• anton daineko

the living icon

This contribution is more an attempt at identifying a range of relevant questions than it is to provide the answers that would be adequate to the complexity of the task at hand.

Anton Daineko, Icon Painter, Minsk Conference presentation, Saint Petersburg

You are the Christ, son of the living God

Matthew 16-16.

One icon painter once remarked: «My friends on the Internet fall into two groups - secular painters and icon painters. Secular painters will share their works and spend all of their time singing praises. Icon painters, on the other hand, will always be having an argument with one another."

This sounds like a very apt comment in that it gives a very accurate description of what happens on the specialist sites and fora among icon painters that host some very lively debates erupt at fairly regular intervals. In fact, the presence of such debates has become a hallmark of many of these sites. The subject is mainly concerned with the futures of icon painting: should the icon be modern or traditional? Is copying a thing to be avoided, or a virtue to be sought? How much room for creativity does icon painting allow? By extension, all of these questions are also applied to architecture and other clerical art forms.

As a child, I was a big fan of the Wizard of Oz. Two characters of the famous book were having an ever-lasting argument about what was more important in life: the heart or the mind. The argument went on and off intermittently, and the sides to the debate never seemed to miss their chance to speak their minds, but in the end always admitted the importance of both.

Something similar is also happing among the icon painters. The questions at hand all seem to have obvious answers. Should the icon be traditional? - Of course it should, or else we may come to accept many of the images that are already abundant on the Internet, like the Saviour depicted as an American Native, or the Mother of God shown kicking a football. Should the icon be modern? Beyond any doubt. All historical periods have had their own predominant views of the icon, and their the painting styles specific to them. An icon transposed from another time would probably perceived as being out of place.

At issue, however, is a much deeper question. To ask what an icon should or should not be is superficial. It would be very hard indeed to make any judgement in this regard. It would perhaps be more appropriate to look at what an icon is.

Several years ago, a priest from Grodno came to order icons for an altar. He would notmally give the icon painters a free hand, with the exception of one preference: he wanted the icons to be painted in the Rublev style.

This is a phrase that is well known to the icon painters, which they have heard from a large proportion of their clients. The meaning attributed to it is far less clear, and may vary greatly. With the priest from Grodno, we agreed that I would suggest several examples that would serve as models for the icons. I made the selection, which included the 13th century Khilandar Icon of the Saviour, the image of the Saviour from the Panselin fresco, the image of the Saviour from the Vatotopedo monastery, and a few other samples. All were well-known and impressive masterpieces that had little relationship to Rublev. In my second meeting with the priest, I showed him the examples, and he replied, happily, "Yes! This is exactly what I had in mind".

This example speaks volumes. It is true that clients do not always fully realise what they ask for. However, the example is more about the impact and perceptions of different iconic images.

All of these icons, similar to many others that could be mentioned in this context - were written at different times, represent different styles and convey different content. As the list is extended, differences become even more apparent. But no one of these icons leaves us in any doubt as to Who is depicted, or give us any indication that something may be out of place. Conversely, the emotional and spiritual impact of all of them is enormous, as noticed and experienced by many, including myself. The icons are unanimously viewed as masterpieces - from both a spiritual and an artistic perspective - by people from many walks of life - icon painters, art experts and critics, priests and members of the public. The obvious corollary

is this: despite the great variety in the images depicted in the icons (all of which represent the best of icon painting beyond any doubt), there is some feature that all of them have in common and that leaves no doubt that this icon is genuine.

Although this common criterion may be difficult to identify, the collection of the masterpieces, and the unanimity of the judgements suggest that it does in fact exist, and may be identified at least partially. As long as it may apply to the above-listed masterpieces, it should also be relevant to most other icons. The important thing is to realise what it may be.

The criterion

Commenting on icon copying, Father Igor, a priest from Minsk and an icon-painter himself, made this sound remark: "There are no icon copies - each icon is a revelation".

I was deeply impressed by these words, which are not only relevant to copying, but also to all icon painting.

They are equally applicable to masterpieces and to the less known works.

One may ask, of course, how one might define revelation - a fine matter indeed.

There is no plain and simple answer. With some icons, such as the Saviour of the Zvenigorod Tier, you know it when you see it. But with most, it is not as straightforward.

For a better understanding, it might be useful to recall the history of the selection of the texts of the New Testament. What was the criterion used then? As it turns out, none whatsoever. The initial collection of the texts was extensive, and the formal signs of their authenticity were of roughly equal weight. The name inscribed on the papyrus did not necessarily guarantee attribution to the person by that name. Communication among the communities was poor by today's standards, and forming selection committees was not a common practice. Surprisingly, however, the few texts of which today's New Testament is composed had been selected unanimously by all of the Churches.

The selection was by chance, intuition and inspiration.

The appropriate quote here is Simon Peter's famous reply to the question from Jesus "Who do you say that I Am?": "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God".

Herein, perhaps, lies the key to the understanding of many things about the Church, including the selection of the canonical texts. Those were the texts in which the early Christians could perceive the presence of the living God. And it is this presence that is the best about the Church and makes it unique from the other churches and faiths. The presence of the living God, which governed the selection of the canonical texts, can be the guide for virtually all other aspects of church life.

The icon is not an exception in this regard. The iconic image is comprised of many simple elements - lines, strokes or smudges, while the different colours are obtained by various combinations of clay and yoke. None of these elements are meaningful - artistically or spiritually - in and of themselves.

However, in combination, they create a miracle - the presence of the living God felt by every spectator. This is the same miracle that emanates from the simple worlds of the evangelic texts.

Perhaps the main task of the icon painter could be defined as brining together the variety of isolated visual elements into a whole image of the living God.

The question that remains is how this can be achieved, if at all.

The answer is by no means technical or instructional. Style or techniques are of relatively little significance, and Christian art offers many examples of the use of a large variety of those.

When still a student at the Academy of Arts, I would often hear from one of my professors: It makes no sense to describe a colour range as warm or cold, or as blue or red: it is either there or not there. The same is true for the image of God - it is either present or absent.

Technical mastery can only take you some way, but its role is by no means decisive. There are many examples of icons painted with great technical skill, but with no life to them. Conversely, there are many icons that are imperfect technically, but that nevertheless inspire and bring to live the image of God.

Whether this effect has been achieved can be hard to define and ultimately is a matter of personal perception. Similar to the evangelical text, the only guiding principle in this respect is concordance of multiple personal perceptions, however uncertain this may be. As seed from the example with the selection of the best icon sample, the principle is working. People with different degrees of familiarity with icons can witness or feel the presence of the objective truth in the genuine iconic images.

The icon painter seeks to convey this objective truth, and his tool for successful performance is personal, subjective perception.

It would be quite interesting, to explore how the subjective perception principle could play out in icon painting,

which would be relevant - first and foremost - to the icon painter himself.

My own experience and reports from my colleagues give reason to suggest an evolution of perceptions in an icon painter. When the icon is signed and finished, it feels as if it has begun a life of its own. The icon, every of which detail seems so familiar, suddenly becomes difficult to recognise as one's own work.

This feeling is so consistent with the perception of the living icon, which raises the question about the role of the icon painter in the icon's life.

The icon painter

Several years ago, I came to the realisation that the creation of an icon follows a process consisting of several standard phases. At that moment, it felt as if these phases were unique to my own experience, but as I found out later, my perception was shared by many of the other icon painters I knew. The shaping of the idea of a new icon marks the start of the fist phase, anticipation of a masterpiece.

At this moment, the icon painter is filled with energy and creative ambition. It seems as if one has at last acquired a clear understanding of what needs to be accomplished, and by what means. The doubts and uncertainties have at last been overcome, and from now on, things will be very different. Overall, one is full of desire and determination to move mountains.

The phase of anticipation is succeeded by despair at the gap between the reality and what had been imagined. So little of the original idea comes to be implemented, and even many of the things that seemed so easy previously have suddenly become exceedingly hard.

3. This flow of events gradually gives rise to the third stage - a plea for God's help and mercy, the One who has the true power to create an icon.

The end phase is celebrating completion, with the words "Glory to God". One is thankful for the product of one's work, which may be different from the original expectation, but is at least no worse than usual.

Afterwards, there comes a stage of gradual appropriation of something that had never been yours, and one is back to phase one.

The account of the process may seem ironic, but certainly has a large element of truth in it, as confirmed by my peers. All phases seem equally essential and unavoidable. Without intense anticipation, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to survive the stage of despair, and to complete the next two phases in the creative cycle. Without the initial surge in creative energy, persisting to completion of the work will be next to impossible.

The sequence of the creative phases highlight a set of trade-offs faced by an icon painter throughout the creative process. Of them, reconciling own personal approach with Divine action is perhaps the most important. Each icon painter has to make one's own decision on how to achieve and maintain the right measure of both.

This is probably the right place to address the controversies and trade-offs which fill the life of any Christian, not just the Christian artist.

The life of any Christian are filled with controversy. "The gospel itself is filled with controversy", runs the famous quote. Indeed, there is no clear instruction that a Christian can rely on in the course of his life path. This is very different from a Muslim or Jew, whose life course is governed by some very clear prescriptions, down to the very narrow detail. To the Christian,the Scripture does not serve as a rule book, but rather as a key to understanding how to act in a particular situation. The specific commandments, however, can be controversial. On the one hand, one is commanded respect one's parents, on the other, to have a mind of one's own; being as simple as children has to be combined with being as wise as a serpent.

The best Christian minds have had to grapple with one major and deep controversy - how to combine two important and seemingly incompatible things - the Divine and the human nature. Few people have realised how exactly this can be accomplished. Most answers have identified the unacceptable combinations.

In the absence of clear rules, all life decisions are left to the wisdom and discretion of the individual Christian. This arrangement is necessarily pluralistic: all people are different, and there is a multitude of paths towards the same goal.

It would be no exaggeration to say that the entire life of a Christian is filled with mutually exclusive choices, and finding the difficult balance between them becomes the only way forward.

Several maxims exist to guide the choices of the icon painter, such as the one formulated by Archbishop Zenon about the need for the icon painter to 'overcome the painter' within oneself. On a closer look, however, the meaning does not seem so straightforward.

Supposing that anyone who takes up a painter's brush possesses a set characteristics that make him a painter, would not trying to suppress them deprive that person of something unique and irreplaceable?

Perhaps the 'painter' refers to the individual spiritual and emotional constitution, which make up his personality and are integral to his art. The connection between the spirit and creative ability is strong, delicate and complex for any good painter, which is exactly why he is capable of communicating his personality and reach out to the spectator. These are the talents, the gifts, and the potential. As long as the artist has the freedom to use this potential in a number of ways, a third actor can be said to come into play - one that can be referred to as the master planner.

The emotional and spiritual aspect of the individual person and the talents are the ingredients of artistic individuality. The master planner is the actor that is capable of channelling the artist's talents and individuality in an appropriate direction. The master planner needs the artist, the one who is being guided. The more sophisticated the artist, the better the result. Because fine arts have a direct connection to the spiritual sphere, the sophisticated artist is the in whom the perceptive and emotional aspect of his personality is most closely connected with his artistic imagination. Even if individuality were viewed as undesirable, and something to be suppressed, it would be fair to say that a true artist should still possess some measure of it.

This measure of individuality will be an asset, that could not easily be abandoned; attempting to do so would undermine the basis for creativity - essential to the creation of an icon, at least one that conforms to the common expectations.

One may ask, then, if individuality is indeed something that should be minimised, and should this be viewed as an achievement?

The answer is the remarkable variety of iconic images created in the past centuries - a very convincing show of the importance of individuality. Artist individuality has contributed to the creation of some of the most outstanding icons.

Conversely. the example of mass-produced icons churned out by multiple artels and printing houses is a clear demonstration that lack of individuality is anything but a virtue. Rejection of individuality is barely offset by any gains in terms of the expressiveness and impact of the mass-produced icons.

One indirect proof of the existence of multiple paths towards the common truth are the lives and works of the well-known saints, who had major disagreements with one another and sometimes were barely on speaking terms, like John Chrysostomus and Cyril of Alexandria. The traditional accounts paint well-refined and highly generalised images, while specific facts about their lives portray them as distinct individuals. Herein, perhaps lies the proof that individuality as such is no barrier to spiritual advancement. Human individuality necessarily reflects the special and unique path of spiritual progression followed by any human person, saints included.

Hence the individuality of an artist is a necessary and essential element to the creation of a living icon. One caveat to that is that individuality should not be an end in itself, but only a means towards this goal. Controversy between form and content, so common in secular art, are particularly apparent in clerical art, and are represent unacceptable distortions to the very idea of icon painting.

Any icon has two facets - the divine and the human. The divine facet is one that remains the same over centuries and millennia, while the human has varied across locations and times, reflecting the evolving social conventions and the creative views of the individual painter.

One may sometimes wonder how the subject matter of the icon could be balanced with the individuality of the artist. The great variety of the icons is indisputable proof that finding this balance is a realistic task, although the degree of success may not match that of the very few exceptional artists. How much success is attainable to every one of us is a purely practical question.

Beyond icon painting, this delicate balance also defines many other aspects of a Christian's life. Examples are many, which is proof to the correctness of the path.


One important prerequisite to this balancing act is personal experience, especially in the spiritual realm.

It would be appropriate here to draw a parallel with theology, as solid personal experience is a major prerequisite to all serious theological deliberations, just as it is to painting a good icon. No theological statement will be relevant unless grounded in the completeness of experience. Painting an icon is no exception. Theological deliberations, similar to icon painting, can be likened to a small tip of the iceberg, whose main body is hidden in deep waters.

The icon painter's spiritual progress is reflected to a large extent in his works. It is quite possible that throughout his artistic career, the icon painter aspires to only one image of Christ or Mother of God, and follows a thorny path towards this truth that involves experimentation with a variety of styles, techniques and creative views. Each new icon adds new detail to this one aspired image that the icon painter has been trying to reach out to from the beginning by developing a progressively detailed view of it. With time, as new details are added to the icon, this sought-after image gradually takes shape. To the thoughtful painter, the goal is as noble as it is obvious - to depict the true God, to crate the pure image free as much as possible from all distortions of style, personal artistic preferences and other chance details. A lot of icon painters, I believe, are undertaking this journey, which explains the great variety in the artistic interpretation of the images. This can either be a conscious stage in the artist's creative journey, during which his reluctance to go to extremes and to experiment excessively with style is more an asset than a limitation. Or the artist can be in the middle of a process of intense exploration.

In the latter case, the artist is facing the same challenge of a delicate balancing act between subjective perception and the search for the objective Truth. It is an act of clearing the icon from all details that are subjective by relying on subjective perception,

and a process through which the genuine icon is born. The icon is both traditional and modern, individual and objective, communitarian and deeply personal. The icon exists at the boundary of these two worlds and possesses the features of both. In this process, the icon painter is on a quest to reveal to the viewer a new reality. Each time, this reality is revealed at a new angle, different from everybody else's.

There seems to be no other alternative to this process. No Christian theologist - not even the geniuses among them - has succeeded in explicating Christ in all His entirety. Progress in this direction has only been made possible by the concerted effort of many people over a long time period. Each of them was adding some new detail to the full picture. Icon painting is perhaps a very similar process in many respects. As long as the transmission of the Divine Truth among the living is only possible through the efforts of the people with their own individuality and personhood, with unique combinations of talents and unique limitations, icon painting can also be viewed as a joint effort of the people to reveal a full and complete image of God. Each new icon adds yet another feature and detail to this revelation. The entirety of the image will be compromised by the loss of even one minute detail or stroke.

This shared image, composed of multiple strokes and details should also be considered to be the genuine iconic depiction of God our Saviour. And so the creation of the living icon continues.

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