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  1. […] The Degraded Iconicity of the Icon: The Icon’s Materiality and Mechanical Reproduction (Read full article published in the Orthodox Arts Journal) […]

  2. 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.)

    1. 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?”

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

  4. John M. Mize

    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?

  5. 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.

  6. Fr. Silouan Justiniano

    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.

  7. Mark Pearson

    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.

    1. 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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