Byzantine Iconography vs. Western Religious Art
An Orthodox Aesthetic Counterpoint to a Protestant blog post on Holy Images
This blog post will attempt to highlight the differences between Byzantine Iconography vs. Western Religious Art. It is only fair to point out from the very start that Victoria’s selection of works of Art in the 2nd part of her article, “Disciplining our eyes with holy images“, is truly inspired.
“I desire peace—and not just any old peace, but the peace that Christ gives, and not just for myself, but for the world.
I desire to be an agent of healing,
I desire to touch Christ’s wounds.
I desire to serve.
I desire to feed people,
I desire to practice resurrection.
I desire Holy Spirit fire.
I desire to preach truth.
I desire to bless.
I desire to suffer with dignity.
I desire to stand up for justice.
I desire to protect.
I desire to forgive.
I desire to weep with those who weep.
I desire transfiguration.
Let me repeat again here, at the end of this selection of works of Art, that Victoria Jones’ choices have warmed my heart and have been a delight to the eyes!
Victoria’s rationale for just “gazing” at “holy (*) images” in the first part of her essay feels too cerebral to me, limiting and stifling, so ‘Puritan’, so Protestant, if I may add. Even if she did not mention this so explicitly–which she does–ie. that her attitude to “holy [sic] images” is derived from her “own Protestant theology [sic] of images”, still her Protestant limitations, again if I may say so, are obvious to anyone with an Orthodox Christian sensibility.
Even the very title of her analysis is revealing: “Disciplining [sic] our eyes“. In my opinion, what we should all be targeting instead, is not to just the disciplining, but the healing, the sanctification of our eyes and all our senses. Indeed, Victoria herself feels the needs for “having right sight and desire restored” but her ‘solution to this problem’ is too cerebral and rationalistic in my opinion, not really a solution in the end, as it fails to embrace the whole of man, body and soul, heart and nous, and perpetuates the torment of a divided, conflicting, fragmented humanity.
Consider the following by Victoria:
“I use them [ie. holy images] as an aid to prayer, but I do not reverence them with actions like kissing or lifting—not necessarily because I’m opposed to such displays but more likely because I’m naturally reserved, and also I’m usually interacting with the images digitally. … Part of my private spiritual practice is to spend a little time each day gazing on a holy image. I’m particularly fond of ones of Christ. For me this gazing serves a centering function; it reorders my desires. Sitting still with an image of Christ reminds me of Whose image I bear, and I take that with me as I encounter other images throughout the day that try to tell me otherwise.” (Ibid)
No! This is so limiting! It is by far too cerebral, too rationalistic, too ‘mind-centred’, too ‘Western’ … Rather that entering into a Communion with Christ our Saviour Himself, we are limiting ourselves to ideas and concepts about Christ. Hugging and embracing and touching icons may indeed feel strange to those of a Protestant background, more so if “naturally reserved”, but matter is not evil! It was ancient Greek philosophy which believed that the body imprisons the soul, and thus it detested matter. But Christians respect the body and all its senses, since Christ made the flesh a source of sanctification, and matter (water, oil, etc.) a channel of divine grace.
In his writings, St. Gregory Palamas affirmed that man, united in body and soul, is sanctified by Jesus Christ, who took a human body at the Incarnation. “Thus the Word of God took up His dwelling in the Theotokos in an inexpressible manner and proceeded from her, bearing flesh. He appeared upon the earth and lived among men, deifying our nature.” … And he significantly adds, “When God is said to have made man according to His image, the word man means neither the soul by itself nor the body by itself, but the two together.” ((A Homily on the Dormition of the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary)
Conversely, see how Victoria continues:
“Orthodox believers developed the practice of icon writing and veneration to address this question—creating physical images of Christ to mediate his presence and to serve as an anchor in daily life. The Incarnation, they say, renders icons absolutely essential to the task of knowing God.
My own Protestant theology of images owes much to the Orthodox view but deviates from it as well. Although I acknowledge the revelatory potential of images, I do not regard them, as the Orthodox do, as on a par with scripture. Another key distinction is that I admit into my devotional life a range of sacred images, not just those that fall within the rigorously guarded canon of Orthodox iconography.”
I define “holy image” as any image that draws the viewer closer to Christ. The religious background of the artist is, to me, irrelevant, and what functions as a holy image to one person might not for another. You sanctify the image by letting it lead you into communion with God. ” (Ibid)
But specifically, how does all this mental activity lead you into communion with God? Let us study a concrete example, the Resurrected Christ’s appearance to Mary Magdalene as described in the Gospel of John “Touch Me Not”, by another Protestant scholar/ artist. See how rationalistically he too approaches the whole matter:
“I believe all of these works taken on the whole can help you begin to ask yourself the question, like an artist…”I wonder what it was like to see Jesus in in his newly resurrected form?” “I wonder how Mary felt as she approached the grave?” I wonder what the meaning of this strange encounter?” When you begin to picture the scene in your mind and make it your own, this is when the resurrection becomes real to you. In this way, all of these representations can help you as long as you keep going into your own thoughts.
See? Mind and thought, logical thinking, conceptualisation and deduction, the Western curse on Christianity. But Incarnation ‘allows’ an entirely different approach to “images” and “icons” to that of Victoria Jones’ and other Protestant scholars’ ‘guided meditations’.
What we want to avoid is an overemphasis of mind and its rational faculties at the expense of nous and man’s heart. The West, with its rationalistic tendencies, has associated the image of God with man’s intellect. Barlaam’s mind was full of rational arguments, but his heart was cold.
Certainly, life with God is not just information, but also experience. Our living God cannot be conceived and described only by study, but must be spoken about from experience. “Did not our heart burn within us while He talked with us on the road, and while He opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32).
Orthodox Theology is not cerebral, but empirical, and it cannot be acquired through study alone. Books and meditation, reflection may certainly help, but the true knowledge of God is existential. God reveals Himself as Light to the purified, and “through the Holy Spirit they know God and are able to speak of Him”. Philosophers speak reflectively through reason and imagination, which is why it is not possible for them to be higher than the prophets, who see God and speak of Him through the Holy Spirit.
See how ‘wholistic’ the Orthodox approach is:
“The Church, through the temple and Divine service, acts upon the entire man, educates him wholly; acts upon his sight, hearing, smelling, feeling, taste, imagination, mind, and will, by the splendour of the icons and of the whole temple, by the ringing of bells, by the singing of the choir, by the fragrance of the incense, the kissing of the Gospel, of the cross and the holy icons, by the prosphoras, the singing, and sweet sound of the readings of the Scriptures.”
+ St. John of Kronstadt, My Life in Christ
Nikola Sarić, PARABLE OF THE PRODIGAL SON (LK 15:11–32)
(*) By the way, Victoria’s definition of what is a holy image is not correct in my opinion: “I define “holy image” as any image that draws the viewer closer to Christ. The religious background of the artist is, to me, irrelevant, and what functions as a holy image to one person might not for another. You sanctify the image by letting it lead you into communion with God.” [Bold type mine for emphasis] In my opinion, Victoria’s talking here about religious art in general, not sacred, and certainly not holy, at least for an Orthodox Christian’ understanding of these terms. Of course, anything can be perceived as holy and sacred in God’s Creation, but I do not think that this is how Victoria uses this word in her analysis above.
For Victoria Jones’ full argument, go here
For an Orthodox Christian understanding as to what makes an image holy (even to, or better, especially to, a ‘convert’, a protestant brought to the Orthodox Church, as opposed to a ‘cradle Orthodox, born and immersed into Orthodoxy), go here
Nikola Sarić studied at the Faculty of Applied Arts of the University of Belgrade and at the Academy of Serbian Orthodox Church for Arts and Conservation in the department of church art, where he graduated in 2014. Nurtured in the practice of church art, his artistic expression is deriving from sacred Greco-Roman art and generally speaking the art of the classical antiquity and the medieval period. In his works, through the immediacy and simplicity of visual elements, he is conveying the intuition of a “transfigured world”. Using different techniques and materials, Nikola is trying to describe this unimaginable world. His interpretations reflect the personal spiritual experience as well as the tradition that breathes and evolves within the concepts of contemporaries.
David Popiashvili studied at the Tbilisi Art School and at the Tbilisi State Academy of Arts At faculty of the fine arts.
For a representative sample of David Popiashvili‘s religious paintings, go to London Art AND Stories about Jesus Christ, illustrated by David Popiashvili