An icon should not harm the soul


This small essay is a postscript for Icons and ideals: dialog with a colleague. There I wrote about the criteria for a genuine icon which, in my opinion are that: an icon stimulates the prayerful state of mind, it conforms to the Scriptures and Tradition, and it uses the symbolic language of Eastern Orthodox art. I also used a term “canonical art” throughout the essay in the sense of “genuine Christian art”. However, there is a problem with the word “canonical” here. In the English language, “canonical” means “in accordance with the decrees of an Ecumenical Church Council”. In Russian “canonical” is used to mean “according to the example or prototype”, not necessary “written down by a Church Council”. There were very few such decrees concerning Church art: the most important one established that the denial of the theological legitimacy of the holy images is a heresy because it effectively corresponds to the denial of the Incarnation. There were few other Church Council decrees on art; one of them, a Russian Church Council, prohibited the depiction of God the Father because it contradicts Christian theology. It is noteworthy that the decrees of the Church Councils regarding iconography have always responded to a certain serious iconographic = theological deviation. This is a good example of how the apostolic and, then, the Eastern Orthodox Church has been developing: the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, was accumulating spiritual knowledge which is embodied as living Tradition. Every member of the Church was both partaking of this Tradition and then, in turn contributing to it. Therefore the knowledge about what the holy image should look like was an implicit knowledge, embodied by the whole Church, of what is right and what is wrong, and only when the deviation from this knowledge would threaten to turn into a spiritual epidemic would the Church express its opinion in a form of a decree.


I suppose that the Church did not make detailed rules for iconographers simply because the rules that applied to all Christians were more than enough for them. They were not iconographers who burnt holy images during that iconoclastic heresy, and the deviations which have occurred from time to time have involved both non-iconographers and iconographers. These deviations, even when iconographic, always involve theology.


There is however a quite unique decree of the Russian Church Council of 1551 concerning art and iconographers (chapter 43). It says that the icon must be made only with “pure hands”. An iconographer must not be “proud”, must be “modest, reverential, pious”, must not be “an idle talker, a laughter-maker and mocker, an argumentative swearer, envious, a drunkard, stealer, murderer; he especially should keep his spiritual and bodily purity with great care, often ask the advice of his spiritual father and live in fasting, prayer and humility.” This, quite late document, in my opinion lays down the foundation for understanding what makes a genuine holy image.


In my opinion a genuine icon is always done with a sense of awe before the sacred. This feeling is known to almost every human being, of any faith, even to atheists because one can experience it before nature, or a human soul, or anything of deep beauty and goodness. This can explain by the way why genuine sacred art of any faith may inspire awe in the hearts of people who do not share that faith. In fact, there are known examples of people converting to a certain religion out of this sudden experience of the sacred conveyed by its art.


Two features, in my opinion, characteristize the sense of awe before the sacred: the sense of one’s own smallness compared to the object of contemplation and the joy of being allowed to contemplate it: “God, who am I to see you and yet I can! Thank you, Lord!” It is a realization of ones’ own sins without overwhelming despair. This is exactly what the Russian Church Council meant by “being not proud”. It also mentions “being a mocker” as an unacceptable condition for an iconographer. Both pride and mockery expand oneself out of proportion making no place in her for God. And if as the Church believes the Holy Spirit works through the iconographer’s hands such a person simply shuts the Holy Spirit out. Her icons are devoid of divine life and carry instead the imprint of her own damaged psyche.


I am the last person to claim that to paint an icon one must be sinless or pure or saintly. No, the iconographer should just know that she is sinful, do her best and ask God to paint through her.


There is also a question of skills. Obviously, the painters’ skills are very important and the icons must be painted by the people with artistic abilities and learning but these are secondary to the sense of the sacred. If someone presented me with the choice of which icon to use for my private prayers, very sincere but badly done or very skillfully painted but empty I would choose the first. At least its spirit does not disturb my prayer.


This conclusion brings me to the beginning of my discourse, namely, to the difficulties of definition of the genuine icon. There are no obvious rules apart from a very few, and a personal sensitivity, nourished by the living tradition, to a “right spirit”. I realize that this position will be a target for advocates of criteria such as   “Byzantine style” or “with gold”, or other black and white definitions. A very typical response of such critics is “look at what messily painted icons you approve” or “who are you to judge that an icon has a right spirit or not”. I have already answered the question of “messy colours” in another essay, as for who is fit to judge I can say: it is we as members of the Church who, just as everyone, are called at each moment to differentiate between right and wrong.


Following this way of thinking, it is my conviction that the icons of any style, any time, and any nation which are made with great awe and great skills may be truly great; while the icons which are made with great awe and poor skills may be acceptable, but those ‘icons’ made without awe, with a spirit of mockery, even with great skills simply cause damage to the soul.

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