9 Comments

  1. Rhonda Dodson

    A very nuanced & balanced approach, Fr. Silouan! Hopefully, your clarifications & qualifications are beneficial.

  2. Some of the work put forward on the OAJ in the last two years has probably stretched the readership’s tolerance for what an icon can look like and still be an icon. I personally have a few times here been uncertain what is being put forward as iconography, vs. what is art that happens to share a lot of aspects of iconography. I think what many of us are hungering for visually (if that even makes any sense) is an iconography that is fresh, but that we can also trust. I don’t want to invest hours and months of my life in prayer in front of an image that irks my my aesthetic sensibilities, nor that is aesthetically perfect but stale. I want the icons I pray in front of to be nourishing on many fronts, aesthetic and pastoral.

    There is a certain mode of detached appreciation one has to enter into to engage with works of art that are not immediately accessible. This happens to me a lot when I go to a museum, and it puts me in a certain ‘heady’ mood that feels cool I guess but is not really grounded. It’s a different mode of engagement with the visual world than I want icons to have. If possible, I want them to run out and embrace the viewer like the father of the prodigal would.

    I say all this to give some credence to people’s knee-jerk reaction if they don’t like an icon. This is an important experience. It may not be the final one, but it is important. If we ignore the instinctual first impressions made by our icons or our works of art, and ask the viewer to enter a heady space of appreciation in order to engage, I’m cautious of doing that. True, icons can be an acquired taste, and true they can take a long time investment to get the most meaningful nourishment from. I just want the first impression and aesthetic jolt to be used positively by iconographers, not ignored and left to chance. These are not fully formed thoughts, so I’m hoping you’ll correct me, Fr. Silouan.

    Anyway, I have one more thing to add. When we speak of what is traditional or not in terms of icon painting or the icon itself, let us always include in the conversation that iconographers need to submit themselves to their fellows. Our church requires all Christians to confess their sins and live in obedience (even bishops do this). So as we are in an era of recovering a culture of icon-making, let all iconographers submit to one another. This is going to look different for each person, but it means 1.) see yourself as a lifelong learner, always improving, and 2.) surround yourself with enough people who will provide blunt constructive criticism to keep you from growing stale. If you are married, ask your wife or husband what they really think of that face – does St. John look grumpy or does St. Mary look doped? If you are a monk, in addition to your superior, ask visitors to the monastery what they think – is this pink just too much, do you see anything that is confusing or looks anatomically off? We all probably have friends who are graphic designers or painters or art teachers – they have trained eyes and their impressions of the work will enrich it. My point is there is no such thing as traditional icon painting if we are all self-taught. There is no ‘river’ without being jostled by the waves made by those around us and upstream from us. Let us not suffer the fate of the emperor whose new clothes needed to be pointed out by a child before he realized he was naked. The point has probably been made better by others elsewhere, but I am reminding us here.

  3. Fr. Silouan Justiniano

    I understand what you mean, Baker.

    Yes, it could be said that OAJ has put forward some icon painting that perhaps pushes the envelope too much. But I don’t think we have gone overboard. Its healthy to be challenged from time to time. The point in doing so is actually to help awaken us from the stupor of taking what a traditional icon is “supposed” to look like for granted.
    I agree completely, many of us are hungering for trustworthy fresh rather than stale icons. I also agree that an icon should be “nourishing on many fronts, aesthetic and pastoral.” But, we’re not going to find the balance until we first wake up and begin to take the time to look closely, slowly and honestly, with discernment, at the pictorial reality in front of us.

    Furthermore, perhaps many intuit the staleness and lack of genuineness, but are too afraid of saying anything — thinking that doing so would be irreverent — since they’ve been told repeatedly: “An icon is not ‘art’.” Unfortunately, the icon is often looked at through a screen of assumptions that, more often than not, tend to bypass and ignore its pictorial reality. I don’t believe we’re going to get anywhere until we begin to see that the icon is indeed a work of art, albeit liturgical and not merely autonomous. It presupposes creative, interpretive engagement and skill, as is clearly evident in its long history of stylistic variation within the matrix of Tradition. Anyhow, indeed, as you point out, participation within Tradition presupposes our work being honestly critiqued and vetted by the community of the faithful.

    1. Rhonda Dodson

      Indeed, Fr. Silouan, indeed.

  4. Celtic Cate

    We must always remember that we live within a living Tradition. The Holy Spirit works within modernity, and I, for one, find that many of the “modern” icons (and what are we saying when we use that phrase anyway? It just means that a modern, twenty-first-century iconographer/artist is writing/painting it) call me to worship in fresh ways and speak to my soul in the century in which I live. I find that in many issues within Orthodoxy, critiques (which can be helpful) often evolve into unhealthy criticism and judgment (not helpful). I would imagine that anyone who sets out to write an icon does so from a spirit of humility and worship. I am so happy to leave the Holy Spirit free to do and be what the Holy Spirit is in all times, especially in these matters. This allows us to take the gold that is there while leaving slavery (to legalisms, perhaps) behind.

  5. Marek Czarnecki

    In any icon , we can judge the balance of three essential elements: the theology of the image, the beauty of the image, and the integrity of the semantic language of the icon. This last aspect was created to show invisible truths impossible to express through any other artistic means. Forgive me for being pedantic, but this essential semantic dimension includes the proper use of explicit symbols (like the stars on the Mother of God’s garments) or by implicit means (how an icon uses light to create form, opening form in inverse perspective, the codification of colors, etc.). The way all forms are illuminated and opened up in inverse perspective create the overall appearance of the icon, from inside. Most self-consciously made modern icons pay little attention to this aspect, which compromises the integrity of the icon. This is because the semantic language is either rejected, or not understood, or worse, it is mistaken as simply the overall style of an icon. Without the traditional semantic aspect- the grammar of the icon- iconography becomes just another style of religious art, and if that’s all it is, then any style is as good as any other- simply a matter of taste. Even though there are many styles inside of iconography (historical, geographic, ethnic) icons are not simply a style of religious art, they are a singular vision of reality that shows the integration of material and spiritual worlds. To reveal it, it uses an absolutely unique, traditional artistic language which evolved over centuries, from the experience of our inspired ancestors, smarter and holier than ourselves. Why modernist aesthetics fail iconography is that modernism is not about harmony, but fracturing and dissonance. Modernism can express today and tomorrow, but not the whole space of eternal time, which also includes yesterday. Most modernist painters were influenced by icons, for better or worse, but they only looked at the aesthetic aspects, which they saw as distortion. They secularized the icon. It seems a contradiction to re-incorporate all that back into an icon. I thought an icon was an antidote for the ugliness and disorder of our world. I thought the icon was relief from the brutality and incomprehensibility of contemporary art. I can see that the incorporation of modernism is a refutation of hyper-nostalgic iconography, and our lack of an indigenous way, but we can’t move forward, or create a modern form of iconography, without a solid foundation in its traditional grammar. Which I don’t see. Which in America, is rare in any aspect of our culture. Our lingering in traditional forms of iconography is provisional, but essential, or its future will not be a stable tradition. How it will evolve from there is the work of our successors.

  6. Fr. Silouan Justiniano

    Thanks for your lucid comment, Marek, it clarifies a lot. Let me just try to clarify my position a bit in light of you thoughts.

    When I speak in general of “traditional principles” I have in mind the synthesis of the three elements you enumerate. And when I speak, more specifically, of the icon’s “pictorial principles” I also have in mind what you refer to as the “semantic language” of the icon.

    Indeed, the “semantic language” is extremely crucial, since it’s not merely an arbitrary component, just relegated to “taste.” But, I would add that it’s stability, or perceived “changelessness,” is contingent on it being a lucid conveyor of the truly immutable Tradition. Hence, there is always the possibility that it will change whenever necessary, as to better meet it’s function as conveyor.

    For, example, the Church has the authority to alter its linguistic theological formulations in its fight against heresy. The Mystery of the Faith remains the same but the formulations are provisional. So the formulations of the Ecumenical Councils are acknowledged as authoritative, not just because they were agreed upon in council, but rather because they communicate the Truth the most lucidly as to meet the need of “fencing” the Mystery in order to ward off the falsehood of heresy. Nevertheless, they do not exhaust all other possible formulations. If the Church deems it necessary the formulations can also be altered to meet the pastoral need. So the Mystery of the Faith remains the same, immutable, but the “mode of expression” used to communicate its inexhaustible fullness is not to be considered as completely frozen. I believe the same applies to the icon’s “semantic language.”

    Moreover, as you noted, even when the traditional “semantic language” is used we still see the variation of “dialects,” which attests to the “diversity in unity” of ecclesial life. The “sematic language” ties the dielects together without smothering and stifling them. This is what I have been mainly focusing on in my posts, the acknowledgment of this reality, not the promotion of the willful alteration of the “semantic language” under the pretext that the “Spirit blows where it wills.” This, I believe, is where the iconographer has the most flexibility — in the possibility of speaking his own dialect.

    Not to digress, but I think a legitimate question to keep in mind is: do we at times take the “dialect” to be the “semantic language” proper?

    In any case, I agree wholeheartedly that, “Most self-consciously made modern icons pay little attention to” the “sematic language” and that therefore this “compromises the integrity of the icon.” This is the last thing I want to come off as encouraging. And, without a doubt, I’m with you in stressing that, “icons are not simply a style of religious art, they are a singular vision of reality that shows the integration of material and spiritual worlds,” which is conveyed by it’s traditional “semantic language.”

    Your reading on the modernist coopting of the icon is generally speaking spot on. Nevertheless, we should not dismiss that some good did come out of it, in particular how it paradoxically contributed to the icon painting revival. I also agree that “the icon” is a “relief from the brutality and incomprehensibility of contemporary art…” And, yes, it is crucial that the traditional “semantic language” is first laid as a solid foundation… But, I also think that there are contemporary developments taking place right now that demonstrate balance and discernment, although they might at first seem a little odd. So, yes, the “successors” will indeed come with interesting and healthy developments, but it seems to me that some of them are in fact already here with us today, speaking beautiful dialects.

    Thanks again Marek for your lucid thoughts.

  7. John

    I dont think the whole issue of a double standard is being addressesd because the core of these articles are assertions basically replacing faith with aesthetics and that is a personal choice. One might argue that this is indeed a historic inevitability one at the core of the problem, one that all artists face at this juncture in history. Have aesthetics replaced function.
    I think it would be fruitful to concentrate on other aspects of iconography as sometimes happens in these pages; for instance, the tradition of copying that links iconography with other great traditions, method, process, personal evolution, prayer. Also, the issues that both contemporary art and icons share in the struggle for validity is of the utmost importance. Triumphantly bashing contemporary art; what a bore! People who do this do so at the risk of sounding provincial and uninformed, and honestly most respondees to this site sound pretty intelligent to me.
    One more thought – the ikonostasis at the Synod on Park Avenue in NYC is modern, executed very traditionally. It is absolutely drop dead stunning (imho), and within the tradition of iconography the artist humbly evolved a linear quality and superb technique that is both personal and traditional albeit subtle!
    The question isn’t about evolving traditions it is about time, time, time selfless commitment and prayer.

  8. Jansci

    Recomendation:
    The End of the History of Art,
    By Hans Belting
    … brilliantly tackles many issues touched upon in FSJ’s essays . Just finishing library copy and ordering my own.

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