Issue Number: 101
What thinking and theology lies behind the religious icon? The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, looks at four icons on show at the RA, and discusses with Nigel Billen their connection to western art
This winter, the Royal Academy is filled with icons. Images of Christ, the Virgin Mary and saints, familiar and all but forgotten, adorn the exhibition walls and fill the glass cases.
For historians they have an obvious allure. Even to the casual observer taking a break from Christmas shopping in Piccadilly, they have a powerful beauty. But, if you are unfamiliar with the Orthodox tradition, are you in danger of missing something?
Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has a special interest in icons and Russian Orthodoxy in particular. He has published two guides to icons, and his latest book is in part a literary and theological investigation into their role in Dostoevsky’s work.
He kindly offers to guide us through the subject and we meet in his office in Lambeth Palace. The first thing you notice is his extensive collection of icons, arranged as informally as family snapshots. In ecclesiastical circles everyone knows about the Archbishop’s passion, with the result that he regularly receives icons as gifts. He shows me one that looks little different from those on show at the RA, despite it being a contemporary subject. ‘In fact, that is Mother Maria Skobtsova who was killed in Ravensbrück concentration camp in 1945 with her chaplain and her family.’
As Dr Williams points out, the use of icons belongs to a living tradition. Not only are icons still being painted featuring the classic themes from Christ’s life, but as new saints are made – Mother Maria was canonised recently – new scenarios become possible. It was, however, a fourteenth-century icon that provoked Dr Williams’ early interest in icons. ‘Coming across one of those old UNESCO art books in the 1960s when I was a schoolboy, I was captivated by a reproduction on the cover of Andrei Rublev’s Icon of the Trinity (c.1410–20) and decided to find out more about its Byzantine and Russian background.’
That introduction led to Dr Williams’ doctoral research on the Russian theologian Vladimir Lossky and with it the understanding that icons ‘were not just pictures’.
‘Lossky brought that out for me in his introductory essay to the book [The Meaning of The Icon] he wrote in 1999 with Leonid Ouspensky, one of the most superb icon painters of the twentieth century. I began to read about early Christian and Byzantine theology with that whole sense of what an Orthodox theologian would call the “Divine energy” permeating material things, which goes right back to the Doctrines of the Person of Christ in the fifth, sixth and seventh centuries…’
These were the debates that presaged iconoclasm and the Byzantine era’s best known and most bitter theological feud. On one level it was simply an argument about whether or not the Bible and the Ten Commandments outlawed any human attempts to depict God. It was also a debate that spilled into the Byzantine Empire’s rulers’ success, or lack of it, on the battlefield.
Centuries after the political and military dust has settled, these are issues that are still important for theologians. But does the average believer or exhibition-goer need to concern themselves with such debates? Dr Williams allows himself a chuckle.
‘Life is short and some of the debates are pretty formidable, but it will help to know something about how intensely and realistically the Divine action and its presence in the world was understood at the end of the Middle Ages, and to know a bit about the Doctrine of the Person of Christ.’The Dwelling of the Light, Dr Williams’ guide to praying with icons of Christ, offers a synopsis of what he calls the eighth-century ‘test case for the rightness of having images [of Christ] at all.’ It was a battle ultimately won by those who squared the circle, who believed that it was possible, without claiming to be able to paint a picture of God, to depict Christ in human form in a way that was at the same time inseparable from the Divine life.
We’ve had a strong cup of coffee, so I ask Dr Williams if he could explain again how this ‘transfiguration’ works, the process that makes an icon for believers more than just a picture.
‘Let’s go back to the Doctrine of the Person of Christ as it was understood in the Greek Church in the early centuries, the belief that the presence of God is totally there in every aspect of the life of Jesus, not just his mind, not just his ideas, but in his body. We are associated with Jesus in the Church through the water of baptism and the bread and wine of the Holy Communion… It’s “stuff”; the matter that makes the bond with the risen body of Jesus. Icons are treated in the same kind of way. They are points of contact where the action of God comes before us not just as a visual image. Something else comes through, which changes me as I pray, as I open my mind in front of an icon. That’s how it works, I think.’
But does this make an icon a supernatural object? ‘Only in the sense that the water of the baptism and the bread and wine of the Holy Communion are carriers of something mysterious and holy.’ Icons are neither simple pictures nor ‘little isolated spots of Divinity scattered around’. Instead, they are a way of experiencing the force of the Divine.
Looking at an icon is, says Williams, like being ‘in front of something with as much “life” as a human face’. But that doesn’t mean it is a portrait – and particularly not a portrait of Christ. That’s why when you look at the face of Christ depicted in an icon, it is never symmetrical and often embodies more than one expression (just look at the eyes). Similarly, icons are always two-dimensional.
‘I think the point has been made very effectively by Orthodox writers, especially in the modern period, that an icon is a flat surface.’ That means you have to stand in front of it: ‘You can’t walk round it, you can only look at it or through it. Hence the language so often used of a window into something.’
Sculptures, which share the same space as the viewer, would be incompatible with the Commandment forbidding any literal depiction of God. It seems complicated, but in some ways the icon’s role is simple enough. In private prayer ‘it is a question of being still and silent allowing the lines of the image to lead you. You look at the patterns and rhythms of the picture, and the eyes, which are crucially important.’
Seen as a decoration in a church they are both a reminder that the church is never ‘empty’ and a way of teaching the scriptures. But what happens when the icon is seen in the context of a museum, or for that matter an exhibition at the Royal Academy?
‘It is a very funny thing to do,’ he says with a smile. ‘But in a secular world it is better than nothing. I’m delighted that the exhibition is happening because it is a world that is not terribly familiar and challenges a lot of what we take for granted about art in general and religious art in particular.’
A post-Renaissance artist, employing a ‘baroque elaboration of suffering or ecstasy’ is working in a different tradition. Equally at odds with what an icon does is the romantic spirituality of nineteenth-century German Nazarenes or – beautiful though he thinks they are – British artist William Hole’s paintings of Christ in naturalistic Palestinian settings. Icons aren’t snapshots of historical events and neither do they attempt to convey human emotion.
‘Icons are functional in a rather severe way. There are only a certain number of ways you can depict certain events and people. That is a bit of a shock to the system and an important one. It reminds you that, actually, art at its deepest, especially religious art, is not just decorative; there is an element of epiphany.’
This appears to hint at a more general link between art and the spiritual. Dr Williams agrees to an extent, and teasing out the connection is something to which he’s obviously given much thought. ‘One interesting aspect of some early twentieth-century art, especially in Russia, was how icon technique was taken over by some modernist painters to say things that they knew the academic art of their times couldn’t say, to break through the crude realism into another level.’ Kandinsky, for instance, was influenced by the then recently revealed original colouring of Russian medieval icons. His early works have even been called ‘abstract icons’.
‘It is part of an ongoing debate, and ongoing tension in the arts. If art is there to project us into a world more uncontrollable and much larger than we habitually inhabit, then the icon is a very dramatic way of doing that, and it says something about the way the whole of art works.’
Representational art like, say, a painting of a beautiful sunrise is almost exactly the opposite of what an icon is out to do. ‘An icon is anchored in a specific set of beliefs and stories and there is no way out of that.’ Instead, he suggests looking at a modern artist like Paul Klee, a favourite of the Archbishop’s, who was influenced by early Christian art. Klee did not paint icons, but there is a connection. ‘His structured, highly formalised patterns and very skilful and delicate palette is an attempt to make you think that the world looks different or the world is other.’
Where does this leave the painter of icons himself? So long as you don’t confuse the tangible immediate power of some iconographers work with the spiritual effect, he says, acknowledging the success of the artist is not totally incompatible with appreciating the icon’s spiritual role. But it’s a delicate balance. Confuse the artist’s story, or his personal style, with the icon’s function and you are in danger of missing the point – icons are a window on to the Divine, not a mirror of the life around us.
A ‘tactful’ approach to the problem is suggested by Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1966 film Andrei Rublev. ‘It’s an absolute masterpiece, an historical drama about the life of a man who happens to paint icons. Only at the very end are you allowed to see the icons he has painted.’ Drawing the life and the work together any more forcibly would be inappropriate.
Which brings us to what Dr Williams calls ‘a challenge in the Orthodox world’: how do you make an icon of a latter-day saint when you have photographic records? ‘A photograph itself can never be an icon, because it is literally a snapshot of one moment. The icon attempts to distil the essence.’
We have one more task, taking our own ‘snapshot’ of the Archbishop. We emerge from the study into a hallway transformed by the apparatus of the modern portrait photographer, but still thinking about artists. ‘Religious art in particular mustn’t just be representational of a day-to-day world but must somehow connect with the “dwelling of the light”,’ concludes Dr Williams; ‘quite a challenge for westerners trying to make religious art today.’