This little paper is the result of being requested to write “a short piece that brings Christ alive for us [Westerners] in the icon”. I deliberately quoted the exact words because they provide “a springboard” into what icon is, what is not and what to do with it.
I cannot fulfill the request “to bring Christ alive for someone”. Objectively speaking, Christ does not need to be brought alive because He is alive, He is the Life itself. “Come and drink all of you who are thirsty, from the Source of immortality”. Yet, subjectively/paradoxically Christ is dead for all who do not wish to relate to Him. Hence, I am unable to make Him alive for anyone (including on an icon) no matter how eloquently I speak of Him or of the mystics who loved Him or of how “lively” I paint Him. Ultimately, it is between Christ and the soul. Jesus Christ becomes alive for someone in the moment when someone turns to Him in response, as a person to the Person (very much like to another human being). This is what the icon is for – being a representation of the Person (of Jesus Christ or His Mother or a Saint) it invites a response from the other. And an icon is an invitation to the most intense personal relationship imaginable, the witness of what Christianity is all about. I have not read about that elsewhere but I feel that an icon is the essence of what personhood is, the essence which is possible to depict using symbolic realism (an icon is both realistic and symbolic).
Saint Catherine's Monastery, Sinai, 13 c.
It is necessary to note here that the constant search for expressiveness has been a prominent feature of Christian art during all times. If one could briefly look at the examples of Church art from its beginning to our present time then the picture would be stunningly diverse. A person alien to Church art could even decide that there is no connection between its different examples but they would be mistaken. There is a connection – the action of the Holy Spirit who creates through imperfect and sinful artists, and the Canon of Christian art. This Canon is essentially a few rules which define in broad terms how to depict the Kingdom of Heaven.”
A few words about how this is done technically. Despite a huge variety of historical/regional styles of these sacred images, they all bear certain common features. The person on an icon looks straight into one’s soul, their eyes having an effect of following one as he changes position. Those eyes are huge and very intense. The mouth is small; to my mind it highlights the fact that the one depicted is listening and responding in silence; this is a deep silence of contemplation given to a soul by God
(“And after the earthquake was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper”). The light on faces does not have any natural source like the sun or a candle; the face itself is the source of light (Palamists would say “the uncreated light” but to me it is simply “God is light; there is no darkness in Him”). The faces on icons are asymmetrical and combine multiple points of view, very much like on the paintings of Modigliani or Cezanne. The same happens with the landscape. The geometry of an icon is built in a way that it pulls the viewer into the icon space. There are many speculations about how this is achieved including so-called “reverse perspective” – the problem is that different icons employ different methods, most often multiple perspective rather than just ‘reverse’; in my opinion an iconographer paints hugely intuitively, without calculation, simply being led by the Holy Spirit. And here is something very important and something that the West (and often the contemporary East, unfortunately) has difficulty to understand and truly feel through:
“An icon is visually expressed prayer and is understood, mostly, via prayer. It is made to be viewed only by someone prayerfully standing before it as a believer. Its purpose is to aid prayer and this is why an iconographer must, during the work, not to forget about prayer. A prayer will explain many things in an icon without words, will make it understandable and will reveal what is spiritually correct as undeniably beautiful.”
(nun Iuliania (Sokolova), an iconographer responsible for the preservation of an uninterrupted iconographic tradition in the Soviet Russia 20c.)
Evangelist Luke Painting an Icon of the Virgin Mary
Pskov 16 c.
Meaning, ideally an iconographer, apart from a knowledge of the iconographic canon and the techniques of icon painting must surrender to God, to the influence of the Holy Spirit, to perceive himself as a mere tool and pray, begging God to work through him. It means that the icon begins as a prayer of the iconographer to the Person who is to be depicted, to make an icon via unworthy him or her. Those are not just pious words; speaking from experience I can confirm that it is impossible to make an icon without constantly begging God for help, painfully knowing that I can do nothing without Him.
This is a very important point: if an iconographer perceives himself as an unworthy servant and an icon painted by him bears this very attitude, of wonder, awe, repentance and an ardent desire to enter into communication with the one depicted (the response of the Holy Spirit who inspires an iconographer to paint in a certain way or to use this or that prototype or a pigment etc is such a communication) his icon will bear that very attitude. Everyone has an experience when, being very upset with something, he is unable to relate to other people who are excited or to watch something funny. Analogically, one who does not wish to commune with Christ or does not understand the purpose of icons approaches an icon, looks at it, and sees nothing i.e. “beautiful Byzantine art with pristine colours and gleaming gold” or “some enigmatic code” (symbolism of gestures and colours) which must be deciphered before one can truly understand. Nothing needs to be understood though (at least at this point), the only thing one needs is to be on the same wavelength as the iconographer was or even simpler – the only thing needed is a desire to communicate with Christ. And this is being achieved via looking into His Face on an icon in silence for a long time and listening to Him, the Prototype. If one manages to sustain the stillness and silence for some time an icon begins its work, slowly organizing the soul around the Face and sinking it into the quiet the Face radiates. The only condition for this is that a person wants to be with Christ, not to use His icon for an attainment of quietude i.e. not as a tool. An icon is a tool but only for a prayer to Christ, for being with Him.
Christ in Majesty, a central part of the Deisis row of an iconostasis
St Andrey Rublev, 1408
I probably should stress it even more: an icon is not a visual mantra; one cannot use looking at it for any purpose but for praying to Christ = communicating with Him. There is an analogy here with the true mystical knowledge: it cannot be acquired otherwise but out of love for Jesus Christ. And, in fact it is never acquired; it is a by-product of the desire to be with Christ (like the apostle Peter said beholding the Transfiguration “it is good for us to be here, let us make three tents…”), it is given by Our Lord to a soul who loves Him in proportion to that love. This is why one who has zero love for Christ or desire to love Him sees nothing on an icon but “beautiful (or bizarre) art”.
This function of an icon (a sacred image) can be best observed in action, in an Eastern Orthodox church. What does one see when he comes into, let’s say, a 16c. Russian Orthodox church building? Outside the church is crowned with characteristic domes which are often called “onions”, when one enters and looks up, he sees the male face painted in the central cupola. On the walls are frescos – crowds of people, in free spaces below them – pictures (icons) of other persons. In front – more icons, in fact a wall made with icons, the so-called iconostasis with its doors; a priest and a deacon coming in and out and billowing incense on some of images and people; some people go around placing candles before the icons, kissing them, prostrating themselves before them. A priest comes out with a huge ornate book in his hands and blesses the people and all bow down crossing themselves. There is a constant quiet movement, the silhouettes of people are mingling with the silhouettes of the people on the frescos; all this is “beautiful” and strange but what is this?
Frescoes in the Cathedral of the Dormition of Our Lady,
Moscow Kremlin, 17 c.
Christ Pantocrator, fresco in the cupola of the Church of the Transfiguration
Theophanes the Greek, Novgorod, 14 c.
Praying to the Virgin Mary
I could say that the face in the main cupola is the depiction Christ Pantocrator, “One who holds everything in His hand”, the Head of His Church and below the depictions of the Old Testament prophets, then - of four Evangelists and then – apostles; lower – of the saints and the blessed; the depiction of the Resurrection of Christ is in the altar behind iconostasis (the multiple rows of which deserve their own explanation) and the Last Judgement is on the western wall but it still does not bring either Christ or icon alive, does it? It is only the believers, the members of the Earthly Church when they mingle with the depiction – sorry, not the depiction but with the Heavenly Church, saints and the blessed on the walls, who make Christ and the icons not alive but truly visible, via their actions towards them, the Liturgy (translated as “common business”) and private worship. Them praying before the icons, kissing them with affection (which goes to the prototype, just like kissing a photo of one’s mother is directed not to the photographic paper but to the mother, the person), crying and prostrating oneself before them makes the Heavenly Church visible. Just the same: prostrating oneself before the communal Cup and receiving Christ makes the Body of Christ, the Church, visible. It is not an accident that the icons were the subject of destruction during the iconoclastic period, being a very weighty reinforcement (according to the Eastern Orthodox theology) of the dogma of the Incarnation of Christ. “He can be depicted – His Person can be depicted – because the Son of God became the Son of Man”. An icon then is the blow to any kind of Gnosticism, any attempt to de-personalize our faith and Christ Himself.
All that wealth of symbolism, being acted out in worship and bringing together the Earthly and Heavenly Churches has spun from sharing the communal Cup, communion with the Person of Christ. And, as if there was a need to match that simplicity of the main purpose, the wealth inside is being enclosed in a rather modest building with “onion-like” domes. They may be perceived as “onions” only as long as the action behind them remains obscured, of a human hand which placed the candle (and not an onion) before the Face of God.
The Cathedral of the Dormition of Our Lady, Yaroslavl
(destroyed in 1937)