This is the first of a three-volume series dedicated to Orthodox Iconography. In the life of the Church, Iconography, as theology through colours, has been, in the life of the Church, more than anything else, the expression of ineffable things, that is, things that cannot be expressed through words and concepts. For Orthodox theology, the experience of vision that surpasses reason and conceptualisation has always been the way par excellence of approaching divine things, not in the sense that we understand them, since they lie beyond understanding, but in the sense that we participate in them. The vision of God, beyond any philosophical/intellectual contemplation, formed the core of a great part of the Greek Patristic ascetical literature. Of course, this vision is also ineffable and non-depictable, but, however, Iconography is still what lies closer to this experience, and it directly refers to the latter. Iconography, in that sense, does not mean so much that one thinks though icons, but mainly that one prays through icons.
So, the first author of this volume, Nun Gabriela, claims, referring to the iconographic legacy of St Sophrony the Athonite, who was her spiritual guide and iconography teacher, claims that for him, to paint icons means to ‘express one’s vision and knowledge of Christ’. That is, an icon’s purpose is ‘to inspire prayer and be a link to the person depicted’. According to St Sophrony, iconographic inspiration has to be tested through prayer; and that means that it has to be a part of a process of spiritual maturation in the Holy Spirit. Iconography, or perhaps better, hagiography, as is the Greek term, portrays this process in the Church σύν πᾶσι τοῖς ἁγίοις, that is, together with all the saints. This is why Sophrony‘s method was ‘to paint only the essentials and concentrate on the face which is the mirror of the soul’. Beyond the technical details, which of course are invaluable, St Sophrony’s artistic activity was precisely a theology of the ineffable, a sign of divine participation.
Aidan Hart’s guiding question is: ‘people will worship within the Church that I am designing, so how can I help create a state of soul most receptive to divine grace, create an atmosphere conducive to compunction, awe, and peace?’ This leads him to search for a precious theology of light in Orthodox temples, something which in turn leads him to realise that ‘transfiguration is not dematerialisation. Light (symbolic of divine Grace), unites with matter (symbolic of the whole created world), in a union without confusion, so that both continue their existence’.
Prof. Cornelia Tsakiridou invents the term intermediality in order to describe the possible convergence-in-distinction between icons and photographs in a theological perspective. For her, ‘intermediality is a perichoretic state that implies, as the term perichoresis suggests, a coinhering relationship between artistic genres, in which their similarities and differences are affirmed, articulated, and recalibrated. Intermediality also means that we can think about photographs and icons in new ways. For example, we can see photographs as perceptual and mnemonic fields, where things deposit their impressions and subsist in a literal and representational eternity, detached and yet fully immersed in the world from which they were extricated. And we can look at icons as frames that configure a noetic or pneumatic space where beings linger free from the constraints of physical existence, without, however, relinquishing their physicality. Rather than dissolve matter, photographs and icons carry it over to another dimension and themselves exist in that order, fusing phenomenal and ontic realities.’
For fr Lukas, finally, what is essential is a loving and creative approach to the icon through the spiritual life on Mount Athos. For him ‘the true artist is not the one who reproduces prototypes, but rather he who prophetically foresees and directs his inspirations to the desires and expectations of the community of the Church’.
I am grateful for the brilliant contributions of this volume. Nun Gabriela, Aidan Hart, and fr Lukas, are also practicing iconographers, and give us some excellent samples of their work. The purpose of this three-volume series is to present some of the most important representatives of contemporary Orthodox Iconography, their work and their ideas, along with some of the most important thinkers on Orthodox Art and Theology of Icons. I am grateful to Dr Georgios Kordis, a world-renowned Iconographer and academic teacher of Iconography, who very kindly supported this series in many ways. Professor Tsakiridou is also one of the people behind the creation of this series, to whom many thanks are due.
– Nikolaos Loudovikos, Senior Editor