On March 18 Orthodoxy in Dialogue published Aidan Hart’s “Icons and Culture: Transformation or Appropriation?” In response Irina Gannota wrote “Iconography as Byzantine Portraiture,” which we published earlier this week. Mr. Hart has submitted the following brief reply to Ms. Gannota.
Thank you, Irina, for your insightful comments. I do agree with you, in the sense that while the icon is distinct from and, one could say, more than, contemporary “gallery” art because of its exalted liturgical and spiritual function, it is nevertheless at least art. The icon is art and more, and not an entirely different category. In this context, “Byzantine portraiture” is an accurate description of Byzantine iconography. That is, an icon still should work well as a painting, fulfilling the aesthetic criteria of good balance, dynamism, skilled drawing, deep understanding of form, service of details to the main theme, and so on. Archimandrite Zenon (Teodor) is a wonderful example of a contemporary iconographer who possesses this artistic craft to a superlative degree.
As you affirm, Irina, the danger of opposing iconography to art, as though it is beyond it, is that this approach tempts icon painters to become lazy. This can take the form of either mindless copying, the painter not grasping the principles that make great icons great icons, or—when the painter does attempt some variation on a traditional icon—their icons fail aesthetically because they do not accord with tried and tested aesthetic principles.
I do disagree with the school that takes this valid standpoint so far as to say that the icon’s style doesn’t matter per se, as long as it is painted well and is of a holy subject. The formal qualities of any painting—its style as distinct from its subject matter—do make an impression on our souls. The music of a rock band will make a different impression on us compared to, say, a Bach composition, even if they were to use the same lyrics.
The distinctive characteristics common to that rather broad body of iconography that we call Byzantine have surely been developed over the centuries because they best relate to the liturgical and ascetic function of the icon tradition. Icons of historical Byzantium have not exhausted the possibilities, so that one can still paint new variations that work liturgically, but the process by which Byzantine iconography did develop was a selective process.They chose to use this aspect of Classical or Hellenistic art, but not that, or to take this element wholesale, but adapt that.
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.
Irina Gannota is an artist with a degree in Ceramic Arts from the Stroganov Moscow State Academy of Industrial and Applied Arts. During her third year at the Academy she “discovered” Orthodox Christianity for herself. This led later to her artwork mainly in porcelain icons, which can be viewed in The Marketplace and on her website. She lives and works in Moscow.
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Blessed art Thou, O Christ our God,
who hast revealed the fishermen as most wise
by sending down upon them the Holy Spirit.
Through them Thou hast drawn the world into Thy net.
O Lover of man, glory to Thee.
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