THE PAINTERS OF ICONS: METHODS OF WORK AND WAYS OF EXPRESSION
My plans are to discuss the roles of the icon painters in this chapter. They had the special features which were changed during the time; I will analyse the works of two extraordinary artists which biographies remind me of the eternal way of praying.
4.1 The role of the painters in the creation of icons
How shall we picture the kingdom of God, or by what parable shall we describe it?
History preserves the most important. Symbolically this can be expressed as the “manuscript does not burn”. However, in the historical reality a lot of information has disappeared. Literally, the “historical data” reveal the ultimate results through the issue of quality. We do have not so many icons from the Golden age of icons, but most of them have a very high level of realization. And only the best of them can be said to be the indirect incarnation of the “highest beauty”.
Luke, according to Church traditions, was the first artist who made the image of Christ and the Virgin. “You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky; how is it you cannot interpret this fateful hour?”: Luke 12:56.
In the iconological terminology “appearance” and “appear” are words with key meanings, because they reflect the understanding that the icon has appeared to the Church and the writer of icons as divinely inspired revelation and therefore both reflect God’s glory and convey some of his truth to its readers. We need to keep in mind, that the words “interpretation” and “description” in the later Renaissance period each got a meaning which distinguished it from the other, but in the early Christianity these words were much closer in meaning.
It is, of course, interesting to know – who they were, the medieval icon painters? They were able to open the window into the World of God. They were able to combine theology and art. But until now the question of their identity is still open, since we have very little information about them.
The authors or writers, as is the most correct way of naming them, were often monks. For these people icon paintings was much more than a profession. It was a style of life with both restrictions and advantages. The monasteries were the centers of culture and knowledge in those days. In the theological sense these artists were not the creators of icons, they were only the mediators of God’s ideas. And for this concept their names must be anonymous to history. In those days to be anonymous and to realize their mission as mediators was the biggest advantage of these artists.
According to the medieval perception of the World, the high status of mediators was just stressed by their anonymity. To be anonymous in the service of God was an honour. The icon painter was not responsible for the creation of one separate icon, but he was responsible to God in his service to him through the realization of the icons (Buslaev 1913, 32 [my translation]).
In the medieval culture where the Universe was the place of God and Heaven was the place to which the saints departed, The communication from “inside” to “outside”, from microcosmos to macrocosmos and vice-versa was realized by the form and meanings of icons. For the medieval Orthodox person icons therefore represented a window in the general theological sense – a window into the divine realm.
The creators of the window for communicating with God were all Fathers of the Church, who realized the idea about the Heavenly Ladder. According to the traditional hierarchy in the society it was impossible for the artist to put his signature on the panel, since he was not the real author of the icon. He was not able to put himself at the communicative level as an “I” to “God”. This must be understood on the background of the Orthodox tradition which recognizes the communication level as being between “We” or “us” and “God”. “We” in this context meant therefore expressed the idea that the real creators of icons were the Fathers of the Church and that all icons which were established as appeared icons. The writers or painters were only copying them over and over again, many times. The authority to define an icon as an “establishment (διάταξις) icon” therefore rested with the Church, and not with them.
The icons were made not by design and intention (έφεύρεσις) but they were made according the Will of God and Tradition (Θεσμοθεσία και Παραδοσις). The Fathers of the Church were responsible of the composition (διάταξις) and the icon painters – of the technique (τέχνη) (Florenskij 2001, 22 [my translation]).
In the Gospel according to John it is written that, “No one has ever seen God; but God's only Son, he who is nearest to the Father's heart, he has made him known”(John 1:18). In the icon painting tradition this text has been one of the strongest motivations for not trying to depict the Divine himself – or the Trinity. But, since the Son has made the Father known, the Church readily accepted icons of Christ and his witnesses. In this context the Fathers of the Church were the conceptual creators, but the icon painters were responsible for the general realization of the content of the ideas in visible forms. Probably some of the Church Fathers and Saints were icon painters, as this was suggested from the history about Luke. The Orthodox tradition keeps a long list of Saints whose names were connected to the idea of the creation of icons.
Theology and aesthetics, theory and practice find their realization in the icon painting wherein one indirectly could find a distinction between the “spirit” and the “body”. Indirectly, yes, since in the icons everything is indirect: He (the icon painter) has made him (God) known through the icon. “The icon painter knew no contradiction between conception and execution” (Alpatov 1974, 17).
In the medieval period the service and preaching of the Word of God was the privilege of the priests and the church authorities. The image of God came much closer to the community, linked to the daily life of ordinary people. If not every day, but often they were in the churches and during the liturgies people were in visible contact with the Prototype, and got his light through the icons. In this sense the icons were their environment and were their encyclopedia. The writers of this encyclopaedia remained in the shadow of the glory of God. They did not have special marks of honour in society, but had the response from it. This response was definitely expressed by the common title for the icon painters in Old Russia - “humble employees of God” (Pokrovskij 2000, 236 [my translation]).
The meaning of icons, if one does not recognize them as light from the Prototype, is not more than a colourful instruction of the Bible. Icon painters reminded us about the prayer as a way. And this way goes from the image to the Prototype – of Him whom we worship (Florenskij 2001, 18 [my translation]).
The creative action of producing icons had a special characteristic. It existed in the traditions and it was customary to obey these. The iconographical canons reflected the collective will and ideals of many generations, and these were handed down from one generation to the next. Canon types served as a point of departure. The artistry lay in their interpretation. Each artist told the Biblical story according to the general concept and also added to it a little bit from himself. “He (anonymous icon painter) embroidering the canvas with patterns of his own invention” (Alpatov 1973, 8). The painters kept the canons but they made small deviations which gave variety to the common themes and gave them new interpretation. The art of the icon painter consists in a great degree of his creativity with nuances. On the other hand we can recognize the common elements in icon paintings, the features linking the various centuries and schools and enabling one to mentally classify each item under the blanket heading “Classical Icon Painting”.
The icon paintings from the classical period which have survived to our days in fact show that only people with a rich inner life and considerable intellect could create them. These were people with a selfless devotion to their convictions, with no doubts about what they were doing, and certainly not in the least indifferent to what they were producing.
The necessary action before and in the process of the practical creation of the icons was prayer. The prayers were included in the compulsory description of the process of making icons. Many of the icons manuscripts with iconographical schemes started off with with the texts of these prayers. Literally the prolonged prayers of the artists had their own continuation in the description of the eternal prayer which the Saints in the icons offer to Christ.
The fasting, prayer and meekness prepared and purified the body of the icon painter
and turned his soul to the situation when he could receive the melody as a signal from above (Trubetskoy 1916, 12 [my translation]).
The Moscow synod of 1551 (Stoglav – “hundred heads”) decreed that the icon painter should be “meek, pious, not given to idle talk or to laughter, not quarrelsome or envious, not a thief or a murderer”' (Pokrovskij 2000, 235 [my translation]). This is the testimony of what was expected and demanded of the icon painter by the church authority and by his contemporaries. This is also regarded as a characteristic of what the icon painters in reality were. And they were considered people of high moral ideals.
We suggest, that in a big degree this decision of the synod reflected the position and attitude to the artist which was common in the Golden age of the icons. In the 16th century it was the habit of the Church Authority to remind the icon painters of this, so that they might behave and conduct their work according to the tradition. This also is a proof that in society in general, and among the society of painters, there had developed a new tendency with which the church was not satisfied.
Also the dogmatic debates over new icons and the affirmation by the Stoglav synod to control the icon painters put an end to the pious fervour of the painters and at the same time to the heyday of the icon painting. The Synod upheld Rublev (see 4.2) as an example to be followed, but in fact it severed the precious thread which had extended through Russian art since his time.
In the 16th -17th centuries painters imitated old models as a demand from the authorities and repeated traditional iconograhical types. But it was not more than imitation and copying. In that time the icons were not so much created by painters as produced by craftsmen. The icons became a product or merchandise for selling and buying. The market did not demand high quality, but its demand was a big amount of icons. Under this pressure the icon painting as a whole, began increasingly to lose its character as a great art and it became more didactic, narrative and illustrative. The consumers pushed icons to its ending as a holy art.
After the development of the consumers’ market of icons in the 16th century the works of bad icon painters began to appear and aroused the anxiety of the Church authorities. In this period was developed the definition of icon painters which was remarkable for the Stoglav synod. Probably, for the first time in the Church’s history came by the decision of the synod the definition of who were to be considered as “good icon painters” and “bad icon painters”, with further differentiation found within the definitions “good” and “bad”. Most of the new names applied to the bad painters – bogomazu (богомази), ikonniki (иконники), plokhopistsy (плохописцы). Among them was a hazard to the classical icons because the Church Authority was so occupied by them.
The time changed the role and positions of the icon painters. During the 16th and 17th centuries their role was more that of a profession. The sacramental element in the action of icon painters was lost and their important role in society began to rapidly decrease.
Everything in history has periods of ascent and decline. Usually, the main conclusion is possible to make according to the highest point of the event. The highest point of icon painting was its Golden age of the 10th - 15th centuries. In this period the icon painters did not show their own ambitions and did not make careers. Rather they tried to understand and reflect their understanding which they expressed in the “objective beauty” and the “truth of things” in the icons they painted, and which they and the Church considered to be the “highest beauty”.
4.2 Theophanes the Greek and Andrei Rublev: biographies as prayers
… but think your way to a sober estimate based on the measure of faith that God has dealt to each of you.
History has preserved very few names of icon-artists. The tradition was for icon painters to keep anonymity. But time and again history has made exceptions. I think that these exceptions were not made accidentally. Some of the painters became more than mediators whose names were told as legends from generation to generation.
For the authors or writers of icons, whose names we know, there exist no “normal biographies” in our meaning. Their dates of birth and death are unknown, and also the places where they were buried are unknown. We know them and their lives thanks to their extraordinary activities and creativity and their biographies exist in the history as a prayer.
The features of the Russian icon painting can be explained in its Byzantine origin. The first icons were brought to the Old Rus from Constantinople, and the first icon masters who worked in the country were Greek. At the end of the 14th century came a new wave of Byzantine influences, this time in the epoch of the Paleologues, spread throughout Rus. Its most prominent representative was the great master Theophanes the Greek (c. 1330s-1415). His art – passionate, dramatic, wise, austere, at times tragically intense and frequently lofty – had a big impact on the Russian painters.
A famous sage, a wise philosopher, a master who excelled in decoration of manuscripts and the best of icon-painters”, such were the words of the educated monk Epiphany the Wise about his contemporary Theophanes the Greek”. This monk continued: “When he painted, no one even saw him following standard patterns – unlike some of our icon- painters, who spent more time perplexedly studying models than painting. He paint[ed?]s with his hands, but constantly [was?]is on the move, chatting with callers, cogitating things wise and elevated, and seeing goodness with eyes of reason ( Pokrovskij 2000, 124 [my translation]).
Theophanes was born in Byzantium in the thirties of the 14th century. When he came to Russia he was between 35 and 40 years old and had already decorated more than ten stone churches in Constantinople and other places of Byzantine. His extremely distinctive art was based on the hesychastic influence which came from Athos and had a big influence in the North of Russia. And the first work which Theophanes accomplished in Russia was the fresco painting in Novgorod church which he dedicated to Our Saviour (1374-1378). Probably, this is the only icon which was connected to Theophanes in his Novgorod period which has been preserved. This is the icon with the Transfiguration (Album 33). Into the traditional scene he brought a lot of what was typical “from Greek”. His powerful figures are full of intense dramatic emotions.
From 1395 to 1405 his name was mentioned in the old manuscripts, a time when he worked in Moscow. According to chronicles Theophanes had his own studio and carried out commissions with the help of his pupils. From all his work in Moscow still exists the iconostasis in the Cathedral of Annunciation in Kreml, which Theophanes painted together with Andrei Rublev and the monk Prokhor from Gorodets.
In this collaboration Theophanes worked with the central Deesis range. His icons are: The Saviour (Album 34), The Virgin, John the Baptist, The Archangel Gabriel, The Apostel Paul, John Chrysostomos and Basil the Great. In the center is the stern judge – the Saviour, seated on the throne; on either side are saints, interceding with Christ for a sinful mankind. As before, Theophanes' saints are powerful and individualized. But here there are also new qualities: they are more restrained and majestic. There is more warmth in the image of the Virgin, more gentleness in that of the Archangel Gabriel and more tranquility in the wise apostle Paul.
These icons are exceptionally monumental in character. In them Theophanes retains the general style of his frecsos. But here the lines are more simple, distinct and restrained. Theophanes’ icons really give the impression that the icon is a wall, and that this wall in the theological sense have several meanings.
The figures in them are clearly silhouetted against a brilliant gold background and the colours of their clothes are vibrant. Theophanes appeared as the master of low-brilliance saturated hues, suing cherry, red, dark blue, dark green and brown. He had a superb mastery of the interplay of complementary colours and of illumination; light falls on bodies cloaked in darkness, like the heavenly bliss on the sinful earth. In his icon of the Dormition of the Virgin from the Donskoj Monastery (Album 35) the red cherub burns bright as a candle on the bier.
The task of decorating the Cathedral of the Annunciation brought together two great masters of medieval Rus, who each in his own way gave expression to a period full of dramatic conflicts: the old Theophanes brought forward the Greek in tragic, titanic images; the quiet young Rublev painted harmonious, serene images, expressing thereby a dream of perfection.
In the history of Russian icons painting the name of Andrei Rublev (ca. 1370-1430) stays as a symbol of its highest achievements. As a youth he became a monk and spent many years in the Trinity-Saint Sergii Monastery. Here Rublev received education and moral training, and also learned the art of icon-painting.
For the Cathedral of the Annunciation Andrei Rublev painted several of the festival icons – the Annunciation, the Baptism, and the Nativity of Christ, the Transfiguration, the Raising of Lazarus and the Entry into Jerusalem. They are distinguished from Theophanes' works by their gentility and harmony. The scenes from the Gospels are depicted with great intimacy, spirituality and human warmth. The colours are marked by tremendous emotionality and refined beautifully with a damp down light.
The very fact that Rublev was an extraordinary talented artist is evident from the fact that he, the monk from outside of Moscow, was able to get a job together with Theophanes whose name was already legendary.
In 1918 three icons from the Deesis range were found in the Zvenogorod – the Saviour (Album 37), the Archangel Michael (Album 38) and the Apostle Paul. Among scientists the dominating position held is, that they were made by Rublev between 1410-1420. The Zvenigorod Saviour is especially remarkable. The face of Christ is distinctive and spiritual, with delicate, austere features. He is full of mental concentration and his gaze is direct and penetrating, expressing human kindness. The image of the Apostle Paul is suffused with humanity and calm wisdom, while that of the Archangel Michael is lyrical and full of profound poetic charm.
The real glory of Andrei Rublev is connected to the icon with the Old Testament Trinity (ca. 1420) (Album 36). This icon is deservedly the best-known work of Russian icon painting. Rublev's painting displays in the purest form the finer points of early Russian icon painting: philosophical profundity, the religious basis, the symbolic character of images, the skill and meaningfulness of form, composition, rhythm and colour.
The significance of this icon is not limited only by the Orthodox form of answer to the question of the nature of the Old Testament Trinity, over which the heated controversy raged between the official Church and heretics. The dogma had been laid down by the Church Fathers. Rublev used the traditional iconography in the Hospitality of Abraham, but he took away from that scheme the figures of Sarah and Abraham and concentrated all his attention on the three angels.
The iconographical problem with respect to the Trinity was expressed by each of the three figures and masterly solved by Rublev. Apparently Rublev's aim was not to show the difference between them but on the contrary to demonstrate their spiritual unity and indivisibility – a point which none of his predecessors was able to achieve to such a degree.
Probably, the reason for changing the stable iconography had a historical background.
Rublev painted his celebrated Trinity in memory of Sergii Radonezhsky, one of the inspiring minds behind the Battle of Kulikovo, who did much to help stopping the civil war and unite the Russian princes in the struggle against the Tatars (Dmitrieva 1969, 178 [my translation]).
On the Trinity of Rublev are the three enchantingly beautiful figures seated for a meal round a table on which is a bowl. This bowl is the theological and compositional center of the icon. In this symposium each figure is wonderful and spiritual in its own way; the slim hands are beautiful; the inclined circle heads, the expression of love and mutual understanding on the angel's faces.
The totality is a harmonious, integral whole, the similitude of a wreath, set within a circle, it acquires the rhythmic form of musical refrain. In this visual form the divines have the highest meaning – the logic of the universe, which seems the highest wisdom: the three in one – the prototype, the model of the world (Klevaev 2007, 54 [my translation]).
For this icon Rublev employed the well-known meaning of symbols of the object: the wing to denote flight, the bowl as a symbol of sacrificing, the mountain as a spiritual ascension, the tree as the Tree of Life and architectural details as a home in the Biblical sense. It is important that none of the details are like abstract allegories requiring a key to their understanding. They make up something integral, they are seen in such juxtaposition and inter-relation as to be part of a pictorial fabric in such a way that one's mind derives a special pleasure in the very contemplation of it all, realising that here is expressed an ascent from the particular to the general, to something that is significant to all mankind.
The predominance of cold colours, of blue, violet and emerald green in the icons of Rublev and the painters of his school, gives them a character of lofty spirituality. Each of his icons has a gold glow which is heightening the impression of harmony.
Everything what we know about those two talented artists are mostly expressed in the latest notes in the medieval manuscripts and also in the legends which surrounded them. They have in our memory only a “pointing biography” where the events of life are represented only by some remarkable stars – those stars were their icons. These icon, of course, do not have any signatures, they are anonymous, as the whole lot of the classical icons. But those stars were so bright that they entered into the history of art, and more generally, in the human history. We have a Russian saying: “If stars start to shine on the sky this means that someone needs them”.
Two of those artists lived around six hundred years ago. Both of them were able to express profound human and philosophical ideas. Their icons had a big influence on their contemporaries and still appeal to the modern man because of their noble emotions, delicate poetry and inspired beauty. The icons of Theophanes the Greek and Andrei Rublev are much more than the theology in the images, they are able to give the highest aesthetic feelings also for people who are not connected to Orthodox history. Their icons appeal to everyone and their messages do not have the limitation of time – are not in that sense “dated”. Thereby they represent general values of mankind. They are the best proof that, phenomenologically speaking, the icons are cultural, spiritual, aesthetic and scientific representations (see 2).
Everything, what we know at the biographies of Theophanes the Greek and Andrei Rublev, have an approximate characteristic. The words “may be” and “probably” are most convenient to illustrate their creative heritages. But we know for sure that they lived in the prayers and created in the prayers. The prayers were the main detail in their environment. All their icons reflect to us the prayers from the old days. We are involved directly or indirectly in the dialog with those icons. The highest message of icons continues in the realization of the idea about the eternal way of praying.
To the reader of icons, therefore, the following invitation goes out: “Just look, and you will see the “highest beauty”, just listen, and the melody of harmony from above will enter your soul.