First published in
Composing and Chanting in the Orthodox Church: Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Orthodox Church Music, Joensuu: ISOCM/University of Joensuu, 2009, 337-342
© 2009 Ivan Moody All rights reserved.
The Idea of Canonicity in Orthodox Liturgical Art
“Divine beauty is transmitted to all that exists, and it is the cause of harmony and splendour in all that exists; like light, it emits its penetrating rays onto all objects, and it is as if it called to it everything that exists and assembles everything within it.” (Pseudo-Dionsysios1)
The term “canonical” in relation to Orthodox art is extremely problematic. Its use as far as Orthodox church music is concerned would seem to have been popularized in the West by the publication in English translation of Johann von Gardner’s monumental tomes Russian Church Singing 2. Gardner differentiates between canonical and non-canonical singing by noting that “the term ‘canonical’ refers to singing that consists of melodies contained in official liturgical singing books – either ancient manuscripts written in staffless notation, or printed books with staff notation printed by the Holy Synod of the Russian Church. It makes no difference whether these melodies are performed in their original form – or in two, three or four voices; as long as the original canonical melody is maintained, the singing may be termed canonical. By contrast, non-canonical singing consists of freely-composed polyphonic settings of liturgical texts, which, although intended for use in the liturgy, do not employ canonical melodies, and in various other ways do not fulfil the requirements placed upon liturgical singing by the Typikon.”3 Gardner himself subsequently notes that in Russian writing on the subject, the terms “ustavnoe penie” and “Neustavnoe penie” are employed, but that they are “not precisely defined”!4
Gardner states that the category of non-canonical singing covers, firstly, “Freely-composed melodies and free settings or harmonizations of canonical melodies that have been fundamentally altered by the composer” and, secondly, “paraliturgical compositions”.5 While such a categorization might at first seem entirely reasonable, and is so, I believe, in the case of the second group, the first group is rather more problematic. It is problematic in that it neatly avoids the issue of what, in the tradition of the Orthodox Church, the composer is. If we take it as axiomatic that a composer of Orthodox church chant is an anonymous contributor to an already-extant and historically venerable corpus of ecclesiastical music, such a composer might, nevertheless, still be guilty of “fundamentally altering” canonical melodies, but his historical anonymity would protect him from a contemporary backlash. Further, if such a composer is part of the kind of gradual shift that causes one kind of chant to evolve from another – the appearance of Kondakarian chant in mediaeval Russia, or the emergence of Serbian penije on the basis of the Byzantine repertoire would be examples – then he may be accused, according to Gardner’s categorization, not of corrupting a single canonical melody, but an entire corpus of chant. Following this logic, it follows that such a corpus of chant would be canonically invalid.
While the above is in some ways a reduction ad absurdum, it serves to illustrate the problem in a general way, and it is a point to which I shall return.
Though it may perhaps be obvious, in this context it bears repeating that there has never been any binding legislation issued by the Orthodox Church as a whole prohibiting the singing of polyphony in services. Such legislation would take the form of a Canon, and would inevitably make illegal in one fell swoop some of the oldest music sung in the Orthodox world, that of the Georgian Church. Rather, the definitions of what is acceptable as liturgical music have been promulgated as occasional rulings and recommendations in reaction to particular circumstances. Thus Metropolitan Meletios (Pigas, later Patriarch of Alexandria) in 1590: “We do not censure either monophonic or polyphonic singing as long as it is proper and decent . . . As for the noise or droning of animate (sic) organs, Justin the Philosopher-Martyr condemns it; and it was never accepted in the Eastern Church.”6
In a fascinating survey of the singing of the Kievo-Pechersk Monastery given at the first edition of this Conference in 2005, Deacon Dimitri Bolgarsky wrote extensively about the adoption of polyphonic singing as part of the Monastery’s tradition. He ascribes this adoption to the third historical stage of Kievo-Pechersk chant, writing that “The homophony adopted in the Lavra was an “answer” to the partes singing, a polyphonic concert style of Western origin, and provided a contrast to it by means of different basic principles. The Lavra harmonizations preserved the monodic basis of singing and, correspondingly, preserved the spiritual essence of the ancient singing in the “new” style (…), in contrast to the partes style that replaced sung prayer with an artistic concert. The singer monks used the new means provided by homophony – the choral unison of the Znamenny monody became the ideal expression of unity, since it cannot denote diversity as in it the different voices are united in one voice. Diversity can exist only in the singing of several parts. However, unity in diversity can be based on different aspects. A chord in a partes concert is a symbol of harmony coordinating separate things – every voice is autonomous and self-sustaining. The unity in the homophony of the Lavra chant is based on the idea of the “core” and of “growth”, the gathering of voices around the one basic canonical chant. It denotes the oneness of the essence, common aims, the expression of the spirit and quality of unity. The musical and intonational character of homophony, naturally, differs from the intonation of monodic unison, but the inner, sacral content of the chant, based on the Holy Word, continues the unbroken tradition.”7 Here, then, we have an elaborate corroboration of Gardner’s defence of canonical polyphony, as well as a lively defence of the theological symbolism of harmony. These observations parallel Yuriy Yasinovsky’s comments on the L’viv Heirmologion, dating from the late 16th – early 17th century, when he says “…the manuscript shows the influence of Latin Polish elements which appear to be combined with overt opposition to it, and with the realizing of the Orthodox nature of the national culture.”8
Deacon Dimitri goes even further when he discussed the period of the “Ukrainian Baroque”, from the 17th to the mid-18th century. He says: “The ideal of the Ukrainian baroque, with its new set of values, corresponded to some extent with the traditional ideal of monasticism in the Kievo-Pechersk Lavra. The emphases of the new world view also challenged the ascetic ideal and, as a consequence, produced a specific type of emotionally transformed melos. A sense of inner joy and freedom came to rule in the Lavra singing. In this way, the inner dynamics became more noticeable in the hymns such as “Praise the Lord, o my soul” (Ps. 103), the Cherubic Hymn (especially at “For we are about to receive the King of all”), etc.
It cannot be denied that some of the features in these hymns resulted from the influence of baroque aesthetics, elements of which filtered into the singing practice of the monastery. In the same way as baroque architecture combines exactitude and structure with an elaborate variety of lines and colours, the melodic fabric of the chants began to sense the joy (“the gaiety of the spirit”) of understanding the beauty of God’s creation, which decorated and supplemented the canonical chant with a special melodic braid. The singing tradition of the Lavra remained untouched by certain features of the new style, such as expressions of sudden alteration, excitement and contrast, etc. because they were foreign to the monastic spirit.”9 Such an approach to this period has, in recent years, become singularly unfashionable. How can we reconcile “emotionally transformed melos” with the untouched melody of Gardner’s canonical chants? Exactly how can a “special melodic braid” supplement canonical chant?
Some answers to these questions may be suggested by examining some recent work on iconography. In an article on “Theology of the Image and the Evolution of Style”, Deacon Alexander Musin, in discussing Uspensky’s idea that “theology and image constitute a united verbal-figurative expression of Revelation”, writes that this concept “needs to be defined more exactly”. He goes on to say that “The interrelation of the word and image in the Church is significant; as an artistic image its subject cannot be contrary to a biblical or dogmatic text. Nevertheless, the ways of expressing the inner content of the image can be different and do not require the same severe regulations of terminological character as rhetorical theology.”10 There is a clear parallel to be made here with the historical changes in Kievo-Pechersk chant as analyzed above.
Musin notes further that “we should remember that one of the characteristic features of theology itself is the fundamental ability to express the same truth using different terms that change depending on epoch and culture”, and, after discussing the reading of an icon as being a synthesis of intellect and spiritual contemplation, that “(…) the language of the icon can happen to be invariant, because its illegibility is overcome by a feat of human will. At the same time, this language is a function of time like a theological language. A religious image finally becomes an icon through the acceptance of the image by the Church during its consecration regardless of image stylization. The function of Orthodox theology is known to be not a logical regulation of the amount of theological knowledge, but a rhetorical development of Tradition and Revelation for the purpose of ‘inculturing’”.11
If one accepts the premise that “a religious image finally becomes an icon through acceptance of the image by the Church, regardless of image stylization”, it is stretching the parallel not at all to suggest that the same premise is applicable to church music apparently lying outside the canonical norms as defined, for example, by Gardner. Again, Musin says that “The negation of the importance of icon painting, religious painting and architecture of the eighteenth to early twentieth centuries for the Church is based not on a serious theological analysis of such art, but mostly on a subjective negation of some positive influence of European culture on the Orthodox Church in Russia. The religious art of the Synodal period happened to be at last churched as a result of its theological acceptance and prayer practice, as it corresponded in full measure to the ideas and demands of society at that time.”12 Similar observations might be made concerning much Venetian icon painting of the 17th century13 or the tradition of Ukrainian folk icons of the late 19th century.14
If one is willing to apply this logic to the music of the period, one can, so to speak, “re-church” an entire corpus of music, accept it as part of the rich history of the liturgical arts of the Orthodox Church, and avoiding the perils of anathematizing this or that aspect of the fullness of our heritage.
It should also be noted that the often very active reforming movements currently at work in the liturgical arts in many countries are themselves the result, in part, of the same historical process that produced this corpus of what is, in effect, frequently characterized as “bad liturgical art”. Without the development of Italianate humanistic icon painting there would have no subsequent Byzantine revival, no Petros Sasaki, no Grigory Kroug. Similarly, without the overlaying of various polyphonic styles on the monophonic corpuses of Russian church music, there would have been no codified polyphonic court chant, no elaboration of the kind to be found in Tchaikovsky or Rakhmaninov, and certainly no movement for a return to the liturgical aesthetics of an earlier period. What this means on a local level is that it can be dangerous, pastorally, spiritually, to impose radical solutions – as I have seen done – in situations in which there is an established modus operandi, or rather, a modus celebrandi. Since even small changes are noticed, it is clearly a great pastoral risk to change the entire sung repertoire of a parish in one fell swoop. Reformers need to be aware of this spiritual danger, to take into account their own responsibility in making any changes, and to consider the need for stability at a parish or community level.
Does this mean, then, that we should allow people to continue unenlightened, enduring “bad liturgical art”? The short answer is yes, for the risks of spiritual alienation are great. The longer answer is that education, undertaken gently and with spiritual wisdom, can play a very important role here.
There is another aspect to this question. The removal of these “substandard” repertoires from liturgical use means that, though they have served Orthodox liturgical worship in the past, they are now to be relegated to some kind of museum, sung, perhaps only in concerts, examined by scholars of those dark and corrupt periods. To this I would say that the reformer must be very careful what and how he chooses to reform. Censure of this kind is, fundamentally a matter of taste, and if we make a universal imposition of our own taste, we are as uncanonical, or at least paracanonical, as those authors and painters whose work in the service of the Church we are endeavouring to extirpate.
In closing, I return to the earlier reduction ad absurdum and suggest another aspect of it. If we were to apply structuralist hermeneutics to the case for restoring monophony where the tradition has for the last few centuries been that of polyphony, we would be forced to concede that our signifiers have changed: just as we cannot look at a Byzantine icon in the way that those who first saw it did, following our collective experience of the renaissance and its consequences, so we cannot reproduce Znamenny chant after the experience of polyphony as though we had lived the tradition. In “decoding” the repertoire, we are inevitably “encoding” it once more. It was, naturally, to guard against this transmission of meaning from signifier to signifier, as happens in language, that the Ecumenical Councils met and defined dogma. The difficulties encountered in so doing, occurred, of course, often precisely on account of the mutability of meaning in language. Thus, when we read in the 75th Canon of the Council in Trullo (Quinisext) of 692 that “We wish those who attend church for the purpose of chanting neither to employ disorderly cries and to force nature to cry aloud, not to foist in anything that is not becoming and proper to a church”15, we are obliged to wonder exactly what, for the authors of that canon, would have constituted disorderly crying in liturgical worship. In that the definitions, for example, of consonance and dissonance have shifted, and ideas of simplicity and complexity even in monophonic chant have altered during the course of history, we cannot take our own experience, our own set of signifiers, and apply it to the words of such a Canon as though they had been written yesterday. The 12th century canonist and historian John Zonaras defined what was unsuitable in liturgical worship as being “womanish members and warblings”, which phrase has in its turn been interpreted as meaning “trills, and, an excessive variation or modulation in melodies which inclines towards the songs sung by harlots”.16
If we forget that the Holy Spirit works through the Church, and that repertories of music, just like customs, may be absorbed and churched, then our idea of canonicity is very often just that, our idea.
(1) Pseudo-Dionysios, The Divine Names, Paulist Press, Mahwah, NY, 1987, p.76.
This translation, by Glenn E. Curtis, appears in Tatiana Vladyshevskaia: “On the Links between Music and Icon Painting in Mediaeval Rus”, in William C. Brumfield and Milos M. Velimirovic, eds, Christianity and the Arts in Russia, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1991
(2) Johann von Gardner, Russian Church Singing Vol. 1: “Orthodox Worship and Hymnography”, translated by Vladimir Morosan, SVS, Crestwood, New York, 1980.
(3) Ibid., p.102
(4) Ibid., p. 102, note 5
(5) Ibid., p.112
(6) I. Malyshevsky, Melety Pigas (Kiev, n.p., 1872) p. 89; English translation provided in
Morosan, Vladimir, Choral Performance in Pre-Revolutionary Russia, UMI, Ann Arbor/London, 1986, p 40
(7) Dmitri Bolgarsky, “Kievo-Pechersk Chant” in Proceedings of the First International Conference on Orthodox Church Music, ed. Ivan Moody and Maria Takala-Roszczenko, forthcoming, Joensuu, 2007
(8) Yury Yasinovsky, “The Oldest Copy of the Ukrainian Choral Manuscript of the Staff Notation”, in Vizantiya I Vostochnaya Evropa: Liturgicheskie i Muzykal’nye Svyazi (Gimnologiya, Vol.4, Progress-Traditsiya, Moscow, 2003, p.257 (translation slightly modified)
(10) Iconofile, issue X, p.13. I am most grateful to Kateriina Husso for bring this article to my attention and for enlightening general discussion on the question of canonicity in icon painting.
(11) Ibid., p.16
(12) Ibid., p.24
(13) See, inter alia, Kazanaki-Lampa, Maria: Ὀδιγὸς τοῦ Μουσεῖου, Ἐλληνικὸ Ἰνστιτοῦτο Βυζαντινῶν καὶ Μεταβυζαντινῶν Σποθδῶν Βενετὶας, Venice 2005 and Guida al Museo di Icone e alla Chiesa di San Giorgio dei Greci, Istituto Ellenico di Studi Bizantini e Post-Bizantini di Venezia, Venice, 1992.
(14) One of the few to take these icons seriously was the ethnologist and collector Ivan Makarovych Honchar (1911-1993); his collection is to be found in the Ivan Honchar Museum in Kiev (see http://www.honchar.org.ua/). For a brief account of further recent interest in these icons, see Sedova, Yana, “Ukrainian American collector brings folk icons into the spotlight”, in The Ukrainian Weekly, December 24, 2000, No. 52, Vol. LXVIII. Available online at http://www.ukrweekly.com/Archive/2000/520024.shtml
(15) The Greek text of the full Canon reads as follows:
Κανὼν ΟΕ´ (75) τῆς ϛ´ Οἰκουμενικῆς Συνόδου
Τοὺς ἐπὶ τῷ ψάλλειν ἐν ταῖς Ἐκκλησίαις παραγινομένους, βουλόμεθα, μήτε βοαῖς ἀτάκτοις κεχρῆσθαι, καὶ τὴν φύσιν πρὸς κραυγὴν ἐκβιάζεσθαι, μήτε τι ἐπιλέγειν τῶν μὴ ἐκκλησίᾳ ἁρμοδίων τε καὶ οἰκείων· ἀλλὰ μετὰ πολλῆς προσοχῆς, καὶ κατανύξεως τὼς τοιαύτας ψαλμῳδίας προσάγειν τῷ τῶν κρυπτῶν ἐφόρῳ Θεῷ. «Εὐλαβεῖς γὰρ ἔσεσθαι τοὺς υἱοὺς Ἰσραήλ» (Λευϊτ. ιε´, 30), τὸ ἱερὸν ἐδίδαξε λόγιον.
(16) See http://users.forthnet.gr/ath/frc/75th.html
Thank you for the article, Fr. Ivan. I am not musically inclined and do not find myself in the position of making decisions in the composing or directing of Church music the way you do. I appreciate the sensible advice you give nonetheless, and have seen such jarring blunders in the renewal of iconography and liturgical art, where the architecture and furnishings of a church are completely ignored and an “ideal” iconostasis or 14th century looking icons appear as alien objects which do not fit their setting.
Many of your theoretical arguments are more difficult in my opinion, especially using (post) structuralist methods to deconstruct notions of tradition and canon. Doing this opens a dangerous can of worms because the same methods have been used to explode all forms of limits and identities. It is obviously true that writing about music or iconography includes the difficulty of properly framing the non-discursive nature of these arts, but the difficulty appears mostly if one is looking for a seamless frame, which might not be necessary.
When one affirms as Musin and deacon Evan do, that the synodal style and the italianate influence both in iconography and architecture should be accepted because they were received by the Church, there is something fishy going on. Many things have been accepted by the Church in the past before finally being rejected, including iconoclasm and many other heresies. We therefore should look at the past with appropriate hindsight. In order to understand the difficulty that the Baroque and later styles posed to traditional art, one must see them embedded in history, in larger historical currents and not simply isolate them as artistic styles. One must see the synodal period in relation to the rise of the secular state in general, the rise of nationalism, the increasing oppositions within intellectual movements between rationalism and romanticism, symbolism and utilitarianism, nationalism and internationalism. One must especially not forget how these movements clashing against each other led to the revolutions in which Christianity was at the least marginalized and at the worst dragged through streets and beaten to a pulp.
It is therefore not surprising that waking up, bruised and battered, the Orthodox Christians of the later 20th century asked where they should look in their own tradition, where they should look to find the strength to stand up once again. And it is also not surprising that noticing around them the art and liturgy of Vatican II, the rock-n-roll services of Evangelical Christianity, they did not look to the west anymore. They also did not look to those moments which led up to their own massacre, those moments where the rise of change upon change and appeal to the so called “western” influence took place. I despise the use of “western” to describe anything bad in Orthodoxy as much as you do, but one must see a rhetorical move in such a use, a rhetorical position poised to give people the strength to no longer crumble in the face of the modern world machine. Saying that without the synodal style, there would not be a byzantine renewal is true, but it is a difficult argument to make. It is also true that without Arianism there would be no creed, yet this is no praise of Arianism.
In the end we can and should criticize the worship of 14th-16th century icons and the kind of mechanical copying that his often happening today. But we must be careful not be naïve and forget how recent it was that churches were used as stables and ammunition warehouses, how recently it was when no one was producing icons and the skill had all but disappeared.
It seems to me that it is precisely the search for a “seamless frame” that is at issue here. I do not believe that we need to be so protective about our liturgical/artistic disciplines – quite the opposite: we have a fully-formed grammar, in both the plastic and the musical liturgical arts, that enables us to engage very directly with structuralist and post-structuralist discourse. In fact, if we do not do so, we are essentially hiding our light under a bushel.
I don’t think it’s enough to say that “there is something fishy going on” when one “ affirms as Musin and deacon Evan do, that the synodal style and the italianate influence both in iconography and architecture should be accepted because they were received by the Church”. Of course all stylistic changes have been investigated by the Church, but that has very often meant the Church in a local manifestation. Nobody, for example, would have expected a parish in Ioannina or Plovidiv to take up Ukrainian polyphony, or Ukrainian-style icon painting just because it had been done elsewhere. And this is precisely my point about canonicity in the arts: it is relative. Obviously, we need to look at earlier styles with understanding, as part of their history, and not isolate them as styles. In fact, that is precisely one of my points: none of these styles arises from nothing; there is an organic quality about all of this, and no-one is trying to abolish traditional church art, however understood, just for the sake of it.
If you have a look at my book, and, indeed, probably anything I have written, you will see that I am perfectly well aware of the relationship between the rise of nation states and ecclesiastical power and, further, spirituality, and, with that in mind, it is indeed “not surprising that waking up, bruised and battered, the Orthodox Christians of the later 20th century asked where they should look in their own tradition, where they should look to find the strength to stand up once again”. But what you describe as the “rhetorical move in such a use [of western influence], a rhetorical position poised to give people the strength to no longer crumble in the face of the modern world machine” ignores the reality of situations such as that of Finland, where the entire vocabulary of music and icons in the Orthodox Church was built on “decadent” western models: there was no Finnish Byzantium. Only when Byzantium was “discovered” in Finland was this iconographical style suddenly thought to be unsuitable.
None of this means, of course, that any style is beyond criticism. We need to be able to look objectively at Uspensky, Florensky, Gardner, Wellesz and others who have contributed greatly to the foundations of concepts of what the arts in the Orthodox Church should be in the West, just as we should at reformers of whatever stripe. It is no insult to those who tried to preserve liturgical arts during the years of war and famine to continue and develop that legacy, or to question it, for without them we would obviously have nothing to question.
A rose by any other name…
Dear Fr. Moody, I very much appreciated your article and wish to thank you for so eloquently expressing the historical attributes of folk icons. As a relatively new iconographer, I have grappled with the feelings that some self appointed doyennes often take it upon themselves to judge and decree what may and may not be considered an icon.
Just as mankind strives to evolve toward a truer “imitation of Christ” in it’s own time and place…
“Musin notes further that “we should remember that one of the characteristic features of theology itself is the fundamental ability to express the same truth using different terms that change depending on epoch and culture”
and so follow icons.
Ukrainians and in fact most peoples in any country of old lived in a time when few individuals and even churches could afford books, let alone fine icons. These people and churches used what they had within their means to worship, perhaps even an icon written by someone untrained. Such it continues even today in the poorest regions of Ukraine and countries worldwide. This concept does not render the folk icon as inferior. Perhaps it may not be labelled a byzantine icon stylistically, but nevertheless an icon in every sense of the word.
The world seems to oscillate between those decrying images mechanically copied to rejecting those which are not. It seems to me that the truest test is one where the icon writer, each in her own way, “plays her drum for him.” The icon does not need a populist blessing, just one from the local priest. Prayer does not need to translate into high art for God to receive it.
This discourse implies that it dangerous to examine and pass judgement on a style of art – that doing so is a peculiarly modern and artificial temptation, one born of academic pretense, and an affront to the beloved traditions of the uneducated folk. But is this really true? Is it a peculiarly modern habit?
My reading of art history leads me to believe that it has always been so – that artists and patrons have always periodically looked upon the art of their own society, declared it degraded and unworthy, and replaced it with a deliberate revival of something ancient yet new. The entire history of Byzantine art has been termed ‘continuous revival’ by the historians. Again and again, after times of artistic famine, artists arose who looked to the past and made it live again. The history of classical architecture is much the same – the Romans revived what the Greeks had begun – the Renaissance revived it again, it strayed from its classicism during the Baroque era, only to arise again several more times during the various neoclassical revivals of the 18th to 20th centuries.
I could cite a great many more examples, but my point is that decline and revival is a natural cycle in art. Any style runs its course until artists can think of nothing fresh to do with it, and then it grows tired – it no longer attracts the attention of the best artists and patrons – it becomes formulaic and boring. And so the artists and patrons look to the distant past for something more pure and vital, and they revive it, making it their own, expressed in a new way. This is how art has always worked, and probably it must always be so.
The concern of the Orthodox Church, therefore, should not be to judge which specific style is the absolute best, nor to pastorally protect every style that people have grown tired of. Rather, it should be to promote good liturgical art wherever it arises, and guard against bad liturgical art that is not beautiful or liturgically appropriate.
Indeed the word “canonical” is problematic. But, can it not be said that there are definitely problematic liturgical forms (or “styles”), given that they are imbued with an ethos foreign to Orthodoxy? Can it be that all boils down to aestheticism, taste, fashion, and the ever-changing demands of the spirit of the times? Is there not a place for principles arising from Tradition which serve as the standard and guides in discernment?
If these principles are not guiding the formal decisions then what is? The challenge is to enter into the “integral outlook” from which the best of liturgical art has arisen. In other words, I believe all of this has to do with acquiring principial knowledge, which is not to be confused with aping the past or an ossified notion of Tradition. With this knowledge the result is bound to be contemporary, fresh and appropriate, yet grounded in the timeless source of Tradition. Needless to say, this knowledge cannot be considered to be merely a matter of personal tastes or national localities, although it is extremely difficult to put a “seamless frame” around it; nor would we want to attempt to create a “law” to codify it.
In working from within these principles the “western” style (or any other style) ceases to be a bugbear. Likewise, art (whether sacred or paraliturgical) outside the cultural perimeters of Orthodoxy need not be feared, since it can in fact inspire and offer possible solutions in solving formal problems. So it wouldn’t be problematic for an iconographer, while he works, to be studying Fra Angelico, Perugino, Raphael, Zurbaran, Picasso, van Gogh, Tibetan Thanghkas, Indian miniatures, Persian painting, Babylonian bas-reliefs, etc., gathering aspects from all of them that are in conformity with the principles of Tradition.
It seems to me that Ouspensky’s seeming “rigidity” was also tempered by an awareness of this freedom based on principial knowledge. But this freedom did not blunt his capacity to call a “style” un-Othodox in ethos when it needed to be pointed out. Artisitic forms do express a mentality after all. We should be careful not to loose this capacity ourselves in the name of a relativistic aestheticism proclaimed under the banner of the Church’s pastoral leniency or oikonomia. Perhaps the following passage from Ouspensky can contribute to dispel some mischaracterizations and help to clarify his thought:
“…like everything in the Church, sacred art has a double dimension: Its very essence is unchangeable and eternal since it expresses the revealed truth, but at the same time it is infinitely diverse in its forms and expressions, corresponding to different times and places…it is not a matter of copying the ancient iconographers. St. Paul did not imitate Christ by copying His gestures and His words, but by integrating himself into His life, by letting Him live in him. Similarly, to paint icons as they were painted by the ancient iconographers does not mean to copy the ancient forms. It means to follow the sacred Tradition….The contemporary iconographer must rediscover the integral outlook of the iconographers of old and be guided by the same living inspiration. He will then find true faithfulness to Tradition, which is not repetition but a new, contemporary revelation of the internal life of the Church… In most of our churches, the true icons are lost amidst a multitude of representations foreign to Orthodoxy and which, so as not to be called simply Roman Catholic, are euphemistically characterized as “paintings in the Italian style” or icons “of the Italian genre.” On the other hand, icons which are truly Orthodox are called “images of the Byzantine style,” “Novgorodian,” etc. One can speak of style in scientific analyses, in historical or archaeological studies, but to use this idea in the Church to characterize its art is as absurd as to discuss the “style” in which the Creed or the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete is written. It is clearly a meaningless statement. In the Church there is only one criterion: Orthodoxy. Is an image Orthodox or not? Does it correspond to the teaching of the Church or not? Style as such is never an issue in worship.”
Thank you for this. I do not disagree with anything you say here, though I would add that when I wrote this article I was endeavouring to bring these ideas to the fore in discussing church music, which has not until very recently had the same depth of discussion in this realm as has iconography. Sometimes one has to provoke to make discussion happen.
I wonder if Ouspensky knew those Cretan icons?
I don’t disagree with the ide of decline and revival, but *how* we decide (as a Church) what is “bad liturgical” art is the question here. I am not defending bad art, and indeed have been quite vocal in denouncing it, but the question of what may be considered *canonical* is not quite the same, and it is vaguer for the discipline of church music than it is for iconography. Even though I use iconographical comparisons here, they are only that.
As you say, “The concern of the Orthodox Church, therefore, should not be to judge which specific style is the absolute best”, but that very often is precisely what happens, especially when there is a lack of understanding of the historical circumstances that produced particular kinds of art. If there is no method by which one can arrive at an “absolute best”, it becomes correspondingly difficult to dismiss an entire vocabulary or style that came about for complex and numerous reasons, especially at a time when we have more understanding of those reasons than ever.
I agree with fr. Ivan here about the difficulty in discussing “what” precisely is good or bad liturgical art. Because the waxing and waning is something that happens of course, but for example 60-70 years ago, what was waxing in the world was Abstract Expressionism let us say. Does the fact that something comes in force make it good? Is Rothko’s chapel good liturgical art? Of course I am being extreme in my choice, but the same goes for the 19th century and the The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood for example. That was obviously the art that was waxing and had vivacity and strength, and is “artistically” very convincing, but most of us today would feel that it went too far in its appropriation of Symbolism and Decadent art. As to how to solve this, I agree with Fr. Silouan of course in his comments about looking to principles, though I think there is an analogy between returning to principial intuition and looking into the past so to make out the stable patterns, which is why I prefer a synthetic approach to an innovative approach.
Making out stable patters is like the particular exercise of principial intuition which is so abstract as to sometimes be a kind of bluff if it is simply stated without concrete examples. I still think in practice one should look to the ancients first, approach tradition with humility and try to make out what appears stable in what precedes us, the stability of manifestation is an image of the immutable principles. I heard Paul Ricoeur at a conference once use a wonderful image, he spoke of how looking in the past is like looking into the distance, where things that are close to us move fast and are ever changing, but by looking far away, the same movement slows down and approaches permanence as the “bigger picture” is easier to grasp. Of course this is made complicated by our more international position and our capacity to view nearly all of the different styles of the past, even the exceptional ones (for there must be exceptions, and it was once obvious that “the exception proves the rule” though now we mostly use the exception to destroy it!). Nonetheless this might in fact be an opportunity though it may take some time and effort to work through.
This is why I think this discussion is so important and am happy to see OAJ take it on.