The Sacrament of Iconography

Author: Brother Aidan


The Sacrament of Iconography

Brother Aidan


Iconography extends roots into the past, but it also stretches out branches into the present and future, for it is part of the Church's mission to "preach the Gospel to the whole creation."

[Icons are becoming increasingly familiar to us in the West, but quite often are assimilated to our own tradition of religious images and pious portraits of the saints. What we urgently need to understand is the spiritual tradition and what might be called the ontological context, of iconography. Brother Aidan is a convert to Orthodoxy from Evangelical Christianity. He has lived on Mount Athos, and now lives at the Hermitage of Saint Antony and Cuthbert near Shrewsbury in Shropshire, England. He was an artist in the Western sense before he became a monk and iconographer; he is therefore well able to understand the deep differences between the two attitudes-the artistic individualism of the West with its craving for novelty, and the deep contemplative spirit of the iconographer, with its love of anonymity and continuity in a still-living tradition of sacred art.-Stratford Caldecott]

"When the light becomes his pathway, the real man rises to eternal heights; he contemplates metacosmic realities without being separated from matter which has been part of his being from the beginning. Through himself, man leads the whole creation to God." (St. Gregory Palamas)

Real humans are small gods; in Christ they are corulers of the universe. The universe is contained within man: when man falls, all creation falls with him and in him; when man rises in Christ, all creation rises, and sits with him in heavenly places. Man is to the cosmos what his own heart is to his body; by him the universe is offered as a hymn of praise to God, in the same way that the saints offer to God their whole selves-body, soul and spirit-upon the altar of their hearts. Through this transformation and offering of the physical world (grapes are transformed into wine, wheat into bread), man the makes the good very good, the beautiful very beautiful. In his humility the great God wished man to be his co-worker, and thus ordered the universe in such a way that it needed man's priestly work, one means of the Church redeeming and offering the material world. As such, icon painting today, as in any other age, is to be something creative and dynamic. It must certainly be guarded against stylistic changes, such as sentimentalism and naturalism, which do not correspond to the spiritual realities which icons represent. But is must equally be guarded against a legalistic conservatism that equates tradition with mindless copying. Today we are in danger more of the latter than of the former. Iconography extends roots into the past, but it also stretches out branches into the present and future, for it is part of the Church's mission to "preach the Gospel to the whole creation" (Mk 16:15).

Icons: matter transfigured

The flesh of man is an epiphany of his person, just as is his soul. When uncreated grace* shrinks from man's soul by reason of his withdrawal from God, it shrinks from his body as well, which consequently becomes desiccated and dim. On the other hand, when man's soul is saturated insatiably with the uncreated light of the Spirit, his body shines together with his soul. When man, who is the soul and the sanctuary of the cosmos, is transfigured, so too is the cosmos, just as Christ's garments shone whiter than snow at his transfiguration. We are perhaps inclined to regard humans as lower than the angels, because of their very corporeality. In reality, it is precisely this materiality of man which, when he lives according to his nature, makes him higher than the angels. St. Gregory of Nyssa writes: "In previous ages the transcendent powers knew only the simple, uniform working of God's wisdom which effected wonders. On the other hand the manifest quality of wisdom which arose from the union of opposites is clearly manifested through the Church: the Word became flesh."[1] An important ministry of the Church therefore is to participate in the Father's plan "for the fullness of time, to unite all things in heaven and things on earth" (Eph 1:10). The icon is perhaps the most immediate and graphic expression of this union, firstly because it depicts God become flesh (Christ) and flesh become god (saints), and secondly, because the icon is itself a material bearer of uncreated grace.

The cosmos shines not by itself, but precisely as cosmos, as man's adornment, as man's priestly garment, as a vast temple for the worshipping Church of the living God. What St. John of Damascus wrote of the Old Testament tabernacle applies even more so to the New Testament temple, which of course includes icons: "Why is it that the Mosaic people worshipped the Tabernacle all round, "[2] The images around the Tabernacle represented the whole cosmos as it is in its paradisal state. In the New Covenant, icons, liturgical architecture and vessels, psalmody-all material expressions of the Church's life in Christ- are likewise epiphanies of Paradise, only now Paradise has been opened and is beginning to be manifest already in the Church.

Icons our salvation. But they also partake of this exodus from death into life, this purification of the stagnant waters of a fallen world into the running waters of a physical world offered and not worshipped. Icons not only declare that God has become flesh, but they are themselves a means of extending this mystical descent of the Eternal One into created time and space. What St. John Chrysostom said of the bodies of saints applies equally to the icons of the saints: the light of God, he says, "flows from the body to the clothes, and from the clothes to the sandals, and from the sandals to the shadows."[3]

Just as the Holy Spirit moved over the face of the waters on the first day of creation, and effected the Word of the Father in created works; just as he brought the formlessness of the primeval created world into the fullness of the seventh day, so also does he now, through the Body of Christ, transform mere biological life into personal, spiritual, communal life. The sacramental life of the Church, nearly always involving the sanctification of something material, is not only a means of saving man, but also of redeeming matter. Gold trapped in an ingot is good. But it is raised to a higher level and becomes very good when it is extracted and made into a wedding ring or a crown or gold leaf in an icon. Mere matter is blessed and sacramentally "eaten" by the Church, thus transforming it into part of her very existence. Iconography is one such sacramental activity of the Body of Christ.

An icon is made from wood, earth, ground stones, egg, gold-that is, from representatives of all the kingdoms of this world: the mineral, vegetable and animal kingdoms. These good things, like individual notes of music, are drawn together by the composer saints into a symphony of praise; they are skillfully managed, like words by a poet, and prophetically declare the works of God.

The creation which the first Adam and his sons worshipped, is now being turned by the second Adam and his sons into a cosmic hymn. A fallen world is a fragmented world, a broken cosmos that, being broken, is no longer the adornment that is its true nature. But the Incarnation restores the pristine unity of all things, and even takes them beyond what they were before, into an intimate unity with God through the Son's assumed flesh. St. Maximus the Confessor expressed this mystery of recapitulation beautifully in the following passage:

"And with us and for us Christ embraced the whole creation through what is in the centre, the extremes as being part of himself, and he wrapped them around himself, insolubly uniting them one with another: Paradise and the inhabited world, heaven and earth, the sensible and the intelligible, having himself like us a body and sensibility and soul and intellect.... He recapitulated in himself all things, showing the whole creation as one, as if it were also a man." ( 41)

The earth wept when man bowed before it and fashioned dumb idols from its jewels. The earth rejoiced when the Magi offered its treasures of gold, frankincense and myrrh, for through them it bowed down before its Creator. Earth rejoiced when the first icon was made and venerated, for through this icon it became a means of leading prodigal mankind back to its heavenly Father.

Without man as its priest, prophet and king the cosmos was dumb, decapitated. But with its head, with worshipping humanity, the cosmos becomes articulate in thanksgiving to its Maker. Gold rejoiced to be melted, purified, beaten, that it could be offered by the wise men to the Ancient of Days. The frankincense tree was glad to be cut so that it could offer its aromatic gum to the One who brought it into existence from nonexistence and planted it in Paradise. Myrrh was glad to be crushed that it could prophecy the life-giving death of Life.

In the ancient Russian tradition the iconographer paints with the icon lying horizontally-prostrate as it were whilst the iconographer remains upright. The icon is glad that it is this way, to be the servant of a wise master. When the icon is completed this order is reversed: the icon is placed vertical, and the iconographer and the faithful prostrate before it. But again the icon rejoices, for by virtue of its likeness to the prototype, mere matter has been changed into a bearer of uncreated grace. It has been fashioned by a new Noah into an ark which saves the creation. By thus participating in uncreated grace and man's salvation, matter has begun to pass from this wicked world into the age to come. In the fallen world the icon's raw materials- gold, trees, precious stones, earth-are foolishly worshipped for created qualities they possess by nature. Within the Church, these materials, as part of icons, are wisely honoured for uncreated qualities that they possess, or rather convey, not by nature but by grace. As Saint John of Damascus says, "do not cease to venerate the matter through which our salvation was effected" ().

Tradition and creativity

It is evident from the above that icons are important not only for what they , but also for they are fashioned; the of making an icon has theological significance as well as the . To grasp this sacramental, cosmic significance of icon painting requires a true perception of Tradition, for it is through Tradition that the Church writes icons that are true images of spiritual realities, and not mere figments of someone's fallen imagination, or the soulless money-making products of commerce. It must be noted here that by Tradition, with a capital "T" is not meant those secondary local customs-traditions plural and with a small "t"-which legitimately vary from one locality to another within the Church, but collectively those elements of the Church's life which are essential and universally present in her.

What then is Tradition? Or more specifically, what is it to make an icon today which is within the Church's Tradition? Tradition means literally "something handed on." But what is handed on in an icon? A likeness of the one depicted, certainly, for by this representation of the saint's likeness the icon participates in his hypostasis, in his personhood. But perhaps the most catholic description of Tradition has been "the life of the Spirit within the Church." In this case the "thing" handed on is nothing less than the third Person of the Holy Trinity, the Holy Spirit. The Church's Tradition was given it at Pentecost for at Pentecost it received the Spirit. The Ecumenical Councils, dogmas, written patristic works, unwritten patristic wisdom, iconographic schemata-all these and other doctrinal expressions of the Church are tradition precisely because they correspond to the Spirit of truth working within the Body of Christ, revealing the incarnate Word of God to man. At its best and truest, faithfulness to iconographic tradition is not therefore a matter of following rules or of making replicas of other icons, as useful as this might be for students in the beginning; it is rather a matter of faithfulness to reality, to a reality only fully revealed within the Church. Traditional iconography is no more a matter of mindlessly copying models from some previous school of iconography, any more than prayer is inattentive recitation of written prayers, or theology is a matter of copying out the writings of the Fathers.

Tradition and culture

The first creation was effected by the Word of God through the Spirit, working according to the plan which the Father had before all ages. This plan, those in the Father's mind, are the source of all Tradition. In a similar way the new creation, the new theanthropic culture called the Church, is brought into being by the incarnate Word, through the Holy Spirit, according to the Father's plan. We might even call this plan eternally in the mind of the Father the "archetradition," the unreceived Tradition originating from the Father, which is subsequently handed on through revelation and sacraments within the Church. The Church's worship or cult, because it is worship in spirit and in truth, i.e. because it is according to Tradition, produces a culture, a new creation. The Church cultivates the world through its cult. And this culture is a divine-human culture, because it is created by the divine-human Body of Christ. Working in synergy with God, man cultivates wheat which he makes into bread. He offers this liturgically; and God in his turn offers himself liturgically through the descent of the Spirit, and transforms this bread into the Body of Christ. Similarly, it is not grapes that are offered by man at the Divine Liturgy, but wine; and God for his part does not offer wine to man, but his own life-giving Blood. And so Tradition is the fruit of synergy, the partnership of God and man; unequal partnership, certainly, but genuine partnership nonetheless, God with "gods."

There are therefore two complementary elements to Tradition, as we experience it: it is on the one hand unchanging because it is complete, catholic, all embracing; it is on the other hand expressed in a rich variety of uncontradictory ways by different local churches within the one apostolic Church. Tradition in its essential, unchanging aspect is the uncreated light shining from the tomb of Christ. But this uncreated life keeps flowing through created time and space, bursting its banks and nourishing seeds hidden within desiccated cultures. Tradition is the one sun and the one heaven giving light, warmth and water to a vast variety of seeds so that they may Tradition is the synergy of the Triune God working with the many tribes of the earth, "making disciples of all nations." Icons are one fruit of this discipling of nations, for, with time, each converted nation begins to make its own distinct images of the one, unchanging Christ.

The wisdom of God takes what is partial in a given human culture, to the degree which that culture decides to embrace the Gospel, and brings it to fullness. John the Evangelist did this when he took that word "logos" and used it so richly in his Gospel. He brought this word, with all its philosophical meaning inherited from the Platonic tradition, into the Church, affirming those meanings which accorded with truth, putting aside those which did not, and adding those things lacking. Saint John neither uses the word exactly as it stood, as though such a product of human philosophy could have fully expressed what could only be revealed, nor did he create a new word, unknown to any culture. Instead he cultivated a seed already existing, exposing it to the light and water of the Spirit. It is likewise one task of the iconographer to find such seeds or approximations of truth in the culture he works within, and bring them into the full light of the Gospel.

This affirming nature of the Church is exemplified in the icon of Pentecost. We see an aged king in the centre, surrounded by darkness. He is holding a napkin in which lie several scrolls. Above, light streams from a single heavenly source, divides, and fills each disciple with light, making them light bearers, "photophoroi." The icon depicts each disciple as evidently a different person, each with a different face, each wearing different coloured clothes, each sitting in a slightly different pose, and yet all are gathered together as a harmonious whole, a family. Each disciple receives a different tongue from the One who is beyond expression, so that they might bear this Light to their ordained nations in the tongue of that nation. They will unroll and interpret the partially written autobiography of each nation which awaits the Good News, and then lead it into its consummation in the Kingdom of God. They will synergize the created works of man with the uncreated light and water of God. They will teach each culture to repent and believe, to cease trying to suck life from dead things and to begin drinking life from the Source of life. The Apostles will teach the nations to purify themselves that they might be made by the Spirit into living icons of Christ. But each culture will be a unique icon, an icon made from the indigenous materials of their land, that is from their corporate personality as a people, their language, the architectural, artistic and musical legacy of their past (where this accords with the heavenly prototype), and even the actual raw materials of their terrain. This is not because they seek to preserve and foster their culture in some nationalistic sense, but simply because they are what they are; they will love God with the personality which they have, not with someone else's. The icon will be of the same Christ, but at the same time, an icon distinct from others, authentic and not merely copied. This is the work of Tradition. In its humility the parent Church which bears the Gospel to the new culture wishes the newborn to grow into maturity in Christ, and not to become a mere replica of herself.

The pure in heart shall see

The iconographer plays an integral role in this creative work of reclamation. He is on the one hand a passive receiver of the unchanging Tradition; on the other hand he is an active cultivator of the same unchanging Tradition, creatively depicting the Lord, the Mother of God, the saints, as persons known and loved, and not merely heard about. The evangelist Matthew writes that "the crowds were astonished at Christ's teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes"(Mt 7:28-29). He spoke with authority about the Father because he knew the Father, whereas the scribes only read about him. The apostles spoke with the same boldness because through being with Christ and through the Holy Spirit given them at Pentecost they knew him to whom they witnessed. They therefore spoke naturally, without artifice. It is the aim of the iconographer to witness to the Truth in the same way, for what is a witness but one who simply relates what he has and not merely heard about?

Preparing for this exacting task of testifying to the kingdom of Heaven, the iconographer, like the first disciples, "waits in Jerusalem until he receives power from on high." He waits in the upper room with prayer and fasting, together with the whole Church: "With one accord they devoted themselves to prayer." He loves to be "in one place" with the saints, in the Liturgy, in the Upper Room. And he does not merely wait, but calls out day and night for the grace of the Lord to come and to purify and fill him. He sheds sweet tears of desire for his Beloved, and bitter tears of remorse for having expelled the Beloved from the Paradise of his heart through recklessness. He is not content just to copy the images that others have painted of his Beloved, but desires to meet his Beloved and so paint icons that are alive, real, marked with that sobriety which is the fruit of real encounter.

When the Spirit comes as fire to the waiting disciples, they are purified; their physical and spiritual senses are cleansed. When the Spirit comes as wind and light they see the of created things; they understand their language; they are in Paradise. Simultaneously they become more acutely aware of others' sufferings, for they experience more acutely what true life is. Compassion fills them. The iconographer in their midst, like the Apostle Paul in Athens, sees the many idols of the pagans, "and his spirit is provoked within him." But, again like Paul, being filled with the spirit of love he seeks out what is good within his culture, and he finds the altar "To An Unknown God." He finds a seed of truth, a seed of humility that acknowledges that there is something beyond, something unknown, Someone who is yet to be heard. The iconographer places this seed of truth in the context of God's universal economy: creation, God's revelation of himself to the Hebrew nation, the Word's incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension, and the descent of the Spirit. If his hearers repent and believe, they become co-worshipers with the saints in the Church's hymn of praise.

The early Byzantine iconographers drew elements from their Greek culture's earlier tradition-particularly perhaps the Fayum funerary portraits-and transfigured them. The Copts, Georgians and the Celts all did the same. The icons of Russia's golden period- from the twelfth until about the sixteenth century-were the fruit of a received Byzantine tradition cross-fertilised with indigenous elements. Just as the Fathers of the Church witnessed to the truth in the face of heresies and pastoral needs through inspired and creative use of the current language and thought, not contenting themselves merely with quoting passages already written, so should iconographers respond to the given state of people at the time of painting. They are in the world but not of it.

Beside evident stylistic differences between major cultures, there are also variations in iconographic style each of these cultures. Different epochs have brought different emphases, and these variations are not to be seen simply as concessions to human weakness, but rather, when they are authentic and inspired spiritually, as extensions of the universal Church's manifestation of the living God. The four Gospels are evidence of this. In the canon of wall painting, the one Pantocrator is depicted in the dome, and in the four squinches uniting this single heavenly dome with the four walls of the nave are the four evangelists. The one and only Gospel is preached to the four corners of the world through four distinct gospel books. The gold-that is, the uncreated light-radiating from the Pantocrator is identical with the halos of all the saints, but their faces are different. The Church's dogma is the same universally, but is lived and therefore expressed uniquely by different people, epochs and cultures.

Within Byzantium, for example, we could mention the Comnenian period (1081-1185), with its icons characterized by large eyes, figures seemingly immobile, monumental, quiet and dignified. The Paleolegian school which follows soon after is by contrast full of dynamic movement. It multiplies figures and uses more depth. Then follows the dominance of the Cretan school, with its austere highlighting of the face.

Among the Russian kingdoms we find the early Kievan school, corresponding largely to the Comnenian period in Byzantium. Later the dynamic figure of Theophan the Greek comes to Novgorod and Moscow, painting fire-like figures in his frescoes. Continuing after him is a pupil of Theophan, Saint Andrei Rubliof. He is the founder of the Moscow school, which is typified by its subtlety. Its lucid, transparent colours, epiphanies of matter imbued with uncreated light, and quiet lines are inspired by the hesychasm of St. Sergius of Radonezh and his disciples. The more pragmatic merchant Novgorodians produce crisper, more graphically stated icons.

The local churches in these cultures have offered to God their authentic iconographic gifts: what will twentieth century offer to God in this hymn of Tradition?

Icons unveiling the logoi

Icons are like names which the sons of the second Adam give to creation's creatures. Each name reveals the true identity of the thing named. Names are the unveiling of the unique logos of each individual thing, from stone and tree through to human beings. What is the saint, who, after Christ and the mother of God, is the prime subject of icons? A saint is a person who has become what he already is in the mind of God, who has become his God-given name; he is his logos realised, a small logos united to the great Logos.

The saint is flesh, phenomenon, radiated from within by the union of the Creator Logos with his own created logos or hypostasis. It is because of this that shadows are absent in icons; the uncreated light which radiates from within the saint conquers shadows, which are caused by the dominance of the exterior created light. Where black is used, as in the cave of Christ's nativity and the tomb of Lazarus, it explicitly signifies the state of the fallen world. And where a dark colour is used positively, to describe something in heavenly reality, it paradoxically signifies profound presence rather than absence. Take for example the centre of the nimbus, often painted deep blue-black, which surrounds the transfigured Christ; this signifies the darkness of incomprehensible divine presence, unknown and unknowable by man, the divine essence from which shines forth the uncreated and knowable divine energies.

Icons show trees bending, prostrating as it were, before holy people. Rocks part like waves to let the Saviour enter Hades. Rivers flee before the baptized Creator. Icons depict a cosmos returned to its paradisiacal state.

Since "love hopes all things," divine wisdom has inspired iconographers to paint buildings in such a way that we, the viewers, are invited beyond the confines of created space into the spaciousness of life in the Spirit; buildings are painted as though we are viewing them simultaneously from both sides, from below and from above. In this way the icon hopes to break the bonds of proud rationalism, which insists that we see the world only through the brain and that because it appears to our physical senses that an object diminishes as it recedes, we must paint it that way. Icons invite us to see the world in another way, that is, as God sees it, as much as this is possible for man. If the icon's multi-view perspective initially confuses us, it is precisely because it is challenging our rationalism so that we can become rational, so that we can go beyond mere mental concepts and sensual perception and enter the Paradise of God. In that garden, things are seen from the inside out, not from the outside in.

Icons unveil the logoi of creation. But it is a dangerous thing for the passionate person to seek out the reasons or logoi in nature. A person who makes icons without first purifying his intellect, or to be more realistic perhaps, who is not striving to live within the Church humbly and with repentance, will make icons that are a distortion, and not a true imaging of the inspired prototype. He may make of traditional models, but they will be soulless, without the freedom which characterises the inspired iconographic models. His icons will be images of his own fallen state. If this is the case, what is the iconographer to do? He must first of all be a member of the Family of God; through baptism and chrismation he enters the ekklesia, the assembly of the saints. Then, being within the family, he grows into maturity through participation in her life, particularly through Holy Communion, confession, services, fasting and having a spiritual father. "We must withdraw within ourselves," counsels St. Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain, "and through our self draw near to God, through prayer and with calling upon his name." He who would seek to know the world, and through it, God, must know himself. He who would seek to know the holy saints must first come to know himself in all his frailty. Within ourselves, says Abba Isaac the Syrian, we will find God, heaven, hell, demons, the angels, all people, all creation.

When the baptised person has entered the seemingly insignificant door of his heart, he finds himself in Paradise, in the open space where Christ walks with his disciples. He is transfigured, and sees things otherwise unseen. As St. Maximus wrote, one pure in heart experiences "a change in his senses and passes from the flesh to the Spirit. The Spirit brings about a transformation of his sensible energies and strips away the veils of passions from the intellectual faculty" ( 10). And again, "In Christ, those who were baptised become light in light, and they know the one who begot them " Then the iconographer paints those whom he has seen with his own spiritual eyes. Then he paints not images of images, but an image taken from the living prototype. Certainly he will receive the physical likeness of the saint from existing icons, but these icons he experiences sacramentally, not as a replacement for the real thing, but as a sacramental bearer of the very person depicted. He meets the saint personally in Christ through the Holy Spirit, just as Peter, James and John met Moses and Elijah on Mount Tabor. The outer likeness he receives from the Spirit through icons, and the "inner" likeness, the personal relationship with the saint, he receives from the same Holy Spirit through purity of heart. In that way the physical likeness which the iconographer receives through icons is not something exterior to his life in the Spirit, because the Spirit who has guarded this likeness through icons is the same Spirit who fills his heart with light.

It might be said that such a state of purity of heart as here described is rare, and that therefore most iconographers ought to content themselves with copying the works of the masters. Of course, as has been said above, the of the saint is handed on through copying prototypes. But the question here is whether all the other details need to be copied. It is infinitely better for someone still subject to the passions to make a faithful copy of an inspired icon than to paint the fantasies of his impure heart. And of course what makes an icon holy is not primarily the details of its style but the fact that it depicts a holy person. As St. Simeon of Thessalonica writes: "Portray in colours according to Tradition; this painting is as true as what is written in books, and the grace of God rests on "[4] Yet there is a difference between an iconographer limiting himself to making copies with an awareness that this is a concession to his low spiritual state, and making this the norm, the ultimate rule. And besides, what are called copies today are rarely genuine copies: mechanically applied thick, opaque layers of brash pigments are hardly faithful reproductions of the classical masterpieces. Indeed, to make a true copy of these masterpieces requires no little skill and humility. Nonetheless, to copying with Tradition is more the fruit of a spirit of fear than of spiritual maturity. St. Simeon the New Theologian was opposing just such a defeatist spirit, alive at his time-one which reduced monasticism and the Christian life in general to a legalistic adherence to ritual and exteriors-when he declared so boldly that all Christians, regardless of their walk of life, are called to deification through repentance, are called to know God experientially: "Do not say that one can possess him without knowing it. Do not say that God does not manifest himself to man. Do not say that men cannot perceive the divine light, or that it is impossible in this age! Never is it found to be impossible, my friends. On the contrary, it is entirely possible when one desires it." ( 27:27-32).

Are we talking here of some sort of artistic expressionism? If by artistic expressionism is meant the individualistic, anarchic, loveless and ostentatious display of whim and fleeting fashion that is common in modern art, then this clearly is not what iconography is about. If, on the other hand, by artistic is meant that the icon painter becomes a co-artist with the one true Artist, then yes, iconography is artistic. If by expressionism is meant an expression of God, the Virgin Mary and the saints who are known personally, then yes, mature iconography is expressionist. To be exact in rendering the Lord's likeness, the iconographer needs to be expressing his own personal encounter with the Lord. Exactitude needs inspiration. St. Kallistos Xanthopoulos (14th century) wrote of the famous Paleolegian painter, Eulalios: "Either Christ himself came down from heaven and showed the exact traits of his face to him who has such eloquent hands, or else the famous Eulalios mounted up to the very skies to paint with his skilled hand Christ's exact appearance."[5]

Could one be so bold as to suggest that the frank, honest expression of metaphysical angst that we see in much of the more worthy modern art is something more precious to God, as a prayer, than soulless icons churned out "in the Byzantine style" merely for monetary gain? Might not the former rise to God like the groans of the Hebrews in Egypt, whereas the latter fall back to earth like Pharisaic babbling?

It might be argued that since an icon is an icon by virtue of it bearing the name and the likeness of the prototype, the style is of little or no importance; the faithful venerate the saint by venerating his icon, and so the particulars of the icon's style are not significant. There is an element of truth in this: that great friend of the Virgin, St. Seraphim of Sarov, highly venerated an icon of her which was painted in that naturalistic, sentimental style which we now have put aside as unfaithful to Tradition. However, this argument concerns itself with the virtue of those venerating the icon: despite the deficiencies in the icon's style, the faithful still see the saint whom it represents. But the matter we are considering here is not what the task of the venerator is, but rather that of the iconographer, and surely his task is to make an image whose style conveys spiritual reality as fully as possible. In the case of well executed icons we venerate the one depicted of the icon and not despite it.


According to St. Gregory the Theologian, the "back part" of God which Moses was granted to see on Sinai was God's majesty, which St. Gregory equates with the logoi of creation. And so for one to paint the image of Christ worthily, to behold God face to face, one needs first to see God's "back," to meet him through his words, his logoi implanted within the things which he has created. For the iconographer, this knowledge of the logoi within created things means first of all the logoi of the very materials with which he makes the icons: the wood, the gold leaf, the pigments, the varnish etc. The importance of this cannot be emphasised enough in our technological age, where machines separate us from the raw materials of existence, alienating us from the subtlety of God's creation.

But this understanding of the special characteristics of each material, and the skill in handling them, takes time and patience to develop, and especially love. The handling of these materials is not merely a means to an end, a process of no theological significance, something to be finished as quickly as possible. It is rather a form of liturgical celebration, a priestly offering of spiritual prayer through matter transformed. An iconographer carelessly painting an icon is like a priest carelessly celebrating the Divine Liturgy.

The importance of this knowledge and respect for one's materials raises the question of artificial pigments, and of artificial materials in general. Of old it was common for apprentice iconographers to first spend months, even years, simply learning to grind pigments, and perhaps even where to find them in the earth. Through this intimate contact with the different pigments the apprentice would learn their secrets, discover the unique logos of each mineral and earth. He would learn that lapis is best crushed rather than ground, that it produces a richer colour when burnt at 800 degrees C., that when washed afterwards there are two usable pigments, the lighter ash and the darker sediment. When the iconographer works in this way, through the microcosm of the icon he begins to see the whole earth, the macrocosm, in a different way. Hitherto insignificant stones and lumps of dirt become potential participants in the Church's hymn of praise. Is it possible for an iconographer to have such intimacy with his pigments when he only uses factory prepared pigments? Surely not, for this intimate knowledge can only come through intimate contact. This of course is not to say that a painter should only use pigments which he himself has prepared. But what is true is that through having at least some experience of preparing his own pigments an iconographer gains a respect for them otherwise impossible. He will be able to bring out more of the inherent qualities of each colour because of this respect.

A second point to be made about artificial pigments concerns the colours themselves. A common characteristic of factory-made pigments is purity. Now this may sound attractive, but in fact it is this very purity which can make them so harsh and brash. Naturally occurring colours are rarely, if ever, pure in the material sense. Precisely therein lies their charm and subtlety. One need only compare a so-called cinnabar which is factory made with a cinnabar from the earth to see how loud and inharmonious is the former.

Numerous benefits derive from natural colours' impurity. Firstly, different hues exist together in the icon much more successfully. This is so because each pigment contains minerals common to its neighbours, thus creating a sort of interpenetration, or , (to use a corresponding theological term). It is also due to the dominant hue of each pigment being quietened by its mingling with other hues which are present, albeit in only trace quantities.

A second comparative disadvantage of commercially manufactured colours is that they are generally formulated to produce the most powerful and opaque tinting possible. For this reason, unless carefully controlled by the painter, they tend to produce opaque, heavy layers which allow for no interaction either with the luminous white gesso underground or with the proplasmos. Of course this can be counteracted by the addition of more water to the egg tempera, but one is nonetheless fighting against the inherent tendency of the chemical. By contrast, natural colours are generally more translucent. This, along with the above mentioned chromatic harmony, creates a communion of colours rather than an uneasy cohabitation of individual colours, with each hue staking out its property like a jealous landowner.

A third effect of natural pigment concerns the subjective associations which they elicit within the user. When I use a colour taken from the earth, those feelings associated with the God-given richness of the earth come to me; when using colour from a factory, I see only images of factories. It is a bit like the difference between living in a stone or wood house and a concrete one.

Surely the albeit subconscious associations evoked by the material with which he is working will have an effect on the iconographer's soul, and therefore on his icons?

Icons and Artistry

It is a fact to rejoice over that the decadent, sentimental style of the last two or so centuries has now been laid aside in favour of the traditional style. But there are elements of over-reaction in this revival. Because the decadence was primarily due to iconographers taking it upon themselves to change styles according to their whim or current secular trends (Renaissance naturalism and later the Baroque movement), true icon painting is now usually juxtaposed to artistic creation; the icon is not a work of art, it is often said. This over-reaction, which ossifies iconography, is perhaps reinforced by the presence around us of the twentieth century "art for art's sake" philosophy, of the cult of aestheticism. The holy iconographer, we are told by the reactionist, paints only faithful copies, whereas the secular artist paints according to his personal vision. Or again: an icon is holy only by virtue of whom it depicts, whereas a work of art is good inasmuch as it is pleasing to the eye.

That this opposition of iconography to art is not an attitude traditional to the Church will be shown below by numerous testimonies from contemporaries of Byzantium. These commentators of course regarded icons as higher than, say, depictions of the hunt in the emperor's palace, but they did not regard icons as non-art. To the contrary, they praised great icons as great works of art. They praised the skill of the artist in faithfully conveying the likeness and spirit of the prototype. Iconography includes and sublimates artistic ability and inspiration- it does not annihilate it. A comparison can be drawn between psalmody and iconography. The text which a choir sings conveys spiritual power, just as does the subject matter of an icon. Nevertheless, the more skillfully (though not more ostentatiously!) and more compunctionately the choir sings these texts the more readily these holy texts will enter the hearts of the faithful. The beauty of the melody fosters an attitude of heart which prepares the hearer to better receive the seed of the text. Similarly, the more skillfully and lovingly the iconographer paints the saint he is depicting, the more readily are the faithful drawn to love of the saint. Carelessly, hastily made icons grate hard on the soul. And an icon is beautiful because it is the fruit of love not only between the painter and the saint, but also between the painter and his materials.

The following extracts show that throughout her history the Church has valued certain icons as great not for their being mathematically accurate reproductions of models, but for vividly evoking the saint or scene depicted with spiritual profundity and artistic skill. (Italics in the extracts are added).

St. Nilus of Sinai (died c. 430) wrote to the Prefect Olympiaodorus who was seeking advice on how to decorate his church: "fill the holy church on both sides with pictures from the Old and the New Testaments executed by . . . ."[6] The holiness of the scene was not an excuse to allow just anyone to paint it, as though the power of the prototype was sufficient in itself regardless of the skill of execution. To the contrary, the more sublime the prototype, the more artistic skill was expected by St. Nilus to do it justice.

St. Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335- c. 395) writes concerning a certain depiction of Abraham offering up Isaac: "I have often seen this tragic event depicted in painting and could not walk by the sight of it without shedding tears, "[7] The same saint, speaking at the martyrion of St. Theodore, lauds the painter: "The painter . . . has spread out , having depicted on an image the martyr's brave deeds . . . and so he both represented the martyr's feats "[8] The art of the painter has served to convey the theme "with all clarity." St. Gregory saw artistic ability as a service and not a threat to the spiritual life.

Manuel Raoul, a fourteenth century author of letters, writes to the iconographer Gastreas to commission an icon: "Granted that a painter's hand possesses sagacity and is skilled in imitating truth, I, too, have need of Your Sagacity's hand [for an icon of] the venerable and glorious Dormition of the most-pure Mother of Christ our Saviour. All the more so since I remember your very considerable zeal in this respect when . . . you sought an exact [picture] of this, and often repaired in the morning to Upper Tavia in order to reproduce the ancient icons there."[9] This is an interesting comment, since it shows that Raoul considered that even to copy from other icons required perception and artistic skill.

Writing in the early fourteenth century, St. Kallistos Xanthopoulos attributes the success of an icon of the Archangel Michael to "the ardent love" of the painter for his work: "How is it that matter can draw the spirit down and encompass the immaterial by means of colours? This is [a work] of ardent love, as shown by the facts, and it kindles the heart."[10]

We know from the extant works and mosaics of the above mentioned epochs that the realism of which these witnesses speak is not the naturalism of the secular Renaissance (today we are perhaps too easily inclined to equate a good likeness with photographic reproduction of physiognomy). Whilst certainly remaining faithful to known physical characteristics, these icons are "abstracted" in that compared to photographic likenesses, many liberties have been taken with proportion, colour, perspective and so on. But these liberties were taken by skilled and inspired artists precisely in order to capture a likeness. The Church sees persons spiritually, and therefore inspires icons which, through abstract means, are faithful to these otherwise invisible spiritual realities. St. John of Damascus alludes to this when he writes in his treatise ; "Secondly, what is the purpose of an image? I mean the following: inasmuch as a man has no direct knowledge of the invisible (his soul being covered by a body), or of the future, or of things that are severed and distant from him in space, being as he is circumscribed by place and time, the image has been invented for the sake of guiding knowledge and manifesting publicly that which is concealed. . ."[11] For the iconographer to translate these spiritual realities into visible material he needs not only spiritual vision to perceive these realities, but also artistic ability and skill to translate them. Neither a saint without artistic ability nor a skilled artist bound by passion can paint a good icon; both sanctity and artistic gift are required.

Perhaps the most vivid account we have of an old master who possessed both of these virtues is that given by the Russian Epifanij the Wise (d. 420) concerning Theophan the Greek, whom he knew as a personal friend: "While he delineated and painted all these things no one ever saw him looking at models as some of our painters do, who being filled with doubt, constantly bend over them casting their eyes hither and thither, and instead of painting with colours they gaze at the models as often as they need to. He, however, seemed to be painting with his hands, while his feet moved without rest, his tongue conversed with visitors, his mind dwelled on something lofty and wise, and his rational eyes contemplated that beauty which is rational."[12]

Theophan had evidently so imbibed the Tradition that it was in the very fibre of his being. It is clear from his extant frescoes and icons that he knew ancient iconographic models and knew them well; but it is equally clear from their style that he did not consider himself a slave to the secondary details of these models. A devout church attender will easily recognise the saints depicted in Theophan's fiery frescoes at Novgorod, but they will equally recognise that the they are depicted is unique, though certainly within the Tradition. These figures are clearly painted by someone who is in the Holy Spirit: "Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom" (2 Cor 3:17). Theophan and other masters are the Tradition rather than under it. Rather than making Theophan's natural and acquired artistic skill redundant, the Church's Tradition stretched it to its limit. Just as the Church called upon the Fathers to use to their utmost their lofty intelligence and learning to humbly expound the truth, so it also calls upon iconographers to use their artistic abilities to represent the saints. Of course this does not give license for pride on the iconographer's part. Theophan's reply to Epifanij's request for paintings for various buildings in Constantinople shows how humbly he regarded his God- given talents: "It is as impossible for you to obtain this as it is for me to draw it; however, on account of your insistence, I shall draw for you a small part . . . so that thanks to this paltry representation of mine you may be able to imagine and understand the rest, great as it is."

Theophan wanted his pupils, both as individuals and as Russians, to mature into their own personal iconography rather than be mere imitators of his own method. This is clear from a comparison of his work and that of his great pupil, St. Andrei Rubliof. St. Andrei was a monk known for his gentleness and meekness, and this is manifest in his icons. Whereas Theophan's frescoes are dynamic, afire, Rubliof's are quiet, imbued with lucid but gentle, translucent colours; they are both within the Tradition, but each emphasises different elements of that Tradition.

What is it for someone to be an icon painter today? It is to be a lover of beauty, a "philokalos." To thirst for divine beauty as though his life depended on it. To strip off the veil of the passions and pretension, so that with unveiled face he may behold the glory of the Lord and be changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another. To love the Lord, the mother of God and the saints whom he paints. To love the people for whom he is painting the icons. To love the icon itself, and the act of painting it, and the materials he is painting with. To be genuine, natural. To be willing to become nothing, to remain unknown, to leave his icons unsigned because he wants only to be a servant, leading the faithful closer to the saint whom he paints. To seek tirelessly the secrets of the great masters. To have the humility to copy the works of masters with understanding that he might learn from them, and then in due time have the courage to go beyond copying and paint with the same spirit but with a different hand. To have the faith to believe that to the extent that he lives within the Church, he bears the Holy Spirit, and that "where the Spirit of the Lord is there is liberty."


* According to the Orthodox Church's patristic teaching, God is utterly unknowable in his essence, but knowable in his uncreated energies. These energies flow eternally from his essence, like rays reaching us from the unapproachable orb of the sun. These energies, being uncreated, are God himself, and not mere created, mediating gifts.

1 VIII: 255.

2 IV, 16: PG 94,1158.

3 , PG 63, 469.

4 , 23: PG 155, 113D.

5 "Nicephorous Kallistos Xanthopoulos," ed. A. Papadopoulos- Kerameus, 11 (1902): 46, no. 14.

6 PG 79, 580. Unless otherwise noted, the English translations are from C. Mango, ea., (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1986).

7 , PG 46, 572c.

8 PG 46, 737.

9 Epet. Hetair. Byzant. Spoudon XXVI, ed. R. J. Loenertz (1956),162.

10 "Nicephoros Kallistos Xanthopoulos," ed. A Papadopoulos- Kemameus, 11 (1902): 46, no. 16.

11 De III, 17: PG 94,1338.

12 V.N. (Moscow, 1961),113.

This article was taken from the Fall 1996 issue of "Communio: International Catholic Review". To subscribe write Communio, P.O. Box 4557, Washington, D.C. 20017-0557. Published quarterly, subscription cost is $23.00 per year.