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.
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)
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.
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)
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.