The Degraded Iconicity of the Icon: The Icon’s Materiality and Mechanical Reproduction

Editor’s note: This post is the first of a series on this topic from Fr. Silouan

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I do not venerate matter, I venerate the fashioner of matter, who became matter for my sake and accepted to dwell in matter and through matter worked my salvation, and I will not cease from reverencing matter, through which my salvation was worked.

St. John of Damascus, On the Divine Images, I: 16

 

There are also celestial bodies and terrestrial bodies; but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. There is one glory of the sun, another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for one star differs from another star in glory.

I Cor. 15: 40-41

 

And I reverence… all matter participating in divine energy and serving my salvation, and I venerate [it] because of the divine energy.

St. John of Damascus, III:34

Mechanically reproduced icons are inherently ambiguous. They share certain features with the original icon but are also radically different from it. The slippery, neither here-nor-there status of these mechanical reproductions makes them hard to grasp conceptually. This makes the task of trying to clarify their role in liturgical aesthetic experience problematic, if not treacherous. They are at once real and somehow less than real icons. In focusing on the real side, we minimize the problems they introduce in the life of the Church, but in pointing out the less than real side we run the danger of overstating the case and fueling formalist ideology. In any case, the risk must be taken. Accessible and inexpensive reproductions of icons have helped the revival of icon painting. They are here to stay. Nevertheless, they raise theological questions regarding how materials and craftsmanship affect the icon’s multi-layered aesthetic and liturgical function.

During the Iconoclastic debates, it was taken for granted that an icon was a work of craftsmanship, fashioned by human hands and skill. In the midst of doctrinal controversy over the nature or validity of images of Christ and the saints, there seemed to be no need to dwell too much on the icon’s manufacture. It was enough to know that an icon was, as St. Theodore the Studite says, “perhaps of wood, or paint, or gold, or silver, or some of the various materials … .”[1] As Moshe Barasch points out:

“It was only the completed picture, the finished work of art that was considered in the Iconoclastic debates. This feature stands out with particular clarity when we compare iconoclastic literature with the more or less practical art theory of the same period and culture. For the painter in the workshop, and the critic who wishes to influence the outcome of his efforts, that stage preceding the finished work, that is, the process of shaping the icon, is of course of central significance. No wonder that, in one form or another, questions pertaining to the stage emerge in regular art literature. But in the literature originating in the Iconoclastic debates, references to that stage are virtually absent. We hear close to nothing about the artist, nor is there any consideration of how the icon (that very icon that is so violently attacked or so enthusiastically defended) comes into being. All that is sometimes said is that the icon is ‘made by hands,’ or, rather rarely, that it has descended miraculously from heaven. So far removed is that literature from the real artist that authors do not even make demands on his behavior.”[2]

Though related, there is a difference due to their respective historical moments in the way the Fathers took for granted and we tend to ignore how the icon comes into being, or the process of shaping the icon. Considering the icon as a completed picture or a finished work of art was only natural in a society where it was a given that most things were not the result of mass production by machines, but the fruit of long arduous effort in the workshop of a painter, mosaicist, carver, silversmith, weaver, etc.[3] Now, however, the advent of the age of mechanical reproduction has brought us to a position where the craftsmanship of the icon can no longer be taken for granted. In a society such as ours that is constantly immersed in images, the importance of the artistic and material side of the icon tends to be ignored and even undermined. We usually relate to an image mainly as a representation having an existence independent of the material medium through which we perceive it. The icon then becomes another image among thousands. It lacks any need of proper embodiment, a situation that erodes our awareness of it as a sacred object. Consequently, it has now become necessary to consider the implications of this situation and to underline the importance of using real, hand-made icons in the context of Orthodox worship.

This article examines how mechanical reproductions lessen the icon’s “iconicity,” that is, its liturgical efficacy, full iconic potential, and symbolic power. It aims to clarify how the role of materials and craftsmanship affect the function of the icon as a concrete object within the aesthetic experience of liturgy. As will be demonstrated, these can either hamper or aid our “uplifting” in the course of worship. In other words, this article will approach the icon in its ontological status as a painting or work of art and not solely as a picture or “image” in the abstract. It is a liturgical object having inherent properties that make it what it is. First, let us look at what duplicates have to offer.

Disappointing Duplicates

The effects of pixelation

The effects of digital reproduction.

Given the profusion of icon reproductions, we might be tempted to think that they are “just as good,” even though they are “cheaper than the real thing.”[4]  Even so, we remain unsatisfied before them, knowing that we venerate a simulation disconnected from the original.[5] The image is there, but something essential seems to be lacking. It is an icon and yet somehow not fully an icon.[6]

We betray our dissatisfaction by creating mock antiques, attempting to make reproductions look “more real.” We mount them on wood, add red borders, and apply cracked varnish with distressed gilding to conjure an ancient icon. Tempera layering is duplicated with silk-screening and mural reproductions are applied like wallpaper for those wanting instant “frescoes.” These are fast and cheap solutions that seek to satiate consumer demand for holy images. Quality is sacrificed for quantity and affordability. While we might try to suspend our disbelief, we cannot escape our awareness that such images remain unconvincing shadows of the original, that we encounter a kind of ruse. Such “icons” become yet another symptom of the hegemony of appearances in our age.[7]

Image Sensory Overload

Sensory overload is today's status quo.

Sensory overload is today’s status quo.

Ours is the age of the overproduction and saturation of images.[8] Every day we process quantities of images unimaginable to anyone living in a pre-industrial society. Virtually all social interaction is mediated by some kind of image. They are everywhere: photographs, print, billboards, computers, electronic screens, etc. Even photographic images, once considered infallible witnesses, are subject to electronic manipulation. They can no longer claim to be an index of sensible reality. We live as if in a house of warped mirrors and distorted phantasms. Taking this scenario for granted, we unknowingly filter everything through appearances and lose our grasp of that which truly is. This phenomenon sometimes is referred to as hyper-reality, virtual reality, or the “society of the spectacle.”[9] Under these circumstances, as John Berger notes, “For the first time ever, images of art have become ephemeral, ubiquitous, insubstantial, available, valueless, free.”[10] The image becomes disposable. The notions of “divine likeness” or the “holy image” become a mere superstition. Metropolitan Nicholas succinctly captures the symptom:

“Our age chiefly dreams up and manufactures simulacra. Shopping malls are adorned with plants and trees that look real but aren’t. Television and movie studios present us with times, places and environments that don’t exist. Advertisements refer us to worlds that have no connection with reality. Men and women are painted and dyed, fakes and shams, copies of which no original has ever existed, not a few of them surgically altered to show the world faces which aren’t true, ages which deceive… The extravagant (and extravagantly wasteful) hegemony of appearances has destroyed the essence and distinctive presence of that which is.”[11]

Surrounded by surrogates, detached from nature and organic life, and immersed in techno-dystopia, we fail to see the Uncreated, the truly Real, in the beauty of creation. All becomes disembodied, flat, cold, mechanized, lifeless repetition, and uniformity. The authenticity and warmth of the one-of-a-kind and humanly crafted object becomes a blurry memory, a thing of the past. We forget how this craftsmanship expresses the image of God in man and emulates the divine Craftsman in His fashioning of an infinite variety of unique life forms. Desensitized by mass production, we no longer discern the subtle effects of unique properties of materials and textures. It becomes very difficult to distinguish diamonds from rhinestones.



[1] St. Theodore the Studite, On the Holy Icons, First Refutation of Iconoclasm, translated by Catharine P. Roth, SVS Press, Crestwood, N.Y., 1981, p.32.

[2] M. Barasch, Icon: Studies in the History of an Idea, New York University, New York, 1995, p.6.

[3] W. Benjamin, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, Schocken Books, New York, 1968, pp.217-252. “In principle a work of art has always been reproducible. Men could always imitate man made artifacts. Replicas were made by pupils in practice of their craft, by masters for diffusing their works, and, finally, by third parties in the pursuit of gain. Mechanical reproduction of a work of art, however, represents something new. Historically, it advanced intermittently and in leaps at long intervals, but with accelerated intensity. Greeks knew only two procedures of technically reproducing works of art: founding and stamping. Bronzes, terra cottas, and coins were the only art works which they could produce in quantity. All others were unique and could not be mechanically reproduced. With the woodcut graphic art became mechanically reproducible for the first time, long before script became reproducible in print. The enormous changes which printing, the mechanical reproduction of writing, has brought about in literature are a familiar story. However, within the phenomenon which we are here examining from the perspective of world history, print is merely a special, though particularly important, case. During the Middle Ages engraving and etching were added to the woodcut; at the beginning of the nineteenth century lithography made its appearance.” W. Benjamin, Ibid., pp.220-21.

[4] See M. Lowell, “MUCH Cheaper Than Real”: Confronting the New  Iconoclasm, Hexaemeron.org, April 9, 2012, http://hexaemeron.wordpress.com/2012/04/09/much-cheaper-than-real-2/.

[5] Walter Benjamin notes, “The situations into which the product of mechanical reproduction can be brought may not touch the actual work of art, yet the quality of its presence is always depreciated. (…) One might subsume the eliminated element in the term “aura” and go on to say: that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art. This is a symptomatic process whose significance points beyond the realm of art. One might generalize by saying: the technique of reproduction detaches the produced object from the domain of tradition.” W. Benjamin, op. cit., p.232. See the section below, “Uplifting Materiality and Symbol”, in which the idea of the “glory” of “bodies” is discussed. This, I believe, parallels Benjamin’s idea of “aura” even though it is not intended to have the occult overtones that his term conjures. W. Benjamin, Ibid., p.223.

[6] The observations that will be outlined here parallel Walter Benjamin’s, who says, “One might generalize by saying: the technique of reproduction detaches the object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced. These two processes lead to a tremendous shattering of tradition … .” Ibid., p.223. He looks at the problem of mechanical reproductions as the “detaching of the object from the domain of tradition.” Ibid. In other words, removing the object of religious devotion from its formerly static cult context is a movement from the sacred to the profane. As will be explained, in the case of icon reproductions, the reverse also happens. They bring elements of the profane into sacred space. Through the reproduction, there is also, as Benjamin notes, a “reactivation” of the original from its cult context into multiple places. This constant “reactivation” process, as we will see, degrades iconicity, as when an image loses definition when repeatedly passed through a copy machine. In the end there is no question that a “tremendous shattering of tradition” takes place.  Ibid.

[7] See f.11 below.

[8] See the documentary The Icon, Episode One, Holy Images, http://ikona.eparhijaniska.rs/ep_1_srb.html.

[9] See G. Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, Black & Red, Detroit, Michigan, June 1, 2000.

[10] J. Berger, Ways of Seeing, Penguin Books, London, 1972, pp.32–34.

[11] A privately translated version of a writing by Metropolitan Nicholas (Hatzinikolas) of Mesogaias, Anthropos Metheoros, Athens, 2005, the source of which is unverifiable by this author.

 

 

10 comments for “The Degraded Iconicity of the Icon: The Icon’s Materiality and Mechanical Reproduction

  1. March 6, 2013 at 11:11 am

    I have often been astonished at the poor artistic choices made by those who manufacture printed icons. Not one in fifty of the printed icons widely available in church bookstores is a well-done reproduction. Usually the white balance is off, making the whole image look dull and yellowish. This is very easy to correct in a digital photograph. Very often only a part of the icon is reproduced – a cropped image uncomfortably proportioned in its border. Frequently I have seen an individual saint taken out of context from a deesis or festal composition and presented as an icon of an individual saint. Of course, he looks off to the side towards the missing center of the composition, leaving us with an unbalanced and distracted rendition of the saint. I have seen parts of wall frescoes reproduced on wooden boards as though it is supposed to be a canonical panel icon. And worst of all, I have seen a Deesis icon synthesized in Photoshop, where individual icons of Christ, John, and Mary were cut and pasted from elsewhere, assembled together, and placed on a gold background from yet another image. The figures were different scales and different color palettes. The awkward image was an insult to harmonious theology of deesis.

    All these amateurish and unthinking products were made by pious workshops, frequently monasteries. Why would they act so recklessly in reproducing holy images? If they put a moment’s thought into it, they would not reproduce icons with gold backgrounds at all, because photographs of gold leaf look awful. They should choose simple icons with painted backgrounds, which at least can look reasonably faithful in a good photograph. Is it not scandal that the secular art historians who publish books on icons work hard to publish most excellent photographic reproductions, and yet our monasteries sell ‘icons’ that look like a tourist’s photo made on a cell phone camera?

    I would like to suggest that this carelessness which is endemic in icon reproduction is itself evidence that icon reproduction is harmful to the church. If it were spiritually healthy to reproduce icons in this way, then the reproduction craft would be treated with discipline.

    (And, yes, I know there are a few manufacturers that make better printed icons, but these are merely the exception that proves the rule. Note that these more costly reproductions have not proved wildly popular, and are still considered a ‘luxury item’ by church bookstores, in a perverse sort of way.)

    • March 6, 2013 at 11:16 am

      Well said, Andrew: “All these amateurish and unthinking products were made by pious workshops, frequently monasteries. Why would they act so recklessly in reproducing holy images? If they put a moments thought into it, they would not reproduce icons with gold backgrounds at all, because photographs of gold leaf look awful. They should choose simple icons with painted backgrounds, which at least can look reasonably faithful in a good photograph. Is it not scandal that the secular art historians who publish books on icons work hard to publish most excellent photographic reproductions, and yet our monasteries sell ‘icons’ that look like a tourist’s photo made on a cell phone camera?”

  2. March 6, 2013 at 11:13 am

    Thank you, Father, for dispassionately expressing “the importance of using real, hand-made icons in the context of Orthodox worship.”

  3. John M. Mize
    March 6, 2013 at 7:18 pm

    So many icons reproduced by well meaning Monks and monasteries are questionable quality because the people making them are not professionals. You have a choice: poor designs and reproductions made by well meaning Faithful, or exquisite reproductions which may or not be “Icons” made by skilled professional designers and printers who may be Lutherans and Baptists. Technology creates a lot of problems, No?

  4. March 7, 2013 at 1:38 pm

    Thank you fr.Silouan for this essay. I feel this issue is of utmost importance and I appreciate your approach. The use of Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay on the subject is particularly notable and it is here that I have my question. In his essay, Benjamin deals very much with the religious or “cultic” use of art and how mass reproduction affects this. His point goes quite far as to suggest that it is not only that the reproductions of art are “less” than the original, but how the mass-reproduction reduces the “aura” of the original itself. Here, Benjamin’s idea seems particularly challenging to the notion of sacred images. It is difficult to avoid the issue though, especially in regards to digital images. The fact of having on my hard drive an image of Rublev’s Trinity, that I can send it by email, post it to facebook, delete it from my hard drive, find it again along with dozens of versions of it on google images or photoshop it in whatever way seems fit to me does indeed seem to dilute the very notion of sacred image. How can we be so indifferent about these pictures of icons and then suddenly become truly reverential when a similar icon is placed for veneration in the church. Just as the process of quantification leads in its extreme phase to decomposition, here also it seems this is happening at least to some extent with sacred art in its mass availability through the internet. Of course I use digital images all the time, but the challenge of Benjamin’s thesis seems there and difficult to ignore. I am wondering if you have thought of this aspect of Benjamin’s argument and how it applies to iconography.

  5. Fr. Silouan Justiniano
    March 14, 2013 at 9:42 am

    I agree with your points. These questions will be dealt with in upcoming installments of the article. There is no question that the various means of reproduction media we encounter today, internet included, erode “aura” (as Benjamin would say) or our awareness of the sacred import of an icon. Another way of looking at it is that as the saying goes, “familiarity breeds contempt.” In other words, the confluence of sacred and profane space, there being no clear demarcation between the two in the “image world” of social relations, leads to an irreverent attitude towards holy things. Familiarity is always a problem with our dealings with the Sacred. In traditional cultures this danger has been warded off by demarcating clearly places not to be entered, or things not to be touched, unless you had been given a divine blessing or consecration to do so. We have to regain more of an awareness of this aspect of cult. Even with this sense of clear differentiation between the sacred and profane familiarity still slips in. A priest for example, since he is always in close proximity to the altar, struggles with this. That’s why in the Prayer of a Priest composed by Papa-Dimitry he says, “Help me not forget the holy feelings of my first liturgy, and chase away the germ of habit, which every so often comes into me.” So the antidote to the insidious familiarity caused by mechanical reproduction is none other than watchfulness and prayer, a slowing down in our encounter with things holy, a struggle to remember that our veneration of the material icon is an affirmation of the Incarnation.

  6. Mark Pearson
    March 20, 2013 at 11:14 pm

    How many thousands of people have been brought to the faith by praying with a reproduction of the Mount Sinai Pantocrator? How many people have come to love the Mother God because of a copy of the Vladimirskya icon? How many have found inner calm through gazing at photos of icons in books? Dare we say that prayer before a copy of a famous icon is not authentic? Would we deprive a pious believer of his icon corner because it does not house any originals? Are we to say that only those who have access and the wherewithall to commission original icons should use icons in prayer? If St Seraphim of Sarov could attain the heights of prayer having only a crude icon in his cell then surely that says something to us. I believe that it’s the prototype that matters, more so than how it’s represented.
    I have a number of crosses from different parts of the world. One of my favourites is a photograph of a miracle working cross festooned with votive offerings from the church of the Transfiguration in Yuriev-Polskii, Russia. That framed photograph, and how it was given to me, distills the essence of Russian piety for me in a truly unique way. I also have a mounted photo of the crucifixion fresco from Studenica. Here again, the Serbian spirit shines forth as one angel ushers out the Old Covenant and another ushers in the New.
    It is true that modern western society is saturated by images but even the humble paper icon has a place in an icon corner or chapel where the faithful Orthodox Christian can pray before it and come to a relationship with the prototype represented.

    • April 4, 2013 at 2:38 pm

      No one here is passing judgement on the prayers of people who use printed icons. I use them myself when they’re all that’s at hand. To equate criticism of the object with criticism of the prayers strikes me as giving the object magical spiritual properties, like an idol.

      By the grace of God, we are able to pray, and God is able to hear us, under the worst of circumstances, even (in fact especially) imprisonment in the Gulag. But that is no reason why the Church should not seek to glorify God by offering Him the best liturgical art that we can make during the rich and comfortable times that he currently grants us.

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