The Pictorial Metaphysics of the Icon
By Fr. Silouan Justiniano
The traditional artist is not an archaist, but perfectly justified in his conviction that the forms he makes use of are “his own”; because he has made them his own, and no other kind of property in ideas is conceivable. The proof of artistic liberties lies in the fact that even in the most conservative arts there are always easily recognizable local styles and stylistic sequences; it is in academic, and not in traditional arts that the artist is enslaved.[i]
Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, On the Traditional Doctrine of Art.
In reality no work exists that is traditional, and therefore “bound” by changeless principles, which does not give sensible expression to a certain creative joy of the soul…[ii]
Titus Burckhardt, Sacred Art in East and West.
Unity in Multiplicity
In this creative act of icon painting variety of individual and regional styles will occur, depending on the purity of vision and skill of each individual iconographer and ethnic temperament. Yet all of this variety will be clearly discerned as part of the overarching ethos of what we generally refer to as the Byzantine or “traditional style”, as different facets or dialects of the one Tradition. Hence, as Aidan Hart put it recently when it comes to style:
…An icon is an icon and able to be venerated because it bears the name of the saint/feast (or be recognizable as such if the name is not there any longer), regardless of its style. Additionally however, in its style it should ideally reflect a transfigured world, and therefore should accord both with the realities of the physical world, which is material and three dimensional, and yet should also use abstract means to suggest this world transfigured (this is where stylistic variation is manifold).[iii]
It is true that some today tend to “dogmatize” as to the “only” legitimate traditional style.[iv]Greeks think of the Byzantine works as superior to the Russian masterpieces and vice versa. Then, on top of this phylitistic tendencies, you have those who can only think of adherence to Tradition as consisting of nothing other than the mere mechanical copying of mediaeval prototypes. This is obviously a rigid academicism and misleading approach.[v] It fails to see Tradition as a living, ever renewing reality, embracing and nurturing a multiplicity of cultural temperaments. The pioneers have in a way contributed to this distorted understanding by their rhetoric, which favored the classical examples of the Byzantine and Russian styles (especially, when it comes to the later, the most abstract works from the 14th-16th centuries), as the standards to follow. Their nationalism at times did get in the way.[vi] Consequently, it could be said that perhaps for some influenced by their writings the Byzantine/Russian style has become the definition of the icon, at the expense of an awareness of the stylistic variation, and the creative interpretation of prototypes, that has always existed within Tradition. In short, icon painting is treated as a fossilized sacred art.
But, let us not forget, the pioneers did not always confine themselves to their apparently restrictive or prescriptive theories, nor to the modern popular understanding of their works. If we just take a cursory look at the work of Kontoglou, Ouspenky and his colleague Krug (who also played an important role as a pioneer of the icon revival), it is clear that they all uniquely, creatively and dynamically handled their pictorial problems, being in no way rigid in their actual practice. They did not merely duplicate the past, but interpreted prototypes in a fresh and lively manner. Also, it is good to remember that Ouspensky in particular encouraged his European, non-Orthodox students, to study and derive inspiration from Romanesque masterpieces. Thereby, he felt, they could find an aesthetic more akin to their cultural temperament, in conformity to Tradition, and perhaps through the Romanesque find Orthodoxy. He says, “…Romanesque art, for example, is totally within the tradition…I otherwise say that the nationality and culture of each student must come through in his icons. It would be absurd for a Chinese or Japanese to paint icons in Russian style, would it not? Well then, I have guided my non-orthodox students to Romanesque art, not in order to return to it, but to use it as a starting point.”[vii] It is clear from these words that Ouspensky did not encourage the thoughtless repetition of past stylistic forms and that he did not always let nationalism get in the way. Likewise, Kontoglou wasn’t as rigid as he might at first appear. He states in, The Orthodox Tradition of Iconography, “Even among serious students of Byzantine art there are a good number who have not grasped its true depth. They have the idea that it is a fossilized art, and that those who practice it copy in a slavish manner older works of iconography… …Each one of us has his own peculiar way of expression…The capable artist is by no means a mechanical copier, but a creator in the true sense of the term.”[viii] If we are to arrive at a better understanding of the pioneers we have to also keep these nuances in mind, otherwise we run the risk of caricaturizing them.
A balanced assessment has to take into account not only their texts (theory), but also their icons and approach to teaching the art of icon painting itself (practice) as a testimony to their theology. Indeed, very selective choices of Byzantine and Russian models did play a major role in their mystagogy of style. Nevertheless, this did not completely limit their understanding as to the possibility of multiplicity of styles within Orthodoxy, witnessing as many different streams flowing from one source – the ever renewing font of Tradition.
It could be said that the pioneers mainly interpreted the icon according to what can be called timeless pictorial principles.[ix]With an awareness that the principles they noetically intuited transcended the limitations of any particular school and historical contingencies. Hence their lack of concern with proving all of their points through the minutia of historical examples. While for some this might at first appear to be a weakness in their methodology, since it led them to overgeneralize, it actually turns out to be a strength. Their principial intuition can in fact help us clarify what is meant by the term “Byzantine style” in order to dispel some misconceptions.
Part of the problem lies in the fact that the pioneers tended to conflate the timeless principles with very limited samples of their application, whether these were Russian or Greek versions, which came to be considered the “Byzantine style”. This conflation, as noted earlier, leads to the impression that they promoted an ossified notion of Tradition and a starkly abstract style as its sole adequate representative. Nevertheless, their intuition of principles is not wholly unfounded. The problem lies in the over emphasis on “style” as such which creates confusion, since it gives the impression that one and only one style is theologically legitimate. So how are we to avoid this confusion? The “Byzantine style” can perhaps be better understood as the traditional method or artistic system of icon painting encapsulating those pictorial principles that remain constant in spite of stylistic variations throughout the centuries. As George Kordis says:
The immutability of Byzantine technique means that there has to be an artistic system with specific rules and principles governing the execution of icons throughout all periods of artistic trends; and, because such system exists, it must be possible to discover and set out its principles. These principles obey an inner logic, and describing them is the first step stage in learning the art of icon painting. They can be described without endangering Byzantine iconographic style because they are constant and so unchanging.[x]
These principles have lasted the test of time since they have been found to be the best suited in communicating Orthodox Revelation. Thus their immutability derives from their participation in immutable Tradition itself. This understanding leaves intact the important role that abstraction plays within this artistic system, for, as has been shown, it consists after all of a synthesis of late antiquity abstraction and classical naturalism. It also leaves intact the eminent role abstraction plays as a pictorial component in helping realize the icon’s liturgical function in conveying an Orthodox metaphysic. Moreover, it emphasizes the unity in multiplicity of styles within the traditional method, while still leaving intact its distinctiveness, as compared to post-Renaissance naturalistic painting, and for which it has earned the name: “Byzantine style.” Understood in this way the “Byzantine style” holds together as the pioneers knew it to be: an embodiment of Orthodox theology.
Indeed, abstraction is part of what contributes to the icon’s distinctive spiritual resonance and profundity, timelessness and other-worldliness. For a sacred art has to do not only with what but also with how a subject is depicted. As T. Burckhardt puts it, “An art cannot properly be called “sacred” solely on the grounds that its subjects originate in spiritual truth; its formal language also must bear witness to a similar origin.”[xi] It is then no surprise that the pioneers and some modernists came to equate abstraction with spirituality, albeit interpreted in very different ways. Yes, perhaps the nuances of our manner of speaking about abstraction are ones that cannot be exactly attributed to the Byzantines in every detail. But, after all, how can we be expected to see with their eyes in every way, given our unique historical predicament? Nevertheless, this fact does not in any way mean that we are disconnected from them in viewing the icon from within immutable Tradition.
As has been shown, the abstraction vs. naturalism dichotomy as expressed by the pioneers is defensible when interpreted through the lens of Orthodox metaphysics and therefore in conformity to Tradition. Therefore, it is a mischaracterization to call them “innovators”. Neither are they to be seen as introducing some kind of pictorial Docetism or a dualistic threat to the very incarnational basis of Orthodox iconography. Although it is true that they at times oversimplified and exaggerated their case in their rhetorical and polemical approach, nevertheless, this does not fundamentally undermine the first principles they expounded. The kind of crass naturalism they opposed is a reality to be avoided within a liturgical context. In fact, it bears Nestorian implications and is in fact the kind of pictorial language that does threaten the basis of Orthodox iconography.
Rather than as “dualists,” they are to be understood as countering the Nestorian tendencies of an exaggerated naturalism, which can only see and represent the Lord as a mere man, albeit very close to the Logos, but not the Logos Himself incarnate – the God-Man. Their language is to be interpreted in light of the Orthodox doctrine delineated above, as pertaining to the overcoming of corruption in our participation in the Incarnation of Christ. It is all about the transfiguring of the lower by the Higher. So when they rhetorically speak of “dematerialization” they are to be read as referring to nothing other than the shedding of the “garments of skins,” and the putting on of the “garment of immortality,” that is, the overcoming of corruptibility, not the utter disdain of matter as evil.[xii]
Furthermore, we should not forget the fact that the Church only speaks out and gives a theological formulation when she is confronted with crisis. What would otherwise be taken for granted is then made explicit and clarified doctrinally in order to guard against error. But, this does not mean in any way that the Church suddenly invents a new doctrine. She speaks from Her experiential knowledge of the Truth and uses the vernacular of Her time as needed in upholding Tradition. Is the dogma of the Trinity an innovation because Scripture doesn’t explicitly explicate it? So, likewise, to look for patristic precedent in matters of iconographic style is misguided.[xiii] The Fathers had no need to deal with the specifics of craftsmanship; their main concern in combatting iconoclasm was primarily the Christological implications of the image, not the specifics of line, color, form, composition, rhythm, abstraction vs. naturalism, etc. That was left to a later generation to address and articulate theologically when such things came under fire. A discussion on the problem of style as such could only arise once the Renaissance had taken place and the Baroque, Rococo, Neoclassical and Academic styles begin to infiltrate traditional iconography. Therefore, the work of the pioneers should be seen within this context, as fulfilling a pastoral need in contributing to the clarification of the aesthetic implications of the icon’s theology of style, as the Church faces stylistic influences foreign to its ethos.
It is inevitable that the language used by the pioneers at times resembles the philosophical and aesthetic vernacular of their time given that we all speak from the resources of our specific historical moment. It was similarly inevitable for the Fathers to speak in Aristotelian, Platonic and Neoplatonic terms. This, however, does not mean that they accepted the errors of these philosophical systems or compromised Tradition. As St. John of Shanghai says, “We know that Christianity has never had any aversion to knowledge of that which originates outside itself. Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian and John Chrysostom studied in pagan universities, and many writers, among whom were our spiritual authors and many of the best theologians, were well acquainted with pagan writers. The Apostle Paul himself cited quotations from pagan poets even in the Holy Scriptures.”[xiv] The question is whether or not they baptized that vernacular, and if in such philosophical currents they found aspects of the Truth in one way or another, however dimly. We would say that in both instances the answer is affirmative; the pioneers did just that. Like the Fathers they found Truth in unexpected places, but this in no way makes them “modernists”.
The pioneers availed themselves of the advantage of a fresh cultural context open minded to the mediaeval aesthetic which for centuries since the Renaissance had been deprecated as backward, unsophisticated, and unskilled in the “accurate” representation of nature. All of this in fact betrays the spiritual hunger of the time, a yearning and hunger for things grasped according to noetic intuition. Perhaps they took some tools from Modernism, in terms of a mode of expressing the value of pictorial forms independent of naturalism, but definitely not its ideological spirit, which is revolutionary and utopian, upholds extreme individualism, confuses the psychic with the spiritual, replaces God with humanism, and embraces progressivism in opposition to Tradition.
If in disdaining the pioneers as “innovators” we decide to throw the clean baby out along with the dirty bath water, what would we put in its place as an alternative? Would it be naturalism once again as a standard of excellence? A reverting back to the Western captivity in liturgical art? A call for arbitrary experimentation, in order to catch up with the so called “progress” of artistic forms? If these solutions are abhorrent to us, isn’t it then clear that the traditional pictorial style of the icon indeed bears metaphysical significance?
[i] A. K. Coomaraswamy, On the Traditional Doctrine of Art, Ipswich, Golgonooza Press, 1977, p. 15.
[iv] We should not to forget that, as Nicea II has taught us, the icon is a visual equivalent to the Gospels and should be venerated as such. Therefore, it should not come by surprise that the pioneers have interpreted even the technique and style of the icon as significant in light of this fact, seeing it as symbolically embodying the theology of the Gospel as letters would embody meaning. Indeed, the icon is a support of contemplation and in its techniques and materials we do find many meanings which correspond to the Mystery of the Logos incarnate. But the problems start when we fixate on one of the many interpretations surrounding the various techniques and attempt to implement it as a binding “system”. That is, rather than allow for the flexibility of the multivalence of the symbol we attempt to “harden” it into a proscriptive code that deadens the creative act within Tradition. Hence, even though someone might intuit what some detail of an icon means, this does not for that matter necessitate that detail as a requirement for the “authenticity” of an icon. In other words, just because we have an intuition of what the white line around a halo or Olifa varnish means does not infer that this line or varnish are essential for the very existence of the icon. This propensity to “systematize” and “harden” multivalence on the part of some schools of iconography is what has led in many instances to many mystifications, “myths” surrounding the icon, and, in the end, a disdain towards symbolism and mystagogical interpretation.
[v] P. Kontoglou notes: “For an iconographer who works in the Tradition, who serves the holy art ‘in spirit and truth,’ the Tradition are not an obstacle in expressing himself. Instead, they are a firm ground in which to stand…Such an artist does not contribute to the creation of works that represent certain subjective states, but instead, he contributes to the creation of works that are enduring and mystical. Therefore, he is not a technician, but a mystic.” P. Kontoglou, “The Orthodox Tradition of Iconography,” in: Fine Arts and Tradition: A Presentation of Kontoglou’s Teaching, C. Cavarnos (ed.), Belmont, Institute for Byzantine and Modern Studies, 2004, p. 60-61.
[vi] C. Cavarnos, review of “The Meaning of Icons” by Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, Speculum 32.3, July, 1957, p. 599; Kari Kotkavara, Progeny of the Icon: Émigré Russian Revivalism and the Vicissitudes of the Eastern Orthodox Sacred Image, Åbo, Åbo Akademi University Press, 1999, pp. 338-339.
[vii] Our translation from the French from C. 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. http://www.pagesorthodoxes.net/eikona/iconographie-ouspensky.htm, (accessed 1 November 2013).
[viii] P. Kontoglou, op. cit., p. 62-63; Likewise, Florensky says: “If someone copying a prototypical icon is unable to experience in himself that which he depicts…then (being honest) he will try as precisely as possible to reproduce in his copy the prototype’s outward features; but it almost always happens that, in such a case, he will not comprehend the icon as an opening and so, lost in copying the fine lines and brush strokes, he will interpret unclearly the icon’s essence.” P. Florensky, Iconostasis, Crestwood, SVS Press, 1996, p. 74.
[xi] T. Burckhardt, op. cit., p. 7.
[xii] Of dematerialization Kontoglou says: “Certainly, man will take elements from the perceptible world, ‘for the senses’ sake,’ but to be able to express what surpasses ‘sense’ he must dematerialize these elements, he must lift them to a higher plane, he must transmute them from what is carnal into what is spiritual, just as faith transmutes man’s feelings, making them, from carnal, into spiritual. ‘I saw,’ says St. John of the Ladder, ‘some men given over with passion to carnal love, and when they received the Light, and took the way of Christ, this fierce carnal passion was changed inside them, with divine grace, into a great love for the Lord’.” (Our emphasis). Photis Kontoglou, “What Orthodox Iconography Is”, http://orthodoxinfo.com/general/kontoglou_iconography.aspx, (accessed 1 December 2015).
[xiii] We should be cautious not to subjugate the icon to a notion of tradition that is antiquarian. In other words, knowledge of Tradition, as it pertains to the icon or anything else that embodies it, is not to be solely relegated to the research of past documentation. Tradition is living, “…the same yesterday, today and tomorrow,” embracing history (horizontal), but also transcending it (vertical), founded ultimately on, and arising from, the immutable mystery of the incarnate Logos Himself. In short, conformity to Tradition is to be known and assessed noetically, in the Holy Spirit, from within the life of the Church, not solely by means of the historicist demands of an archeological and philological methods, that is, from without. The vertical and horizontal dimensions must coincide if we are to avoid both secularist empiricism, and pietistic anti-intellectualism.
[xiv] St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, “Discourse in Iconography,” Orthodox Life, Vol. 30, No. 1 (Jan-Feb 1980), pp. 42-45. http://archangelsbooks.com/articles/iconography/DiscourseIcon.asp, (accessed 20 November, 2015).