represented with subdued classical beauty and balance that is not far from the canon of traditional iconography, while the kosmos around these figures (and perhaps their garments as well) enjoy the exultant freedom of radiance and dance through movement and color. The image above of Adam naming the animals best exemplifies the potential of Fr. Stamatis’ approach in my opinion.

    When saturated and high-contrast coloration techniques are employed on the flesh of the figures, it’s difficult to see those represented as the true likenesses of persons in the kingdom of God (as icons).

    High coloration can also sometimes disguise poorly drawn/proportioned anatomy, which needs great attention in order to serve well the purposes of the icon.

    with your prayers,

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