The Transcendental Nature of Icons

The Transcendental Nature of Icons

This month, I wanted to share some reflections taken from reading the book, “The Avant-Garde Icon, Russian Avant-Garde Art & The Icon Painting Tradition, written by Andrew Spira.

ELijah and the Chariot of Fire Icon 14th Cent.
ELijah and the Chariot of Fire Icon 14th Cent.

Exploring the potential of icons in the context of the modern world, Andrew Spira speaks to the integration of the ancient spiritual truths found in Icons into modern culture. 

We are looking today at just the first chapter entitled “Icons: An Introduction”, particularly focusing on the development of the Russian iconographic tradition from the seventh to the sixteenth century.

Spira gives a brief history and explanation of the iconoclast controversy that I particularly appreciate due to the information about the widely spreading religion of Islam that was iconoclastic and therefore provided some of the impetus for the negation and destruction of icons in the seventh century.

Archangel Gabriel Icon, School of Dionysus, 1502
Archangel Gabriel Icon, School of Dionysus, 1502

During the iconoclastic controversy, an official theology of icons was developed maintaining that, by incarnating in matter as Christ, God established a principle that it was lawful and appropriate  to represent the Divine in material form.  Like the Eucharist, icons were regarded as extensions of the body of Christ.  It was their sacramentality that mattered, more than the artistic quality or their symbolic meaning. Therefore, The definitive characteristic of Icons lies within their mystical identity.

The effort to create a form of art that could communicate the mystery of the incarnate God took place within the Eastern church before the 10th century.

In 1453 the capital of Russia moved to Moscow from Constantinople after the fall of the Byzantine Empire.  Then, from a spiritual point of view, the monastic discipline of Hesychasm, an ancient practice of unceasing prayer, led to a period of religious fervor that resulted in an increase in the development and proliferation of Icons throughout the church.  Russian icon painting silently reveals God to the inner eye, or heart, of the believer.

St. Boris & St. Gleb with scenes from their life, late 14th century
St. Boris & St. Gleb with scenes from their life, late 14th century

The contrast between a rational, western, didactic approach and the more mystical, contemplative and sacramental approach to Icon writing is something that icon painters today have to come to terms with in order to develop an art that has its own artistic integrity and sacramental presence.  This contrast  can be seen not necessarily as  two polarities, right and wrong, but as both and, permitting a creative synthesis of the two approaches.

Modern Icon Painting

Although the influence of the western Renaissance in 16th century Russia was largely not experienced, there was still a disintegration of the medieval interrelationship between spiritual life and popular culture.  This was evident in modern Russian and Eastern Icons from the sixteenth century onwards.

Russian Icon circa 14th Century
Russian Icon circa 14th Century

In an attempt to change the course of Russian modern icon painting in the seventeenth century from secularization back to spiritual traditions,  attempts were made to formalize the pure tradition of icon painting. But these  undermined the principles of insight and experience that also formed the basis of the tradition.  This resulted in a westernized icon, realistic, narrative, and  in a lack of feeling and spiritual depth in the icons of modern periods.

Many post sixteenth century Icons reflect the lack of depth of feeling that is characteristic of the earlier icons due to rigid adherence to copying icons and focusing on technical skills as opposed to contemplation on theology and prayer.

It is the contemplative tradition that supports the practice and principles of Icon writing from within. This is the spirit of the tradition of icon painting as a sacramental medium for the transmission of the incarnate God to the world.

Angel Icon, Dionysus, 16th Century
Angel Icon, Dionysus, 16th Century

The contemplative awareness that is seen in the expressions of the saints in medieval icons calls for a corresponding orientation on the part of the viewer.

I hope this article has been informative and helpful.  It is my intention to present views that further the development of contemporary Icon writing and provide a sense of community by sharing my research, prayers, and work.

May you all be blessed and prosper in the art and spiritual discipline of Icon writing.

Christine Simoneau Hales

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Christine and Michael Hales

Christine Simoneau Hales is an artist/Iconographer who's works are in many public and private collections. Visit her websites for more information: Paintings www.christinehales.com, and for her Icons: www.newchristianicons.com, and americanassociationoficonographers.com Michael Hales is a world class photographer as well as Chaplain at Freedom Village.