Hesychasm and Russian Icons
This article is extrapolated from the chapter, Hesychasm, the Flowering of Russian Art in Leonid Ouspensky’s Theology of the Icon, Volume II. I’ve chosen to share this particular material because of the understanding common to most Iconographers that Andrei Rublev is one of the greatest Iconographers and his work is fruit of the Hesychast period in Russia. Since this article points to some of the conditions present that contributed to Rublev’s ability to create Icons that spoke to his time we can discern important truths to apply to modern Icon writing. Hesychasm and Russian Icons are a unique combination that had a powerful effect on the art of its day.
Message To An Iconographer
Next month, part two of this article will give a synopsis of the “Message to an Iconographer”. This was a document widely circulated for and amongst Iconographers of that day. It attempts to set standards of Iconographic practice and is worth reading and understanding forts bearing on creating Icons today.
Thirteenth. Fourteenth and Fifteenth Century Russia
During the thirteenth century, an original artistic language specific to Russia began to appear. It reflected the spiritual life of the people, their holiness and their way of assimilating Christianity. Russian sacred arts from this time are inspired by a direct, living knowledge and experience of Revelation.
In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the spiritual leader, Sergius of Radonezh, consecrated his church to the Holy Trinity, “so that contemplation of the Holy Trinity might conquer the fear of this world’s detestable discord”. It was a time of feudal wars, Mongol raids, and general unrest, but Radonezh was confident of the power of the sacred image to influence his world.
Revival in Russia
Russia, through its own suffering of the Tartar invasion, experienced the Gospel intensely. There was widespread understanding that the power of Christ was participating actively in the lives of the Russian people, helping them in time of need. From this intensity of faith, Russia’s pictorial art reached its highest expression. Today we appreciate these examples of Iconography for their intense and joyful colors, expressive form and their freedom and spontaneity.
During this period, hesychasm and Orthodox Christianity were closely linked. St Sergius’ monastery became the spiritual center of Russia and the hesychast influence. The theology of hesychasm is reflected in the spiritual content and character of the Icons of that period. Zealous in the life of prayer and fasting, the famous iconographers, Daniel and Andrei Rublev were able to receive divine grace and perceive the divine, immaterial light that we see in the colors of their Icons.
Master Iconographer Dionysius was also guided by hesychasm and the teaching of inner prayer. These great Iconographers were not concerned with earthly things but always prayed to raise their spirits and thoughts toward the divine, immaterial light.
As Iconographers today, may we always seek to keep prayer as the central focus of our praxis, and learn from those who went before us.
Links to Books on Russian Icons
Here are a few links to websites that have books on Russian Icons: