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REDISCOVERING THE ICON:
NEW WAYS OF LOOKING AT AN ANCIENT ARTFORM

by Kim Piotrowski

Introduction

  1. Color and Light
  2. Matisse
  3. Spatial Qualities
  4. The Figural Element
  5. Ancient Roots

Introduction

   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.

   Icon painting is relegated by archetypes accepted and practiced since the time of St. Luke, who was the first to "write" the Virgin’s image in the manner of the icon. According to Byzantine tradition, new styles and versions of icons were created upon the ancient, basic archetypes. Fresh variants were derived from the blending of cultures, the meeting of styles, the lyrics of hymns and poems, the provincial styles arising from local workshops or ateliers, or the names associated with miracles worked at a particular location. Schools and stylistic differences were associated with each culture.

   Next, Mr. Reid examined various icons and compared them with contemporary artists like Malevich, Kandinsky, El Greco (who is seen as a major link between the ancient and the modern worlds), and of course, Picasso and Matisse. Most importantly, we discovered how to look at icons in depth.

   At first glance, icons may seem like folk art or the handiwork of a naïve painter. This notion could not be further from the truth. The writers of icons used very sophisticated means for communicating with their viewers on a visual level. For example, in every icon there is some part of it which immediately draws our attention. From there (or from any point), various visual "arrows" or "signs" point you in the direction of the most important part of the icon where your eye will ultimately rest and whereby you can take in its internal message. In most cases, this final resting focal point would be the face of Christ or His hand in the act blessing. Often, this area is cleverly framed or offset by colors and shapes. For example, one such "arrow" is the use of a lopsided and/or exaggerated head in an icon of St. John Crysostom or St. Nicholas. This imbalance of the head creates a movement which leads the eye over and downward into his clothing. Other arrows continually force the eye to progress further down the arm to the hand which may be holding some sort of religious symbol. The starkly painted crosses on their garments point downward on one side, then upward again leading the eye upward also. If you take notice, in most cases (if not all) the left-hand side of the collar of this particular icon is dark while the other side is light. The entire piece is one of movement. Do you see how your eye has moved over the entire surface?

   Other painterly/psychological devices which contribute to this allover eye movement include varying thickness of the lines, volumetric shading, unnatural lighting, the use of the physical reality of the icon’s edge, the visual dependency on the absurd to create balance (like a figure whose entire body weight is resting on a dangling cloth), complementary shapes that billow outward or are drawn into a thin line (again in the name of balance), the outward opening of space creating a dynamic push and pull, and harmony and/or contrast of color. 

Color and Light

    Color in Byzantium was an artistic mechanism that held both courtly and ecclesiastical concerns of function and appeal. The system for coloring was based on the calculated placement and juxtaposition of opposites of the primary (red, yellow, blue) and secondary (orange, purple, green) colors. Color and tonal modulations (or modeling) were used to define areas of shading and to denote areas of shifting planes. This was a typical practice used to in an effort to make art appear somewhat lifelike and to compensate for the extraordinary flatness. A combination of subtle shading and foreshortening achieved volume and structure in figures. If you look closely at the facial composition or folds in clothing, you can see tonal and linear scalloped stylization emphasizes the structure of both. [1]

   The lighting of the icon is unnatural. The effect implies that the scene is flooded by a light which emanates from above. The person(s) and objects in an icon cast no shadows; shadows exist only to show slight modeling to rid the figure of flatness, especially in the face which is the primary focus of the icon. The light also appears as if it were coming from within; the person's spirituality is the source of this light. Thus the artistic value of gold was placed on the fact that "it is independent of any natural source of light, but itself sends forth light".[2] This is a very important component of an icon which made gold a popular "background" or the ambiguous space around the figure.

   The idea of modeling was not limited to light and shade only. Artists of the modern period, also achieve modeling with high color. Matisse, for example, known for his bright, saturated paintings, utilized sudden tonal shifts in color.

Matisse

   For the month of November 1911, Matisse visited Moscow specifically to look at art of another period and culture. While there, Matisse became very interested in Byzantine aesthetics. One account by a Russian painter, collector, and patron of the Tretyakov Gallery wrote about his visit: "Matisse is here and completely overwhelmed by icon painting. He has lost his head over it and spends whole days with me running around to monasteries, churches, and collections." [3] Matisse also saw icons at the Kremlin and in the collection of Ilya S. Ostroukhov, who wrote another account: "Yesterday evening he (Matisse) visited us. And you should have seen his delight at the icons. Literally the whole evening he wouldn't leave them alone, relishing and delighting in each one... At length he declared that for the icons alone it would have been worth his while coming from a city even further away than Paris..."[4] In the year prior to Matisse’s visit to Russia, he had attended another large exhibition of Persian miniatures and Byzantine enamels in Munich.[5] Icons are often admired as a source of inspiration for their "harmonious design and carefully calculated color distributions".[6] Matisse liked the fact that the icon was the entirety of a novel vision and they became a direct source for his painting. The artist did a lot of travelling including places such as exotic North Africa where the art and culture is imbued with a combination of Byzantine, Romanesque, and Islamic elements. [7]

Spatial Qualities

   Besides the symmetry, flatness, and two-dimensionality which are very much a part of nineteenth and twentieth century painting, the most famous quality of the icon is the angular distortions or reverse perspective which was intended to bring or draw the viewer into the picture. These distortions found in icons recall Matisse's interiors at Nice and especially the famous Red Studio (1911). In this way, icons bring us face to face, in a manner of speaking, with the person depicted; we become part of their space. Thus we become active participants in the meaning of the artform of the icon. The panel or mosaic does not merely represent the saints; it invites us into their presence. Inverted space in icon painting is meant to be uplifting and to give rise to meditation. This spatial quality does not protrude out at the viewer, as would a photo-realist space. The icon or mosaic, etc. becomes what it is frequently referred to as "a window into heaven". By allowing us to become part of their heavenly and divine space, the icon’s intention is to transmit feelings to us and within us that are otherworldly.

   The concept of inverses is common in Biblical writings such as "the first shall be last, and the last shall be first", or "the meek shall inherit the earth". Artistic inverted space is in direct accord with the reverse perspective of these references. If the viewer allows himself/herself to look at the icon in this way, he/she can understand its meaning. Ouspensky explains how reverse perspective differs from the conventional one-point perspective that we know from the Renaissance:

Inverse perspective is not an 'optical illusion'. It does not fascinate the spectator and lead him into a futile game of appearances. On the contrary, it calms him, makes him concentrate, and makes him attentive to the message of the icon. It is as if man were standing before a path which, instead of losing itself in space, opens onto infinite fullness. [8]

The "reverse" or "inverse" perspective found in icons is the opposite from what we have learned as the Renaissance tool of the "vanishing point". It is not limited, paralyzed, or

bound by the rational conventions of a fixed one-point perspective formulated by Leonardo da Vinci during the Italian High Renaissance. This method of representing linear perspective dominated Western art until it was challenged in the twentieth century by the Cubists, who interpreted reality by juxtaposing several viewpoints on a single canvas. Icons freely incorporate several viewpoints, challenging terrestrial laws by elevating perspective to a level higher than the third dimension. They are not subject to earthly laws of time, space and gravity… and are not, therefore, subject to the transience of time.[9]

The fourth dimension along with new theories of science, time, space, and philosophy were important discoveries in the time of renegade artists like Picasso and Matisse and affected the daily discussion of their social circles. The concept of non-realist space is perhaps the foundation of contemporary art. To icon writers, the concept of different spatial dimensions were interpreted as otherworldly, unnatural, and divine. The same perspective system was used by Byzantine, Islamic, Chinese, Indian, and Persian artists and can be also seen in early periods of Assyrian and Egyptian art and European Medieval painting. Children and "naïve" or outsider artists also rely on this system to express three-dimensional form. The objects most distant from the spectator were placed at the top; those closest at the bottom. Conventional or realist perspective dictates that objects recede away from the viewer and converge on some horizon line. It also imposes the idea that persons or objects in the foreground are larger and as one continues the visual journey into the "background" or space around the figure, the figures then get smaller. Conceptual or "reverse perspective" embraces the concept that the edges of objects that recede do so towards the viewer "as if the horizon line were situated behind him...in this century, Picasso, Braque, and Matisse, among other representational painters, have used 'inverted perspective'." [10]

   There are five types of spatial distortions or space used in Byzantine art. Often more than one type or all types can be found within the same piece affecting different elements such as buildings, outdoor mountain scenes, or furniture. Here I will just list the names of each type of space as they are difficult to describe. (For a more in-depth investigation and explanation of reverse perspective, see footnote 10 above.)

    1. Linear Perspective 
    2. Axonometric Projection 
    3. Inverse Perspective
    4. Curved Horizon Perspective, and
    5. View from Above.

   The distant forms of the background of a painting (like architecture in an icon) such as a mountain by Cézanne, or a piece of furniture by Picasso, Matisse or Braque are prevented from falling away or off the picture "by tilting up the back planes vertically, instead of allowing them to fall back on a diagonal plane...[this] recalls the changing eye levels in Byzantine icons, in which buildings in the deep space are often tilted forward to reveal the top, or roof, plane." [11]

The Figural Element

   Matisse often painted portraits of women in which their faces almost appear to be hollow, as in the mask-like Italian Woman (1916). Traditionally, the art of Persian, Indian, Gothic, and Byzantine representations of the human face were rendered with the lack of emotion and impassiveness of a mask.[12] The figures of icons in particular, have a penetrating, unflinching stare, as if they were not human, nor humane. Their appearance is like that of a mask: frightening, rigid, hierarchical, confrontational, and blank- devoid of emotion.

   Through their intense and fixed gazes, the individuals in the icons "owe their very strength to this direct contact with the beholder".[13] The combination of facial expressions, linear quality, and physical stiffness all contribute to the numbing, enchanted effect that the Byzantine people would have experienced. In addition, the ancients saw the expectant, staring images in darkened churches amidst the unsteady flickering of candles or the dancing flame contained in suspended oil lamps. These effects caused the human figures to appear as if their lips were moving in prayer, their bodies mysteriously hovering, coming ever closer, or even slowly flowing out of the walls, but always beckoning the viewer to come hither. Often, the icons that were encrusted or inlaid with precious jewels would gaze hauntingly through the "porthole". The eyes would even appear to follow the observer. While studying the details of the icon or large mosaic, on many levels the observer becomes transcended "…the everyday world sinks away into insignificance. And soon you become aware that you are no longer looking at Christ; He is gazing at you."[14] If the viewer merely took a breath or moved his or her eyes, this subtle movement "together with the movement of the flames would have the effect of subtly changing the entire perspective so that the mosaic appeared to be in continual motion". [15]

   The art of icons "does not wait to be wooed and interpreted" but actively seeks out the viewer and engrosses him or her in its message. Although they appear to be stiff, they do actively reach out to the perceptive viewer. By this trait alone, Byzantine art has become a powerful tool and instrument. Their function is to commemorate an "annual cycle of feasts and the timeless re-enactment of the life of Christ in the liturgy of the Church" [16] and are recognized as important and highly revered didactic tools. They were originally "written" anonymously by monks who intended them to function as a religious object, not merely as a work of art. [17] Although the enigmatic icons are in a sense "active", they are not overly or overtly expressive. They have been described as being dominated by a calm force (again, that concept of inverses).[18] Paradoxically, icons are an important source of inspiration for the more symbolic and expressionist trends in art which turn away from naturalism. Icons are stoic, yet come alive exposing their mystical qualities when observed as intended.

Ancient Roots

   Stylistically, icons are derived from the ancient Greco-Egyptian funerary portraits that were placed on tombs and served as a close likeness of the person contained inside in order to "express the presence of a soul".[19] They were painted in a very naturalistic manner with "large expressive eyes that seem to gaze into the other world". [20] In these large eyes the roots of Byzantine icons can be seen. 

   The funerary portraits of Fayum were often varied in their overall format including rectangles and circles. The most common layout was the rectangular portrait. This arrangement and concept of painting on panel was transmitted to the art of Byzantium. Byzantium, in turn, brought this influence to the West where it has remained dominant in the world of painting ever since. Prominent theologian and historian, Otto Demus, directs us to the most fundamental element of painting: "...if Byzantium had done nothing more than to preserve and to transmit to the West the antique technique and form of panel painting, the claim would be justifiable."[21] Clearly, the art of Byzantium has given great artists like El Greco, Cézanne, Matisse, and of course, Picasso, much more. It is hard to determine what the art of Picasso or other artists would be like without these influences. It is safe to say, however, that the same empire with the spicy name of Byzantium that inspired William Butler Yeats also inspired some of the greatest visionaries of our time.

   Through Byzantine art, we see that the past is infinite. And through contemporary art, there is a recovery of another history that has suffered through periods of neglect and dismissal. Both worlds have changed the course of art forever, making an impact that is unforgettable. The blending of the art of the Byzantine Empire with the art of our modern age serves as a powerful reminder that what has collapsed has not necessarily vanished. 

   So the next time you look at an icon, study it a little bit. You will notice that it has the characteristics which I described earlier and that these characteristics and artistic devices were put there intentionally by experienced artisans. Also, the next time you look at a contemporary painting, perhaps you will see some connection to the past and note that most likely, this work has roots that has spanned the centuries from the legacy of the Byzantines. Perhaps Matisse sums up the value of the icon best after a visit to Russia, "that by understanding the icon, we can understand all art." Indeed, educated looking helps us to become more attentive viewers and active participants.

     

  • Here is a brief list of sources for further reading on the influence of Byzantine art on contemporary art:

 

Gilot, Françoise. An Artist's Journey

Greenberg, Clement. "Byzantine Parallels" Art and Culture; Critical Essays, 1958. 

Kandinsky, Wassily. Concerning the Spiritual in Art. New York: Wittenborn Art Books, 1976. (originally 1912)

Schneider, Pierre. "The Striped Pajama Icon" Art in America, Special Edition: Matisse, July/August, 1975.

Talbot Rice, David. Byzantine Art and Its Influence: Collected Studies. London: Variorum Reprints, 1973.

Wortz, Melinda. "Theological Reflections on an Image of Woman: Picasso’s Girl Before a Mirror" Art, Creativity, and the Sacred. Diana Appostolos-Cappadona, ed. New York: Crossroad, 1985

ENDNOTES

[1] E.H. Gombrich, Art & Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation, 2d ed., (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), p. 145.

[2] Konrad Onasch. Icons, 2d ed. (New York: A. S. Barnes and Co., 1969), p. 30.

[3] Pierre Schneider, "The Striped Pajama Icon" Art in America, July-August 1975, 77.

[4] Matisse: A Retrospective, Jack Flam ed. (New York: Wings Books, 1988), 127. Letter from Ilya Ostroukhov to Aleksandra Botkina, the daughter of the founder of the Tretyakov Gallery. In "An interview with Matisse" Look, Vol. 17 (August 15, 1953), 70-73, Matisse considers Byzantine mosaics to be one of his primary influences. The greatest influence was Cézanne.

[5] George Heard Hamilton, "Cubism and Futurism" Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Art: Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture, p. 208.

[6] Weitzmann, et al, The Icon, 1987, p. 10.

[7] Mark Rothko is another contemporary artist who relied on icons as a source of inspiration, used the concept of mixing warm and cool tones "to draw the observer into the 'interior...illusory space'." (Arthur Miller. Insights of Genius: Imagery and Creativity in Science and Art, (New York: Copernicus, 1996), 409.)

[8] Leonid Ouspensky, Theology of the Icon, (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1978), 225

[9] Guillem Ramos-Poquí. The Technique of Icon Painting, (Harrisburg PA: Morehouse Publishing, 1990), 54.

[10] Peter Owen, Painting: The Appreciation of the Arts/5, (London: Oxford University Press, 1970), 204.

[11] Loran, 61.

[12] Owen, 37.

[13] I bid., 159.

[14] Gary and Payne, The Splendors of Byzantium, (New York: Viking Press, 1967).

[15] Ibid.

[16] Constantine Cavarnos, Guide to Byzantine Iconography, (Boston : Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1993), 1:43.

[17] Icons are classified into three types according to their subject matter: the Doctrinal Cycle, the Liturgical Cycle, and the Festal Cycle, in Cavarnos, Guide to Byzantine Iconography,1: 43.

[18] Gogol quoted in Weitzmann, et al., p. 240

[19] Kostas Papaioannou. Byzantine and Russian Painting, (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1965), 165.

[20] Kurt Weitzmann. The Icon: Holy Images- Sixth to Fourteenth Century, (New York: George Braziller Press, 1980), 8.

[21] Otto Demus. Byzantine Art and the West, 205.

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    Kim Piotrowski, originally from Riverton, NJ, received an MFA in painting, and an MS in art history from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. Her thesis for art history was entitled, Picasso's Debt to Byzantium: Tracing the Roots of a Twentieth Century Genius Through the Lineage of Art, 1998. She lives in New York City and works in art law and as a painter.

 

 

 

 

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