Sister Ioanna Reitlinger:

the bequest of an iconographer (1980s)


Sr Ioanna Reitlinger, photo


Because I have received no formal education in philosophy and art history (but had to attain everything on my own via reading and studying in museums) it is difficult for me to write this little addition and find suitable terminology. Nevertheless, because over my long life I have acquired an experience in this area I simply want to share my thoughts, in the hope that my learned friends will understand me and may later on help to discern the problems which I raised.


Since the primitives and, in particular, the ancient Russian icons were discovered (by “discovered” I mean not just “cleared from the newer layers of paint during restoration” but “understood” and “valued”) and people began painting new icons in that discovered “style” many make a mistake: they do not consider enough the vast diversity of approaches to icon painting over centuries.

To see what I am trying to say one can compare the icon ‘Our Lady Vladimirskaya’ XII c. with ‘The Holy Trinity’ by Rublev. Yes, there is the same principle there, but there is also an enormous difference or at least huge.


And now some of our contemporary iconographers (unfortunately, I live in isolation so know very few), after choosing a particular single period in icon painting as a model for imitation, consider all other attempts which differ from theirs as “not icons” (or not canonical – A.T.).


Usually those who nowadays are engaging in icon painting take for their example the time when the style was already very well-developed and even over-developed, being on the boundary with decadence and having much of the aestheticism that I, to a degree, oppose to the religious content of an icon and to its sincerity. Because this boundary is so very fragile it is even more dangerous to take such a style (overdeveloped to the point of decadence) as an example and compass.


It seems to me that the ancient epochs with their realism are much closer to our religious psychology – I would not be afraid of the word “realism” here – but I must stop to clarify its meaning and even more so the difference between symbolism and stylization. Art in its very nature is symbolic and the icon, because of its task, is even more symbolic (here one can speak about a kind of “real-symbolism”). It is precisely when the icon departs from this real-symbolism as the method of expression that it departs from its task or purpose.


I think if we look at the periods when the styles were yet not well-formed, we will be more sincere and will avoid the stylization which is by no means our task but a mistake. I also would like to say a few words about how I have been working over past years – by no means am I intending to push upon anyone my method but leave everyone to find their own.


I do not like tracing papers [here Sr Johnna meant “proris” i.e. tracing paper with meticulous outlines of the figures on the icon to be mechanically transferred on the icon board] and I never use them (but I recommend them to the beginners, together with the compulsory copying).


I did the drawing first, very “hairy” [i.e. messy, with many hairy lines – A.T.], trying to find in it everything that I wished to express in the icon; to that initial expression [i.e. not to the “line” but to the impression, the likeness – A.T.] I would try to come close while working with paints. I have not tried to make my own precise tracing paper with an outline because that drawing would be for me “my tracing paper”.


The egg tempera technique hardly allows changes (especially with pure “plav”, a glazing technique peculiar to icons) – of course, not to the extent fresco does, not – the true fresco, “al fresco” which is impossible to change at all after the paint is applied.


This difficult aspect of egg tempera, I think, can explain some accidental expressions of the faces (sometimes even grimaces savored by our snobs and aesthetes) which we occasionally see on our old icons. Of course, the bigger a master and more certain he is in his skills the less such accidents happen. But for the less gifted and less certain, it seems to me, the correction of mistakes and changes are not just possible but probably necessary.


To such people I ascribe myself and I allow myself all those corrections at the expense of virtuosity, which is by no means my purpose, but for the sake of expressivity and sincerity which, I think, is the most important thing in an icon.



From diaries


… all personal must become the Church.


Not to “become a member of the Church” outwardly as many incorrectly understand, as it was putting new clothes over the old ones but to grow into the Church, into the strength of a life in Christ. I feel it now especially strongly somehow because all my “falls” – the loss of the ground – when I lose the sense of the Church.


Of course, no one forces me to lose, I am losing out of my weakness; the personal, passionate in the soul overthrows the holy, “the churchy”, objective, common – and there is not strength to restore. Thus, for the purpose of doing something in the Church the purification of the heart is necessary, the silence of a heart so “the light that is in us” would not be discovered to be darkness. And for that is the establishment of oneself in the 1-st commandment and enlightenment of the inner sight by it.


Purification of the heart is not emptying it of all as it is often understood but the purification of the pearl of our intentions within us which we so much entangle with our passions that we are ready then to throw it away without discernment and to say that there was nothing.


However, the Church is not built in the empty heart.


* * *

Thinking about realism. It seems that all paths of life are given for the attaining more and more realism in spiritual things – and then you understand “the Word became flesh”. How difficult it is to explain and how much needs to be said about that!

* * *

All life for a Christian can and must be a heroic act of faith. Meaning that every work (my work, for example) is the work of prayer i.e. walking on water, every minute being attuned to the inner hearing and seeing – and painful uncertainly in every next step – and finding everything in faith, in the help of God - this is truly the divine-human work.



To learn about Sr Ioanna's life and works see an intoduction by Nikita Struve

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