Chapter 3

 

Chapter 3




Chapter Three

THE LANGUAGE OF ICONS – METHODS OF READING THEIR MESSAGES
In this chapter I suppose to do the complex and comprehensive analysis of the main rules of the icons language. Here will be the discussion about the canons which formalize and determine the technical level of their language which has a background in its theology. The category “time” and “space” I will signify as the elements both from the theology and canon. The last ones is in a big degree the form of the realization and reflection of the idea about the Prototype as a form and light of the “highest beauty”. I will take in discussion the architectural space of the churches as the most common place for the icons, where they communicate with the general form and decoration of its interiors and also communicate with the people, who pray to God. Icons bring to the people aesthetic and theological reminders about God.

3.1 Principle of the universal space and the eternal time in the icon's creation
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.
Genesis 1:26
The icon painting of the Golden age – the 10th - 15th centuries – appeared with a clarity of language. In fact icon painting is a great, mature art, based on a profound understanding and great artistry. It is very difficult to rely in words, because everything in it is expressed through the specific icon's form. The different forms of icon painting have a specific inner meaning. A special understanding of the linear design, composition, space, colour and light was evolved.
In many ways the beginning of the Golden age of icons in the Byzantium and Russia had parallel features. In the 11th – 12th centuries the icons were quite big in size (nearly 2 meters high) and in the form of presentation they often resembled frescoes. The majestically calm figures were depicted in frontal poses gazing at the viewer. An epic calm reigns in these icons, but towards the end of the 12th century images became more dramatic.
“However, even as Russia was developing its own traditions, its church remained strongly influenced by movements within the Orthodox Church, especially hesychasm (‘quietude’; a movement whose followers sought communion with God through contemplation,) which reached the land through Mount Athos and via refugees from the Balkans” (Evans 2004, 11). The hesychastic tendency (the 14th - 15th centuries) in the art was brightly realized by Theophanes the Greek who had a big impact on Russian icons (see 4.2).
The hierarchical ladder or the pyramid was the pivot. The integrity and the subjugation of parts – that was considered the basis of the world order, and the means by which to overcome chaos and darkness. This idea found its expression in the compositional structure of every icon. The Byzantium churches were understood as a likeness of the world with the heaven above. Its domes were the interpretation of the sky. In this perspective the theological thoughts were based in the Early Byzantium system of hierarchy. Only then, after the period of Iconoclasm, this idea became more sound and got its realization and stabilization in the “artistic canon”. According to the idea about harmony in hierarchy, almost every icon was looked upon as a likeness of the Church, the model of the cosmos. But here also modifications were possible. In one icon heaven seems to descend to earth, while in the other everything earthly strains to reach heaven.
Speaking in a purely Sinaite vocabulary, it can be said that icons substantiate in form and colours the veritable truths contained in The Ladder of Divine Ascent of Saint John the Sinaite, who is also known as Saint John Klimax. This book, written in the 7th century, became the most popular text of the Orthodox Church after the Holy Scriptures and the service books (Damianos 2004, 335).
In the icon with the “Heavenly Ladder of Saint John Klimax,” (Album 25) made in the late 12th century, there is a kind of description of the victory of the Iconodules and the theological explanation of the importance of icons. We have mentioned that icons call for an “existential reading” on our part, an openness of heart and spirit. In St. John Klimax (Album 26) remains a certain tension between body and soul, and a profound insight into one of the most moving and humanly compassionate passages in the Ladder: “What is this mystery in me? What is the meaning of this blending of body and soul?” (Damianos 2004, 339). In the example of this icon, Byzantine culture achieved one of its most highly sophisticated expressions and formulated also the pictorial language and the formal alphabet that would convey the message of the Incarnation through icons.
The book and its visual version – the icons – embodied the Christian focus of veneration. “We ‘record our salvation in deed’, that is, in depicting the holy icons, ‘and in word’, that is, in copying the Holy Scriptures: these are the painted and the written records of our salvation” (Damianos 2004, 336). The way how the “collective portrait of mankind” was made gives the feeling that the icons are deeply rooted in the collective sensibility and memory of the living Church. This icon is stressing the memory about the “communion of the Holy Spirit”, and this feeling of community which is standing in årayer gives a concentrated meaning of the Orthodox icons in general (see 2.1).
The Seventh Ecumenical Council of Nicaea said nothing about the technique of and the material to be used for making icons, but the themes of the canons were under discussion. The canon – Horos – had a fundamental meaning in the icons. If we regard this question from a historical perspective, icon painting just followed the tradition of relying on a canon in art and was the last one based on the system of this canon. It was inherited from earlier epochs like Egyptian and the art of Antiquity.
As in the previous periods, icons took in use its main form – the human body. Principally new for the Orthodox Church was the theological context which was added as the “old form in the new canon”. From a strictly theological point of view, the body of man is an entity to be respected ontologically. There is no body-soul dualism in the Orthodox doctrine: Christ's Incarnation closed the gap between Creator and creature, and man's body became the “temple of the Holy Spirit”, as the Apostle Paul wrote (I Corinthians 6:19). According to this statement the form of the body might have a symbolic meaning and be an abstract for the realization of an idea.
The main purpose of the Orthodox art's canon was the idea to reach the “highest beauty” which was transfigured through the Incarnation of the Logos. And this has been successfully translated into visual terms in icons. The icon raised “...painting to an art and a creative act is its power to ‘rephrase’ the perceived reality, not in terms of what is fleeting and corruptible but in terms of what is permanent and incorruptible” (Damianos 2004, 340).
The term “transfiguration” (μεταμορφοΰσθε) was taken in the icon's canon as a creative form. From the art historical perspective the canon was the hard frame of the icons. The canon was even later named as a conservative element. The problem is that icons are impossible to study from only one perspective, since this will create misunderstandings in the discussion. On the level of the canon was only the appearance of the icons, and from the theological perspective the main idea was to reach this canon. According to this canon the canon constituted an important stimulative element to help icons in general to keep a quite high level of craft.
“The icon's canon is the product of the collective mentality, it was created by the intelligence of culture which was occupied by the theme of phenomenology and convention but not by the idea of perceiving and spectral” (Florenskij 2001, 36 [my translation]). Florenskij adds: “In canon forms it is easy to breathe. They (canons) excommunicate from every thing which are accidental (Florenskij 2001, 26 [my translation]).
The nine most significant requirements of the canon were: (1) the icons must be flat (which means that three-dimensional images were and are forbidden); (2) the clothes must be part of the body; (3) all forms of illusionism are to be avoided; (4) the reverse perspective is to be taken; (5) there must be an absence of shadows; (6) one must keep anatomical disproportion; (7) the eyes are to be large and sad; (8) there should be absence of personal characteristics; and (9) there should be a special attitude to time: eternity is to be reflected – not the surplus of time, and its absence.
Icon painting is a symbolic art. This opinion is widely held, and there are two levels of symbolism which are principal to icons. Both of them use an indirect method or level of reading their symbols. The first of them is the system of using conventional symbols which tell about exact definitions without big corrections in their meaning. This first level shares common features with allegories and conventional signs. This level makes it possible to take the information from the surface which are expressed by symbolic themes and motifs. Here, at this level one or more conceptions of religious teachings is/are conveyed in conventionally represented figures or objects. For example, a female figure on a winged throne symbolizes Sophia as the Divine Wisdom; a candle burning by a deathbed is a symbol of the human soul; while a cup is the symbol of sacrifice; and the Holy spirit is a dove.
Of course, we can understand the philosophical abstraction between the ideas and the images. These are good examples of the negotiation of meaning, not the directed meaning like it is. This level of reading the symbols is, according to the conception of the “historical meanings”, present in the conventional system which was suitable and actual in that time. Today it comes through as a historical rudiment which has its own structure or presuppositions for understanding in the case when the reader has a “friendly relationship” with (that is, appreciates) the historical context and has a good knowledge about this subject.
The symbolism of the icon has a much broader foundation as the historical rudiments, and is not only concerned with individual motifs, but embraces the entire icon work. It is based on the theology of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, the idea that absolutely everything in the world is only covering the kernel, obscuring the true meaning. Such an understanding was highly fruitful for icon paintings. It assured the writers that in the writing of any object they could give an idea of many other things, and what was important, of the world as a whole. This system of symbolism presented (and represents now) the “existential reading”.
In the eyes of a casual observer, the world of the icon is limited. But the specification of the language of icons gives a different dimension to the “intellectual diving” into them. Some notice the themes and motives, the iconography, while other delve into the theological implications; others go even further and perceive even that which is beyond the existential world and the life of human beings. The icons acquire several meanings and their individual structures shows many layers. This makes the perception and interpretation of the icon difficult, but at the same time enriches its meaning. The secondary meaning was not added deliberately, but arose by itself. It is very volatile and elusive; it is often difficult to put into words, but this does not diminish its role and its very elusiveness gives it life and a quality of infinity. And this category of infinity is reflected “to the space and time in the icon's canon opposite to the category ‘quick and and short as a lightning’” (Dmitrieva 1969, 345 [my translation]).
Angels as a motive are widely represented among the icons painters. They were subordinated to a strict hierarchy in the Orthodox dogma. They appear in eternal quality as guardians, the helpers of man, and serve as agents between God and man and surround the throne of Christ the Pantokrator or the Virgin. They represent what one may characterize as an ‘impossible combination’ of feminine grace, the agility of a young man and military valour. It is very common in icons that angels as mediators look down on the world from above and that their inside eyesight are reflecting mankind. Their big eyes look sadly and in their grief about human beings we find a concentration of their important symbolical sense. The Archangel Gabriel (Album 23) , also known as the Angel with the Golden Hair, is one of the most famous Russian paintings from the 12th century. Painted with the large, stylized eyes, the archangel looks away from the viewer towards the mysterious and ineffable. From this perspective his purpose is not to stir human emotion, but to aid human meditation. “Detached but compassionate, he inspires the contemplation of beauty and purity” (Cooch 2007, 39). The golden head of his hair looks like as a nimbus.
The favourite figure in the icon painting is the circle, basically the ancient solar sign, a magic circle, the symbol of heaven, of the divine. Usually a circle was used as a nimbus over the head of Christ, the Virgin and the Saints. But in the icons, where there were normally several levels of reading, a circle also has different meanings. Angels very often keep in the right hand the sphere as their symbol or identity – the transparent sphere of the universe. In the Prophet Elias and the Fiery Chariot the red circle represents the higher range of heaven, attained by the Prophet, but so far inaccessible to his pupil. The circle is also present in the Old Testament Trinity (Album 36) like a mysterious melody, like sought after perfection. In the icon of St. George with Scenes from His life (Album 31) the wheel on which the body of the saint is tortured also has the form of a circle and, in the perspective of the icon's symbolism, the action of torturing the martyr was transformed and now reflects beauty.
The graphical metaphor is a common phenomenon in the icons. It poetically likens man to a hill, a tower or a tree. But apart from this the delineation may also be pictorially effective. The figures on the icon usually has anatomical disproportions and are designed in symmetry with special rhythmic forms. This special rhythmic system was based on the concept of harmony. In classical icons outlines do not only serve to denote the borders of objects, but also possess the ability to relate their inner strength and movement. Thanks to the linear rhythm, the angels in the Crucifixion of Dionysius (Album 39) (the Russian artist from the 15th century who was a monk in the Saint Cyril monastery of Belozersk) seem to soar in mid-air. In this understanding of linear design the Orthodox painters came close to the Gothic artists, who created their art parallelly in the same time, and had the same thematic field – Christianity. Thus even common features in the understanding of linear design were possible to find in the pictures of Botticelli. It is important to note, that icon painting has no restless, undulating confused or looped-like contours. The painters made – and make – sure that contours did not violate the general form.
Frequently the conventionality of the images is considered to be the most characteristic feature of icons. In order to understand and explain the peculiarities of the language of icons, one should remember that almost every detail of the images also had the meaning of an emblem. And the function of the details in the icons was to remind the reader of the meaning. The reader was thus brought to see that this was not only a representation of a particular object or an event, but also a disclosure of its broader meaning and, consequently, a stressing of the elements which are most important for an understanding of the wider meaning of the image. The icons from the 16th century were more psychological in their characteristics, but lost at the same time the emblematic quality.
Composition is one of the strongest formal aspect of the icons. Almost every icon was thought of as a likeness of the world, and according to this they have a central axis. The icons often have the elements of a triptych in a building composition with dominating symmetry. The upper part is seen as the sky or Heaven, the higher ranger of the Saints life, while down below is earth. In Russian language the earth in the terminology of icons has a special name - “pozem” (Russian: позем). On the earth stay only the holy persons. Important, however, is that the main structure of the icon, whatever its motif, influences its composition. “The skeleton of the icons’ composition is quite rigid and this make their structure architectonic” (Ovsijchuk 2000, 25 [my translation]).
While dealing with the question of the architectonics of the icon, mention should be made of what is used to be called “palatnoe pismo” (Russian: палатное письмо), the drawing of buildings in the icons. They always represent aesthetic ideals and express the theological meaning about “a mystical reversal perspective”. This idea about the reversal perspective is one of the explanations why an icon literally icons “turns its face”; it turns away from the reader into eternal time and looks into the universal space. “Icon is the metaphysic of existence. Here is no room for the empirical chance and here is only the inner connection with the Logos. A way to ‘pre –understand’ it is the mystical reversal perspective” (Florenskij, 2001, 40 [my translation]).
In this context, the flat style of writing icons should not be looked upon as a purely two-dimensional art. Elements of spatial depth appear in icons here and there. But icons have consistently followed the style which avoided the tendency towards three-dimensions which became normal and usual in Western Europe from the 14th century but originated in the 13th century.
In this case it is useful to make a comparative analysis between the icon the Virgin of Vladimir (Album 14) (11th century) and the Rucellai Madonna (Album 19) made by Duccio di Buoninsegna (13th century). Between them is more than a hundred years distance. The icon presents an anonymity culture, which is reflected in the conceptual meaning that icon painters are mediators. This was also one of the special expressions of the icon language, while in the Renaissance the concept was the personal responsibility of the artist for their work.
The first of these two was probably made in Constantinople and transported to Kiev. (The Russians had been converted to Orthodox Christianity in their capital Kiev, now in Ukraine, in 988). The Virgin of Vladimir had now been moved from Kiev to Vladimir where it got its name name and was later moved to Moscow. The iconographic type of this icon is the Virgin Eleousa. This icon reminds us about the Prototypes, both in appearance and in quality but also in reflection or realization of the idea of “highest beauty”. Judging from its formal, not technical characteristic, it is impossible to indicate what special place and concrete time it represents. Nothing in this icon has momentary effect. Mary and her infant Christ in this icon got the miraculous ability of preserving time and, as a consequence of it, they got a permanent, lasting quality – always actual.
The figures in the Virgin and Christ present the idea of the “dynamic in the static” which was one of the important general characteristics of icons. The two figures were presented in the matter when they were united in one general form. This unity got quality of the meaning here. They are symbols, which can be understood at several levels of one’s reading. In this icon is the absence of shadows; the large eyes of Mary realize the idea about the “reverse perspective” because she looks away from the viewer, as it was a characteristic of the icon the Angel with the Golder Hair. The figures of the Virgin and her infant Christ are calm. The face of Mary demonstrates sadness and this sadness is also a common characteristic in icons especially from the 11th - 13th centuries. The question, why in the classical period of the Greek icons so often were reminding about sadness, is still open. But this probably reflects a deep realization within the Church, that the nature of mankind is imperfect.
This icon has a common background of gold, which also has a symbolical meaning. (see 3.2). “The miracle-working power of this icon inspired many copies” (Evans 2004, 11). One of them is the icon Virgin of Vladimir, who is the patron of Moscow (Album 40) (17th century), made by Symon Ushakov, the first official leader of the icon studio in Kreml. Only in the 17th century the anonymity disappeared from the icon painting as a concept. This icon's composition has a lot of details, such as concrete historical persons, Moscow's churches, a tree with big roses, etc. This idea, of the protection of Moscow by the Virgin, was taken from the icons the Virgin Blachernitissa, which a long time ago had been called the protector of the Constantinople. Also, this idea was developed “in the homily of Philotheus of the Yeleazarov Monastery on the theme: Moscow, the Third Roma” (Alpatov 1974, 5).
For the understanding differences one must go back to the Rucellai Madonna, made by Duccio di Buoninsegna. “Duccio's interpretation of the Madonna and Child theme reveals an emphasis on form that is not seen in earlier Madonnas by other artists. The bodies of the Madonna and her infant Christ are given realistic treatment, and Duccio makes good use of the light and dark shading to create the illusion of three-dimensionality. The Christ child sits convincingly on the Madonna's lap and gestures towards his mother – both innovative developments in paintings of this kind during the era” (Cooch 2007, 42). Icons as a special form of art, with its own structure of limitation, used the canon as a tool which it applied for the function of reminding the reader(s) about the universal space and the eternal time. By understanding tis form of communication one was able to recognize the messages of the icons. This icon language is partly forgotten, but the old icon language is nonetheless actual today.

3.2 The meaning of light and its connection to the colours of the icons
When a lamp is lit, it is not put under the meal-tub, but on the lamp-stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house. And you, like the lamp, must shed light among your fellows, so that, when they see the good you do, they may give praise to your Father in heaven.
Matthew 5:15-16.
Pavel Florenskij has commented the words of Matthew about “...the good you do”. From his point of view – the good you do (Greek: ύμών τά καλά εργα) is “the harmonic, wonderful and positive activity, which makes a bright person is a reflected light from above. This light was shed to the first witnesses of Christ, to the first martyr and to mankind” (Florenskij 2001, 12 [my translation]).
According to Florenskij, the light is the main quality and characteristic of icons. The gold does not represent the colour, but symbolizes light and its radiance gives to the icons the feeling of dismissal. Those thoughts of Florenskij was inspired by the Gospel. “All that came to be was alive with his life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines on in the dark, and the darkness has never quenched it”: John 1:4-5.
The gold as a symbol of purity played an important role in the Byzantine hierarchy. Everything that was perfect and everyone who was perfect were in connection with the characteristic of “gold” - light. For example the imperial documents which signed by the emperor, were verified by the golden seal with the name chrysobull (Greek. “golden seal”). The Early Byzantine's codex of laws, found in the Codex Justinianus, had ‘gold’ in its title – Evangelos Chrysos. The church father, St. John, who was a writer of the Orthodox Easter liturgy, got the name “Chrysostomos” (Greek: “golden mouth”) – an account of his eloquence.
The dome of the cathedral or churches was compulsory decorated by a gold list outside and with the gold mosaic inside and thus became a symbol, that the church is the incarnation of the Heaven on the earth. The epitaphios as a liturgical cloth was used to cover the holy chalice during the preparation of the gifts for the Eucharist service. Probably this was the oldest type of liturgical thread which was decorated by gold - chrysokentema (Greek. “the golden embroidery”).
After the Iconoclastic Controversy the canon of the hierarchy of colours was created. It was based on the theology of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and also on the teachings of the holy fathers who were based on the orthodox faith. “The Church confessed and confesses now that the holy Fathers are the creators of true icons (Florenskij 2001, 16 [my translation]). They were creators of the iconographic canons where the important role plays the meaning of lightness, light, shadow and colour.
According to this canon, gold was thought of as a pure light without admixture and colour, only with a tone. Terminologically ‘gold’ in the theology is not a colour. Gold could not be (mixed) together with other colours because only gold gives light and all other colours are reflections of the light. So, the functions of the gold and the colours are opposite to each other. “The gold is the metal of sun and this is the reason why it does not have the colour. This gives the explanation about the “gold sky” on the icons, its remain us about the theological Heaven” (Trubetskoy 1916, 78 [my translation]).
In the icon terminology in the Russian language one still uses a verb which explain lightness as coming from the gold – “золотится”, (zolotitsia). Only an icon has this special quality of light which expresses its “statical actions” and makes it flesh as an Incarnation of God.
In icon painting gold has a meaning which is possible to compare with the understanding of Α and Ω. The icon’s background, its technical beginning, was chrysoplato (Greek. the “gold panel”) and its technical ending was chrysography (Greek. the “writing in gold”), since the linear hatching was executed in gold leaf, applied in the last stage of painting. And if it is possible to say something about the reality which gold represents in the context of icons, it is that this reality is just and only light – the formal parallel to gold.
The icon describes the things which were created by light, but does not describe the things which were illuminated by the light. It is important to distinguish between the icons and the West European paintings, as for example the works of Rembrandt, where the light pulls out the parts and details of things from the darkness.
The concept of gold as light opened also the perception that the shadow is a synonym of darkness, which in the theology is the parallel to non-existence – τό ούκ είναι. In icons, however, shadows do not exist. In icons also strokes do not exist. The reality of icons was not created inductively. It was made step by step from a lot of details, where each of the strokes has its own quality, colour and life. Technically the icon painting is the opposite to the oil painting.
The classical icons used just open and clean colours without the tone and half-tone. The colours did not run together. Technically this is possible to realize only in tempera. After the Iconoclastic Controversy, egg tempera became the most popular technique and was in use as the only one accepted technique in Greece and then in Russia until the end of the 17th century. The Russian plav technique (from the end of the 15th century), which creates fluid colour gradations for flesh tones, also aims for subtlety rather than for a naturalistic or illusionistic presentation.
All colours had a theological meaning and they were stable in use. The colours conform to the conventional symbolism and it could be said that each of them had a consistent meaning. The Russian medieval manuscripts kept the old names for the most popular colours: ochre, cinnabar, red lake, purple, golubets - (голубец) blue, and emerald green. On the top of the colour hierarchy was the white colour. On the way from the top to the bottom was a special order of colours, each colours having its distinct meaning.
The white colour signified the incarnation, the beginning of new life in qualitative sense, the opposite of death. In the motive of the Transfiguration (Album 33) the clothes of Christ according to the canon were white. The same is the case in the cloth or shroud of Lazarus in the motif the Raising of Lazarus. Stability of the colour canon was a key for recognizing and understanding the icon. It might be any one of the icons named the Transfiguration, dating to the 13th or 19th centuries and connected to the Greek, Bulgarian, Serbian, Ukrainian or Russian school, but constantly the cloth of Christ must be white only. The justification for this monotony was in the textual significance of the canon which demanded that each colour must be read without mistake.
The black colour is never used as an independent element. It is always used together with the white. Black shows death but not in its finiteness but as a possibility for the incarnation, as a possibility for life in flesh. In the motive the Ascension (Album 13) the black spot of Hell is in contrast with the white cloth. In the motif the Raising of Lazarus, the white cloth of Lazarus is contrasted to his grave. This was the rule for icons when the white and black colours existed in dialogue with each other.
The blue colour was the mark of the “heaven of the earth”. Very commonly the angels as mediators have light blue clothes and in their hand hold the blue sphere as a symbol of the incomprehensible faith. In the motif the Apocalypses an angel rolls up the blue scroll-heaven. Most often the martyrs wore a blue cloth, but heaven as background in the icons was never blue.
The purple was the colour of the cloth of Christ (after the Incarnation) and the Virgin. Christ in the iconography of the Pantokrator (Album 1; 5) holds in his hand the open Testament. The words in this book are usually purple. In the hierarchy of the Byzantine society only the emperor had a purple cloth, an obvious motivation for giving the purple colour such a high status.
The red colour was the colour of the struggling faith. The Archangel Michael (Album 24) was the main angel warrior with the Devil, so his clothes were red. Moses (Album 28) and Elijah often have some part of their clothes in red colour. By the red cloak of St George (Album 31), billowing in the wind, a profound characterisation is achieved – here of St George as a passionate defender of faith, as both martyr and hero.
The ochre colour was used for painting faces and hands. In Russian the colour was called – “lichnoe pismo”, (Russian: личное письмо), which means “the writing of the face”. Practically it was made after painting the background, the landscape, and the figure with the cloth; as the last step the face and hand were made in ochre. After this process only remained the process of chrysography. Light was laid over colour.
The green colour had the lowest and last place in the colours’ hierarchy. It was the most materialistic colour and logically, therefore, placed at the bottom of the icons pozem – (Russian for Earth only for a holy persons). The ground or the earth, where the holy persons stayed, was all time the warm green. Colours in the icons are not the colours of nature; they depend less on colour perception of the world, than painting from the later periods. In the classical period, from the 10th to the 15th centuries, the icon painters evident harbour a love for pure, bright colours with the compulsory combination of the gold.
The clean colours give the icons the ability to produce an effect even in the half-gloom of a church interior, where there was not enough light from the windows and candles. These colours have body, they are solid, almost weighty and tangible, and somewhat limited in their radiance. But the function of radiation in the icons is played by the warm gold. All together the colours together with gold give an immense power of expression as an impact in the icons..
The technique plav opened the possibility for using in icons not only the primary colours, but also the intermediate ones with the varying brilliance and saturation. The colours became a little bit translucent and the gesso ground can be seen through them. Among them were some shades of red and violet of exquisite beauty in themselves, and at time shades which have no name now. But these colours can be caught by man's eye – colours which glow, shine, sparkle, which ring and ring, thus conveying tremendous joy.
The colours of the Golden age of icons have a huge positive energy which are reflected towards us. The colours come from somewhere in the depths of the panel. They begin to burn, to glow after the contact with the gold and they express the inner fire of the spirit, and correspond with the spiritual, intense expression in the faces of Christ, the Virgin and the Saints.
The colour canon disappears in the icon painting of the 16th to 17th centuries. Now the dark tones started to dominate, at first highly saturated, ringing and noble. Later they were replaced by dull earthy tones, with a considerable proportion of black, and dark green backgrounds appear.
The classical and Golden Age Russian icons, as a last bastion of the traditional Orthodox art, had certain features which made them unable to withstand the impact from outside world. From the West came the new techniques of oil painting, engraving and etching which the icons were not able to adapt.





3.3 The place of the icons in the architectural space
We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendour or beauty anywhere upon earth. We cannot describe it to you: only this we know, that God dwells there among men, and that their service surpasses the worship of all other places. For we cannot forget that beauty. - Envoys of the Russian Prince Vladimir, after experiencing the Divine Liturgy at the Church of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople in the year 987.
In our days old icons are mostly exhibited on the walls of museums. One thing that should not be forgotten, is that the icons were not originally painted to be displayed in this way. They were supposed to surround people in their daily life, and always the icons were in the place of honour. At home they were standing on the east corner, which in Russia has the name “krasny ugol” (красный угол) – the “red” or “beautiful corner”. (In the Soviet time the propaganda of Marx and Lenin was hanged on the wall with the same name - “krasny ugol”). But in the medieval period icons were also attached to a pole by the side of the road, to be carried high above the host setting out on a campaign. Of course, the majority of icons were placed inside churches. There they were a necessity for the daily Church service and there they realized their theological and aesthetic functions.
In the beginning of Christianity there were a lot of borrowings from the previous epoch. “There is no way of knowing whether these buildings differed in any way from domestic structures. Architecturally speaking, before the Constantine peace virtually all church buildings that are known were houses or commercial buildings modified for church use” (Ferguson 1999, 74). In contrast to the period of Antiquity, where the main ceremony was outside the temple, Christianity celebrated its worship inside of (homes and) churches. Possibly the first icons were made for such liturgical purpose and they were also part of the decoration of the church interiors. Byzantine worship was surrounded with rich ceremonies and conducted in churches decorated with mosaic or frescoes with Christ and the saints.
...since they (icons) are an integral part of the Orthodox worship, they can be fully understood only in their context. As the worshipper stands surrounded by the icons of Christ, of the Mother of God and of the saints and the events of the history of man's salvation, he is vividly made aware of the reality of both the communion of saint and the loving economy of God (Lash 1983, 275).
Most of the liturgical action took place at the altar which was closed off from the worshipers by the iconostasis (Album 32), the icon screen. Some times, especially during the Easter liturgy, the celebrants carried around the church the bread and wine which were to be consecrated with the ceremony of icons and choir sang.
...icons create what we might call a resonance or an uplifting in the spiritual sense. They are statements of faith, milestones along path to perfection, images of the invisible comeliness of the Kingdom of Heaven, and open channels leading to it. Their material presence in the context of the Church actuates the concluding prayer of the Divine Liturgy (Damianos 2004, 340).
According to Florenskij: “The first task for the icon painter made by the technique the attitude to the icon that it was not a panel but a wall”(Florenskij 2001, 50 [my translation]). This attitude of seeing a parallel between the the icons and a wall is a conventional symbol, and in it the meaning of stability and durability are expressed. As such it must be in harmony with and work as a united ensemble of all elements which create the atmosphere of the Orthodox liturgy. From this perspective the icons after the Iconoclast period had their background in the frescoes which they were related to in the context of creating the image of churches in general.
Icons in the church first of all reminded the assembled people of the joint activities of the worshipping community. Icons make their appeal not to the individual but to a community of people. Therefore – now as then – Icons in a church present and represent their own community. In the theological and antithetical “communication” they got a sound proximity to other icons and profited by their presence.
In the Orthodox theology an altar has several definitions. But its most important purpose is to remind people about τόπος νοητός.
Simeon Thessaloniki (10th century) notes that the theological approach to altar is the differentiation of two natures of Christ; from the anthropological – the altar is the human soul and the nave is the human body; from the cosmological – the altar is the heaven and the nave is the earth; from the ontological – the altar is an invisible world (Lihachova 1981, 208 [my translation]).
Theologically heaven is separated from the earth. In the Orthodox churches the nave is typically separated from the sanctuary by the altar's fence or wall. It symbolizes the border between a visible and an invisible world and this was (and is) made by the range of icons. Iconologically, the Church is the road to the eternal ascent of mankind. In this content the Church is a reflection of the Ladder - The Ladder of Divine Ascent of Saint John Klimax where was shown not the way but the direction of the road from the visible to the invisible world.
The church and altar without an iconostasis as a real boarder, can be divided by the blind wall. An iconosasis is like a window in a wall. Through this window and its glass we can see by the internal eyesight the eternal and invisible world with the gathering of holy persons who are the alive witnesses of God (Florenskij 2001, 14 [my translation]).
This construction of panels of icons started to be a compulsory element of the church at least from the 9th century. Later it was developed into the high iconostasis in the end of the 14th century. An iconostasis (Russ. иконостас) or icon-screen, is a wall of icons with the double doors in the centre. Certain elements of the iconostasis can be perceived from the monumental painting. But if in the observation of frescos the idea of reading its text from the wall was based on the “spherical reading” – from circle to circle and from the dome to the frescos near by the floor, then in the iconostasis dominated the linear reading from top till bottom and from left to right. The system of reading (gradually) changed from volumetric to flatness, and the principles for reading thus became closer to our normal system of reading pages in a book.
Especially the iconographic structure of the iconostasis was close to the motive the Last Judgement, where Christ the Saviour (Album 34; 37) was in the center and the composition in general had a lot of figures. The theological basis of the iconostasis ranges with the iconography of the Deesis (Album 8) in the center, towards whom the saints turn and believe in their ability to intercede for them before the throne of God in their eternal praying for mercy and forgiveness for the sins of mankind. Its literal meaning was the intercession of the saints addressed to Christ.
The central and highest range in an iconostasis is the Deesis (which means “entreaty”). In this composition the figures are depicted as a tower and participate in the eternal intercession of saints before the throne of the Most High. The figure of Christ is the centre and on the right side of him stays Mary (from our positions it is the left side) and on the left – Saint John the Baptist. On the side of Mary are the figures of the Archangel Michael (Album 38), the Apostle Peter, St. John Chrysostom. On the side of St. John the Baptist are the figures of the Archangel Gabriel , the Apostle Paul, and St. Basil the Great. Usually the Deesis range has place on the third level of the iconostasis.
On the bottom is the Local range where we find the icons of Christ, Mary and a holy person or holy events to whom or to which the church is dedicated. On the left side of this range is the icon with the Apocalypses. On the second level is the Church Feasts’ range with scenes from the lives of Christ and the Virgin. In the center of this range is the icon with the iconographic type the Not Made by Human Hands (Album 6). Up above the Deesis range is located the Apostles range, then the Prophets range and, at the top, the Patriarchs’ range.
The iconostasis gradually attained the importance of an assembly of all the saints, of all heavenly and earthly forces, and became a kind of “Church encyclopedia” in which traditional stories gave way to the image of the eternal joyous state of man in eternal glory. The iconostasis gave the possibility of the “dual view”. At close range, where all the details are easily observed and where basic and literal meaning is most easily perceived. And, from a distance, where the first meaning seems to retreat and become secondary and another becomes obvious, one that can be perceived only from a distance. This relates to both the content of the image and its formal features. Thereby was conformed once again the symbolic nature of the icon.
When the main point of view is from the distance, then the possibility to recognize the general, universal meaning of the iconostasis theme – eternal payer of the holy persons for mankind, became more clear. All details go out and the laconic composition together with conventional colouring starts to dominate. The figures of the Deesis range have the solemn silhouettes, they are in slow movements, their postures and inclined head show the action of the eternal prayer.
In the high Russian iconostasis from the 15th century, the features of icons which had been formed over many centuries, revealed themselves with profound force: clear-cut silhouettes, rhythm and integrity of form and balance of colour alternating regularly and adding to the general colourful fabric.
It is impossible to overestimate the importance of the iconostasis in the development of the (individual) icons. Many features in the structure of the individual icons can be explained by the fact that at one time they were part of one iconostasis or that they represent an attempt on the part of the painter to recreate a likeness of an iconostasis as a whole in an individual icon. This relates, first of all, to the architectonic of the icons. It also explains the thematic and formal context where the icon is placed within the architectural space of the churches.
A lot of icons, especially from the Local range, have as their main composition the figure of a holy person in the center and around him or her motives from his/her life. To observe clearly the separate borders with small details, to read the painted narrative of the life of the saint, it is necessary to come close to the icon. From a long distance icons were actually seen as an entity in which the border scenes merged and became a kind of wreath around the figure of the saint. And from this distance icons present its non-figurative decorativeness. From the short distance icons always worked as a figurative composition. Both the mutually exclusive factors co-exist; they are indivisible and present a dialectical unity.

The conclusions for this chapter are: 1). In the Orthodox churches, where the icons are a compulsory element, all the interior space was subordinated to the presentation of the main ideas (or dogmas) of Christianity. Now as then the icons create a thematic, formal (figurative) and colourful (decorative) atmosphere of a liturgy. Icons work as mediators between mankind and holy history and help people to be in prayer. They help us to realize the dream about the “highest beauty”throught the light from the Prototype.
2). An iconostasis demonstrates the possibility of collective, joint and mutual prayer, where the holy persons in the iconostasis stay in their eternal prayer to Christ the Saviour (Pantokrator) and people stay in front of it in the temporary prayer. In this action time is concentrated and condensed and gets a liturgical quality. The location of the icons near by the altar shows their significant and important role in the liturgy. The specific language of icons organize the movement of people inside the churches, where they can stay far away from the altar but during the ceremony they might come closer to the altar for the veneration of icons.
3). It was important for the destiny of the icons that even during the Golden Age they were expected to give only what they could give and not to realize hopes that were beyond their power. This means that in general icons were able to combine both the theological and the aesthetic functions as well as representing a lofty and pure art in its finest manifestations. This quality is something primordial and natural. It is these features that cause admiration and envy among contemporaries also from other parts of the Christian church.
4). Icon painting is realistic in an exceptional way. What is depicted in an icon can never be said to be the accepted as reality, or only so in a very narrow sense. The figures of holy persons and forms of objects were transformed in the drawing/writing of icons. Colours were bright and pure, of a kind that cannot be seen as such ‘naturally’ anywhere, such as a truly golden sky. For this reason whatever were written on the icons have an inherent quality of something never seen before, a sense of the unusual and unique. At the same time this hitherto unseen, unusual, colourful something, as an icon, becomes part of the life of man, becomes part of our sacral and secular spaces, lifts man's spirit and brings a feeling that one has witnessed some miracle.
5). Icon colours come together in harmony, and their forms make up a stable whole, and from this stems the idea that the painter is anonymous and has no need to remind the viewer of himself. The classical icons keep the concept about anonymity. Hence the incomparable power of persuasion of the icon, and its almost inexplicable charm of colour and form. The people in Ancient Russia, beginning with the envoys of Vladimir, who were enchanted with the beauty of St. Sophia in Constantinople, were able to perceive the “highest beauty” which had its origin in Byzantine and which was realized in the Orthodox liturgical art.



Обновлен 22 апр 2014. Создан 02 окт 2010



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