Icons & Iconographers



by Kim Piotrowski

(Fall 1999 / Winter 2000)

   When you look at an icon, what do you see? Perhaps it is solely the depiction of Christ, the Virgin, or a particular saint that it was meant to represent. But icons are much more than just the likeness at hand or the mere suggestion of the presence of a human or divine element. Ask yourself, do you really look at any icon as a sophisticated work of art, or do you see a painting which only represents an image as a typical photograph would?

   In September, I attended the first in a four-part series of lectures given by Lazarus Reid from the Sophia School of Art. Each session was held at the Cathedral of Holy Virgin Protection in Manhattan, which sponsors the School, and the lectures were about some aspect of art and its connection to spirituality. This particular lecture, entitled Matisse and the Russian Icon linked the ancient Byzantine world (via the Russian school) with contemporary art, illustrated by numerous examples of Matisse's work. Other lectures in the series included: The Inner Life of Form in Art; Art and Wisdom; and, Art at the Close of the Seventh Day.

   The purpose of the Sophia School is to investigate the spiritual dimension of form in art, with particular reference to the meaning of beauty, of nature, of existence, of light, space and time, of the body, of matter, of artistic creativity, etc., in the ancient Christian spiritual tradition. As such, it is not meant to be a school of icon painting, though it may provide a preparatory foundation for aspiring icon painters by training them in drawing and painting.

   In his first lecture, Mr. Reid demonstrated how artistic nuances in the icons to which we are so accustomed to looking are present in many examples of modern art. In fact, we may not realize that they are there, or may overlook them altogether. He started with a brief history of the icon. Art done in this style was often viewed as a pejorative smudge on the historic timeline of the artworld for quite some time. Once dismissed by "the art czars" or critics of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as primitive, naive, and without worth, the icon continues to express very contemporary ideals in art. Byzantine art was often criticized for its austerity, stiffness, distortion, and most of all, its lack of naturalism and realism. It was not accepted as a refined, high art because it did not have the exalted and admired qualities such as three-dimensional depth and shading as did the art of the Renaissance.

   Having roots in the Classical period, the influence of the art of Byzantium was felt in a wide demographic area, braiding its stylistic threads through time into many areas of art among them, Celtic art (800 A.D.) and Romanesque art (1050-1200 A.D.). Art from these periods are collectively referred to under the general term "medieval" or from the "dark ages". These areas have retained numerous essential qualities derived from the Byzantine era. And, whether they realize it or not, the artists of today have been influenced heavily by Byzantine art. The lingering presence of Byzantine art is felt even in the modern art that we see and appreciate in our midst today.

   For more information on classes offered at The Sophia School of Art, contact Mr. Reid at: reidartists@earthlink.net

   The full text of his lecture on "Matisse and the Russian Icon" and another entitled, "'Beauty Will Save The World:' Modern Art and Iconography," as well as Kim Piotrowski's complete article, "Rediscovering the Icon: New Ways of Looking at an Ancient Artform" are available. 


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