As an Orthodox convert in search of traditional Christian images, as someone who fled the contemporary art world to find a home in liturgical art, George Kordis‘ iconography challenges me in so many ways. Kordis’ virtuosity is undeniable and his mannerism both of form and color refer all at once to Byzantine art and to Modern and Post-modern painting. His willingness to improvise sometimes leaves me teetering on a ledge with questions and puzzled expressions. But his unrivaled mastery of the inner workings of iconography, his unrivaled virtuosity and his immense influence on a whole generation of artists has led me searching joyfully to engage with his approach. That is why I was very happy to finally get my hands on his book “Icon As Communion”, the only work of his that has been translated into English.
In North America we are aware of George Kordis the iconographer, but we might be unaware that he is also a prolific writer and has produced several volumes and articles in Greek.
Line as agent of communion
Icon as Communion is a short book, only 102 pages, yet its value, especially for anyone directly interested in iconography from an artistic perspective, is difficult to overemphasize. There are so many books and teachers who discuss icon painting, but this book is the only one I know of that discusses iconographic drawing and composition not only as a technical skill, but as an inner living language of visual relationships. The book is full of sketches and finished drawings by Kordis, his sketches dissect the elements of iconographic drawing from its most minute elements of how rhythms are broken down into segmented lines to how projected space is generated by curved and diagonal lines and culminating into general composition guidelines.
As the title of the book suggests, the existence of the icon for Kordis is one of communion. Rather than the problematic “windows into heaven” expression used in common Church language, Kordis’ view is wholly relational and in many ways incarnational. For him the entire language of the icon is one of “making present”, of bringing the viewer and what is represented in the icon into a common dynamic relational space. This is as much a theological vision anchored in St-Theodore Studite and other Fathers of the icon, as it is a visual and artistic method of composition. The focus of his study is drawing and the hero of his theory is line, which Kordis sees as the visual “hypostasis” of the icon, the manner by which color (that Kordis identifies as the “nature” of Byzantine art), objects and forms are broken down into small and clearly defined units which are then joined together and to the viewer by dynamic and purified composition.
“For the idea that governs Byzantine (and patristic) thought is that of communion, which presupposes the voluntary meeting of hypostases, or persons, in a relationship of love. In this way a form must also have inner and external movement in order that it might express and reflect this vision of life. Inwardly, it must not be simple but composite, consisting of smaller units, which come together and exist in harmonious unity within their common rhythm. … These units are distinguished by, and receive their unique existence or hypostasis through, line, which , as we have already said, is the mode of existence of color.” (p.7)
Iconic space as communal space
Kordis’ constant allusion to the “plasticity” of icons, that is the manner in which they project volume can be somewhat challenging to some common perceptions of icons as “flat” and without visual space or volume. But Kordis convincingly takes the viewer through elements of line, of figure stance and as well as general composition to show us the basic tendencies of iconography, always admitting for exceptions to his observations. His vision of the iconic space is that that the flatness of the background acts as a kind of visual limit and all the elements of the icon appear on top of the ground in a dynamic perspective (all elements tend to move out towards the viewer) and a vertical perspective (what is in front is below and what is behind is higher up on the image) in a way that projects out towards the viewer, though always with a degree of dynamism (mostly through diagonal or what Kordis calls “transversal” lines) and clarity which creates a “common space” in which the viewer enters.
“Thus two factors – the elimination of artistic depth and the movement of the icon outward into architectural space – form the fundamental framework of the Byzantine art and gave creative rise to its principles of composition. Equally fundamental is the way in which a work is referred outward to the person and time of the viewer.” (p.53)
Like all theories, Kordis’ explanation of the icon does not encompass the whole of the experience of an icon, for a discursive explanation can never contain the totality of a visual language. But the leitmotiv of communion offers a very powerful anchor for looking at iconography. The relational component of the icon can encompass much, such as the linear clarity of icons, the general preference in icons for what Kordis calls “the dynamic frontal pose”, that is a slightly 3/4 view of the figure where the eyes of the person depicted counterbalances the movement of the figure. This also goes for the use of light. In Kordis’ analysis, light is not there to necessarily show an experience of natural phenomena or to show spiritual qualities but rather to clearly render the plasticity, that is the clear delineating and coming forward of forms.
Another powerful tool Kordis brings to his discussion is the use of the word “nepsis”. In speaking of what some have called the “spiritual” abstract qualities of the icon, the tendency towards simplification of form, the balance and symmetry, here Kordis rather invokes the patristic term “nepsis” which refers to the spiritual practice of hesychasm, the “sobriety”, the “guarding of the heart”. By doing this, Kordis explains the purification of the image, not as a kind of transcendence as it often has been presented, but rather as an artistic asceticism, a removal of the passions, a removal of all that is extraneous and a general organizing of the dynamic tendencies of the image into a single overarching form or point of reference. Hence he will speak of reigning in a composition with a general geometric shape such as a triangle or an arch to create an axis around which the dynamic movement of line will not be dispersed. This ascetic vision is an extremely potent one which not only aligns itself with Orthodox spiritual practice, but also counterbalances the often “dematerializing” tendency some take in describing the icon.
A few challenges
For this to be a balanced review, I must say that the book also contains some more challenging aspects. In many ways, this book is an introduction to Kordis’ thoughts on icons, and I found myself not totally agreeing with a few of his explanations, or at least, just as my experience with his icons, wanting to further engage what he means before coming to my final conclusions. For example, as an icon carver who loves to look at 10th-12th century Byzantine ivory and steatite carving, saying that color is the essence of Byzantine art or of icons and that line is the hypostasis does not seem to be the right categorization of these terms, lest I discount relief icons all together. Though despite this, the manner in which Kordis treats line, its “binding” and “dynamic” function in that same section of the book nonetheless helped me to see further into my own practice. The book can also be challenging for those who are not used to reading technical descriptions of paintings — and even for those who are, some of the words chosen by the translator such as “transversal” rather than “diagonal” or “hyperbola” rather than “arch” and several other technical expressions will require some effort by the reader to arrive at a proper understanding. The reader should try to find online quality versions of the historical icons described by Kordis as some of the black and white photos make it difficult to compare the description to the actual photos.
This book belongs to the library of anyone who is interested in icons on an artistic or theological level. Just as Kordis’ icons, this book has simultaneously provoked in me admiration, questions and consternation all at once. But one thing that is undeniable in reading this study is that Kordis refuses to “speak over” the icon. How often we hear people make blanket statements about icons, such as “there are no shadows in icons”, statements which cannot stand firm before the careful observation of the different periods and styles of historical iconography. Kordis avoids these traps, looks with the eyes of the master, the eyes of the artist, and forces us to also look carefully at icons, pointing to line, color, composition, the internal language, describing with visual accuracy what is before him and trying to show the emerging patterns underlying the artistic structure of what he sees.