WHAT IS AN ICON ?
(translation from Russian, "" [Creation] vol. 1, pages 9,10 (1991), Moscow)
Preface from the publisher:
The author is an iconographer and an Orthodox priest having a parish in vicinity of Moscow. He started writing icons in the end of 60-ies many years before he was ordained. Xenia Pokrovsky considers Fr. Anatoly as one of her teachers in iconography because he started learning iconography and writing icons a little bit before she did. She made her very first steps in iconography under his guidance. Together they were among the initiators and founders of The Russian Iconography Society "Izograph" in Moscow and organizers of the first exhibition of contemporary icons in Moscow in 1989.
This is a long time due publication. The article was published in Russian in an art magazine in 1991 (see the title above) and was translated into English in 1992 and was ready to be published. Unfortunately the translator J.L.H., a friend of ours, a very nice and respectable person, an outstanding slavist and specialist in Russian literature and a professor in an university in the USA did not permit publication until she went through the text again making her last corrections. Now, after so many years have passed, it is obvious that she will never do this because of her permanent business . On the other hand we have had many chances during the years to check the quality of the translation sharing it with our friends, Xenia's students and visitors. Their unanimous opinion is that English of the translation is just perfect and does not require any improvements. Therefore, experiencing inconvenience before the author Fr. Anatoly, who provided us with full copy-rights years ago, we decided finally to publish the article in English as it is in the Internet without revealing translator's full name and sharing her exact personal data.
An exhibition of contemporary icons in an art museum would seem to assert that an icon is unquestionably a work of art. This has been the attitude of our art historians for a very long time, and viewers have consequently also sought primarily aesthetic revelation, emotional impressions, and formal innovation in the icon--in other words, everything they are accustomed to finding in the works of artists.
Here, too, there is much that will disappoint us right away--repetitious subject matter and composition, familiar devices, and stylizations in the manner of the Byzantine, Muscovite, or Novgorod schools of icon painting. Isn't this copying? Not to mention the bright clarity of a fresh "product" instead of the familiar "noble patina" of ancient icons. The practiced eye of art connoisseurs will undoubtedly find much else that challenges taste and disconcerts the mind.
But the aesthetic sphere is one of changing tastes and incongruent concepts of the good and the bad. Therefore, some will take ecstatic note of the renaissance of national consciousness and true Orthodox art, others will appreciate and praise the artistic achievements of iconographers, still others will assume a fatherly, reproving tone, expressing indulgent hopes for the future, and some, perhaps, will consider all this unacceptable.
But is such an approach to the icon justified overall? The icon is above all theology. Its function consists not in aesthetic contemplation but in participation in the act of worship, in bearing witness to "sobornost" (communitariness) not through subjective but rather "sobornyi" (communitarian) experience, through the experience of saints about the highest religious truths. And so, the significance of the icon for us can be correctly and rightfully appreciated only in these terms.
The language of the religious image and its content--that is, how and what it says--is determined by strict canons that are not subject to change and that are carefully preserved by the Church; and faithfulness to this canon is considered to be not despicable slavishness but virtue.
From the principle of "theologizing according to the Fathers" there arises the notion that each icon is a "copy", though not in the sense of a photographically exact replica. The arsenal of symbols and devices employed by the iconographer is extremely limited, and anyone unacquainted with this topic will be amazed to learn that there are only four kinds of faces, not the unlimited variety of characters of secular art, and each type is constructed according to a particular, strict schema. Thus, the four types of faces can appear only in three views--face forward, three-quarter, and profile. But what will be altogether amazing is the discovery that the eyes, mouth, nose, and ears are completely the same as to form and proportions in every depiction, and that, moreover, the length of nose is equal to that of the forehead, the height of the hair, and the distance from the nose to the beard; and the eyes are equal to mouth and the width of the nostrils. In the classical icon there are only two kinds of moustaches, and the shape of the feet has only two variants, while the hands can take only ten positions.
In realistic art, which takes its external likeness from life, the portrait is characterized by certain features that exaggerate individual traits: each person is interesting precisely and solely because of the ways in which he differs from other people. In isography, on the other hand, all human variety is systematized into several faces or types of holiness with characteristic general features that are virtually without individualization: the face of the consecrators, the face of the saints, the face of the martyrs, of the non-possessors (bessrebreniki), of the apostles and those equal to the apostles, of the warriors, of the faithful princes, of the tsars, fools in Christ (iurodivye), and prophets.
These faces are recognizable only because we are in fact dealing with the iconography of several popular saints--of St. Nicholas, Sergius of Radonezh, Seraphim of Sarov, George Nicephorus, and a few others. In fact, there are dozens of other identical depictions of saints in the iconographic codex who are less well known and can be distinguished among those similar to them only by their names. As far as compositions for feast days are concerned, in this case we can see the same strict rules, a very precise code with only a limited degree of freedom in the resolution of thematic details.
No matter what aspect of iconographic artistry we address, an unvarying traditionalism reigns: the specific proportions of the icon's panel (apart from certain exceptional cases in which it was necessary to confine the image within a particular framework), the calculation of the width of the borders on the panel, the size of the nimbus whose center coincides with the center of the head's circumference and therefore always describes it ideally, and even the modeling of light and shadow, which is also strictly regulated and is fundamentally different from realistic conceptions because of the fact that in the icon there is no external source of light and therefore no shadow in the actual sense of the word.
Nor is the color content of an icon spontaneous. Even the background, which might seem to be a purely decorative part of the icon, is not arbitrary: the image is not historical memory; it is not a phenomenon on the realia of this world but a vision of heaven, of the higher world that is transfigured and theosophied, a manifestation of the future in the Divine, Uncreated Light that was revealed on Mt. Tabor. Hence the gold, and therefore the yellow, golden colors. The blue, rarely met, and red backgrounds of Novgorod icons represent peripheral interpretations that did not become part of the main stalk of Church experience, but they, too, express the same idea of Divine fire and heaven. On the gold of the background is a golden nimbus defined by a thin contour: man does not disappear in the Divine but is like an iron rod that, thrust into the fire, remains an iron rod but acquires fiery qualities and glows, burns, and gives off heat.
The Church is not indifferent to the surface upon which and the material through which the holy image is depicted, and this is also given a theological basis: the wood, fish glue, chalk, mineral colors ground in egg yolk, and glaze all taken together represent the elements of the created world, the animal, vegetable, and mineral elements that make up the body of that which is to become the image of the microcosmos, the face, image, and likeness of God.
Crystalline, semi-precious stones are ground in such a way that the fragments retain their facets, which reflect light; and these glittering particles are sprinkled over the white, polished gesso, which is not mechanically smoothed out but instead remains slightly wavey and "breathing".
The color is laid on transparently so that the whiteness of the ground will glow from within, penetrating the crystalline pigment. Something approximating this is found in stained-glass windows, in which the light seems to give life to the existing creation. Moreover, in revealing the idea of the Transfiguration of Creation, the iconographer--utterly without regard to aesthetic considerations--will add crystals of the main colors of the spectrum (cinnabar, orpigment, and lapis lazuli) to all the colors.
Everything that has been said represents only a sketch of a very important idea, namely, that one cannot approach an icon in terms of the usual petty standards applied to art. That which is condemned in secular painting is frequently proclaimed in religious art. Perhaps it would be more correct to call icon painting not an art but a craft, in which the craftsman is not a creator but rather an anonymous individual implementing and reconstituting not his own world but instead that of the Holy Fathers, communing with that world through his labor and prayer.
For the contemporary consciousness there are no more frightening concepts than dogmatism and lack of freedom. The traditionalism of the icon runs directly contrary in this regard to the popular tastes of the world. In joining with the "sobornyi," collective experience that exceeds the capacities of the individual, in bringing oneself into harmony with this communitarian experience, a human being finds himself raised upon the shoulders of giants and attains the capacity to "jump higher than his own head." The individual does not disappear but ceases to dominate; he becomes a voice in a choir. But after all, the choir itself is composed of voices; and it is through these individual traits that are not dissolved in the whole that the variety of the iconography we know is achieved.
Nevertheless, the defining value of the Church tradition is harmony. Many admirers of St. Basil the Great imitated his voice and the way he spoke, moved, and dressed. However, this was only stylization.
When the contemporary iconographer, in copying an image, conveys the specific individual features that make it possible to distinguish the work of one iconographer from that of another, what we end up with is a helpless Dionysius, a caricature of Rublev, or a weak "neo-Novgorod" or "neo-Muscovite" painting. But when a tradition is treated carelessly, extremely important ontological structures are destroyed. The huge experience of the Church is supra-personal and it goes beyond the boundaries of the separate, even exceptional capacities of a single person. The canon creates arbitrary boundaries that help to preserve the Church's achievements and prevent their corruption, distortion, and demise. It helps to express the Church's concept--not a personal concept--of truth in a more obvious, concrete way.
The canon is not an external but an internal form.
At every spiritual and artistic stage, even at the low level of craftsmanship, a canonical icon always testifies to the truth. And it is in this that its purpose and function lies.