91. Iconography – An Artform Beyond This World

Byzantine Icon of the Holy Family

In modern times, we often think of art as a means to describe the reality of life or, more narrowly, the reality of the inner life of the artist. Iconography is an artform that describes reality, but the reality that it points to is purely heavenly and not earthly. Least of all, does it reveal anything about the artist himself which we have become so accostomed to in modern times. Rather, the iconographer humbles himself completly to the heavenly reality that he is attempting to portray.

Iconography was the first and exclusive expression of Christian art that flourished from 6th century until the Romanesque period around 1200. Many people think iconography is mainly an Eastern Christian art form, but in reality, all early Christian art, East and West, was consistent with the iconography prototype. This includes Western Celtic, Ottonian, Carolingian, and Romanesque art styles. The Russians and Greeks in the East had their tradition, but both East and West had essential elements in common, particularly the theological meaning they were trying to convey.

But don’t be fooled. This art form didn’t die out. It has been alive and well since its inception and continues to flourish today. Iconography attracts young artists, especially those looking for a way out of the cul-de-sac of modernism.

Instead of trying to give a dictionary definition of iconography, it would be more enlightening to take a historical and stylistic approach to this fascinating art form.

Early Christian Art

Christianity was illegal in the Roman Empire for the first three hundred years of the faith. Periods of peace were interrupted by periods of persecution, some intense. During this period, Christianity went underground both metaphorically and literally as authorities forced Christians in Rome, at times, to practice their religion in the catacombs. In the catacombs, they not only worshipped but created art as well. It is difficult to extinguish creativity outside of the human spirit, even under the most adverse conditions. 

The Good Shepherd from the Catacomb of Priscilla, 250-300

Eventually, in the fourth century, Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity, making it a legitimate faith in the eyes of the Roman authorities. This newfound status allowed the Christians to worship and create art they could display publicly. We have an example of such art below:

The Good Shepherd mosaic in Ravenna, 428 A.D.

In earlier centuries, images found in the catacombs typically depicted Christ as a shepherd, but later public images portrayed Him in a more majestic form, unlike the simpler country herdsman depiction in the catacombs. Notice that the Christ above has a golden halo, a cross, and a purple mantle over a golden tunic, signifying royalty.

What I want to point out as most important, as it relates to our discussion of iconography, is the difference in style between the above mosaic and the iconographic style that would emerge just 120 years later. The above mosaic is in a more naturalistic style. None of the figures, including Christ, are looking directly at you. Jesus slightly turns his head at an angle, and the sheep all appear in profile. In addition, there is depth, space, and perspective. Even though there is a naturalistic style in the above mosaic, the figures seem stiff to our eyes compared to the Baroque, Renaissance, and Realism styles that we are all used to.

Stylistically, early Christian art was identical to Roman art of the Late Antiquity period. This is also true of the drawings in the catacombs, which were purely Roman in style. In other words, the Christians expressed Christian themes but had yet to develop their own style. This would change in the 6th century with the emergence of iconography. Notice how stylistically similar the image below from a 5th-century Roman manuscript is to the Ravenna mosaic above.

The Assembly of the Gods, 5th century Roman

The Origin of Iconography

Christian art is very different if we fast-forward 120 years after the Good Shepherd Ravenna mosaic. 

Emperor Justinian and His Retinue, Ravenna, Italy, mid 6th century Icon

We see significant stylistic differences at this time. Compare the image directly above with The Good Shepherd mosaic from Ravenna. What difference do you notice?

Looking closely, you will notice that the figures are stiffer, almost frozen in time, and showing no emotion. There is a collapse of space in general and negative space around figures and objects. These stylistic elements are very typical of the iconographic form. What were these artists attempting to communicate by using this form?

Before answering that question, we must consider how the artist’s perspective of his or her craft has changed. In classical, medieval, and even early modern times, the artist, for the most part, sought to convey some Platonic, ideal vision of beauty, some transcendent ideal.1 He or she was, in a sense, holding a mirror up to nature. All of that completely changed with the advent of Romanticism in the early 19th century. The artist’s job was now to invent rather than imitate.2 What became paramount was the artist’s unique vision and individual creativity, above and beyond any transcendent values. To listen to any outside voice, whether church, state, or anyone else, would betray the artist’s creativity, passion, and vision.

The iconographer was not trying to express his creativity and vision, but just the opposite. He was trying to communicate transcendent ideals and, in the case of iconography, theological truth. Instead of displaying his creativity for the whole world, he viewed himself as a humble servant to a spiritual reality much more significant than himself.

The Rich Meaning of Iconography

In short, iconography aims to show the heavenly ideal. It is eschatological, pointing to the final culmination of a redeemed man in a state of glorification. In the Bible, essential passages such as the Transfiguration of Christ on Mount Tabor and the Book of Revelation reveal the ideal man. The disciples ascending Mt. Tabor to witness the transfiguration is akin to ascending to heaven. Instances such as when Moses’ face shone after descending from Mt. Sinai offer glimpses of this heavenly glory on earth. If any specific biblical passage could succinctly encapsulate the theology of icons, it would be the following from the Epistle of 2nd Corinthians:

…that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, transitory though it was, will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious?…We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away.But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

2 Corinthians 3: 8, 13, 16-18

Moses had a heavenly glory that radiated from his face, yet this glory was transient, fading. On the other hand, the New Testament Christians behold the divine glory of Christ, which does not fade, and this glory, unlike that of the Old Testament, transforms those who behold it into the ever-increasing glory of the image and likeness of Christ.

In a nutshell, iconography aims to convey a heavenly glory that attracts us, not only to itself but also beyond it to heaven. That is why there is this tension in beholding iconography.

While we are drawn to its beauty, the icon signifies a transcendence greater than the image itself. The purpose of the beauty of icons is to guide us beyond them to the heavenly glory they portray. For example, the icon depicting Justinian and his retinue leads us to the heavenly court above, where Christ rules over the nations as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Justinian is merely an earthly representation of the heavenly court. On the one hand, there is drawing power in the beauty of the icon, but on the other hand, the icon creates a distance that makes it more challenging to connect emotionally with the image.

Consider the icon of the transfiguration below:

The Transfiguration, St. Catherin’s Monastery, Sinai, 12th century

In this icon, light emanates from Christ but casts no shadow since it is a heavenly light. Hard, crisp edges depict the fullness of truth with no uncertainty. The two-dimensional flatness indicates a time and space collapse since heaven is outside time and space. An uncreated, heavenly light depicted by the halos also emanates from the saints with Christ. Icons usually portray a full face with no profiles, which is what we will know fully in heaven. The lack of shadow and full profiles signify the fact that in heaven there is complete knowledge.

Christ as Pantocrator

Another central theme in early iconography that continues to the present day is Christ as King and Creator. In the early days, people named Christ “Pantocrator,” acknowledging him as the omnipotent ruler of all, encompassing his roles as Creator, Savior, and Judge. Below are some examples:

Christ Pantocrator, St. Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai, 6th century

This icon is genuinely remarkable in stylistically as well as historically. This iconic religious symbol dates back to around 550 A.D. It depicts Jesus Christ, Pantocrator, making it the earliest surviving known portrayal. Historians and scholars alike consider it one of the most significant and recognizable works of Byzantine art. Both Eastern Orthodoxy and Eastern Catholicism hold it in high esteem. But this icon was a prototype not only for the Eastern Church but also for the Western Church.

The two facial expressions on the left and right half of Christ’s face may symbolize the dual nature of Christ, being both human and divine.
You can see the mirrored composites of the left and right sides of the image below. If this is true, which side would you say is human and which is divine?

Western Iconic Style

Although we traditionally associate iconography more with the Eastern Church, as stated above, iconography was practiced in both the East and West. Below is an example of Western iconography from the Scottish Book of Kells.

Christ Enthroned, Scottish Book of Kells, 9th century

As you can probably tell, the Celtic style is very apparent. Iconographic elements include stiff figures, a full profile, a lack of emotion, a collapse of time and space, and a lack of shadow indicating heavenly rather than earthly light. The stylistic differences, in comparison to the East, include swirls and flowing lines. Eventually, with the advent of the Romanesque style in the West, 1000-2000 A.D., artists broke free from the Eastern iconographic style and used a greater degree of naturalism.

Christ in Majesty in a Medieval Illuminated Manuscript

The above icon has more of a Western Romanesque influence, including more naturalism (notice the numerous detailed folds in Christ’s garments) and vivid, bright colors. We also see more depth with Christ’s feet and right arm breaking the mandorla plane that encloses Him.

Medieval Iconographic Style

Christ Pantocrator, Russian, late 15th century

Above, we have a beautiful representation of Christ Pantocrator. This is Russian, so it is Eastern Orthodox. While the West developed other styles besides iconography, like Romanesque, Gothic, and Renaissance, the East stayed strictly with the traditional iconographic form. The essential stylistic elements have stayed the same for a thousand years.

As mentioned above, an icon creates a distance between it and the viewer. It does this by two means. Firstly, there is a lack of emotion, and secondly, the angle of vision is smaller so that the image appears farther away. The angle of vision has to be proportional to the amount of detail presented. A minor detail means that the object is farther away. The icon’s main image is positioned between the middle ground and the distance, captivating us with its beauty. As we approach the icon, it appears to recede.

It reminds me of chasing a rainbow when we were children. We are drawn to the rainbow by its spectacular beauty, but the closer we get, the more it seems to recede. And that was all because the rainbow maintained the same static angle as we moved toward it. So, it was both attractive and elusive at the same time.

As we move closer to the icon, it provides more detail, like a naturalistic painting. Still, there is an imbalance – it is supplying more detail, which is indicative of knowing fully in heaven, but because of the angle of vision, the subject always seems far off. Christ is always smaller than he would be naturally; the beauty and detail pull us toward Him, but we cannot get close enough, so we are drawn toward heaven. This is the artist’s intent. With an icon, there is always physical distance and emotional distance. Physical distance is created because the subject always occupies either the far ground or, at most, the middle ground but never the foreground. Everything is two-dimensional.

How do we close that gap of tension as we behold an icon? The answer is by developing a prayer life. Prayer is meant to bridge that gap; that is why icons in both the Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church are so central to holy life. They are instrumental aids to prayer. Icons are meant to move us to pray. The lack of naturalism and emphasis on transcendent reality is intended to get us out of our selfish perspective and ourselves.

As I will discuss in future posts, this is the opposite of how the Baroque painting (1600–1750) works. While icons draw us to heaven, Baroque paintings meet us where we are in our fallenness and lifts us up. Gothic (1200-1600) is somewhere in between, emphasizing pilgrimage from earth to heaven over time. Baroque artists used oil because it was more naturalistic, whereas Icon painters used egg tempera. After all, it enhanced symbolism. In addition, oil paint looks more like evening light, and egg tempera looks more like morning light.

Theotokos – Mary, Mother God

In addition to Christ’s Pantocrator, Mary, the Mother of God, was a pervasive theme in both Eastern and Western iconography.

Russian Kazan Icon of the Mother of God

This holy icon holds the highest stature in the Russian Orthodox Church. The above is a replica of the icon miraculously unearthed in Kazan in 1579 in the ruins of a burnt-down house. According to the story, the Virgin Mary appeared numerous times to a young girl named Matron to direct her where to find the icon. Since its discovery, it has reportedly been associated with ten separate miracles. This icon is also venerated in the Catholic Church, being related to the appearance of the Virgin Mary at Kazan, Our Lady of Kazan.

According to Church tradition, St. Luke, who wrote the Gospel of Luke, was an iconographer in addition to being a physician and was the first to paint Mary. In the above icon, Christ and Mary look directly at us. The corneal reflection is notably absent because there is no earthly light, only heavenly. The eyes are more prominent, as well as the nose and ears, because saints are wise and take in information. The receding hairline on the young Jesus is also supposed to indicate wisdom. Therefore, he has facial features more akin to an adult’s than a child’s.

Notice that the mouths are smaller. This indicates wisdom also, for the wise person speaks infrequently but wisely. There may be something to learn here for all of us. Also, there is a bright sadness. This is portrayed through the eyebrows, which are both sad tilting and happy tilting. Saints are at peace and joyful while suffering. They are unhappy because they have compassion for us, but they have a calm demeanor because they know God is in control. Overall, they are characterized by temperance and humility. Mary’s nose is elongated to smell the fragrance of heaven. The stars on Mary’s robes indicate perpetual virginity.

Decline and Rise of Iconography

Many art lovers consider the Renaissance the high watermark of Western Christian art. My purpose here is not to debate that point, but to simply say, despite all of the accomplishments of the Renaissance, it hurt iconography in both East and West by introducing more sentimentality, naturalism, extra details, and didactic details. The Renaissance masters adopted features of Greek and Roman art but added to their work the naturalism prevalent in Gothic art. In addition, an icon’s primary purpose is to put its beholder in contact with the spiritual reality of God or the saint it portrays. During the 16th century, this change began as the focus shifted from personally relating to the saint depicted by the icon to merely learning about him or her.5 This iconic decadence spread to Russia in the latter part of the 17th century.

Here is an example of how naturalistic “decadence” affected iconography.

The Annunciation by Masaccio, 1425

Compare this icon with the ones above. How does this image depart from the “pure” iconic forms above?

Masaccio, a contemporary of Donatello and an artistic descendant of Giotto, began the early Renaissance in Italian painting in 1425 by “furthering the trend toward solidarity of form and naturalism of face and gesture that Giotto had begun a century earlier.”.6

Regarding the resurgence of traditional iconography in the 20th and 21st centuries, this is an entire topic unto itself, for which I rely on Aiden Hart, a foremost expert in this area. Please see the references below for more information. According to Mr. Hart, the revival of traditional iconography in Greece is mainly attributable to one man, Photius Kontoglou (1895–1965), a painter, scholar, and writer who promoted the cause.

Icon by Photius Kontoglou

Many important Russian influences in the resurgence of traditional iconography started in the 19th century, one of the most important being Sister Yuliania (Maria Nikolia). After the Russian Revolution forced the Church and icon painting underground, Sister Yuliania, starting in the 1930s, secretly painted icons based on recently restored medieval icons. What was miraculous about this situation is that, after Stalin officially recognized the Church in 1944, Sister Yuliania gained a position teaching iconography to seminarians at the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius Monastery, a position she held until she died in the 1970s. Her pupils continue teaching iconography in the tradition that she started.

20th Century Russian Icon

Finally, in the mid-20th century, there was a confluence in Paris of three important men—Leonid Ouspensky, Father Gregory Kroug, and Vladimir Lossky – who reestablished artistic and theological standards for modern iconography, once again setting a standard in a discipline that had been corrupted over the centuries. I have listed some of their writings below. Ouspensky and Kroug were iconographers, and Lossky was a theologian.

St. Gregory of Sinai Monastery by Leonid Ouspensky
Fr Gregory Kroug died while painting this last icon of Thomas’ encounter with the Risen Christ

Iconography in the 21st Century

Aiden Hart talks about two extremes regarding icon painting. On one hand, we have “fearful copying,” where creativity is stifled to avoid departing from tradition. Conversely, we have “impatience to do one’s own thing” before humbly learning tradition. The overall spirit of modernity leans toward the latter. Still, at the same time, many of those attracted to such a spiritual and traditional art form have the temperaments and predispositions for the former. As in most things, the answer lies in Aristotle’s Golden Mean between the two extremes and is left really for wise, talented, and willing individuals to work out.

Ukranian Icon Painter Vladimir Grygorenko, b. 1956, at work

Timeless yet indigenous; humble yet fearless; traditional yet new; these are some of the qualities of great icons.

-Aiden Hart, iconographer

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Deo Gratias!

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Footnotes and Endnotes:

  1. Berlin, Isaiah, 1990. The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas, ed. Henry Hardy, pp. 57-58, London: John Murray. ISBN 0-7195-4789-X
  2. Imitation in the Greek sense of mimesis that I discussed in earlier posts on Plato and the ARTS.
  3. John Galey, George Forsyth, and Kurt Weitzmann, Sinai and the Monastery of St. Catherine (Givatayim, Israel: Massada, 1980), p. 99
  4. Galey, John, Forsyth, George, and Weitzmann, Kurt. Sinai and the Monastery of St. Catherine, p. 92, Doubleday, New York, 1980, ISBN 0385171102
  5. From a talk given at the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius Annual Conference, Stourbridge, 22 August, 2000 entitled by Greek Orthodox iconographer Aiden Hart entitled Iconographers of the Twentieth Century
  6. Post from the American Association of Iconographers on how Renaissance naturalism affected iconography entitled The Renaissance and Icons

Further Reading:

Vladimir Lossky and Leonid Ouspensky, The Meaning of Icons, St Vladimirs Seminary Pr; 2nd edition (June 15, 1999), ISBN-13: 978-0913836996

Leonid Ouspensky, The Theology of the Icon, Volumes 1 and 2, SVS Press, ISBN: 978-0-881-41124-9, From SVS Press, “This is the most comprehensive introduction available to the history and theology of the icon, and is the standard text upon which most modern studies of iconography are based. It includes more than the basic theory of the transfiguration of beauty and the sanctification of art. It is a fundamental element in the entire body of Orthodox Tradition.” 

Please check out this very interesting short paper on iconography by Aiden Hart entitled Celtic, Anglo-Saxon and Romanesque Iconography. Aiden Hart is a Greek Orthodox iconographer who taught David Clayton, artist and my academic advisor, iconography.

This site by Duquesne University is one of the richest and most comprehensive site on the internet concerning the study of iconography. It is called Icons: A Research Guide.

Here is a transcript of a talk given at the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius Annual Conference, Stourbridge, 22 August, 2000 entitled by Greek Orthodox iconographer Aiden Hart entitled Iconographers of the Twentieth Century

Here is a fascinating post by the American Association of Iconographers on how Renaissance naturalism affected iconography entitled The Renaissance and Icons.

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