SEEKING PERFECTION IN THE WORLD OF ART: THE ARTISTIC PATH OF FATHER SOPHRONY by Christabel Helena Anderson

Father Sophrony (Sakharov) is perhaps best known as the disciple and biographer of St. Silouan the Athonite (1866-1938) and founder of the mixed Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Tolleshunt Knights UK. Iconographer Christabel Anderson introduces us to the little known aspect of Father Sophrony’s life as a young artist and later iconographer.
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A young Father Sophrony (né Sergei Sakharov)

It is with a sense of deep gratitude, joy and honour that I embark upon the task of summarising a series of three exceptional monographs on the subject of the artistic path and iconographic legacy of Elder Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov) of blessed memory (1896-1993). The works in question are: Seeking Perfection in the World of Art: The Artistic Path of Father Sophrony (2014), ‘Being’: The Art and Life of Father Sophrony (2016), and Painting as Prayer: The Art of A. Sophrony Sakharov (2017) by Sister Gabriela, a member of Father Sophrony’s monastic community of Saint John the Baptist in rural Essex, England.

Sister Gabriela who, most significantly, is an iconographer and artist herself, was eminently suited to this task having lived and worked closely for many years with Father Sophrony, who was also her spiritual father and artistic director. She had the benefit of being able to draw on his extensive writings, her own detailed personal notes and recollections, as well as those of the community as a whole. In addition to this, much painstaking research was undertaken in the creation of the books, resulting in the unearthing of a treasury of new discoveries which will fascinate and edify all those who have an interest in iconography, theology, art history, artistic theory and practice, and of course the life and work of Father Sophrony.

Written with great intensity over a period of three years, these unique publications are ground-breaking in their content, breadth of field, method of approach, and their deep reflections on the artistic practice and spiritual development of a holy Elder of our times whose contribution is only beginning to be fully appreciated. This mirrors the uniqueness of Father Sophrony’s own exceptional path; his was truly a life hors concours, and one that offers to us many a precious ‘word’ and example for our times. Until now, the writings and life of Father Sophrony have become well known, whereas his artistic contribution and journey have remained largely unexplored. The books of the trilogy aim to rectify this.

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Christ in Glory. Father Sophrony. 1974.

It must be added that there is also a sense of trepidation as it is not possible to discuss the artistic path of Father Sophrony without also including some of his theological perceptions, which are inextricably bound with his artistic path and work, and gained through many decades of monastic asceticism as a spiritual father and hermit in the ‘desert’ of the Holy Mountain, a disciple of the revered Saint Silouan the Athonite, and finally as an Abbot and Elder for the last thirty years of his life at his own monastery in Essex. These profoundly inspired theological insights extend far beyond my poor commentary and I ask forgiveness in advance for this.

Thus we shall begin our exploration of his extraordinary life as elucidated in the first of the trilogy, ‘Seeking Perfection in the World of Art: The Artistic Path of Father Sophrony’. Sister Gabriela begins by taking us on a journey back to the late 1800’s, to Holy Russia before the Revolution and the early formative years of Father Sophrony who at that time was known as Sergei Simeonovich Sakharov. The young Sergei was born in 1896 into a highly cultured family in Moscow two years after the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II. From the youngest age he spent many hours in church with his nanny and “would ponder on eternity…reflecting more and more on the infinite, on that which goes on forever.” He also showed pronounced artistic gifts and would draw all day even before he learned to speak.

He only knew peace in his earliest childhood (up until the age of eight), after which Russia was rent asunder by war and conflict, initially the Russo-Japanese war, then the first revolution in 1905 and the First World War in 1914, followed by the tumultuous October Revolution and the Civil War (1917-1922). This had a profound and permanent effect on the young Sergei who later wrote, “…my life span has coincided with all the terrible events of our century…With the outbreak of the First World War the problem of eternity began to predominate in my mind. The news of thousands of innocent victims being killed at the front placed me squarely before a vision of tragic reality. It was impossible to come to terms with the fact of vast numbers of young lives being brought to a senseless, cruel end…I had only begun to perceive myself as a human being: my heart was aglow with good intentions, seeking perfection like all young people, aspiring to the light of universal knowledge…” During most of the October Revolution in 1917 Sergei was ill with typhus and was uninvolved. He was however, deeply affected by the tragic events which “became engraved, as it were, on my soul”. His urgent search to resolve the ‘question of eternity’ at this point took him away from Christianity and into eastern mysticism, a departure that “he later regretted for the rest of his life.”

Sister Gabriela brilliantly depicts his life and spiritual state at this time, and goes on to describe his artistic training in Moscow, beginning with his studies at the school of the painter Illya Mashkov (1881-1944) and thence to the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture in 1918, which after one year was reformed under the new government into the SVOMAS (the Free State Art Workshops/Studios), and later transformed again into the Vkhutemas (the Higher State Artistic-Technical Workshops). Sister Gabriela contextualises Father Sophrony’s background, giving us a tour in brief of the history of Russian art, the development of its artistic academies, its leading patrons and collectors, the ‘rediscovery’ of the icon in the early 1900’s and its subsequent adoption by the avant-garde, the leading painters (such as Petr Konchalovsky (1876-1956), Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935), Alexander Rodchenko (1891-1956) and Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944)) and the artistic groups and movements of the time. Sergei’s teachers Konchalovsky, Mashkov and Kandinsky are described and the methods by which he was taught. From this period there survives a fine and expressive drawing made by Sergei of Eugenia Lourié (1899-1965) made during his time in the workshop of Konchalovsky.

The influence of one of his teachers, Wassily Kandinsky, is also explored, which Sister Gabriela says was ultimately more impactful on his work in the written rather than the painted form. Father Sophrony later said of Kandinsky, “In my young days, through a Russian painter who afterwards became famous, I had been attracted to the idea of pure creativity, taking the form of pure painting.” Kandinsky taught that “students should have an inner life, in order to be able to work artistically, to create, feel and understand the creative process. Painting should come from within, the soul.” The author writes that “…most artists of the time searched to further their inspiration on the spiritual plane.  In their search, they often turned to sophism, oriental religions and even spiritualism…Both Sergei Sakharov and Kandinsky moved in circles where it was common to explore such beliefs and practices. The idea of “pure creativity” fitted well with the eastern idea of losing oneself in nonexistence.” 

Although initially Sergei was engrossed by abstract art, in 1921 he realised that “…it was not given to me, a human being, to create from ‘nothing’, in the way only God can create.” With this thought, Sister Gabriela writes that “…he turned again to the God of his childhood, Whom he had abandoned in his youth in search of what he had then thought were loftier things.” At this point he also returned to figurative painting, working with great intensity until his departure to Europe.

After leaving Russia, he travelled throughout Italy and some of his reflections on Italian liturgical art already demonstrate a developed eye for liturgical subject matter and a keen interest in it, although his own work was, at that time, far from this. From Italy he travelled to Berlin, which had become a centre of Russian emigration, but in late 1922 departed to live in Paris, which was by then the global artistic capital, was thriving and “an arena of endless possibilities.” Sister Gabriela colourfully describes for us the Russian émigré population of Paris (already become a significant colony by the early 1920’s) and its artistic community. 

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Still Life with Bowl of Fruit. Sergei Sakharov. 1922.

Sergei’s painting at this time is described as being part of the ‘Cézanèsque’ movement and was figurative in nature, focussing on landscapes, still lifes and portraiture. He worked fervently there, achieving some success and exhibiting in the primary artistic salons of the time, the Salon d’Automne and the Salon des Tuilleries.  In  1923 the renowned art critic Thiebault-Sisson wrote of his work exhibited that year: “Sakharof has two small paintings where the care of resemblance does not exclude a softness and delicacy worthy of Ricard.”

Nevertheless, concurrently his ardent spiritual search continued unabated. Desiring quietness and the possibility to reflect, he moved out of Paris to the suburb of Clamart, which was peaceful and rural. “These were times of great inner turmoil for him; inside him the battle between painting and prayer was being waged.” However, “All this travail was in vain: the disparity was too obvious, and in the end prayer won.” Seeking to further his knowledge of the Orthodox Church and to quench his thirst for prayer, he enrolled in the recently opened Orthodox Theological Institute of Saint Serge in April 1925. However, by Autumn his desire for prayer had become so intense that he abandoned his studies, his painting and life in Paris, departing for a life of monasticism on the Holy Mountain of Athos. He entered the Holy Monastery of Saint Panteleimon and “all the creative energy that he had earlier given to his art was now concentrated in prayer.” Here he received the name Sophrony, in 1930 he was ordained into the diaconate, in 1941 became a priest (hieromonk), and later a father confessor to monks from several monasteries, as well as hermits. During these years at the monastery it is believed that he did not paint except for two icons with which he was unsatisfied. However, the defining event for him came in 1931 when he met the profoundly humble and self-effacing Russian monk Staretz Silouan (now Saint Silouan the Athonite), who became his spiritual guide and at the end of his life, in 1938, also confided his writings to Father Sophrony.

Continue reading this article and see additional photographs at Orthodox Arts Journal.
References and citations in the original at OAJ.
Photo credits (except Father Sophrony as a monk): The Stavropegic Monastery of Saint John the Baptist, Essex.
See the Faith & the Arts section in our Archives by Author and our call for articles if you would like to write for this series.

Christabel Helena Anderson is an iconographer based in the UK.  She has a degree in the arts, architecture, and archaeology of Asia and Africa from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, and an MA (with distinction) from The Prince’s Foundation School of Traditional Arts. She is also a GIA Accredited Jewellery Professional, Queen Elizabeth Scholar, and an INTBAU Young Practitioner. She makes traditional panel icons in egg tempera, illuminated miniature paintings in handmade watercolour on vellum, and cloisonné, champlevé, and painted vitreous enamels. She is a specialist in gilding methods, traditional manuscript illumination and materials preparation, and teaches at The Prince’s Foundation School of Traditional Arts where she is also a doctoral researcher sponsored by the A. G. Leventis Foundation. See samples of her work at Christabel Helena Anderson Holy Icons.

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