8 Comments

  1. You win, Jonathan. Congratulations!

  2. Donald Richmond

    A brilliant evaluation, Jonathan! At one time I would have insisted upon “writing,” asserting the icon’s scriptural identification. And yet, properly understood, our Lord Jesus Christ is our experiential apprehension of the Word, the Word incarnate. As such, applied to the icon and with Christ as our eternal reference, “write” and “paint” are appropriate. Brilliant, Jonathan! Great insights.

  3. Thank you, Jonathan, for pointing out that fine-art paintings contain decodable symbolic content just like icons. I wish I had thought to emphasize this earlier in this discussion. Indeed, as an art history student, I spent many years in school being taught how to interpret the signs an symbols hidden in post-impressionist canvases, Italian renaissance frescoes, Japanese brush-scrolls, stone-age figurines, and everything else in the history of art. The process of ‘reading’ these signs in art is so obvious to me, that I easily forget that many Orthodox people have not thought about art in this way until they encounter icons and learn some iconology. I guess this is why it has always struck me as painfully dishonest when people say iconographers ‘write’ an icon, but that Gauguin/Michaelangelo/Bruegel/Bosch ‘painted’ their artwork.

    1. Good point, Andrew to Jonathan. Of course any serious course in art history aims to lead students toward “reading” a composition, as Response 5 shows in his example of his art instructor’s exercises: “ … ‘reading’ the painting is a key to its understanding.” Any painting. I doubt this process is remote from the way most people look at a painting, even with minimal arts education such as an art appreciation course. With the icon a dogmatic/analogical reading is additionally helpful, though, in fact, it is secondary or sequel to the experience of “encounter”. I dare say that the majority of worshipers are hardly interested in decoding the image, but rather in returning love to the prototype. Do they miss much in so doing or lack for the absence of an iconologist’s commentary? Do they puzzle over whether the artistic mediator of this encounter is “written” or “painted”?

      In their indifference to terminology, they are not so far from the “encounter” one experiences with many great works of aesthetic beauty. When I visited the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, I fell behind my touring companions and lingered for an hour before Rembrandt’s “Prodigal,” a depiction of a parable well known to me from the Gospel of Luke. I never made it to the icon collection because of my engagement with this work that conveyed all the drama of paradise lost and regained. If I had never read the scriptural reference, I would wonder who the protagonists were, perhaps begin a search to find out, but I would still be satisfied that I understood the painting.

      My objective in the kick-off article was to defuse artificial antagonism over verbiage through a peaceable synthesis of that which is sometimes useful and sometimes abusive. Rather than striving to abolish or concur, marginalize to pretentious jargon or defend on the basis of etymological progenitors, can we not call a truce in the verbiage war over how and why we continue to speak with the gift of many tongues, though Babel’s confusion overthrown at Pentecost?

      The language of images is our first language and is inherent (analogically and verbatim) in Genesis 1: 27 “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” All of human art in some way depicts the mystery of God and ourselves – crudely, beautifully, rebelliously or worshipfully.

      Saint John the Divine does not contradict but elucidates the same: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

      The challenge for iconographers is how to translate what has been revealed into images that are theologically and aesthetically adequate and appropriate for the encounter of “God with us”. The semantic controversy over how to describe the process of representing the image of God, “the express image of His person,” through His Incarnate Son and His saints, is “painful” only if it leads to theological and aesthetic detraction or worse – addition.

      It is possible that the use of “write” for this process both detracts and adds, but I doubt it does any serious damage to the beholder of the result.

  4. Paul Stetsenko

    I have been following this discussion since the first article went online. These polarized views seem to be fall into two categories:

    a. Thesis-antithesis
    b. Synthesis

    This is where East-West divide is the most visible. The “either/or” approach is more characteristic of the West whereas “both, at the same time” is more typical of the East.

    The defenders of “thesis-antithesis” approach firmly stand on the ground that icons are paintings, and that any connection to writing is artificial. There are numerous corroborations of that position, indeed; all are objective, fact-based, and logical.

    The original article, however, proposed a different approach, the way of “synthesis”. That is, instead of “either/or”, it is “both,” at the same time. This is indeed the way of the paradox, which is near and dear to the Orthodox. “Jesus Christ is recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.” The same paradox is replicated to the minutest facets of the Eastern Orthodoxy, including icons and written manuscripts.

    Is calligraphy writing solely? A calligrapher might say it is more painting letters with tools (nibs, quills etc.) than writing.

    Is egg tempera painting solely? Daniel Thompson, Koo Schadler and other practitioners of Western egg tempera technique have stated that egg tempera is much closer to drawing than to painting due to its extensive use of cross-hatching techniques.

    1. Although I can see what you mean, I think most people who react to the “writing” appellation, are in large part reacting to a type of exclusive hermetic language which using such terminology implies. I don’t think there is a paradox at all and I don’t see how the two natures of Christ in any way refers to this discussion. It is just that the original word “graph” had a more encompassing meaning, a meaning that came to be divided into several specific concepts in modern languages. This more global meaning of graph, the notion of “marking”, of “fixing” the invisible and more fluid logos is indeed closer to St-Maximos’ vision of external phenomena as pointing to their internal logoi which in turn points to the uncreated Logos. When we use the common language of painting, we can be aware that it is a less encompassing word than “graph” and help people see beyond the words to a deeper meaning. (We could always use the word “depict” which at least does not refer to the physical medium applied). But when we use the word “write” for an image (which is what the word icon means), it is a aberration of the English language, a kind of strange technical use of language. We are inevitably making a statement that normal language of image making does not apply to icons and it is better to use a word which in English always refers to text. If we deny or ignore the fact that in English, the more encompassing notion of graph was separated into several concepts, that using the word “write” in no way captures that more inclusive meaning, that is when we fall into an “either/or” mentality. That is when we suggest that this technical exception to language replaces the usual common language of image making. Better to use the normal language of images used in the English language which does not have any pretension attached to it. But really, I think most people don’t mind when the word “write” is used. What bothers us is that little look that comes when you say “paint”, that little pretension which people have in thinking they understand something simply because they use a strange and unusual word to name it.

      1. Thank you for such a complete discussion. I think the use of the word write and paint can be simpliefied depending on what technique you are using. The petit lac technique relies on pooling colors. In this technique it is necessary to mark outline of each separate color with a scribing tool, an awl would do. The lines marked, inscribed, will prevent colors in each petit lac from bleeding into the neighboring colors.

        Paint seems to have some negative connotations due to the history of Western art from the nineteenth century. Suddenly with cubism and impressionism, all the ‘rules’ of painting were turned upside down.

        I prefer to use the work make. I make icons. It is a process where the iconographer brings forth an image from as yet an untouched surface by working with pigments or carving. It is manual and spiritual labor.

        Thanks Mary and Jonathan and others

  5. Michael Woerl

    Far, far, away from the scholarly side of the issue, I can agree with his statement about that “little look.” There seems to be a certain mentality that often is evinced by the partisans of “write.” I have mostly heard the that word used by recent converts who also like to “discuss” theology … preferably “modern theology.”
    “Western captivity” being another preferred concept.
    Our Bishop is a wonderful and long-time iconographer; an old school Russian Vladika. He was trained as an iconographer by Archimandrite Kiprian (Pshew), a great iconographer of the Russian diaspora. Old school Russian monks do not adhere to American concepts of “kindness,” in that they do not, sometimes, “suffer fools” gladly. I was present when Vladika was asked about whether “writing icons” was the correct term. Usually not verbose, Vladika had sort of a pained expression, and answered,
    “Um … No.” Perhaps the fact that this was in the Cathedral that he had painted the entire interior of also had a bearing on his reply …

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