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Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Icon Painter, 2

Photo:  Andrei Rublev's famous painting of the Trinity,
one of the reproduced illustrations brought along by
the icon painter from Holy Trinity monastery.

Continued from The Icon Painter (notes and musings on an August 11th talk by an icon painter from Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, New York, part of a six-lecture Arts & Theology series sponsored by Christ Church and Cooperstown IAM and directed Emily Hylden of Duke University.)

* * * 

The Orthodox iconographer appears to be essentially against imagination in art because the fallen person will create “strange things.” While I knew one was expected not to veer too far from iconographic tradition, I did not quite realize that art independent of the church would be judged quite so harshly, and I wondered what he would make of the art of my friend Clive Hicks-Jenkins. They both use Golden acrylics (made near us in Earlville), I noticed!  The icon painter used both tempera (more transparent) on board and acrylics on board or canvas. What, then, is the place of the arts in wider culture? I really wish that I had gotten to ask him about that one. There are Orthodox poets, certainly--Scott Cairns for one.

Example of “strange things”:  disintegration and devolution in art that shows the fallen aspect of mankind. That means, according to the Orthodox church, that much of Modernism and Post-modernism is a yielding to fallen nature and displays the fallen aspect of mankind. I had no idea that was coming! What a fascinating way of looking at abstraction and distortion… (Did I say I love looking at the world through a different lens? Well, I do. Please don't agree with me! Just widen the doors of my mind.)

The Orthodox sees the whole course of human history as not one of evolving but of devolution from perfection in Eden until Christ and salvation. Then the struggle is no longer impossible for the individual, yet the world keeps disintegrating further. This idea makes a belief in evolution impossible for the Orthodox, at least for the monks at the Jordanville monastery. I should have liked, then, to ask if Genesis could not refer to seven "days" in a large sense of periods that could refer to the work of creation... 

Another purpose of Orthodox icons is to show the earthly unity with the heavenly church. There is one church spread across two worlds; therefore it is natural for the Orthodox to ask saints to pray for those still living and a part of the church militant, struggling against sin. (I'm not at all clear on whether the church has any covenant relations with other churches or approves of any others. It occurs to me that Andrei Rublev's birthdate is on the Episcopal calendar...)

Usually only the face and hands are painted when a gold or silver covering (reza?) is placed over the painting.

Christ is called the God-Man (and I think we've all seen the clothing portrayed as a mixture of heavenly blue, signifying the Godhead, and red, signifying the earthly and personhood.)

Icons of the Transfiguration attempt to portray “uncreated light.”

The Orthodox icon is meant to make the worshipper more attentive, as in the way the Jesus prayer is used to chase away errant thoughts and emotions because the mind is always working (and often in fallen ways.) Attentiveness is a great deal of the purpose of the icon, then, since the mind is ceaseless in its rambles to places it should not go.

The three stars on Mary’s gown in an icon: here I found it rather difficult going. She is venerated as one who made herself Christ-like by the struggle for purification. That’s clear. She is often dressed in purple (Queen of Heaven) and red (mortal). Also clear. The Orthodox icon painter uses three stars to indicate that she is a virgin before she becomes a temple for God; that she is a virgin during birth because she receives a supernatural labor (painless, her virginity unbroken); that she is a virgin after birth and forever. I don’t know what they do with a reference to Jesus having siblings in the New Testament… Perhaps it's not in the Orthodox Bible?  But it is interesting to observe yet another way of compassing Mary and her importance.

Icons were originally dressed in gold or silver covers as marks of gratitude for prayers answered. Eventually this became a tradition, and so we came to the point of “covered” icons with only the exposed portions of the board—face and hands—painted.

Okay, I know I said seventeen! And that's seventeen. Here are some more...

The painter calls the icon a “tool” or “remedy” to enter into heaven. He says that all is intentional and “nothing superfluous in the Orthodox church. Therefore the focus on icons beginning in 787 (I assume he means the second council of Nicaea) was “a wise move.” (He conveyed the idea that the church is by necessity wiser than one person, so that one's own opinions become subordinated to the church. None of the nasty little "why?" questions.)

The spirit, soul, and the flesh were one being before the fall—a kind of trinity. After the fall, the “body is taking over.” The icon draws one toward unity, then, I suppose.

Christ feeds the senses through the church—one hears the word and chanting (representing the angelic choir), tastes the Eucharist, smells the incense, sees beauty, touches the icons. But the icon painter says that all these impressions are interrupted by the powers of this world and how they bring sense impressions of “fleshly pleasures.” (Clearly there are supposed to be trumpets in heaven, so via synecdoche I am not sure that the business of there being no instruments shown in heaven is correct.)

At the iconstasis, the worshipper venerates Christlikeness in the saints through the icons. He or she venerates Christ in all because the Christ image is in all.

The icon painter appears to have a special link to St. Luke, who was the first maker of icons—he recounted a story of how Luke painted an icon of Mary, which she blessed.

He dwelt at length on the need for church:  “Nobody goes to heaven alone.” He trusts to church wisdom, including that wisdom that ordained icons as a major part of Orthodox worship.


  1. Fascinating. Yes, it is always instructive to examine how others view the world or art or humanity. However, I don't know if he would be so tolerant of your views. Perhaps it doesn't matter.

  2. He was not always Orthodox. At one time he was "Protestant," though he didn't get more particular than that--pretty vague still. That means he has experienced at least two views and has chosen one. So he did have more than one angle of vision.

  3. Re: evolution, someone should tell them that it has nothing to do with progress.

  4. I'd like to hear a conversation--a friendly one--between a monk and a scientist on the topic... Would be interesting.

  5. I'm sure there have been many such discussions. You're quite right though. Darwin's whole point was that there wasn't a consciousness implicit in evolution. That's what bugs creationists so much I guess, the whole idea of experimentation on the part of nature, not design. And didn't he originally intend to be a cleric? Why should the natural world be so different from art, which is all about play, after all.

  6. Always learning fascinating things from your blog, Marly.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.