Dr Who and icons

I wonder why there is no punctuation to the title? Maybe, the reason is that it would be a toss-up between an exclamation mark and a question mark. There would always be debate. Dr Who? Dr Who! Dr Who

In the early 1960s, the exclamation mark was slightly over-used. Think Oliver! Blitz! and Twang! (Maybe, just over-used by Lionel Bart)

The premise of the lengthy Who series is that it is possible to move through time. This may not be scientific reality at the moment, but it is a great plot device and can be traced back certainly to 1895 and to HG Wells’ Time Machine. The book deals with something that was resurrected almost exactly in the 1980’s with “Back to the Future”. There is even a simplification of the idea of 4 dimensions. The 4th dimension is defined in both pieces as “Time” -a bit of a simplification mathematically and scientifically, but it makes for a great device.

This is what HG Wells had to say,
Filby became pensive. “Clearly,” the Time Traveller proceeded, “any real body must have extension in four directions: it must have Length, Breadth, Thickness, and—Duration.”

and this is the same scene in “Back to the Future”, There are two great “aha!” moments. The first is when Marty is told to accelerate to 88 mph in the delorean towards a billboard that will not be in the way in 1885 and the second is when Doc uses a railroad track with an unfinished bridge that will be quite safe in 1985.

I do not think Dr Who or The Time Machine was primarily devised to be about Time Travel. Time Travel was a way to get characters from one environment to another, a contrast of societies. Time Travel was more integral to the plot of “Back to the Future”, though, with all the stuff about two versions of teh same person in the same space at the same time.

In Dr Who, however, the Doctor travels in a machine that specifically recognises the link between time and space, the TARDIS. The TARDIS is an updated Wellsian plot device and an updated time-machine. Its spacial confusion is a nice nod to the hypercube of course.

Physics works on the assumption that there are 10 dimensions (this is necessary for understanding string theory). Maybe more. Certainly more, in theory. In fact, Edwin A Abbot anticipated Wells by about ten years when he wrote “Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions,” where he describes the life of a square in a two-dimensional world. Later, the sphere and the square have problems interacting. Einstein talks about the 4th dimension as space-time.

The twighlight zone, or rather Rod Serling talked about a 5th dimension “beyond that which is known to man”. It seems a world of improbability but when we move to a higher dimension, we can look down on the jumbled mass squashed into 2d or 3d and untangle it a bit. It is like moving from the basic grid to a node view, or from moving away from a 2d graph to a 3d mockup.

In fact, art has been playing around with this concept for years. We understand the nature of linear perspective popularised in the renaissance but probably going back to, at least, the Roman empire of 70 AD Pompeii. However, the concept of inverted perspective that is central to the theology of the icon is probably much more interesting and can be traced back, I think, to as early as attempts in Pharoahic egypt, that is 20th century BC. We could call it art in bidimensionality, though arguably what happens in the Byzantine art of the 7th/8th century AD onwards is unique. It is a celebration of apparent disproportionality where objects and characters appear in a hierarchy of importance to, rather than of spacial integration in, a given scene.

my icon of St Timothy

As in Mediaeval art, there is a tendency towards the vertical line, symbolic of ascent to paradise. We see this beautifully also in the work of Ervind Earle who designed Sleeping Beauty for Disney in the late 1950s and who, in turn, said he drew on Albrecht Dürer, Pieter Bruegel, Nicolaas van Eyck, Sandro Botticelli, as well as Persian art and Japanese prints. But he certainly also drew on the Byzantine form. Earle left Disney before Sleeping Beauty premiered but it is his film and his vision on the screen.

Inverse perspective together with the two-dimensional axonometric representations it encourages is sometimes decried and often misunderstood. What it does, though, is to place the viewer within the concept of the picture. If the vanishing point is shifted from some way BEHIND the image (let’s say 3feet), and, instead, is the same distance IN FRONT of the picture, then the viewer must be contained in that image.

We have approached religious art as if we were a mathematician looking back from a 4th or 5th dimension at the limited reality constucted here. That is truly a sense of participating in a God-like view. I think it is probably one of the most brilliant inventions of modern art. It is, of course, a re-thinking of this tool that gives us cubism (that, for another day!). One day, I will demonstrate all this with some well-honed animation though I remember my efforts to do the same for the hypercube when I gave a talk to the physics’ department of my university about the physics of animation. (I was a bit shocked that so many of the students had no idea what I was talking about- whoops)

Iconography in Palestine

There was an article in The Telegraph a few days’ ago about Ian Knowles who runs the two-year old icon-teaching centre in the West Bank. His work is on the israeli wall that divides the land and also in cathedrals and churches around the globe. The West bank centre began in a Coptic Church, is now housed in the Bethlehem university near the Church of the Nativity and is funded almost completely by private donations.

As I understand it, the Bethlehem school was an outreach programme from the British Association of Iconographers, for the most part a Catholic-inspired organisation centred around the benedictine Abbey of Our Lady of Peace in Bedfordshire.

Some years ago, I was taught how to gild and my gilder’s cushion is to hand even as I am typing in my office this evening! Gold is an essential part of the iconographer’s trade, but I am afraid that I have taken the Icon form cautiously into the digital realm: I explained many years ago to Metropolitan Kallistos that I had a plan to animate icons in some way and he was rightly suspicious. He did not completely dismiss my plans but -“I do not think I could pray to a cartoon”, he memorably said. I have not given up this idea, however, though I am aware of the time it takes to realise the detail of an Icon in a new medium, quite apart from the technical issues of trying to move in an inverted perspective. For now, I see my work as an academic exercise and I am currently writing a short course which I believe I will deliver at the Moscow State University sometime later this year. I will use animation simply to define the differences in posture and the significance of the arrangement of characters in traditional iconography. I will also, I hope be able to demonstrate on screen exactly what inverse perspective means and what it does to objects like tables and chairs. While Icons are religious artifacts, they are also an art form telling very specific stories with layered meanings. I see the Icon as the perfect combination of art and religion, so perfect indeed that even with the advances of the Renaissance, and the influence of Western art on both Greek and Russian culture in the 19th Century, the revival of the traditional icon by Photios Kontoglou in the 1950s continues to be a powerful force across the Orthodox world and beyond. It is now not uncommon today, for example, to see Icons in both Catholic and Anglican churches.

On 22nd January according to the Greek Calendar, and on 26th January (transferred from 24th) in the Catholic Church, is the feast of St Timothy, my patron saint.



Theology of the Icon

The Icon is a major feature in the Orthodox Church. Unlike religious images and statues in Catholicism, however, the Greek Icon has a position in liturgy and doctrine that is cemented by the 7th Ecumenical Council in 787 and which goes beyond the purely decorative and helpful. In this way, however, any Icon, has a position in the liturgy that is paralleled by the Catholic crucifix (with the depiction of the body of Christ) – a Liturgy without Icons is no liturgy just as a Mass  (as stated in the Roman Missal, no 308) celebrated without a Crucifix is regarded as illicit. Of course, both Catholics and Orthodox would wax lyrical about the efficacy of the sacrament with or without the attendant iconography, and both, I hope, would warn against applying the canons too strictly.

The Icon has a bizarre history and seems to defy the ruling in the 10 commandments, “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God” (Ex. 20:4-5), but this ruling say the Fathers of the Church is overturned by the fact that The New Testament celebrates God made man and the Invisible Godhead is manifest in the true Icon of his Son, Christ – “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father”.


The first sunday of Lent in the Orthodox calendar celebrates the Triumph of Orthodoxy. St John Damascene demonstrated that the Icon was the celebration of the Theosis, the divinization of humanity and the Icons in the church act as windows through which the heavenly Church is brought into direct contact with the Church on earth. “The icon” says Archimandrite Zenon, “does not represent anything, it rather reveals something.” St John says the Icon particularly represents what Orthodoxy is about: “If one of the heathens comes to you saying: show me your faith… you will take him to church and put him before all kinds of holy images.” The veneration of Icons is simply a greeting made by the worldly Church with the Church in Heaven and in the words of St Basil the Great, “the honour paid to the image passes on to the prototype”. Outside the Church and the liturgy, the Icon, always an image of great beauty and often valuable in its own right, is in danger of losing its theological meaning and of course it could degenerate, simply, into a form of Ecclesiastical comic strip. (much of what I am writing about the care of religious art could equally apply to the Tibetan Thangka Paintings and frankly could be adapted to the care of the Torah scrolls and the Koran)

baptist icon.jpg

For the Catholic church and many Anglicans, Religious art is a Gospel for the illiterate, as defined by Gregory the Great, “Images are used in churches so that the illiterate could at least look at the walls to read what they are unable to read in books.” and Damascene goes along with this understanding, “The image is a memorial, just what words are to a listening ear. What a book is to the literate, an image is to the illiterate. The image speaks to sight as words to hearing; through the mind we enter into union with it” :he is joined by Theodore the Studite and the canons of the 7th Ecumenical council in identifying the Icon as a form of teaching: “What a word communicates through hearing is what art shows silently through an image”.

St John of Damascus goes a bit further and turns the 2nd commandment round, “It is obvious that at that time [before Christ] you could not make an image of the invisible God, but when you see the Formless One become man for your sake, then you will make images of Him in His human form. When you contemplate God becoming man, then you can depict Him clothed in human form. When the invisible One becomes visible to us, you may then draw His likeness…Paint everything with words and colours both in books and on boards”. In other words, the Icon becomes the way to demonstrate the revelation of the New Testament and the Icon represents a person in a transfigured state.

virgin 2 2003c

There are many conventions- only those not venerated, for instance are depicted in profile, the idea of inverted perspective and the light of Mount Tabor, the fact that the Virgin is always pointing to her son, and so on. I have a bit of an issue with one aspect of icongraphy that seems to be gaining ground- there is a tendency to talk about “writing” rather than “painting” an Icon. I think this is a bit precious and as far as I can see, the two words in Greek and Russian, γράφειν and писать, are both ambiguous and can mean both “write” and “paint”, (the russian word is more likely to mean “paint” as a technical term and tends only to be used in the sense of “write” in modern Russian but, if the stress is misplaced, it can also have a slightly more vulgar meaning  redolent of the astonishingly crass Councillor- now thankfully suspended, Dominic Peacock)

dominic Peacock

We should use English in a more direct way. But in a noisy world, the Icon remains a silent testament to a different kind of life. That must be valuable whether we have a belief or not. A celebration of the beautiful.