Greetings Fellow Iconographers:
Canons of Iconography?
Reflecting on the current interest in icon painting we are experiencing in this last thirty years, it is interesting to note the many and varied styles of icon writing that are emerging. How are we able to discern what is a true Icon? By what standards do we judge the authenticity of our own work? In my early days of Icon study I often heard the words “The Canons of Iconography” referred to as our standard of comparison. However, upon closer investigation, it became clear that these Canons were more mythical than reality. There is no Bible of Icon writing.
Traditions of the Past
So, how can we carry on the valuable traditions of icon writing from the past? In the same way that artists have always learned their craft- we need to copy from the masters. In an articulate and well- researched article on just this subject, Romanian Iconographer Todor Mitrovic has written two articles for the Orthodox Arts Journal this month.
In the first article, published online, June 23, 2020, Todor Mitrovic writes about the high achievement of Byzantine art as a very high expression of European culture for its time. He speaks of the canons, or canonicity, of iconography as not sufficiently representing what great church art was in the middle ages or being able to serve the needs of iconographers today. Understandably, the need to distinguish between what is Christian and what is not was a legitimate need in the early centuries of Christianity.
“Very early, disputes arose as to what was genuinely Christian. Hence, the Church was constantly forced to set up norms, e.g., for doctrine, for life, for accepting books as Scripture, for worship. It thus felt the need for a word that would unmistakably denote what is valid and binding in the Church…” T. Mitrovic
However, slavish adherence to an imaginary canon can only limit the authentic expression of God’s Holy Spirit in Icons today.
“…the image of the list of icon-painting rules, however imaginary it might have been, hangs over the heads of contemporary iconographers, and radically defines the entire artistic production of the Orthodox Church.” T. Mitrovic
Are There Rules and Where to Find Them? Part II
In the second installment of Mr. Mitrovic’s article in the Orthodox Arts Journal, he speaks of how the canons of the seventh ecumenical council only proclaim the need for icons to be painted, but they do not attempt to interfere with their artistic execution.
That seems that the Byzantine Church never attempted a legal codification of its artistic production, so why do we attempt to do so now?
Instructions for medieval icon painting were general canons which apply to diverse forms of artistic creation. “…in the most famous manual, compiled by Dionysius of Fourna, for example, where there is a recipe for mixing the colors for painting the face, and norms for the proportions of the human figure, the author subverts any concept of a rule, since he states that this is only one among many possibilities …we cannot find there any set of direct prescriptions on producing an icon that would be “canonical” in the narrow sense. Moreover, some clumsy attempts to codify any such prescriptions, especially with ever-advancing reproductive technology, has led to cold and sterile results in church art, which could hardly be compared with the genuine achievements of Byzantine art.” Todor Mitrovic
Language vs Canon
Could the traditional aspect of church art be designated not by the term canon, but by the term language? Mr. Mitrovic asks the question: “what would happen if the normative aspect of church art were treated in a linguistic manner?”
Linguistic structures are extremely conservative and slow to change, not because of some ideology, but because their primary purpose is to communicate and understand. Surely, good icon painting is about communicating and bringing the viewer into God’s presence through the visual image. And there are many aspects of creating icons that help to make this possible. It’s just that there are different ways to use these creative elements- the application of paint for example, or line quality, or color density, and still be within the validity of icon painting language and form.
I suggest you read these articles in order to understand the nuances and implications for your own icon writing. Mr. Mitrovic closes with;
“Although the terms canon and language have some semantic affinity, their use as paradigms, in the end, might have quite a different impact on the development of church art.”
In my lifetime, there has never been more need than that of the present for Christian artists to support one another in this quest for an authentic visual language that represents a theology that can heal and speak to our times.
Until next month,