Christos Yannaras:
The Ethos of Orthodox Liturgical Art


6. The "passage" to the hypostasis of the person
     through iconography

The problem which Byzantine iconography had to face was the same as that confronting church architecture: How is it possible for natural material to manifest its "rational" potentialities, to be transfigured into flesh of the Word, of the word of life beyond space, time, corruption and death? And more specifically: How can design and color be used to depict not nature, the corruptible and mortal individual entities, but the hypostasis of persons and things,37 that mode of existence which makes being into hypostasis in true life?

Certainly, the Byzantine icon is not a creation ex nihilo. As in the formulation of theological truth, so also in the manifestations of her art the Church has assumed the actual historical flesh of her time, transfiguring what she has assumed into a revelation of the event of salvation, a revelation ever present and immediate "yesterday and today and forever."

The historical flesh of the Byzantine icon is the Roman art of the first centuries of the Church, or strictly speaking its Greek roots. This ancient Greek art had evolved a technique which permitted the abstraction of the individual and circumstantial characteristics of the person or object depicted, so as to reduce the concrete object to a direct vision of its "reason," inner principle or essence. The ancient Greek artist did not aim at a faithful representation of the natural prototype an artificial reproduction of it– but at that form of depiction which makes possible a dynamic and personal view, a conscious vision of things.38 Thus "the artifact, the statue, serves as a measure for the beauty of the natural prototype, and not vice versa."39 The artifact is called agalma, a statue, because it offers the gladness and rejoicing (agalliase) of the true way of looking at the world; it sets out the way to look at the object with reason, and relates physical objects to their rational reality which, for the Greek, is more real than the incidental impression they create; art offers a way of seeing which interprets the world.

Ancient Greek art thus prepares the way for Byzantine iconography. The Roman painting which comes between them historically is a forerunner of Byzantine icons to the extent that it preserves, albeit in decadent form, elements of continuity from ancient Greek artistic expression, while at the same time making progress in technical skill, especially in fresco painting. But although Byzantine iconography is an organic continuation of the Greek vision and interpretation of the world through artistic representation, it also represents a radical transcendence and transmutation of the fundamental characteristics of Greek art. This is because the Byzantine icon represents a cosmology and an ontology totally different from that of the ancient Greeks.

It is certainly through Greek tradition and technique that the Byzantine iconographer reaches the point of transcending the individual and incidental characteristics of the person or object depicted. This transcendence, however, does not aim to manifest the idea of the entity, to reduce the actual existent object to an ideal "universal." For the Byzantine iconographer, the only existential reality beyond corruption and death is the person, the dynamic transcendence of individuality which constitutes a transformation in the mode of existence. It is no longer a matter of reducing the concrete to the abstract universality of an idea which is a "metaphysical" datum, accessible to the intellect alone. At issue is the potential existing in concrete reality, in man's individual flesh and the flesh of the world, to participate in the true life of personal distinctiveness, of freedom from any natural predetermination. In the icon, the iconographer sets out the personal mode of existence which is love, communion and relationship, the only mode which forms existential distinctiveness and freedom into a fact of life and a hypostasis of life.

How is it possible, then, to use the material means of artistic expression to represent a mode of existence which does not do away with material individuality, but merely removes its existential autonomy, that is to say, the dimensional space of individual contrasts and distances, and measurable time with its progression from earlier to later? This achievement is not unrelated to the artistic talent of the great Byzantine masters. The technique of the icon– the restriction to two dimensions, the rejection of dimensional "depth" and of temporal sequence in events depicted, the use of colors, attitudes, figures and background– leads Greek "abstraction" to a remarkable level of expressiveness, in which the concrete reality operates as a symbol of the universal dimension of life. It is a symbol in the sense that it puts together (symballei) or co-ordinates and reconnects the particular experiences of personal participation in the one, universal mode of existence which is the distinctiveness of the person as dynamically fulfilled in the framework of communion and relationship.

The Byzantine icon, however, is not merely an artistic proposition, an individual achievement by the artist which is put forward as his personal participation and "symbolic" elevation to the universal. It is, properly speaking, the expression of a common attitude of life, an operation of life which the artist undertakes to depict by abstracting as far as possible the elements of his individual intervention. The Byzantines were conscious of the fact that it is the Church which paints the icon "by the hand" of the painter. Thus the technique of abstraction is not an exercise in individual skill aimed at going beyond what is concrete and contingent; it is an exercise in subjecting arbitrary individual judgment to a set iconographic type, formed from the ascetic experience of earlier teachers of the art, in harmony with the universal experience of the Church.

The subjection of the individual view to a set iconographic type applies not only to the artist, but also to the person looking at the icon. The icon does not put forward a "logically" perfected and ideal view of an entity, but summons us to a direct communion and relationship with what is depicted, a dynamic passage to the archetype,40 to the hypostasis of what is depicted. And this passage requires the subjugation of individual resistances– of the sentiments, aesthetic emotions and intellectual elevation of the individual– so as to liberate the potential for personal relationship and participation. The set form of iconography works precisely as a starting point, helping us to go beyond individual ways of looking at things and to accomplish a personal passage to the hypostasis of the things depicted, as opposed to the way they appear. This is why we say that Byzantine iconography does not "decorate" the church but has an organic, liturgical function in the polyphony of the eucharistic event, existentially elevating us to the hypostatic realization of life.

The technique of icons is incomprehensible apart from the liturgical experience of icons, the practical acceptance of their calling or beauty41– apart from a personal affirmation of their visual witness to the immediate presence of the whole body of the Church, living and departed, militant and triumphant, in the oneness of eucharistic life. In other words, the technique of "abstraction" in Byzantine iconography is much more than a style: it expresses and puts into practice the ascesis of the Church. The artist and the person looking at the icon alike are restricted by the canons of asceticism, And totally liberated by the possibilities for abstraction which this same form provides. Through these possibilities we are enabled to attain a dynamic renunciation of the individual way of seeing things and an elevation into harmony with the universal view of persons and things, that of the whole Church.

There are objective rules as to how the iconographer is to make the "background" for the icon, how he is to add the "flesh," how to achieve the highlights while keeping the background color for the "shadows," how to do the mouth and eyes and how to add the "lights" at the end. These rules are unwritten and yet absolutely precise, and are not taught theoretically but handed on from master to pupil as an experience of life and ascesis. As he studies his art, the pupil is guided by the teacher in the life of the Church and her truth; he fasts and practices self-abnegation, in order for his icon to be the work of the Church, not his individual contrivance for the Church to recognize in his work the archetype of her truth, The objective rules and the established form of the icon subject the painter's individual view of iconographic truth, his individual idea or conception, to a view which is an event of communion. He represents reality, not as he sees it with his natural eyes, but with the aid of symbols which are models common to the Church's consciousness. "For the making of icons is not an invention of painters," says the decree of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, "but an ordinance and tradition approved by the universal Church... It therefore expresses the conception of the holy fathers and their tradition, not that of the painter. Only the art belongs to the painter. The regulations clearly are those of the venerable holy fathers."42

The paradox, from the viewpoint of anyone without experience of the Church, is that subjecting the artist to set forms of iconography does not restrict his creative inspiration and initiative; it is not a kind of "censorship" or intellectual emasculation imposed on the artist's talent and ability. On the contrary, the more he is freed from his individual aesthetic impulses, the more clearly is revealed the personal distinctiveness of his work, and the whole Church recognizes her own universal truth in what he personally has made. It is extraordinary what artistic progress there has been in Byzantine iconography, what boldness of innovation purely in terms of painting, and what a level of artistic sensitivity has distinguished the various schools and trends in iconography.

Here we should perhaps add that it is essential for the artist to have at the outset a full and detailed knowledge of and competence in "worldly" painting. It is well known that those who were trained in iconography went through long and arduous "studies" in landscape compositions and portraits before coming on to the icon. They knew very well the secrets of the art of painting, and had practiced this art with exceptional assiduity before submitting themselves to the rule of iconography. Here, as in every aspect of the Church's life, the transcendence of nature takes place not in the abstract and intellectually, but with complete faithfulness to what is natural, with real knowledge and study of the resistances and possibilities of nature. The transfigured creation of the Church does not represent an ontological transformation, dematerializing or spiritualizing nature, but an existential transformation. Nature remains the same, but its mode of existence changes. The dematerializing and spiritualizing of nature is simply an intellectual concept, existentially realized as the "moral" imitation of an ideal prototype, and represented in art as a schematic allegory which works by analogy. The existential transformation of nature, however, can only be approached in life and art through the exercise of freedom, through the way of repentance. The achievement of Byzantine iconography is that it avoids the danger of "conceptual idols" and remains faithful to the "identity" of nature and the "distinctiveness" of its existential transformation: "It represents distinctiveness, but distinctiveness as likeness."43

The ascetic study of nature and faithfulness to it, designed to lead us up to its existential transfiguration, appears more clearly in the comparison between Greek (or "Byzantine") iconography and Russian iconography– a delicate and sensitive issue.44

We have mentioned the existence of a rule in Orthodox iconography. The use of this rule defines the scope of the artist's obedience, the distinction between his personal approach and the experience of the Church; and while it subjugates the individual view, it brings out personal universality without ending in impersonal formalism.

Russian iconography does not always escape the temptation to theoretical formalism, to schematic "style." Looking at a Russian Orthodox icon, what one finds very often is not proof of the existential transfiguration of nature but rather the idea of transfiguration, presented in a schematic and ornamental way. Formalization replaces faithfulness to nature, and tends to aid the impression that nature is spiritualized and dematerialized. The folds of the clothing do not correspond to a real body underneath, and the positions and movements of the bodies are not natural but geometrically formal;45 the lighting is diffused, almost blending in with the color, so as to give the impression once again that matter has its own light. It is hard to describe these real differences in words, but they become apparent when we compare a Russian and a Greek icon.

This distinction makes Russian iconography more easily accessible to modern western man; it corresponds to the way the European, through his own tradition, understands abstraction as a way of making things spiritual and non-material. Nor is this attitude unrelated to other peculiar features of Russian church life and theology, such as the baroque style which prevailed in Russian church architecture, the way liturgical music was taken over wholesale by the anthropocentric sentimentality of western "harmony," or the "sophiological" tendencies Russian theology, so akin to western mysticism.

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37 Cf. the definition given by St Theodore the Studite: "When anything is depicted, it is not the nature but the hypostasis which is depicted": Antirrheticus 3, 34, PG 99, 405A.

38 This observation arises out of the study by Christos Karouzos, "The Principles of Aesthetic Vision in the Fifth Century B.C.," in his book Ancient Art (in Greek– Athens, 1972), p. 43ff., where he defines the conscious vision which characterizes fifth century art, as opposed to the subconscious vision which has left its mark on archaic art.

39 Karouzos, op. cit., p. 51.

40 For the honor paid to the icon passes to the prototype": St Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit, 18, 45, PG 32, 149C.

41 " it calls all things to itself; hence it is also called kallos ('beauty')…" Dionysius the Areopagite, On Divine Names IV, 7, PG 3, 701C.

42 Acts of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, Mansi XIII, 252C; in the edition of J. Karmiris, The Dogmatic and Symbolic Monuments of the Orthodox Catholic Church, vol. I (Athens, 1960), p. 238f.

43 See Epiphanius, Against Heresies 72, 10, PG 42, 396C.

44 This distinction was first drawn to my attention by the artist Andreas Fokas. I am also indebted to him for other valuable observations which have improved my attempts at interpretation.

45 See Paul Evdokimov, L'art de l'icone– theologie de la beaute, pp. 188-189, 210. Idem, L'Orthodoxie, pp. 227-228.