Truth in Art Vol. 2 (Spring) 2018

What Can the Christian Orthodox Icon Offer in the Post-Modern World?

According to Patriarch Germanos of Constantinople, the Orthodox Christian church is a heaven on earth, where God resides and walks. The church building as a whole is for Germanos a representation of the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ.[1] Germanos stresses that the church needs to express the presence of God in the world and therefore to express Orthodox ecclesiology—that is, the way the faithful relate to God and to each other. Understandably, Orthodox Christian icon painting has the same aim and this is exactly what icon painting can offer to the contemporary world.

In a fragmented, self-centered society, the art of icon painting suggests a way of being that projects love and unity and defines life as a communion of love and peace. Let us explore how this is achieved and how the icon painter works towards this goal while producing original pieces of art at the same time.

Nicholaos Messaritis in one of his texts describes the Pantocrator of the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople and explains how the image functions in the space of the church. He points out that Christ looks as though He is leaning from Heaven towards earth while looking at everyone and each person separately at the same time.[2] In this description one can trace the fundamentals of icon painting and the functional goal of icons. Christ comes to us and relates to each one of us separately and to all of us at the same time, uniting everyone and everything in Himself. That sense of unity is the main aim of any Orthodox Christian church, the ultimate sense that can be projected onto the beholder. The faithful feel that they enter a space-time where God is present, visible and accessible and works to unite everything and everyone in Himself. That sense needs to be experienced by the senses and not just conceived in the mind. In order for this to happen, the icon painter needs to work according to tradition and his or her own experience of church space.

Icon painters, whose aim is to project a sense of divine presence and God-inspired unity inside church space, should attempt to identify artistic solutions that would help them achieve that goal. The Byzantine pictorial system should be used to render present, here and now, that which is imaged. As explained earlier, icon painters should imbue their images with rhythm, the heart of the Byzantine pictorial system, in order to bring their icons to life.

Rhythm is a way of managing movement and energies on the pictorial surface. Movement and energies, created through shapes and colors, need to reconcile and become united, acquiring a common purpose of being. This can be achieved through the use of rhythm, and when that happens, in the icon and in church space as a whole, there is only harmony, unity and balance of movements, energies and forces. Everything and everyone exists in peace and loving dynamic balance. Church space acquires a scent of Heaven.

In order for this to happen, however, it is not enough for the icon painter to simply copy old icons. Decorating a church with copies of old icons will deprive that space of the vividness and immediacy of original artwork. It will be a copy of a different personal, social and cultural testimony and not an expression of the needs of a contemporary community. The contemporary icon painter, like any believer in any era, functions as an Apostle of Christ and loves Him dearly, and, as a unique person, has a unique experience of the Church and its space. That exact experience is what needs to be included in an icon so that the icon becomes a true testimony of faith that expresses the icon painter’s soul and spiritual life. Of course, as I have already said, an icon painter’s work will always need to be based on the traditional techniques of Byzantine painting, albeit managed in a personal manner to produce an authentic piece of art.

Under these conditions, an icon becomes a contemporary icon. It is an authentic icon that attests to the truth of the Gospel, and at the same time highlights how the post-modern world can be perceived within the tradition of the Church, revealing the way to Heaven. Ιcon painters record their experience of Church life and, based on the tradition of the Church, convey contemporary culture through icons in a mystical way. However, within the icon, contemporary culture and the spiritual circumstances of the post-modern world are transformed and acquire a different meaning. The colors of the big cities and the shapes of contemporary buildings are reflected in icons but at the same time are transformed through the use of rhythm into harmonious ensembles. The pictorial elements of icons are united in harmony and do not aim at overpowering and dominating each other. All elements exist to serve a purpose in life and rejoice in the reality of Christian community life, revealing, without describing, qualities of Heaven.

George Kordis

[1] Ἐκκλησία ἐστιν ἐπίγειος οὐρανός, ἐν ᾗ ὁ ἐπουράνιος θεός ἐνοικεῖ καὶ ἐμπεριπατεῖ, ἀντιτυπούσα τὴν σταύρωσιν καὶ τὴν ταφὴν καὶ τὴν ἀνάστασιν Χριστοῦ, PG 98, 381 B-385A.
[2] Πρᾶόν τε τὸ βλέμμα καὶ τὸ ὅλον προσήνεια, οὐκ ἐπαρίστερα βλέπον οὐδ’ ὑπερδέξια, ὁλικῶς δε ἅμα πρὸς ἄπαντας καὶ πρὸς τὸν καθέκαστον μερικῶς (Nikolaos Mesarites: Descriprion of the Church of the Holy Apostles at Constantinople, ed. G. Downey, The American Philosophical Society, 1957,) p. 901.

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