Friday, January 25, 2013

Icons made by the hands of non-Orthodox

From the blog On Behalf of All, a post entitled "Using colors according to Tradition." My feelings on this topic are well known and are rather congruous with the below. Iconography is more than art and as such resides properly inside the Church. Thoughts?


A student of Orthodox iconographer Susan Cushman writes an icon of St. Nicholas.

While it has become more and more commonplace in other Christian traditions to allow ecclesiastical artwork (whether statuary or iconography, or even clerical vestments) to be done by the hands of the non-Christian, this has been largely avoided in the Orthodox tradition. I’m sure that there are a few examples out there to the contrary, but the predominate perspective on this within Orthodoxy is that only those who are within the Church should — and perhaps are even only able to — produce such artwork and craft.

Orthodox tradition guides us to reproduce icons ”as they were painted by the ancient and holy iconographers“ (Leonid Ouspensky, Theology of the Icon, Vol. 1, p. 11; cf. the Hundred Chapters Council of AD 1551). This imitation, so to speak, goes beyond an imitation of mere form or “style,” as the purpose of iconography is one-and-the-same with the purpose of the holy scriptures, a sacred hymn, or a work of dogmatic theology.

A non-Orthodox artist might be able to replicate perfectly any number of Orthodox and canonical icons, but this does not mean that what they have produced is an icon itself, which are sacred objects of devotion, apocalyptic windows into the heavenly, and a taste of the Transfiguration itself. Just as no one would presume that an unbeliever could compose bits of holy scripture, nor should we presume the same could be done when it comes to iconography. Saint Symeon of Thessalonica once wrote (of icons) to “use colors according to tradition.” In the same context, Ouspensky notes...

Complete post here.

19 comments:

  1. I wonder if the Melkites and other Catholics are "Non-Orthodox". Their """"Un-Orthodox"""". False Christians. Wannabe Christians!!!!!!!!!! Only ORTHODOX Christians are TRUE Christians!!!!!. Boy I hate that word "Orthodox"!!. It makes other Christians look like defects!!! At least Catholic just means universal.

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    1. I assume by your exclamation points that this is not consonant with your views. So to your points, I would agree with your formulation in concept if not in vigor. Iconography is our theology. If the theology depicted comes from outside the Church, then it runs the risk of being "defective." I'm not hectoring non-Orthodox. I'm simply stating that Orthodox iconography is more than art and holds such an important role in the Church that we should have great care who is writing icons and where they are being displayed.

      On the topic of what Catholic means vis a vis universal, I will direct you here:

      http://www.oodegr.com/english/biblia/episkopos1/kef2_2.htm

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  2. The norm, as explained to me over the years, is that -- within the boundaries of the Orthodox Church -- only an Orthodox Christian with a blessing to learn iconography may attempt this sacred art. No icon is to be painted without simultaneous prayer and fasting. If this has changed, I don't know.

    What members of other religious groups do as artwork is done within their own boundaries. Some is absolutely beautiful when considered from an artistic standpoint. I just don't venerate those works as icons because they come from a non-Orthodox tradition. I greatly admire much Coptic Christian art, for example. Some religious pictures (my distinction is that I don't call them icons) are moving and powerful. Others present people or theology hostile to, or foreign to, the Orthodox faith.

    At the same time, I have seen embarrassing results from Orthodox individuals who consider themselves "iconographers" and create (even sell) very poor-quality items. Sadly, one of the most atrocious icons I ever saw was painted at a legitimate Orthodox Christian convent. I ordered it as a gift for a dear friend, and it arrived looking like a cartoon.

    I do not find the original post offensive.

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  3. I still prefer to use the term "Byzantine Christians" to identify both Eastern Orthodox and Greek Catholics.

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    1. I don't know why you would lump Eastern Orthodox and Greek Catholics together. Greek Catholics are not in communion with the Orthodox Church, they are in communion with Rome.

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    2. Yes, we're all Christians, but that doesn't mean we're the same. When talking about iconography within an Orthodox context, lumping Orthodox and Catholics together is counterproductive.

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    3. Some history here might be helpful. If we look at the use of Greek Catholic and Orthodox when the Rusyns returned to Orthodoxy we see that a new term needed to be fashioned. The "Byzantine" Catholic moniker was used in North America by the Ruthenian Metropolia as the law judged "Greek Catholic" to be too neutral a term so a term was used that would ensure greater property protection in the future.

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  4. I think we must be careful here.

    Sinners can produce credible art, even of an iconographic nature (since it isn't about them, it's about the archetype; and if sinners are completely unable to catch a glimpse of that archetype, then no such thing as repentance is even possible). It might help to remember that the Persian Emperor Cyrus was a pagan, a non-believer according to the standards of Scriptures, yet those same Scriptures called him God's "anointed" and "servant" because he was the means that God used to do good to the true believers. So, while upholding the norm and certainly emphasizing that Orthodox Christians should have the proper blessings and follow the proper forms, I don't worry as much about the non-Orthodox artist as about a non-Orthodox image (which means one that is not true and, thus, an idol, not an icon), something that can be produced by both technically Orthodox and technically non-Orthodox artists.

    The icon isn't about the painter, it is about the one painted being true. Ultimately, it is God who is the authentic "iconographer," as it is He and only He who is the archetype: even in icons of the Theotokos or the Saints, we look for them to be represented not "as themselves" but as they are "in Christ," i.e. deified - and this is done by observing certain conventions that give visual clues to the one viewing and (hopefully) venerating the icon.

    Similarly, it is the Eternal and Living Word of God that is the author and the message of the Scriptures, not the Scribes, Prophets, Evangelists, or Apostles who wrote it down in human language. Not everyone who translates or reproduces the Word of God in the printed Scriptures is necessarily Orthodox or, at least, faithfully so. This does not take away the power and presence of the Word communicated through them, if they have presented it according to the Canon, properly translated and accurately printed.

    Why do I say this? Because in the modern world, in which icons are much more widely available than the "old days," we would make ourselves crazy trying to ascertain the spiritual state of everyone who produces and sells icons. Even if the original iconographer was a pious Orthodox Christian, what about everyone whose work in reproductions makes it possible for us to fill our walls with iconography (since we can't really afford many original works of decent quality)?

    A more important issue might be the relationship between the image and the one venerating it. Is their veneration pious and proper, or superstitious? Does the image open a window to Heaven, or is it a gateway to pseudo-magic or an attempt to "possess" the Holy? Even less-than-canonical or downright ugly icons can reveal Truth and Beauty to pious individuals. The icon of the Theotokos so beloved of St Seraphim of Sarov was, as I recall, a highly "westernized" image, possibly demonstrating Uniate influence. Neither God nor His Mother seemed to mind.

    I love authentic, theologically correct, prayerfully produced, beautifully rendered iconography. But even that, without proper veneration shown it by real and devout individuals who cherish it, ends up supplying museums or private collections. Somehow, I find that a more distressing issue.

    Thanks for making me think about this!

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  5. I completely agree with this authour. The first chapter of my thesis on the theological presuppositions of the iconographer is entitled "An Iconographer Ought to be an Orthodox Christian".

    The sacredness of holy iconography does not permit non-Orthodox to be her painters for it is an art form that expresses the centrality of the Orthodox faith, the doctrines set down by the Holy Fathers in the Ecumenical Councils. When we say an iconographer must have membership in the Orthodox Church we refer not only to the prerequisite of holy baptism, but also the willing assent to all Christian doctrines and dogmas central to the Orthodox faith.

    An icon is only a true icon when it conveys the content of faith and life in the Church correctly. Icons must express the shared faith of the worshiping community if they are to become liturgical objects.

    But the expression of the Christian faith and life in Christ is absent from the icon when the artist lacks the necessary prerequisite of adherence to the dogmas of the Christian faith and life in Christ.

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    1. So your saying God cannot use anyone he chooses, christian or non christian, to transmit his grace. In other words you want to limit God. You have made the sacraments or mysteries dependent on man.

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    2. On the contrary, the Mysteries are wholly of Christ, and by virtue of our mysteriological union with Him in his body, the Church. We cannot possibly speak of every imaginable circumstance, so it is fitting (in regular discussion) to speak of "norms." I think that is what Ouspensky and myself were getting at here, not extreme cases that are more hypothetical than reality. I mean, really, how many atheists are interested in painting Icons? :-)

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    3. This is an interesting argument. Do the sacraments exist outside the Church? No. Can God and His Church be understood outside the Church? No, the Church is experiential and requires communion. Can Tradition be understood separate from the Church and can the transmission of Tradition (such as is found in icons) be trusted outside the Church? No, we do not have the same Scriptural assurances regarding the Holy Spirit. Does God "use" people outside the Church to transmit grace? Grace comes from communion with God through the agency of the Holy Spirit. As iconography is a product of prayer, Tradition, and under the blessing of someone Orthodox the work done by someone outside that context does not "limit God." The limitation is on the part of the person not within the Body of Christ, His Church.

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    4. Then do you know the limits of the church and grace in this world? To say one icon is unacceptable but another is not? 'Norms' a funny term to put on the Grace of God which is extra 'normal'. Should there be rules? Yes. Does Saint Nicholas require an Orthodox painter to paint him (I hate the term write, painters paint, words should actually signify the truth of what is happening) for his heavenly self to shine. No. God can work where he will. A muslim can hand me a bible and an atheist can give me a cool glass of water and still hate God in his heart but he still does his will.

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    5. I would say for the icon to be an icon and used inside the Church, yes, that icon would have to be written/drawn/painted by an Orthodox person. A Muslim can hand me a Bible, but would I feel comfortable if a Muslim wrote the Bible he handed to me? As to the limits of grace I can only speak to where I know there is grace: inside the Church. I have nothing cataphatic to say about grace outside the Church.

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    6. Forgive me, Jason, but you seem to be using "grace" in a way here that makes it as a created "thing," rather than as God himself.

      And again, I must insist that whatever "boundaries" we set for other aspects of Tradition -- whether written or unwritten -- must apply to Iconography. It is all of the same Spirit (which, of course, blows where He wills).

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  6. I think the intent of Ouspensky and my own thoughts are more along the lines of what *is* an icon, in relation to holy tradition. Put another way, could an unbeliever be considered a temple of the Holy Spirit? Part of the body of Christ? Could they author a hymn for use in our liturgy? Could they write a part of sacred scripture? The answer to all of these has to be the same, given that all are holy tradition, in the strictest sense. Every Orthodox individual is part of holy tradition; an unbeliever is not.

    Can an unbeliever recreate an "art form" that resembles an icon? Sure. But is that all an icon *is*? I would submit "no." An unbeliever painting a replica of an icon (I realize this is largely hypothetical and unlikely, so it's almost a moot point) is not painting a window into heaven or an object of devotion and apocalypse, but "art" alone. We have to distinguish, even though it becomes a little muddy as to how one could differentiate between the two -- one is created within (and *of*) the Spirit and the life of the Church (which is Christ), the other is extraneous to it.

    This also leads into the debate (which you seem to have alluded to in your comment) of whether or not an icon is in-and-of-itself an icon, or is in need of "blessing." I would contend that a true icon is an icon, and is in no need of "blessing." In fact, such rituals are rather late traditions, and seem to have been influenced by Latinization (a broad term, I know).

    Just a few random thoughts... Not wholly sold on any one view here, but I think Ouspensky raises some good points for discussion. :-) Thanks for sharing my post, by the way.

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  7. For what it's worth, Ouspensky did teach non-Orthodox iconographers, or at least one that I'm aware of.

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