Icons and ideals: dialog with a colleague
(Translation of my essay in Russian)
 


I have been planning for a long time to write an essay on the topic of why I paint the icons in the way that I do, i.e. not in any specific historical style – Moscow, Byzantine, Novgorod, etc. A dialog which recently took a place, between me and another iconographer, provided me with lively material. This dialog was provoked by my small illustrated journal entry which outlined my views on icon painting, and on the icons of the monk Gregory Krug and of the nun Ioanna Reitlinger, in particular:

 

“Sister Ioanna (Reitlinger) is among the most outstanding iconographers of 20c. “Sister Ioanna’s icons possess an amazing quality: they are full of Easter (Resurrection) joy and childlike faith.” (I. K. Jazikova, Theology of Icons, 1995, p. 162). Fr. Gregory (Krug), another outstanding iconographer of that time, was an amazing master of colours and light, and I do not know anyone among his contemporaries equal to him in this respect.

Reitlinger and Krug have a common creative approach to the icon. Such an approach is considered to be heretical, blasphemous, or delusional by some modern iconographers.  Reitlinger and Krug attempted to bring into icon painting the means of modern painting. Not the content but the means  – a peculiar expressiveness of light and colour, line, and freedom of painting.

From the notes of sister Ioanna:

“Is it possible to paint icons while I am searching? (when I haven’t found yet?) But will it ever be – “I found”? Everything is in the search. And revealed only in the search. Otherwise it is the delusion of a false vision.”

“The icon is not an artwork [a picture] but an object for a prayer, and I was tortured by the question how to make it in a way so it would be spiritual, so it would not disturb the prayer but at the same time to be art. Because we, artists, precisely wish to bring our art to the feet of our Lord.”

(quoted from http://gazetakifa.ru/content/view/1613/)

 

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.”

[end of journal entry]

 

I would like to emphasize here that all three iconographers whom I mentioned were monastics, i.e. their lives was a lives of prayer and contemplation.

 

This text produced the following dialog mentioned in the beginning of this essay. I am publishing it here without omission. It is very revealing because it shows the polarized understanding of what the icon ought to be, by the members of the Church. The dialog clearly demonstrates how the attitude to the icon reflects one’s personal theology and hierarchy of values.

[B. – my colleague; his very peculiar choice of words are translated  closely to the original. For the sake of readability the text of each discussant is given their own colour]

 

B.: And I cannot see the beauty in dirty, untidy painted shapes and the lines which are leading nowhere – even if I stick my nose straight into the icon.

 

I: Well, anyone else but not these iconographers can be accused of dirtiness of colour and mistakes in lines. The colour and light on the icons of Fr. Gregory are such that one is amazed how a human being could create such a thing. The colour schemes of sister Ioanna are also beyond words – it would be good for modern iconographers to learn from her.

 

B: To learn what? This smeared paint? She is just unable to apply the paint – she smears it thinly and dirty. I could put up with it if there were analogies of it in the history of icon painting. But no – there is nothing, apart from some barbarian villages near Pskov. It is outrageous. And Men [an iconographer, the daughter of Fr. Alexander Men] is just filth.

 

I: It’s strange – why are you so emotional?

1 – There are many analogies – take the frescos of the catacombs and see. They are “smeared” just like that.

2 – Even if there were no analogies it wouldn’t mean that “it is prohibited”.

3 – If you cannot see the mastery in the icons of sister Ioanna / if mastery means to you only “even tone and smoothness” then it demonstrates your lack of understanding, not the iconographer’s “lack of skill”.

>> And Men is just filth

I’m sorry, “filth” is not a serious argument. If you think so then please explain why.

 

B.: 1. Shabby frescos cannot be an excuse here.

2. Here the usage of word “prohibited” is not correct. It is “prohibited to do God’s work carelessly”.

3. It only means that icon painting is limited not only by illiterate Pskovian iconographers and primitives.

4. Because it is filth. Sanctified by the 7th Ecumenical Council iconography used volume and modeling with shade and light. But here are carelessness, thick primitivism and ad-libbing invention (what worth are these shadows with squinted eyes).

 

I: Thank you!

>> 1. Shabby frescos cannot be an excuse here.

It is not so shabby. There are also other frescos of Cappadocia, there is also the icon ‘Transfiguration’ by Theophanes the Greek, and many others. I cannot accept your “fresco” objection because I cannot see why it is permitted to paint on a wall thinly and unevenly, but on a wooden panel – not. It depends on the purpose and individuality of an iconographer.

 

>> 2. Here the usage of the word “prohibited” is not correct. It is “prohibited to do God’s work carelessly”.

Looking at the icons of Fr. Gregory and sister Ioanna and, the most important, knowing their lives, I cannot imagine that they did God’s work carelessly.

 

>> 4. Because it is filth. Sanctified by 7th Ecumenical Council iconography used volume and modeling with shade and light. But here are carelessness, thick primitivism and ad-libbing invention (what worth are these shadows with squinted eyes).

The 7th Ecumenical Council didn’t say anything about modeling with shade and light. But I am nit-picking of course (I do not see squinted eyes by the way, or the absence of modeling with shade and light).

 

I think that our disagreement derives from our different criteria for a “genuine icon”. My criteria are prayerfulness, experience of the action of the Holy Spirit, agreement with the Gospels. Your criteria are smoothness, precision, Byzantine-like.

 

B.: So you cannot see the difference between the technique of fresco and icon painting? As for Theophanes etc one should read the restorers carefully. There was no such “ethereal” and “transparency” quality in those times because a)with time the paint crystallizes and become more transparent and b) there are losses during cleaning. Then, Dionisius, despite transparency, is not dirty. But here is untidiness, and even deliberate untidiness.

 

>> Looking at the icons of Fr. Gregory and sister Ioanna and, the most important, knowing their lives, I cannot imagine that they did God’s work carelessly.

2. Especially if one take into account that Fr. Gregory suffered mental illness.

 

4. The council didn’t say anything about modeling with shade and light. But there is the icon painting which grew out of this Council. And it has continued following the original principals consistently, until artistically inclined decadent intelligencia felt the desire to play with Pskov primitives and threw away all classics of icon painting.

>> prayerfulness, experience of an action of the Holy Spirit, agreement with the Gospels.
I
f St Seraphim of Sarov told me this then I would believe it. But here it is an absolutely wild, outrageous excuse. I don’t think that all Byzantine icons were painted without and experience of the action of the Holy Spirit”. But here, with which spirit should one come in touch to be able to smear such grime-filth?

 

I:

>> 2. Especially if one take into account that Fr. Gregory suffered mental illness.

“I remember yet another case. There was in Paris a remarkable painter, still not quite mature, who suddenly became ill: he began to feel the smell of sulfur. His mother and sister decided not to argue with him, hoping that he will eventually settle down. If he said to them that he was smelling the sulfur, they would sniff and agree that it was so indeed. With time he grew worse. And then the pious family turned to the Church. I remember how that young iconographer was exorcized, confessed, sprinkled with holy water, offered Holy Communion anointed with oil, but he was falling ill more and more. I was a doctor at that time, and I was approached with the question what to do. My answered made them very angry:

- Please leave all this. He is ill, not possessed. Send him to the hospital to have ECT (at the time it was the only thing that could be done in this area). I still remember the inflammation with which the family and clergy addressed me:

- How can you say such a thing? And what if it is possession? – What do you know about it?

- I am sorry. However, I only know – although you may perceive it as cynical – that, if it is possession then ECT will not hurt a demon. On the other hand if it is illness then your friend will recover.

He recovered within a year – but something incredibly interesting happened during the course of illness. He entered the illness being immature as an iconographer, but went out as ripened. His icons became different, mature and deep”

(Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, ‘On the Spiritual and Physical Illness’)

 

B.: And what about the answer to the core of the topic?

 

I: You probably did not understand – it was the answer to the core of topic. Other, points outlined by you, are secondary and derive from your lack of understanding precisely “the core” but I will answer.
 

>> So you cannot see the difference between the technique of fresco and icon painting?
I see, in technical and special aspects, but not in tasks and content. The tasks are the same: the depiction of the Kingdom of God, transparently or thickly, the most important thing is – truthfully.

 

>> As for Theophanes  etc one should read the restorers carefully. There were no such “ethereal” and “transparency”
>> Then, Dionisius, despite transparency, is not dirty. But here is untidiness, and even deliberate.
Mentioning the source one ought to provide the reference (restorers’ names and works).

So, you insist that Theophanes is “not transparent” but Dionisius is “transparent but not dirty”. I.e., transparency is still permissible but permissible, as you write, “if it is not dirty”. Here we should define the terminology: dirty in professional slang means dirty colour – muddy, but not untidy, i.e. applied unevenly. There is no hint of “dirt” in Krug’s and Reitlinger’s icons shown here, but there is a deliberate unevenness of paint. Thus you are speaking about unevenness.
Speaking about restorers, precisely a restorer writes about unevenness and expressionism as original qualities of ancient icons: A.N.Ovchinnikov , Symbolism of Christian Art Moscow 1999, the chapters ‘Icon of St. Panteleymon’ and ‘Mother of God Svenkaya-Pecherskaya’. And, since the conversation touched “unevenness”, here is another reference: History of Icon Painting, Moscow 2002, chapter ‘The technique of Icon Painting’ – please notice the fragments of the icons there, especially Mother of God Pimenovskaya 14c.

 

>> 4. Council didn’t say anything about chiaroscuro. But there is icon painting which grew out of this Council.  And it had continued to follow the original principals consistently…
Your reasoning reminds me of the Jehovah’s Witnesses thesis that the conception of the Holy Trinity did not exist before the Council of Nicaea. Christian painting existed until the Seventh Council, in different forms and styles. However, what is mentioned by you, modeling with light and shade, are present on the icons of Reitlinger and Krug (how to paint icons without light and shade is a peculiar question indeed), therefore your opposing “traditional modeling with light and shade” to their icons does not have any ground.

>> I don’t think that all Byzantine icons were made without “the experience of an action of the Holy Spirit”.
And you are right not to. It would be absurd to state that “all Byzantine icons were made without “the experience of the action of the Holy Spirit”. The conversation above was about Byzantine style as a criterion of “correctness”.

>> But here, with which spirit one should come in touch to be able to smear such grime-filth?

Judging by the words you have chosen this is a rhetorical question. Everyone works and sees within the limits of their abilities the spirit whose action they experience.

 

B.: Truly, they have eyes but do not see.

 

I: Conclusion. Judging by the views which you have expressed, your criteria of the genuiness and quality of an icon are: its conformity to a certain historical style, namely Byzantine of a certain period, and also the evenness and smoothness of layers of paint on it. Thus the ancient Christian examples; Georgian icons of 11-15th cc.; icons made in Russia in 11-14cc.; icons of Novgorod and other Northern styles; etc do not match your idea about “correct icon” – otherwise you would not insist that there no such precedents in history of Christian art.
It reminded me – especially the words you use, I quote: “just filth”, “to smear such grime-filth”, “what worth are these shadows with squinted eyes”, “decadent intelligencia’, and also your usage of the fact of Fr. Gegory’s mental illness as an argument against his “fitness” as an iconographer – they reminded me about two historical events. First – the reaction of painters-academics to the works of the impressionists and post-impressionists. Second – the exhibition ‘Degenerative Art’ organized in 1937 in Munich during the Nazi regime. Klee, Marc, Kandinsky and others were denounced as “degenerate”.  The critics of that time could not understand that the criticized deliberately painted unevenly and did “untidy” work

 

However, since then the works of “degenerates” have been returned to the museums, and the icons of sister Ioanna were shown on solo exhibition in the Andronicov monastery (in the Museum of Ancient Russian Art named after St. Andrey Rublev). But of course she painted the icons not for the sake of recognition but for God’s sake.

 

B.: Yes, yes. Apology (sic!) to Nazi (Soviet, totalitarian) prosecutions is also symptomatic in polemics for the sake of the smear.

[end of dialog]

 

Such was the sad result of our dialog. It is indeed very sad when “smoothness and evenness” taken as the major criterion of value obscure the goodness of the masters’ works to the viewer, and not a lay viewer but a professional one. It is difficult for me as a professional to understand how anyone could, while looking at the beautiful lines and glowing light on Reitlinger’s and Krug’s icons, decide that their authors are “unable” to apply the paint thickly and evenly, and just “unable to draw”. In the real world one can learn how to “paint evenly” in, for example, the very beginning of the first year of Art College. I, just like everyone who studied graphic design, had to learn how to reach perfection in the art of application of the paint on little squares evenly and smoothly – but that, of course did not make anyone an artist instantly. One becomes an artist while leaning from the masters, such as Reitlinger and Krug.

 

The fact that my arguments did not receive reasoned answers and that my request to provide the references for the quoted sources was ignored, is quite revealing. My colleagues answers were restricted to emotional statements and authoritarian appeals.

 

* * *

 

In conclusion I would like to say a few words about how I understand the icon and my work of an iconographer. Our teacher of composition in the Academy of Printing Arts had repeatedly advised us to test our work with the question “what for?” He spoke about graphic arts and book design but this question can be legitimately applied to the icon, in which function and aesthetics have much common with book art. What is an icon for? – Mostly, for helping a viewer to concentrate his/her mind in contemplation and prayer. The icon must be canonical, i.e. it should not contradict to the Scriptures and the lived Tradition. There are accepted definitions of the icon as “contemplation in colours” or “theology in colours”, thus it is also one of the fruits of contemplation and mystical experience but always in the frame of Eastern Orthodox theology. To satisfy these criteria the icon should speak the symbolic language which has been crystallizing over two thousand years of Christian art – the language “where each sign is a symbol meaning much more than it is” (ibid, p. 17). In my opinion, these three criteria: calling for the prayerful state of mind, accordance to the canon understood as accordance to the Scriptures and lived Tradition, and the continuity of symbolic language define the “truthfulness” of the icon.

 

Thus the content of the icon is immeasurably more important than its style: it does not matter in which style the icon is painted – the most important is that its style is working for its content but not against it. It is fitting to mention here about a widely found identification of the concept of genuine with style: for example I have often heard the opinion that only “Byzantine” icons, or “Russian” icons, or “icons with gold” are genuine, true icons. The style is created by many components: an epoch’s worldview, a national character, historical events, individualities of the major artists, and many other factors.

 

Therefore now, from some distance in time, we can speak about the typical red background and dramatic mood of Novgorod medieval icons, the peculiar features of later Byzantine style, primitivism of the style of Coptic icons, and so on. These styles differ dramatically from each other and this fact raises a legitimate question: if it was possible to search for new means of artistic expression at that time then why is it impossible now? The icons of Reitlinger and Krug are the fruits of such a search. They are icons of our epoch but, while being contemporary they do not omit the major purpose of the icon: the call to a prayerful state of mind and the proclamation of the Good News. They are faithful to the Scriptures and the lived Tradition. Despite the fact that both these iconographers have their own, very individual, style their icons are completely canonical, prayerful and employ the same symbolic language as their predecessors.

 

So, if the theology of the Eastern Orthodox Church is constantly developing then why should the icon which is theology in colours stop developing after? Just as theology feeds on Scripture and living Tradition, constantly enriched by new insights and interpretations of each generation of  theologians, the icon must be enriched by the discoveries and new interpretations of the  iconographers of each new generation. Surely, iconographers always turn back to their historical heritage, and may well choose a historical style which suites their individual work considering it as their exclusive guide. It is one thing to feed on heritage, but another thing – to just copy past examples, and yet completely another thing – to denounce all search as “non-canonical”. Such an approach contradicts Christianity itself which is not a mummy in the museum but a living and developing organism.

 

As for me, I paint keeping in mind the catacomb frescos and early icons which are simple, laconic, and expressive in a rough way. In my understanding, they are the closest to the first reading of the Gospel which must turn one’s life upside down and therefore very suitable to our time in which the words of the Gospel have become so familiar that they are hardly heard. There is a tendency in modern society to make Christianity look like some kind of museum exhibit, and the icon – some kind of a talisman or folk art (the genuineness of which is measured by the amount of gold used and also by belonging to a certain national school). The stylization of the icon often obscures its meaning and prevents one from looking deeper thus encouraging its “mummy-like” interpretation. Precisely because of that, for the sake of bringing the meaning of the icon to the attention of the heart, and also because of my personal aesthetic preference I consciously rejected stylization and “prettiness”.

 

 


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Christ Pantocrator
Sister Ioanna (Reitlinger), 20 c.

The Holy Women at the Sepulchre
Sister Ioanna (Reitlinger), 20 c.

Mother of God
Fr. Gregory (Krug), 20 c.

 

Sts. Ioacim and Anna,
parents of the Mother of God

Pskov, 16 c.

Ascension of Prophet Elijah
Novgorod, 15 c.

St. Seraphim of Sarov
Fr. Gregory (Krug), 20 c.

St. Genoveva of Paris
Fr. Gregory (Krug), 20 c.

 

Fragment of the icon
Our Lady Svenskaya-Pecherskaja
12 c.

 

Jesus Christ
fresco in the catacombs of Commodilla, 4 c.

St. Anna
fresco from Farras,
Еgypt, 8 c.

 

St. George
Georgia, 14-15 cc.

The Dormition of the Mother of God
Theophanes the Greek, 14 c.

Holy Trinity
fresco
Theophanes the Greek, 14 c.