ICONS AND CULTURE: TRANSFORMATION OR APPROPRIATION? by Aidan Hart

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Aidan Hart

Icon painting has always been affected by the surrounding culture, incorporating and transforming elements from it. And more recently, icons in turn have been appropriated by and affected that culture. These are the very topical themes that I want to discuss in this article.

Icons are an extension of the Incarnation. This is true not only because of what they depict but also because of how they depict things. The way Christians have painted traditional icons throughout the ages has always been influenced by the culture of which they are, to a degree, a part, and to which they naturally wish to respond.  The icon is a union of the eternal and the local.

Put another way, healthy iconography is Pentecostal, for it declares eternal truths in the language of its viewers. One example is the early encaustic icons that used as their basis Romano-Egyptian funerary paintings (often called Fayum portraits). A second instance  is the Church illuminations of the Macedonian Renaissance that were based on works from Classical manuscripts. Both these examples we shall discuss below.

In subsequent centuries the style of icons in Byzantium continued to be influenced by the imperial court’s emphasis, or lack of emphasis, on classical learning. And in Medieval Rus distinct schools developed in different principalities, affected by such things as the extent of their trade contacts (a lot in the case of Novgorod) and the influence of monasticism (as in Moscow in the time of St. Andrew Rublev). Celtic Christian art likewise drew much of its inspiration from its pre-Christian traditions.

But this enculturation is a difficult task for the iconographer. It requires both discernment and creativity. Thinkers of the early Church, for example, strove to find the correct response to the Hellenistic philosophy of their culture. The Church Fathers succeeded, while those we call heretics failed.

The Fathers had the discernment to know what was good, what was neutral, and what was outright wrong in the various pagan philosophies. They then had the creativity to describe the ways of God using these philosophers’ insights.  They found truths or partial truths in the pagan writings and expressed eternal truths through them. They did in a more detailed way what Saint Paul had done on the Areopagus. He began his address to the seekers gathered there, not with a rant against their idols, but by praising them for their inscription to the Unknown God. He went on to quote wise words from their own poets and philosophers, and showed them that Christ was the Wisdom whom they were seeking.

In contrast to these Fathers, the heretics such as the Gnostics or the Arians failed in this meeting of the new and the old, because they let worldly thinking enter their thinking. They re-tailored Christian dogma to suit the truncated wisdom of the world. This was not the transformation of human culture through the Spirit, but the disfiguration of dogma through vain speculation or rationalism.

Iconographers today find themselves in a similar situation to these early Church Fathers. As with the myriad of philosophies discussed at the Areopagus two millennia ago, there is today a vast array of artistic work around us. And not just the new but also the old, laid out before us in thousands of museums. We could even say that our postmodern society puts iconography in an even more challenging situation than the early Church, for we are exposed to a plethora of images on a scale like no other culture before us. The media, low cost travel, the internet, and cheap colour printing present us with a visual variety that would stagger a medieval mind.  How are we to respond?

This exposure is both an opportunity and a danger—an opportunity because it presents us with a potentially wider vocabulary, a broader set of musical scales; and a danger because it can confuse us and tempt us to cut and paste arbitrarily and without discernment.

What then are some of the principles that can guide our discernment? This is a big subject, and I have discussed it in more depth in two articles in Orthodox Arts Journal, “Towards Indigenous and Mature Liturgical Arts” and “Today and Tomorrow: Principles in the Training of Future Iconographers.” Space here allows me only to summarize some of my thoughts on the matter. As a full-time icon painter for over thirty years, I have used the following questions, and others, to help me decide whether or not I should use a particular stylistic convention in an icon:

  1. Will it help the icon to work better liturgically, promoting the subject and offering a focus of prayer and veneration, or will it be so novel as to attract attention to itself, away from the subject?
  2. Will it help create in the praying viewer a state of inner stillness and insight, or will it generate agitation and excitement?
  3. Will it open the icon into liturgical space—the actual space between itself and the viewer—or will it create a fictitious, imaginary space?
  4. Will it reflect a world transfigured, or a world deformed or fantastical?
  5. Will the colours and forms create harmony or dissonance?
  6. Will it help to wake the eye of the heart, inviting viewers to draw their mind into their heart and thus open vistas, or will it encourage them to remain within closed rational systems, within their comfort zone?
  7. Will it help reflect the spiritual state of the saint depicted, such as joy, compassion, inner prayer, watchfulness, sobriety, or will it make the image carnal, sensual?
  8. Will it affirm the goodness of the material world and the body, or will it dematerialize?

So far we have discussed the affect of art on the icon tradition. What of movement the other way, of the Orthodox icon’s influence on or use by non-Orthodox artists? Broadly speaking this can take two forms, although deciding when the outcome is positive and when it is negative is still debated among Orthodox thinkers.

When the use of one’s tradition by others is considered misappropriate or lacking in authenticity it is often called cultural appropriation, or less ambiguously, cultural misappropriation. When viewed positively it can be described as the transformation of, or contribution to, that other culture. How does one tell the difference in the case of the icon’s use?

It must first be acknowledged that the icon tradition is itself, to some extent, the child of cultural appropriation. Early panel icons are undoubtedly much indebted to the Romano-Egyptian funerary portrait.  6th-century icons such as we see in St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai show clear derivation from these Fayum portraits, both stylistically and in their medium of wax on wooden panels. 

Furthermore, the Christian association of image and prototype could well have been taken from the Fayum portrait tradition, as well as from the imperial custom of having the emperor present through his image at the many courts of justice built throughout the empire.

In the case of the Fayum works, the person’s portrait was painted during his or her lifetime, then incorporated into their mummy when they died, placed over their face. We know that at least some of these mummies were not immediately buried, but spent a period of time upright, perhaps in homes, presumably to help the household retain a sense of connectedness with the deceased. So these portraits were intended to act like a window to the other world. The Church may have appropriated this function as well as many of the Fayum stylistic elements. 

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“Fayum” Romano-Egyptian portrait, 1st-2nd century

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St. Peter, detail, Sinai, c. AD 600

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Fayum portrait in its original mummy

As well as the Fayum appropriation, many early Christian illuminated manuscripts were heavily based on classical works. The Byzantine Paris Psalter is a good example (c. AD 900). One of its images shows David like Orpheus, surrounded by personifications, all derived from classical models. Scholars have shown these Byzantine illuminations to be an imitation, with adjustments, of a Classical Roman work or works of the 3rd to 5th centuries.  

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 King David, Paris Psalter, c. AD 900, based on Classical manuscripts 3rd-5th centuries

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“Dido Sacrificing,” Vatican Virgil manuscript, c. AD 400, such manuscripts  the basis for the Paris Psalter

So what are we to make of cultural appropriation of icons today? Perhaps the best known works of this type are the paintings by the Roman Catholic Franciscan, Brother Robert Lentz, OFM. Besides making recognizably Byzantine icons of traditional subjects, Lentz also creates images broadly Byzantine in style but of people not canonized by any church, such as Johann Sebastian Bach, Harvey Milk,  and Albert Einstein, all of whom he depicts with haloes.

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Johann Sebastian Bach (Robert Lentz)

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Harvey Milk (Robert Lentz)

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Albert Einstein (Robert Lentz)

Other times he uses novel means of depicting traditional subjects—Christ as Lord of the Dance or Christ of Maryknoll, for example.

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Christ the Lord of the Dance (Robert Lentz)

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Christ of Maryknoll (Robert Lentz)

What are we to make of this? I would make two observations.

  1. Traditional icons are liturgical, that is, they express the mind of the Church and depict people and events that are recognized by the Church as holy, and can therefore be venerated by the faithful without misgiving. In Lentz’s case he seems to take it upon himself to decide who can be depicted as a haloed saint. While the Orthodox Church does not have a top-down system of canonization but a more organic process, there is nevertheless eventually a service of formal canonization. Often it is the laity who first venerate someone as a saint, and in due course the hierarchy acknowledge this formally. In the Roman Catholic Church, of which Brother Robert is a member, there is a more legal and prescribed process leading up to canonization. So surely Brother Robert is acting outside his ecclesial community by unilaterally declaring someone a saint by painting them with a halo, and by using such an obviously liturgical format as the icon. The artist is using the icon format to legitimize his personal opinion rather than reflect the life of the Church. Individuals might be drawn to the radical and social message that these images reflect, but what is the consensus of the Roman Catholic Church of which Brother Robert is a member?
  2. Icons and truth must go hand in hand. Icons are not intended to be propaganda or illustrations of someone’s ideology, but of real people depicted as they are in Christ. The marked homosexual agenda of Robert Lentz has lead him to distort traditional
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    SS. Polyeuctus & Nearchus (Robert Lentz)

    icons to promote his gay agenda, without worrying much about the verity of his biographical assertions. He adjusts icons of saints who are traditionally paired to suggest that they were homosexual. Saints such as Sergius and Bacchus, Polyeuct and Nearchus, and Perpetua and Felicity have been prey to this treatment. There is no Church tradition or indication in their vitae that these saints were gay, so where is the truth in these images? These saints shared a common love for Christ and a fraternal love for one another in Christ, but nothing in their lives suggests they were homosexual. Again, the icon format is being misappropriated to add legitimacy to opinion.

This criticism is not to say that the icon tradition is stilted, merely a matter of mindlessly copying past models. When healthy, Orthodox iconography responds to pastoral needs and major theological currents of the times.

Just last month I completed a triptych of Christ with St. Irenaeus and St Isaac the Syrian. The commissioner wanted the triptych to incorporate the Church’s teaching on the need to treat members of the animal kingdom with compassion. In one sense it is a new icon, but in another its design grew out of long established elements of Church tradition and theology. An explanation of its design is due to be published in Orthodox Arts Journal within a month. The icon is humbly offered before the Church, and if the Spirit reveals through the mind of the Church that it does not express the mind of Christ then it will be laid aside. If it does express it, then it will be adopted and other icons will branch from it.

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Christ Breaking the Bonds of Animal Suffering (Aidan Hart)

In conclusion, the Orthodox Church can’t do much about any mistreatment of its icon tradition by non-Orthodox; but within its own icon practice it can nurture an atmosphere of maturity, intelligence, and discernment. We need to walk a wise path between the two excesses of erroneous novelty and mindless copying. For this, each iconographer needs the music of heaven in his or her heart, and the Church as choirmaster needs the discernment to correct any discordancy within the choir of iconographers. It is a difficult task to nurture both creativity and theological precision, but both are needed if iconography is to regain its full potential.

Aidan Hart has worked as a professional iconographer since 1983, when he became a member of the Orthodox Church at the age of 26. From 1988 to 2000 he tested his vocation as a monk on Mount Athos and in the UK. His monastic experience has influenced his work profoundly. He is now married with two children.

Visit Aidan Hart Sacred Icons, Aidan Hart Mosaics, and Aidan Hart & Co Church Furnishers.  

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