Aidan Hart’s New Book on Sacred Iconography

The article below is reblogged from the always informative Orthodox Arts Journal. The article is the 9th in a series about sacred iconography that was written by Brother Aidan Hart, a British iconographer. Brother Hart has written extensively on all aspects of sacred iconography and has recently published a very comprehensive book on the subject called Techniques of Icon and Wall Painting. The editor at the Orthodox Arts Journal highly recommends it. Brother Hart’s articles are available at his website and he also offers sacred iconography workshops in Britain. This nine part article is well worth the effort of perusing through all of it. His series contains many gems of information that will add to your knowledge of the sacred arts. Links to his site and the series are provided for you below.

Designing Icons (pt.9): Perspective Systems in Icons [from Orthodox Arts Journal]

April 16, 2013

By 

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 Editorial note:  We have convinced Aidan Hart to post a chapter from his new book. “Techniques of Icon and Wall Painting” which is being hailed as the most comprehensive book to date on practicing the art of Iconography.  At 450 pages, with 460 paintings, 150 drawings and covering everything from theology and design to gilding and varnishing, it is a prized possession for anyone interested in the traditional arts.  The chapter being serialized over the next weeks is called “Designing Icons”.  You will see why Archimandrate Vasileos of Iviron called this book the “Confessio of a man who epitomizes the liturgical beauty of the Orthodox Church”.  More details about the book on Aidan’s website.    

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In this section, Aidan discusses the different perspective systems used in icons.

This is part 9  of a series.  Part 1Part 2 Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8

Inverse perspective.

With inverse perspective the lines of a building do not converge on a point on the horizon, inside the painting, but instead they converge on us, the viewers. This serves to include us in the action depicted. The Orthodox hymns make it plain that a sacred event in the past is still acting on us today: “Today Christ is born”, they say, “Today Christ is risen. Let us join with the angels in praising His third day resurrection!”

The Hospitality of Abraham / "Old Testament Trinity" by Fr. Silouan

An example of inverse perspective.  The Hospitality of Abraham / “Old Testament Trinity” by Fr. Silouan

Inverse perspective also gives us the sense that the persons depicted are looking out at us. It is as though the image is drawn not from our own point of view but theirs, and ultimately, God’s. We have already discussed the meaning of repentance as being a change of seeing. We could also explain it as a change of perspective, where we realize that we are not the centre of the universe, but God.

Inverse perspective also draws our attention to the real space between the image and ourselves. The emphasis is on the grace coming to us through real space, rather than us being drawn into an imaginary world or reconstructed scene within the picture. Iconography is above all a liturgical art, designed to be part of a larger sacred dance that involves the church building, the space within the building, the hymns sung within it, and the liturgical movements during services.  As Gervase Mathews puts it:

In the Renaissance system of perspective the picture is conceived as a window opening on to a space beyond…The Byzantine mosaic or picture opens onto the space before it. The ‘picture space’ of Byzantine art was primarily that of the church or palace room in which it was placed, since art was considered a function of architecture.[1]

Flatness

Icons do not attempt to create a great sense of depth. They do use enough highlighting and perspective to affirm that the material world is real and good and part of the spiritual life. Nevertheless, things are kept somewhat more on a plane than in naturalistic painting. In a group icon, like that of Mid-Pentecost for example, people in the rear will be shown the same size, or sometimes even larger, than those closer. Every person is thus kept intimate with the viewer. The mystery of the person overcomes the limits of physical space and distance.

an example of flatness. Mid Pentecost, by Aidan Hart

an example of flatness. Mid Pentecost, by Aidan Hart

Why else do icons retain this flatness? It helps us to pass through the icon to the persons and the events depicted. The aim of the icon is not to replace the subjects depicted, but to bring us into living relationship with them. This explains why statues are not as a rule used in the icon tradition. Their three dimensionality makes them too self contained. Where sculpture is utilized it is kept to base relief.

Romanesque cross by Aidan Hart

Romanesque cross by Aidan Hart

Flatness can also be seen as a intentional weakness, a deliberate imperfection that constantly reminds us that this image is not the reality but a door to its prototype.

There is also an honesty in this flatness. There no attempt to make the picture plane what it can never be, a three dimensional object, let alone the real thing itself.  Incidentally it is this honesty to the picture plane that inspired the American art movement called colour field painting of the 1940’s and 1950’s.

Planarity also gives much greater freedom to arrange things according to their spiritual importance rather than being limited to their position in three-dimensional space. The figures within the icon of Christ’s birth, for example, are often arranged in three bands to represent the heavenly, earthly and unitary realms, and also in a circle centred on the Christ child

072Nativity 3 copy 2

This symbolic arrangement would not be possible if the event were depicted naturalistically, with figures receding toward the distance.

Multi-view perspective

Sometimes a building is shown as though seen simultaneously from left and right, below and above. This helps us to see things as God sees them, and as they are in themselves and not merely as they appear from our single view-point, limited as this is to one place at a time.

073IMG_3774 copy 2

The same multi-view perspective is sometimes applied to time, where the same person is depicted more than once in the same image, such as with Christ in the Nativity icon. The icon tradition can also place an important person in an event at which they were not historically present, but in which they later came to participate spiritually. Icons show things from the view of divine time (kairos  in Greek) and not merely chronological time (kronos). One example is Saint Paul in the Pentecost icon (fig. PentecostIMG copy.tif). He was not even a believer at the time of Pentecost, but later came to be great among the apostles and a pillar of the Church together with Peter, who is shown opposite him.

Isometry

In this approach the sides and edges of an object are depicted parallel, neither converging nor diverging. This affirms how a thing is in itself, rather than how it appears to us. All things have been called into unity in Christ, and this unity preserves and strengthens the integrity of each thing, rather than reducing it to a numerical one. Unity presupposes relationship which in turn presupposes otherness, though not separateness. Isometry affirms this otherness.

An example of isometry

An example of isometry

Hierarchical perspective

Often a personage who is more important than others will be enlarged. A typical example of this is the Virgin in the Nativity icon (see Nativity icon posted above). Conversely someone might be made particularly small to make a spiritual point. The Christ Child is often depicted thus in Nativity icons, to emphasize God the Word’s humility in becoming man for our sakes.

Vanishing point perspective

Although inverse perspective is more commonly used, we do also find instances where lines converge toward a point in the icon’s distance. This is not pursued in the systematic, mathematical way devised by the Renaissance painter, architect and sculptor Alberti Brunelleschi. In fact when this system is used you are likely to find as many convergence points as there are objects. This in itself transports the viewer out of the static vantage point assumed by mathematical perspective, and presupposes instead a much more dynamic experience – surely something closer to our actual experience of life.


[1] Gervase Mathews, page 30.

Icons, Icon Painters, and Praying With Sacred Icons: PART 3

My favorite sacred icon of  Our Lord Jesus Christ is the 6th century encaustic icon of Christ Pantocrator (Christ The Almighty One) from St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai Peninsula.

This sacred image was a paradigm shift in the way early Christians viewed and portrayed Jesus Christ. This icon (shown below) is not the thin young  Messiah of the Catacombs, or the Roman nobleman presentation of the first four centuries of Church art (for examples confer Pierre du Bourguet’s book on Early Christian Painting). The Sinai Christ Pantocrator is portrayed as a robust Semitic man, who knows exactly what He is about, what His mission is, and what He expects of His followers in their living out of His Gospel life.

Interestingly, recent research has shown that when the image from the Shroud of Turin is compared to the image of Christ in this icon of Christ Pantocrator there are many points of similarity between the two images; possibly implying that the painter of Christ Pantocrator had seen the facial image found on the Shroud of Turin.

Allow me to suggest that when we are painting a sacred image/icon we must prayerfully enter into conversation with the Heavenly person we are representing, we must research his or her life, and then view what the Traditional forms of their representation has been in the history of sacred iconography.

We should then explore how we could make the truth of the Lord’s or a saint’s holy witness speak – using the language of the palette – to the 21st century. We should learn from the past, and absorb and pass on the beauty that is found within Holy Tradition.

Yet, at the same time, we need to constantly examine the work of some of the fine icon painters in the world today, people like my teachers: Peter Pearson, Marek Czarnecki, Anna Gouriev Pokrovsky, and Dimitri Andreyev. I have recently been influenced by the work of  Ksenia (Xenia) Mikhailovna Pokrovskaya, originally from Moscow, and now living in Massachusetts. Not to be missed is the work of Vladimir Grygorenko from Dallas, Texas. His sacred icons have a richness and luminous quality that is very beautiful and spiritual. We must also become familiar with the work of British iconographers Brother Aidan Hart, and David Clayton; the Norwegian Solrunn Nes, and the Russians: Archimandrite Zinon from the Pskov-Caves Monastery, and Philip Davydov and Olga Shalymova from St. Petersburg, Russia –  all of these people, and many others, prayerfully create beautiful icons that speak to 21st century people who are willing to listen. The wonderful news is that there are many sacred artists and iconographers – known and unknown – that are prayerfully engaging the ancient traditions of Catholic and Orthodox art, and prayer from the heart, throughout the world.

As we enter into our study of sacred art and iconography we need to first start with a survey book which gives us an overview of the sacred artistic tradition of the Eastern Church. We should first examine the great little book Icons and Saints of the Eastern Orthodox Church (ISBN 0-89236-845-4; translated by Stephen Sartarelli and published by the J. Paul-Getty Museum, 2004) and use it as a starting point to observe the styles and techniques of the various regional traditions over the last 1500 years.

We don’t have to “like” all the styles of the images that icon painters, from various cultures, have portrayed down through the centuries. But, we must respect their efforts because, hopefully, they were created in the true spirit of prayer, and each of them can teach us something about technique, color, symbol and theology.

When we begin our studies with a teacher of iconography, and sit down to draw the sacred image and apply the paint and gold-leaf, we must remember that we have a sacred responsibility to the faithful who view our sacred icons and images. These images must be correct from a theological, semantic, and aesthetic point-of-view. Our call, our ministry, is to lead the viewer to prayer and communion with Christ and His Saints, not to a secular admiration for an avant-garde or cavalier attitude toward our Holy Faith, or the people who died witnessing to it.

Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved