9 Comments

  1. Baker Galloway

    Hi Fr. Silouan,

    Very interesting article. I’d enjoy reading a follow-up note that would go into detail examining maybe a portion of one icon to articulate the ways in which color is operating both autonomously and representationally. I would benefit from a little more insight into how this actually functions.

    with your prayers,
    baker

  2. Fr. Silouan Justiniano

    Dear Baker,

    I’m glad you found the article interesting.
    God willing I’ll put something together along the lines you’re requesting in the future.

    Meanwhile, I would just like to point out the example given in the article. Compare the Ouspensky icon of St. Genevieve with Bouguereau’s “Song of Angels” and the “Saint-Sulpice Style” card of St. Fidelis. Let’s focus on three details of the Ouspensky icon: the halo, St. Genevieve’s green garment and the red background.

    In Ouspenky’s icon the radiance or glory of the saints countenance is symbolized by an a halo of an ocher color. Ocher acts on its own as light. The halo is obviously flat without any illustrative or illusionist attempt at depicting light as in the card of St. Fidelis.

    Also, notice St. Genevieve’s garment. The application of the green color is translucent without much modeling, only linear definition.
    We can even see the graininess of the pigment in some of the puddled areas. Overall the effect is direct, flat, without attempting to conform to a naturalist standard of representation. The green color pops out, or “pulls” up, from the red. The ocher halo “pushes” back a bit, not much, into the red color field. Now, look at the Bouguereau painting and notice the blue garment of the Virgin. The first thing you see is an illusionist depiction, only then do you consider the blue color as blue, on its own merit; but this is a secondary concern here, the most important thing is accurately capturing “the sensation of light” on a garment.

    In the icon the illusionism does not get in the way, color has more of a direct impact and stands on its own. This is obvious with the use of red for the background in Ouspenky’s icon. It symbolizes the uncreated light and the fact that “God is a consuming fire.” Therefore, the color red here both represents light but does so on its own inherent qualities, as to value and chroma (intensity).

    Light in this icon is not conveyed by tone as much as with color, for in fact as Hans Hoffman once said, “In nature, light creates the sensation of color; in a picture, color, creates light.” So the icon is pictorially less “sensational,” in both senses of the word, or rather, “sentimental,” than the religious paintings we have compared it with. This use of color and pictorial flatness is part of what gives it its iconic power. I hope this helps to clarify things.

    In Christ,
    Fr. Silouan

    1. Baker Galloway

      Thank you, Fr. Silouan.

      Yes that is helpful.
      So, from my understanding of your explanation, it seems like different iconographers’ use of color will result in different degrees of autonomy of color. For example, green in a garment like St. Genevieve’s by Leonid Ouspensky that you mentioned retains quite a good deal of autonomy, while another iconographer (or indeed sometimes the same iconographer) on a different icon will sometimes make use of several more layers of modeling in fabric, resulting in a relatively more ‘plastic’ appearance (rather than the sheer translucent field of color used for St. Genevieve). Correct?

      So, is it fair to say that there is a correlation between more modeling resulting in less autonomy of color or is that an unfair distinction?

      Also, sometimes I have wondered whether more autonomy of color (which I am very attracted to personally) as described above has the risk of resulting in a lowered ‘incarnational’ impression in the depiction of saints. To put it dumbly, if they start looking more like a cartoon or diagram they seem less in-the-flesh?

      If you get around to revisiting this topic I’d love to hear your reaction to these thoughts.

      With your prayers,
      baker

  3. Fr. Silouan Justiniano

    Hello Baker,

    I’m glad that was helpful.
    Yes, there would be different degrees of autonomy.
    And when you mention degrees it reminds me of the idea of “degrees of ascent.” That is, the uplifting or anagogic function of the icon as I’ll touch on below.

    There are two extreme poles in icon painting: on the one hand, abstraction/autonomy; on the other hand, naturalism/illusionism.
    Either extreme will tend to shatter iconicity if they occupy a central place. The first forsakes nature in search for things intelligible the second over emphasizes sensation. The opposites are resolved in the incarnational aesthetics of the icon. In the icon we don’t have a tearing apart of sense from the intelligible realm, but rather an affirmation through anagogic pictorial forms of the “continuum of conginiton,” that is, the noetic apprehension of things intelligible through objects of sense.

    As you mentioned, the icon is incarnational and so pure abstraction, as just mentioned, can be interpreted as dualistic, since it undermines the importance of corporeal Nature, the fact that what we apprehend by the senses, although fallen, is good and ultimately grounded in divinity. Yet, a crass illusionism, which is concerned solely with the surfaces of beautiful bodies, would strip the icon of its anagogic function, that is, the fact that its pictorial language is meant to uplift us into an awareness of Nature in its transfigured state. Therefore a tension must always be maintained between the two poles, hence relative autonomy. A concept that is clearly incarnational.

    Some schools will lean to one extreme more than the other without suffering shipwreck. The Russian schools are generally more abstract in tendency than the Greek schools. So it’s a matter of temperament, one tendency is not better than the other. Rather, the two complement each other nicely and attest to the rich variety within Tradition. If your tendency is towards the abstract side I wouldn’t worry about it. Just take a look at the amazing Mozarabic, Celtic and Romanesque manuscripts. I wouldn’t dismiss these examples as “less incarnational” because they’re less “plastic.” There is room to emphasize different theological points by different styles. The fact that they are more diagrammatic and geometric makes them even more anagogic in my opinion, determined more by nous rather than the senses, unfolding the intelligible perhaps more lucidly. These are styles that look at nature from the perspective of universals rather than particulars, analogically pertaining to immutable being rather than transience. See my article “On Noetic Vision” about this point.

    Modeling doesn’t necessarily mean less autonomy. Your thought reminds me of Gauguin who told his friend Daniel de Monfried, ” …beware of modeling. The simple-stained-glass window, attracting the eye by its divisions of colors and forms, that is still the best.” And I agree. So in other words, it can be said that the icon is to be arranged as if it was a stained-glass (in fact, it functions optically like one, as light passes through the color and bounces back to the eye from the gessoe), an arrangement of color fields conforming to the picture plane. But within these fields you will have restrained modeling, kept in check by hieratic frontality, geometry, linearity, etc.. You can model form in ways that its complexity becomes resolved in simplicity (As Brancusi would say), into essential abstract shapes, thereby maintaining an emphasis of pictorial flatness. The key I think is to be careful about exaggeration, the tendency of “poking holes” on the picture plane by excessive modeling.

    In Christ,
    Fr. Silouan

    1. Baker Galloway

      Thank you very much for this further explanation. That’s very helpful to me.

      In your last paragraph of this most recent comment response I find the friction point where different iconographers may diverge, as I understand it, IMHO. Some iconographers (Let’s say of the Paris mid-century school) compose their image primarily in the manner of a stained glass composition with modeling operating in a secondary and restrained role. Other iconographers (not to put words in others’ mouths, but two masters whom I know right now emulate the work of Arch. Zenon) seem to compose their image primarily as sculpture shot through with light, making use also of graphical ‘stained-glass’ type composition in a secondary role.

      In the latter school, ‘poking holes’ on the picture plane doesn’t seem to be a thing to avoid as it seems to be in the former school.

      Hmm. It is starting to sound like I am being controversial and trying to pit one iconographic school against the other. Hopefully not. I would however like to clarify for myself what are the priorities in place for the contemporary iconographer – which objectives are primary and which are secondary.

      Obviously both must be present –
      1. graphical composition on the picture plane
      2. trueness to the physical world (observed in anatomical proportions and modeling)

      Perhaps different iconographers may swap priorities # 1 & 2, but I suppose the masterpieces of iconography accomplish both. They are the left hand and right hand on the piano perhaps.

      with your prayers,
      baker

      1. Baker Galloway

        Now I have finally read your both of your “On Noetic Vision” articles, and the second one (Archetype and Symbol III: On Noetic Vision, Continued…) addresses exactly what I’m looking for. Thank you, Fr. Silouan.

        with your prayers,
        baker

        1. Baker Galloway

          A further area of interest to explore could possibly be that between the two poles as you describe them of “gracefulness of classical ‘naturalism'” and “severe abstraction” there is not only the question of aesthetic, philosophical and theological leaning, but also the matter of pastoral care.

          The iconographer is a pastor to his or her epoch (and hopefully one or two following if the materials hold up), using visual language to communicate the truth of the Church not just in perfect theological format, but also with an emphasis that will comfort his/her people (Isaiah 40:1).

          with your prayers,
          baker

          1. Fr. Silouan Justiniano

            I think what your saying touches on something I’ve noted elsewhere:

            “Tradition does not mean conservatism, formalism, or an academic mechanical copying of stagnant and ossified ancient forms. Rather, it is a living, ever renewing and overflowing stream, having an immutable origin, but touching time and shaping culture. It has been called the “life of the Holy Spirit in the Church.”73 As the Spirit moves were it wills, so does Tradition. Being Inseparable from Truth, it requires no external criteria. No form can limit it or stand above it, no one culture can usurp its place. Its relevance is eternal. Yet there are cultural, artistic forms more lucid than others as symbolic conveyers of Tradition. Hence, whatever is suitable in a given extra-ecclesial civilization can be incorporated into iconographer’s work, for, in fact, its suitability attests to the fact that it already conveys Tradition, although not to its full potential. Incorporation into more lucid forms removes the dust of superfluous elements and makes up for what was lacking. When the Spirit wills, changes can and do occur in the mode of manifestation of Tradition.”

            This is from the article “In Search for the Sacred Image.” You can find the full text here:
            http://luvah.org/five/in-search-for-the-sacred-image.html

      2. Fr. Silouan Justiniano

        Dear Baker,

        Yes, as you put it, the two tendencies are the left and right hand on the piano, or the two sides of the incarnational aesthetics of the icon. Objectives vary according to temperament. So each iconographer will balance the two extremes according to what it is that he is trying to convey, articulate, interpret, emphasize, or bring out (ex-press) of the subject (prototype) he’s re-presenting. The problems begin when schools take one tendency and set it up in an exclusivist or absolutizing manner, thereby becoming ideological. Perhaps this can be seen to amount to a kind of dualism (abstraction/spirit vs naturalism/matter). This undermines and compromises the complementary tension, or rather, the balance, of the two extremes based on an incarnational model: “Union without confusion or division.”

        In Christ,
        Fr. Silouan

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