Christos Yannaras:
The Ethos of Orthodox Liturgical Art


5. Religious "naturalism"

In recent decades, Russian theology in the European diaspora has produced some interesting examples of how the symbolism of Eastern Orthodox icons can be interpreted, indicating also how they differ from western religious painting.35 Here we need only underline the fact that these differences are not confined to style, choice of theme or allegorical symbolism; they mark a radical distinction and contrast between two views of truth and knowldge, of existence and the world, of the incarnation of God and the salvation of man– in short, they sum up two incompatible ontologies.

Even from the thirteenth century– a key point for our understanding of all subsequent religious and cultural developments in the West– we can no longer speak of ecclesial iconography in Europe, but only of religious painting. And this means that in the western Church artistic expression ceases to be a study and a manifestation of the Church's theology– at least on the preconditions for theology in visual art formulated by the Seventh Ecumenical Council.

Religious art in Europe is dominated by the "naturalistic" or, better, "photographic" representation of "sacred" persons, places or objects. The "sacredness" of what is depicted lies exclusively in the theme, the given meaning of the subject matter, and the allegorical or analogical way the viewer will interpret it. The persons, objects or places depicted are themselves those of everyday experience in dimensional space and measurable time; they have nothing to do with the space and time of the Kingdom, the change in mode of existence which constitutes true life and salvation. Western religious painting does not aspire to transcend the time-bound and ephemeral character of the individual entity as a phenomenon, its subjection to the laws of corruption. and death. In consequence, any young woman can serve as a model for a painting of the Mother of God, any young man can represent Christ or a saint, and any landscape can take the place of the scene of biblical revelation.

In western religious art, from the thirteenth century it seems that the fundamentals of the ecclesial truth and hope of the faithful were already definitively lost. Visual art no longer seeks out the truth about personal existence beyond dimensional individuality, the possibility of transforming space and time into the immediacy of a relationship or the realization of incorruption and immortality in the communion of saints. The function of painting is purely decorative and didactic– it does not serve as a revelation. It represents the fallen world and tries to give it "religious" meaning, which is to say emotive content, without concerning itself about the possibilities of existence and life beyond entitative individuality. The style– the use of colors, positions, figures and background– is subject to the requirements of "naturalism" and "objectivity." It seeks to convince us of the "reality" of what is depicted, and reality is understood simply as obedience to the laws of dimensional space and measurable time. And it seeks to evoke emotion "objectively"; hence the perspective, the suppleness, the background and the optical illusion become the artist's means to arouse emotion, to shock our nervous system and "uplift the soul."36

The purely artistic reaction to the "photographic" naturalism of the emotional religious style which began in the West with the Renaissance certainly has greater "theological" interest. It is incomparably more consistent with the existential bewilderment of western man, with the tragic impasse created when the truth of the person is lost. In modern western painting, there are heights of creativity which express with striking clarity the hopeless search for possibilities of form beyond "entity," the revolt against idols which refuses to make the ephemeral identification of "forms" with "essences." Ultimately they express the dissolution of forms in abstraction, the artist's attempt to spell out the truth of the world from the beginning, through completely primitive color and shape experiences.

[Top | Home]


35 See L. Ouspensky and V.I. Lossky, The Meaning of Icons, tr. G.E.H. Palmer and E. Kadloubovsky (Boston, 1969; rev. ed. Crestwood, N.Y., 1982). L. Ouspensky, Essai sur la Theologie de l'icone dans l'eglise Orthodoxe (Paris, 1960; Eng. trans. Crestwood, N.Y., 1980). Paul Evdokimov, L'art de l'icone– theologie de la beaute (Paris, 1970). Idem, L'Orthodoxie (Neuchatel, 1965), pp. 216-238. G.P. Fedotov, The Russian Religious Mind (Cambridge, Mass., 1946). N.P. Kondakov, The Russian Icon, trans. G.H. Minns (Oxford, 1927). P.P. Muratov, Les icones russes (Paris, 1927). One may observe that these examples represent a peculiar and probably typically Russian mentality in interpreting icons, as impressionistic as Russian iconography itself. The themes of the icon are analyzed into detailed aesthetic impressions, usually by means of reduction to geometric patterns; the aesthetic impressions are translated into ideas, and the ideas are used to express in concrete form the symbolism of the thematics, the design and the coloring. A typical example of this way of interpreting icons is the analysis of Rublev's Trinity in Paul Evdokimov's book L'Orthodoxie, pp. 233-238. This is a method which certainly expresses it wealth of poetic sensitivity, but often leads to schematic interpretations which fail to do justice to the immediacy and universality of the "semantics" of iconography. It is certainly characteristic that the examples used for these interpretative analyses are taken almost exclusively from the Russian iconographic tradition. The Greek icon (or "Byzantine," as we say today) displays a strenuous resistance to any intellectual approach. This is probably why the particular interest recently shown by Westerners in Orthodox iconography is confined almost entirely to Russian icons, ignoring the Greek prototypes.

36 Characteristic is the line of argument used by Calvin in rejecting images and symbols and precluding their presence in churches– even the sign of the cross. Given the premises of the western religious painting he had in mind, a painted church is nothing but "a banner erected to draw men to idolatry." Oblivious of the iconographic tradition of the undivided Church, he ridiculed the Seventh Ecumenical Council and its decrees: see Institution de la Religion chretienne, Book One, X1, §§ 12, 13, 14, 15.