Heart of the Icon Vol. 1 (Autumn) 2017

The Poetics of the Icon

Our theme is poetry. The poetic approach. How to see the world poetically. How to re-encounter the icon poetically.

What does it mean to speak of the poetics of the icon? Some things cannot be defined: What is art? What is beautiful? What is poetry? We cannot easily say. But we can understand ourselves, because we all feel something similar when we are in front of a work of art. We all understand that the poet possesses a particular gift and can reveal the other side of things. He takes the words that we have all used and heard a thousand times, and weaves them into phrases where he captures his own vision with his own poetic gift. And suddenly the same words we have heard for so long and that were mostly just tools, as the poet uses them, are transformed: they glow, shine, and acquire some special light that has to do with the meaning of our existence. We understand that behind these words were hidden other realities. These realities are important for our existence, they are important for the meaning that our life can take. What poetry affects in us, we could call “surprise.” That is, while everything was known, we knew everything, we understood everything, and we had begun to be struck, suddenly something new is done with poetry and it surprises us.

We Christians have experienced this feeling of surprise with Christ, with His life, His words and miracles, and with the climax that is the resurrection of Christ. Whoever believes in the resurrection and second coming of Christ experiences a very significant surprise in his life. And that is what shaped the Church, that is, the believers were to assemble in the temple and perform the Holy Eucharist “in the memory of Christ.” In the memory of Christ Who rose again and will come again to us on the “Last Day.”

The early Christians experienced this surprise. And this surprise of the resurrection led to the birth of the icon. Christ was not just a personality for the faithful, a Master who inspired Christians to improve their lives. But with His crucifixion and resurrection it was as though He caused the universe to start over from the beginning. He revealed the possibility for that which exists to reappear without the prison of death and the void. Christians did not need a portrait of Christ, such as Fayum’s portraits of the dead, which would psychologically connect them with the Master through remembrance. Iconography was a new type of painting that would re-present a new world liberated from the necessity of decay. Its contribution to the history of painting is based on how it renders, not that which is perishable, but that which is eternal and not transient.

Although iconography borrowed a great deal from ancient art, it built upon it in an inspired way, and introduced radical innovations to painting. It added light to the face using psymithia – the fine brush strokes that illuminate prominent parts of the body. It represents the bodies as though they are incredibly lightweight. It reverses the perspective as if the images were turned towards the viewer. And above all, it achieved a remarkably new ethos of Christ and the Saints. Instead of the superiority of the ancient hero, the Christian portrait revealed his inner strength as a loving relationship with the viewer of the icon. Typical examples are the two unrepeatable archetypal icons from Sinai. They were painted in the 6th century using the encaustic technique, where the painter mixes the colored powders with a mixture of melted mastic and wax and, in small wads, puts this pulp on the picture.

Christ of Sinai (Fig. 1) is portrayed as a nice young man who does not expect death (like the funeral portraits from which the technique comes), but brings life with all His appearance as sympathetic to the viewer, as co-suffering, as understanding, and with a live-giving love. The power of life that this challenging painting technique reveals, the cohesiveness of the contrasting emotions that it eloquently expresses, and the groundbreaking density in the expression of the eyes, all these aspects have revealed this work as an archetype of the so-called “theandric ethos,” because it achieved the difficult synthesis of the doctrine of Christ as “perfect God and perfect man.”

Our Lady of Sinai (Fig. 2) is a noble woman with rosy cheeks and red lips, with beautiful eyes and a profound look, which brings out an ethos that, along with beauty, reveals more a sense of ontological power. She is not a woman that stirs up passions, but who incarnates the Truth, Her Son and God, and inspires our veneration as “truly Mother of God.” The iconographic type of the Byzantine Virgin is one of the greatest successes of the (then) new painting style. Although she is not deprived of female beauty, she is not a woman of femininity, but the obedient Virgin who bore within herself Him Who is life itself. It would be difficult for even the best painter to achieve the “theomitoric ethos” [the ethos of she who gave birth to God], which the Byzantine iconographers achieved through the divine illumination that they received from their life and faith in the Church. In these two unique icons the Byzantine painters were confronted with the destiny of perishable existence, and they poetically overturned it, just as Christ overthrew man’s tragic destiny on an ontological level. The visual language that embodied this theological surprise could be said to be the definition of poetry in the art of painting. The deeply assimilated sense of rhythm and the remarkable density of the expression through painting reveal the Byzantine style as a genuine poetic language, which takes the human thirst for immortality and eternal existence and translates it into the poetic expression of the ineffable mystery of the resurrection.

The Sinai School was followed by a flourishing of painting during the periods of the Komnenoi and Palaiologi emperors, where the poetic was expressed in the image with a new perception, with a dreamlike rendition of weightless artistry and highly decorative architecture, and with a color palette that was of the highest quality throughout the then-known world. This was imitated by Persian and Indian painting as well as by Russian iconography and later, Turkish art, to such an extent that the colors were so bright and poetically rendered that the poetic of the image approached a global influence, and became the basis for western painting. The hiccup of Iconoclasm can be characterized as an elevated poetic of landscape painting, without the Person. (It would be worth the effort for a doctoral dissertation to consider the effects of the poetics of iconoclastic painting on the removal of the Person, and the effect of this abstract iconoclastic art on western abstract art).

During the Ottoman occupation in the Balkans, the Byzantine tradition continued with more stylization and darker colors. The furnace of slavery found a way of expressing itself with a different type of poetry than the Byzantine splendor. It gave some of the most beautiful and sad faces in the world history of portraiture. It introduced the surrealist black sky to wall paintings. It introduced an admirable purity of color and a simplicity in handicrafts. It introduced a type of subtraction before the dawn of abstract western painting. It offered the miracle of folk art to furniture, architecture, and the decoration of dishes, of pots, and of other utilitarian objects, as well as goldsmithing, and all the works that, although created during slavery, were created with joy. As an example, let’s recall the cute sailors who laugh aloof on the supporting ropes of Skyrian dishes. It is very important that the iconography of the last folk artists, such as Makrigiannis’ painters and the Spatharides of Kontoglou and Tsarouchis, keeps its essential and authentic creative power, along with its poeticism.

We may be in danger of losing the original creative power, originality, and poeticism of the icon. There is no need here to refer again to the much-discussed question of the copying and imitation of old icons, which destroys authenticity. But it is worthwhile reflecting on what form the poeticism of the icon can take today. Of course there are no recipes in poetry. However, we can identify some errors that are repeated in the practice of iconography and that are responsible for the loss of poeticism. If poetry is nourished by imagination and vision and dreams, then we must learn to be taught by the old icons in a way that embraces our own modern visions and dreams.

The mindset that everything was already imagined in the old icons is bad for contemporary iconographic production. There is nothing that is seen by the eyes of all painters in the same way. And the hands of all painters have innumerable alternatives for producing the same thing. If you see an icon just as you wake up from sleep, your imagination will give you some qualities that, if you put them in the picture you paint, it will give it freshness. If, before you start the icon, you daydream, you do nothing but think, this reflection opens your perception of the icon. If you look, as though gazing at a photo upside down, your imagination will reveal other worlds and other topics to paint. These and other such thoughts are born from the realization that the icon has become “standardized” by many imitations, repetitions, and replicas. These repetitions have thickened or darkened the outlines of people and clothing, rocks and buildings. The presence of a thick, rigid, and non-flexible line is very intense in modern iconographic works. Try to shake the lines a bit, to climb, to make it look like they are not brightly colored and perfect as the computational contours. Why do you use your computer to learn how to draw a perfect line or a perfect circle, rather than learning a straight line from the horizon, and circles from the full moon? Try to describe a face or the silhouette of a Saint, not with dark colors, but with a bright presence, or even with yellow or white color. Think that existence is spilling out of its shape and its outline. Leave some part of the picture uncovered by color, unpainted. Or paint two different foundational layers under the same garment or building or mountain. Make a cypress plain turquoise and, rather than adding light to it, shade it with a transparent indigo. Put the trees in a white composition. That is, do not paint it but leave the substrate uncoated and unpainted. These, and other things that we could say, do not teach us to write painterly poetry. They help us, however, to clear away the rust that has accumulated, and that hide the poetry of the ancient icons.

Fr. Stamatis Skliris

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