See with the eyes of the heart

by
28 November 2007

Aidan Hart, an iconographer, offers an explanation for the current surge of interest in icons

Inbued with light, united with God: St Samson of Dol by Aidan Hart

Inbued with light, united with God: St Samson of Dol by Aidan Hart

WHY ARE people so fascinated by icons? Last week 180 people crammed into All Hallows’, London Wall, to see “Epiphany”, an exhibition of contemporary icons, produced using techniques that have not changed over the centuries.

An Orthodox hymn explains, in part, this phenomenon: “When you were transfigured, O Christ, you revealed the original nature of man, arrayed in divine glory.” We are created for union with God; so something deep within us responds to these holy images that are themselves imbued with light, and show people imbued with light.

It is a conscious aim of the icon tradition to depict the human person as not merely human, but as a being united to God, shining with the light of divinity. “Man became God,” in the words of St Athanasius the Great, “so that man, by grace, may become God.”

To hear and read divine words is not enough. Our human nature wants also to see things in a divine way — to smell paradisiacal fragrances; to touch and eat holy things.

Icons are, above all, part of a liturgical life that involves the whole person — body, soul, and spirit. As well as being drawn to the profound spirituality suggested by the icon’s very particular style, Western Christians, who are used to the denigration of the human body, are also welcoming them as an affirmation of the physical.

These depictions in earthy pigments and heavenly gold are testimony to the fact that the material world has the capacity to communicate the shekina, or glory of God: the apostle John tells us that not only did Christ’s face shine with light, but also his garments.

PERHAPS the greatest contribution the icon and its theology can make is to point the way back to the numinous — to a sense of something immeasurable but knowable, though not definable.

Advertisement

Also, because icons are always of people — Christ, the Mother of God, angels, and the saints — they affirm that we are most happy and free when in relationship. Individualism leaves home with the thrill of novelty but ends in the confines of the pigsty; relationship begins with the limits of the doorway and the fiery sword but leads into that spacious and ever-surprising place, Eden.

This explains why artists are happy to choose originality over novelty: originality is best nurtured by going to the origin of all goodness, truth, and beauty.

Although the icon emerges primarily from the Orthodox Church, many Anglican, Roman Catholic, and some Nonconformist churches and individuals are commissioning and using them. I have been a professional iconographer for more than 20 years, and more than half my commissions have come from the non-Orthodox.

Although the icon emerges primarily from the Orthodox Church, many Anglican, Roman Catholic, and some Nonconformist churches and individuals are commissioning and using them. I have been a professional iconographer for more than 20 years, and more than half my commissions have come from the non-Orthodox.

WESTERN CHRISTIAN ART has, for the most part, emphasised the teaching function of religious imagery, and has not paid so much attention to the style used to depict the event or person. The emphasis is more on the narrative element, and not so much, if at all, on the initiatory effect of the style.

On first encounter, people are often confused by the strange perspective systems used in icons. Things are shown viewed from many angles at once; the vanishing point is not in the distance, but in the viewer.

But, gradually, these suprarational (i.e. not irrational) means begin to initiate us, often despite ourselves, into a different way of seeing. We begin to see with the eye of the heart, as well as with the eyes of the body.

But, gradually, these suprarational (i.e. not irrational) means begin to initiate us, often despite ourselves, into a different way of seeing. We begin to see with the eye of the heart, as well as with the eyes of the body.

Is there a strictly circumscribed style that must be copied at all costs? By no means. While it is not an aim, variety is a natural fruit of the icon tradition. There are, indeed, principles rooted in reality that need to be followed, but these principles can and should be expressed in a variety of ways.

Advertisement

We have seen, for example, how the icon should show the material world and the human body transfigured — neither dematerialised nor merely material. The Byzantines, with their background of classical sculpture, tended to express this truth with a greater modelling of the human figure than the Russians, whose works in general are somewhat flatter and more graphic.

This raises the question: in what stylistic direction might Western iconography go in the coming decades? Some inspiration might come from our own past; for iconography is not foreign to it: Romanesque painting and sculpture, for example, are fully in the iconographic tradition. Celtic works show the geometric world transfigured.

In the All Hallows’ exhibition, there are works by Sister Nadejda Owiny which are influenced by early Roman icons. One can see icons by Dr Stéphane René, whose neo-Coptic style is, in part, derived from cubism — entirely traditional, and yet new.

Perhaps the challenge facing Western religious art is to learn more from tradition, while that facing the community of Orthodox iconographers is not to hide behind copying.

DOES THE icon tradition say something to our modern art world? Icons made a huge impact on Matisse when he viewed the newly cleaned works exhibited in Moscow in 1911. And the aphorisms of the founder of modern abstract sculpture, Constantine Brancusi, who was a member of (and chanter in) the Orthodox Church, show that he was profoundly influenced by the mystical theology of Orthodoxy. It seems that the timelessness expressed in icons is ever new. They resonate with this world’s cry for mystery.

On 6 December, 7-9.30pm, an icon forum "Modern Mystery", chaired by the Bishop of London the Rt Revd Richard Chartres, will consider the revival of icons in the West. Admission is free, but places must be reserved be emailing archdeacon.london@london.anglican.org. "Epiphany" continues until 12 December. For opening times and directions, visit www.wallspace.org.uk

 

DOES THE icon tradition say something to our modern art world? Icons made a huge impact on Matisse when he viewed the newly cleaned works exhibited in Moscow in 1911. And the aphorisms of the founder of modern abstract sculpture, Constantine Brancusi, who was a member of (and chanter in) the Orthodox Church, show that he was profoundly influenced by the mystical theology of Orthodoxy. It seems that the timelessness expressed in icons is ever new. They resonate with this world’s cry for mystery.

On 6 December, 7-9.30pm, an icon forum "Modern Mystery", chaired by the Bishop of London the Rt Revd Richard Chartres, will consider the revival of icons in the West. Admission is free, but places must be reserved be emailing archdeacon.london@london.anglican.org. "Epiphany" continues until 12 December. For opening times and directions, visit www.wallspace.org.uk

 

@churchtimes

Wed 16 Aug @ 19:23
Political interventions by bishops on gambling, Brexit & north-south divide. All in the latest Chuch Times Podcast https://t.co/LDE3xTs1nT

The Church Times Podcast

The Church Times Podcast, hosted by Tim Wyatt and Ed Thornton, features a mixture of interviews and news analysis. Listen online

Subscribe now to get full access

To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read seven articles each month for free.