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Driven to Abstraction

Transfiguration from Pereslav. Russian Icon (c. 1403). Theopan the Greek (c. 1330-1410). Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia.

Icons constitute a special category of religious art, declared the Second Council of Nicaea (787), the last council accepted by both the Eastern and Western Churches. The council said that among the various forms sacred art, icons alone belong to an unwritten ecclesiastical Tradition that is the equal of written Tradition, or Scripture. They have an authentic mission to reveal the faith in visible form. In his 1987 Apostolic Letter, Duodecimum Saeculum, issued on the occasion of the twelve-hundredth anniversary of the council, Pope John Paul II wrote that:

Authentic Christian art is that which, through sensible perception, gives the intuition that the Lord is present in his Church, that the events of salvation history give meaning and orientation to our life, that the glory that is promised us already transforms our existence. (IV.11)

This icon of the Transfiguration (on page 39), painted by Theophanes the Greek in 1403, exemplifies the “authentic Christian art” and the “promised glory” described by John Paul. At the top of the image, we see the shining figure of the transfigured Jesus encircled by a silvery nimbus and star-shaped rays of light. He stands gracefully between Moses and Elijah. Beneath them, Peter, James, and John lie scattered on the ground in astonishment. Halfway up are two small caves that show Jesus with the apostles ascending and descending the holy mountain before and after his miraculous manifestation. Angels look on from the two upper corners.

Down to Essentials

Many readers will be surprised to learn that icons are a form of abstract art. To abstract means to draw out the essence of something. The simplest way to do this is to remove what is not essential. For the artist, what is “essential” may be a visual characteristic such as color, texture, or shape. It might also be something fundamental or potential in the nature of the subject. Accordingly, abstract artists may ignore what they consider to be superficial details and emphasize the underlying forms and basic attributes of the thing they are looking at. Or they may try to give visible shape to ideas, emotions, and spiritual states. Think of a child’s drawing of a face. It eliminates the details and focuses on the features that identify the face as a face: eyes, mouth, nose. Abstract art, then, is not limited to the often-caricatured Cubist faces of Picasso. Everything from the Impressionism of Monet to ancient Egyptian wall paintings to medieval manuscript illuminations qualifies as abstract art. It’s important to note that these and other forms of abstract art are not the products of aesthetically unsophisticated peoples or cultures, but the result of deliberate artistic choices. In all cases, the goal of abstraction is not to simplify (still less to distort) for its own sake, but to reveal and draw attention to fundamental.aspects of reality. Compared with abstraction, realism—the artistic imitation of nature—is far less common. At various times, the Greeks and the Romans practiced it (though not to the exclusion of abstraction), but after them, it was not seen for a thousand years, until the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Since then its popularity has waxed and waned according to the temper of the age. But imitation has its limits. With the overriding goal of imitating nature, realism is far less stylistically flexible than abstraction. And because even the most realistic painting must, upon close examination, break down into little blobs of paint, all art is less than perfectly realistic. Some abstraction in art is unavoidable. Moreover, abstraction may be better suited to deal with the supernatural world than realism. We see how this plays out in this icon. The figures appear flat. Their sizes are out of proportion with the landscape, which is not based on any real mountain. Most of the cues used to establish three-dimensional depth are lacking. Instead of blue sky, there is a golden backdrop. There are no shadows. Clearly, this is not what nature looks like.

Beyond Mere Reality

It’s not that the iconographer is too primitive to have made a realistic image. Instead, he is going beneath the superficial appearance of things to reveal a reality transfigured by grace. He is portraying a supernatural reality that transcends space and time. In such a world, the ordinary physical rules don’t apply. Here, there is no near or far, no before or after. The sizes of the figures reflect their hierarchical importance rather than their implied distance from the viewer. Their flatness de-emphasizes the sensuality of their physical bodies. The simultaneous presence of the “before and after” scenes takes the figures and us out of time and into the eternal present. Everything is bathed in the unnatural golden light of heaven, and the highly symmetrical composition reflects the divine order and harmony of the universe. Every feature of the icon is designed to draw our attention away from the material world to the spiritual world. It is perhaps because of all this, and because we are so used to living in the world we know through our physical senses, that icons can look so odd to us. The irony—and the mystery—is that an icon is a physical thing itself, and we must rely on our senses to perceive both it and the abstract world it points to. But as John Paul’s letter reminds us, “the God revealed in Jesus Christ has truly redeemed and sanctified the flesh and the whole sensible world” (Duodecimum III.9). Therefore, “just as the reading of material books allows the hearing of the living word of the Lord, so also the showing of the painted icon allows those who contemplate it to accede to the mystery of salvation by the sense of sight” (IV.10).

Sacred Authority

From here we may understand that although we speak of icons as “works of art,” they are not simply aesthetic objects like other religious artwork. They are the faith made visible. Moreover, since they belong to the established and unchanging tradition of the Church, an icon is not “the invention of painters, but the result of the legislation and approved tradition of the Church” (Synod Nicaea II, Actio VI.331, 832). This is why icons look the same century after century, why they do not display the creative variety and stylistic evolution seen in most Western (and particularly Modern) art. Non-iconographic schools of religious art, which have flourished in the West since the schism with the Eastern Church, can boast of glorious artistic achievements. The works of great artistic innovators like Giotto or Michelangelo are not bound by the tradition of icons—but neither do they enjoy their sacred character and authority. The iconographer, in contrast, must be humbly obedient to the tradition he has received. He must avoid novelties and the temptation to express his own personality, to be “original.” He is in essence a copyist who has no authority to alter a word of his text. Iconographers are called “icon writers” (or even “historians”) for this reason. Because the preservation and passing on of the tradition is a sacred task, the iconographer must study and learn the tradition under the tutelage of a master. He must prepare himself with prayer and fasting. Even the materials he uses to make his icon must be pure, natural, and come from a restricted list: wood, chalk, hide glue, egg yolk, gold, and natural pigments—animal, vegetable, and mineral elements. Consequently, a printed reproduction of an icon is no replacement for the real thing.

The Divine Image

Given that an icon is more than a simple work of art, the believer’s response to it must be more than aesthetic. We don’t ask if the Gospel is well written or exciting; instead we hear it reverently as the Word of God. Similarly, if we expect an icon to elicit an emotional response or if we look at it merely as an object of beauty, like a painting in a museum, then we fail to see its spiritual dimension. We reduce our interaction with it to the sensual level. This is not to deny that beauty is an attribute of God and a way of knowing him. A well-written text or a beautiful image will deepen our appreciation of the meaning. But icons are not about pleasing the eye, but illuminating the spirit. The icon, by incarnating the divine in matter and revealing “God’s human face,” demands a response of honor and respect. The formal term for this is veneration. Venerating an icon is venerating the Cross on Good Friday or the priest kissing the book of the Gospels during Mass. Such actions, nevertheless, can look like scandalous idolatry to those unfamiliar with the practice. That was the basis of the iconoclastic controversy of the eighth and ninth centuries that threatened to destroy all sacred art. It was also the basis of the later Protestant rejection of images. But the Second Council of Nicaea defended the lawfulness of sacred art against the iconoclasts. It affirmed that any veneration shown the icon passes to the person represented: “[H]e who prostrates before the icon does so before the person (hypostasis) who is represented therein” (Duodecimum III.9). When we venerate an icon we are not worshiping wood and paint but “the One who deigned to dwell in matter and bring about our salvation through matter” (Duodecimum IV.11). There is much more to be said about icons—and, of course, other traditions of sacred art—but because they uniquely belong to the apostolic Tradition, they merit our reverent attention and religious devotion.

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