Recently I have been reading a book by Sister Gabriela about Father Sophrony that includes many of his drawings and icons. I’m inspired by his approach and work and want to share that with you here.
While attending art school in Russia in the 1920’s, one of his teachers was Vassily Kandinsky. Soon after, Sophrony moved to Paris where he exhibited his paintings and was not interested in pursuing a Christian life. This changed drastically and in 1926 he entered the Monastery of Panteleimon on Mt Athos where he remained until finally settling in Essex, UK at the Monastery of Saint John the Baptist.
To learn more about Father Sophrony, please read Sister Gabriela’s excellent books: “Being, The Art and Life of Father Sophrony”, or “Seeking Perfection in the World of Art”, or “Painting As Prayer: The Art of A. Sophrony Sakharov.”
I include here several quotes from the “Painting as Prayer” book that I know will be inspiring to all of you as well:
“An artist is a person who believes with deep conviction in the rightness of what he creates; who devotes his entire life to art for mankind. Only in such people does the Divine spark burn, brightly an unquenchably. And this is what’s most important in art.”
This is a quote in the book attributed to Kandinsky: ” the artist must not consider himself master of the situation, but the servant of nobler aims- a servant whose obligations are majestic, distinctive, and sacred. He must nurture himself and plumb the depths of his inner life, he must conserve his inner life and develop it lest his outer talent becomes empty, like a lost glove, the empty and vain likeness of a hand.”
Painting as Prayer, Book by Sister Gabriela
“The Icon is an art which expresses the spiritual world in form and color. It is made with a stylistic language of its own which introduces the person looking at it into another sphere of being, another world of perception. Intentionally it follows a different logic of perspective and reality, placing emphasis on the inner life because its main purpose is either to depict the face of God or convey the soul of the saint or the essence of the scene being depicted. Deliberately this makes it somewhat abstract. The artist seeks divine inspiration for their work and in order to receive this, rather than some other influence, he needs a humble and prayerful attitude, recognizing that he is not master of the situation.
Inspiration from on high depends to a considerable extent on us- whether we open our heart so that the Lord- The Holy Spirit Who ‘stands at the door and knocks’ does not have to enter forcibly.
The iconographer will try to free himself from all that hinders or is contrary to the action of Divine Inspiration. This requires both humility and asceticism, but as ascetic feats may lead to pride, and thus deter grace, it is humility that is the essential part. This keeps him both open to others and their suggestions and open to grace. It preserves a rigorous questioning and checking in prayer with his conscience and with the ideal which is the humble example of Christ.”
Orthodox Journal Article
I first learned about Father Sophrony’s work from an excellent article on the Orthodox Journal. Here is the link .
“For me, the most fascinating part of the study was the subject of Father Sophrony as an iconographer. His approach to iconographic practice is described and this section is rich in quotations and comments of great interest. Sister Gabriela writes that by having “absorbed the iconographic tradition through observation and living with it, while leading a strict ascetical life…one’s understanding goes deeper, beyond the external aesthetic aspect.” “…he understood iconography in its essential form, as an inspiration for prayer, and a “springboard”, as he called it himself, to eternity. In this sense he was free from any attachment to any specific school or iconographic movement. His sole interest was to render the icon as authentically as possible.” As a result of this it is apparent that “One cannot classify his icons into any particular style or school. He took what he found best from each. His only concern was the icon itself, how best to express the given situation.”
In summation Sister Gabriela writes of Father Sophrony’s life that “This is the search for Christ, the yearning for close contact with Him and, within this, striving to portray His face in a correct and worthy manner, both in the inner life and in iconographic panting.”
Additional Link to Icon Gallery in Slovakia
I have recently seen a lovely online exhibition of Eastern European Icons at The Gallery of Icons. Here is the link.
That’s all for this month. Please email me with suggestions for future articles on understanding and appreciating icons.
Blessings and prayers,