Presentation on theme: "Some pointers to understanding and appreciating the Icons of Orthodox Christianity UNDERSTANDING ICONS."— Presentation transcript:
Some pointers to understanding and appreciating the Icons of Orthodox Christianity UNDERSTANDING ICONS
ATTRIBUTION A significant contribution to this presentation comes from the blog of Richard Beck: Experimental Theology: Notes on the Theology of Icons on-theology-of-icons-part-1.html
Icon: Eikona: Image Icons are not "painted," they are "written." An iconographer "writes" an icon. Icons are Theological statements, not depictions of people.
A DIFFERENT THEOLOGICAL VIEWPOINT Orthodoxy gives precedence to apophatic theology, which is inclined to negative descriptions and reticence in giving something validity by definition. This is reflected in Iconography.
THEOSIS Understanding art of the Eastern tradition of Christianity requires a change of mindset for Western viewers. The first change is in the understanding of the path to “holiness”, which in the east is referred to as theosis. Theosis refers to the process of divinization, deification, or "making divine" by participating in the Life of God. The idea of theosis is probably best captured by St. Athanasius: “God became human so humans would become gods."
ATONEMENT VS THEOSIS Salvation, as Western Christians understand it, is largely about one's status as Saved or Lost before God. To be Saved is to have one's sins forgiven. This view of salvation tends to be dominated by the concept of atonement: making reparation for one’s sins. Theosis, by contrast, is a deeper and richer concept. Salvation is less about status than about more and more deeply participating in, and being transformed by, the Life of God. To be saved is to be changed from human to divine.
THEOSIS IN ICONOGRAPHY Once we understand the Orthodox focus on theosis we can begin to appreciate a variety of visual features in Orthodox iconography. Specifically, we see how the icons are attempting to portray theosis. When we look at an icon we are seeing the depiction of someone who is alive.
THE SUBJECT OF THE ICON Yes, the person portrayed in the icon (e.g., Jesus, Mary, a saint) may have "died" but the icon is an attempt to depict a person still very much alive and with us. These persons are well down the path of theosis. For example, during their earthly lifetime saints have moved well into the Life of God. They have been transformed, even while on earth. Now, in heaven, this process has continued. Thus, to depict a saint in an icon is to depict someone both human and divine. More specifically, it is to depict someone who was human now becoming divine. A depiction of the fusion between flesh and spirit.
This theological facet of icons is why Orthodox icons are so stylized. Naive readers of icons might be struck by their lack of realism, wrongly assuming that Orthodox iconographers are unskilled artists. This would be a mistaken assumption. The icons are highly stylized to reflect a spiritual truth: These people are both body and soul, human and divine, flesh and spirit:
“…as it accumulated spiritual qualities, the icon sought to transform the flesh, to deprive it of its course material substance, to dissolve it in light and re-mould it in spiritual plasma.
HISTORY The series of the works of art in Byzantium started with great masterpieces, such as the churches of Saint Sophia, Saint Irene and Saints Sergius and Bacchus in Constantinople, dating from the middle of the 6th Century, and attributed to the Emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora.
The first icon, the MANDYLION or The Holy Napkin, sometimes called "Made without hands" is said not only to have been an authentic likeness of Christ, but one which Christ Himself willingly produced. THE FIRST ICON
"In calling to mind the saints and their struggles, an icon does not simply represent the saint as he appeared upon the earth. No, the icon depicts his inner spiritual struggle; it portrays how he attained to that state where he is now considered an angel on earth, a heavenly man. This is precisely the manner in which the Mother of God and Jesus Christ are portrayed. Icons should depict that transcendent sanctity which permeated the saints."
The icon is not meant to be a sentimental piece. There is no sentimentality or drama in an icon. An icon represents mostly biblical events and biblical characters. The faces of those depicted in an icon are always devoid of their feelings, suggestive only of virtues such as: purity, patience, forgiveness, compassion and love. For example, the icon of the Crucifixion does not show the physical pain Christ suffered on the Cross, but what led Him to the Cross: the voluntary action of giving His life for us.
Icons are also silent. A close observation indicates that the mouths of the characters depicted are never open; there are no symbols that can indicate sound. There is perfect silence in the icon and this stillness and silence creates, both in the church and in the home an atmosphere of prayer and contemplation. The silence of an icon is a silence that speaks, it is the silence of Christ on the Cross, the silence of the Virgin, the silence of the Transfiguration, the silence of the Resurrection.
In iconography there are two distinct categories of colors. First there is white, red, green and blue, used to express life, purity, peace and goodness. The second category of colors is black, brown, grey and yellow, and they are used to express danger and impurity.
White: is the color that represents eternal life and purity. Blue: represents celestial beings, God's dwelling place, the sky. Red: symbolizes activity. Purple: purple is the symbol of royalty, wealth, power, and priestly dignity Green: in the Holy Scriptures, green represents nature and vegetation, and it is thus representative of growth and fertility Brown: represents density and lack of radiance. Brown is composed of red, blue, green and black, and it is used to depict soil, rocks and buildings. It is also used as a symbol of poverty and renunciation for the dark garments of monks and ascetics. Black: represents absence of life; it symbolizes a void. It is the opposite of white. While white represents the fullness of life, black represents the lack of it. Monks and Great Schema monks wear black garments, as a symbol of their renunciation of all that is material. Yellow: representing sadness, it is used in the icon of the Savior being placed in the tomb
ICONS: WORD OF GOD The iconographer does not have the right to change an icon just to be different and creative.  As we mentioned earlier, the creation of an icon is not the painter's own work. He is more like a co-author. In the Painter's Manual, preserved on Mount Athos, the master advises him who aspires to become an icon painter to pray before the icon of Christ and that of the Mother of God, because the art of painting comes from God, who alone can guide the painter's hand to give form to the mysteries of God. 
When you look at Orthodox icons one of the things that strikes you is how flat they look. Again, this flatness might be mistaken for artistic primitiveness or inexpertness. This assumption would be mistaken. Like all things in icons this perception of flatness has a theological aspect. ICONS AND LIGHT
Orthodox icons appear flat because iconographers are working with theological assumptions regarding the Divine Light, the Uncreated Light in Heaven. Recall, icons are depictions of persons alive in heaven. It is entirely acceptable to approach icons as "Windows into Heaven." If so, how are we to depict Heaven?
Icons attempt to represent this Uncreated Light through three things, all of which contribute to that sense of flatness. First, icons tend not to show backgrounds. Instead, icon backgrounds tend to be filled with a diffuse golden light. This lack of a formal background contributes to the sense of a lack of depth, but we can now appreciate its theological aspect: A depiction of a land filled with light.
Icons don't show shadows. For two reasons. First, shadows, archetypally, imply darkness and even evil. Second, shadows are cast by the localized light of the sun (the Created Light). In Heaven the Uncreated Light is not localized, it is omnipresent. Thus, there are no shadows in Heaven.
Finally, related to the point about shadows, iconographers use little or no chiaroscuro. Chiaroscuro is the contrast between light and dark in painting. It can be used to make pictures very dramatic. It also makes the picture rich and deep, perspectively speaking. Icons don't use chiaroscuro for the reasons we have just observed. In Heaven, infused with the omnipresent Divine Light, there are no striking light/dark contrasts.
TIME AND SPACE IN ICONS Icons also approach issues of space and time in a theological manner. As noted before, a failure to appreciate this theological approach cause confusion in the reader of the icon.
Specifically, given that icons attempt to depict the Vantage of Heaven traditional notions of physics and temporality are eschewed. Theologically understood, Heaven is outside of or transcends both time and space. Thus, icons routinely depict events from different times in the same space. A good example of this are icons of John the Baptist (see above). Specifically, John is often depicted with two heads. One on his shoulders and the other after his martyrdom.
A second example of this conflation of time and space aimed at creating a View from Eternity are the Nativity icons. In this icon, a very busy one visually speaking, a variety of events that happened at different times and places are depicted in the same frame: Manger scene, shepherds in the field, and wise men.
SUMMARY In summary, Icons cannot be compared to western religious art. They are first of all, not concerned to depict images, but make theological statements. The theology espoused is of an Eastern perspective: based on theosis, not seeking redemption/salvation. This theology is predominantly conservative, reticent and negative. Symbols in Iconography reflect the fusion of the human and divine and a predicition of what life is like in heaven. This is reflected in style, artistic depiction and even expression. Choice of colour is also significant.