By Leonid Ouspensky
When the Greeks regained Constantinople in 1261, the state was in complete ruin. Destitution and epidemics are everywhere. Civil wars are raging (three in one generation). Meanwhile, Emperor Michael VIII Palaeologus sought negotiations with Rome (the Union of Lyons in 1274). Under these conditions, a new flowering of ecclesiastical art took place – the last for Byzantium, tentatively called the Paleolog Renaissance.
Today this flourishing is often attributed to the revival of Greek national self-consciousness during the Nicaean Empire. After the fall of Constantinople, Nicaea became the political and religious center of the free Greeks; the best national and spiritual forces of Byzantium are concentrated here. The clergy who managed to escape from Constantinople moved to Nicaea, where learned monks established a theological and philosophical academy, the guardian of Orthodox teaching in the 13th century. It is in Nicaea that the revival of the Hellenistic idea can be traced. Under these conditions, “the appeal to the ancient traditions, the conscious opposition to the hated Latin culture, was not only natural, but to some extent inevitable.”
The revival of national self-awareness, of course, plays an important role, especially considering that it has cultural, political, and religious overtones. The Empire has an Orthodox self-awareness. That is why there is no sharp distinction between cultural and political life and religious life. The bearer of this religious vitality is “the Orthodox Church, the most unshakable element of Byzantium”. It was the Church that managed to preserve its monolithic unity in the tragic time for the empire. The struggle with Latinism is not only national but also cultural; and above all it is understood as a religious duty. The attempts of the union cannot fail to provoke the reaction of Orthodox Byzantium against the Roman Catholic West, and as a consequence – an even deeper experience of the wealth of Orthodoxy. And if the role of the Church “which carried the burden of the battle on her shoulders” is not taken into account, or if this decisive factor, occupying a leading place in the life of the Greek people, is underestimated, if the inner life of the Church is viewed only superficially, you can involuntarily wonder how Byzantium from the time of the Paleologues, under these painful conditions, could show such great activity in the field of thought and art. Whatever it is about, however, one fact remains irrefutable: “In the field of fine art, the Palaeologous ‘Renaissance’ is manifested almost exclusively in religious painting.” It was the inner life of the Church, although later a subject of controversy, that played a fertilizing role for the art of that time. The future of the Orthodox Church and its art is decided in the clash of hesychasm with the so-called “humanism”. Once again, the Church of Constantinople was tasked with formulating the Orthodox creed in the face of rising perversions.
In the 14th century, the controversies that shook the Byzantine Church concerned the very essence of Christian anthropology – the deification of man, as traditionally understood by Orthodoxy and presented by the Hesychasts, headed by St. Gregory Palamas, on the one hand, and on the other hand – the conception of the philosophic-religious circles nourished by the Hellenic heritage and represented by the humanists led by Barlaam, a monk from Calabria, and Akindinus. The so-called “Hesychast councils” in Constantinople of 1341, 1347 and 1351 were mainly devoted to these disputes. In the preceding period, Byzantium experienced times of external crisis, internal struggle and intellectual revival. The end of the 13th century witnessed renewed disputes about the coming of the Holy Spirit. They chart the way for the final formulation of the doctrine of the deification of man.
The term “Hesychasm” is usually associated with the theological controversies occurring in Byzantium at the time. These controversies prompted the Church to clarify its teaching on the deification of man. The council’s decisions form the theological basis of the doctrine of the sanctification of man by the Holy Spirit, that is, that which, from the beginning of Christianity, has always been the impetus and vitality of its art, that basis which nourished it and determined its artistic forms. Indeed, hesychasm in its own sense is not a new teaching or phenomenon: it is one of the strands of Orthodox spiritual experience coming from the sources of Christianity. Therefore, to confine Hesychasm strictly within the boundaries of Palaeologous Byzantium would be incorrect. Whether the term is used in its direct sense as a Christian ascetic practice, or in the narrow sense of fourteenth-century theological disputes, hesychasm is a pan-Orthodox phenomenon. Indeed, according to the council of 1347, “the piety of Palamas and the monks” is “the true piety inherent in all Christians”. Based on the tradition of the fathers, the hesychast spiritual renewal, which received dogmatic expression in the works of St. Gregory Palamas and the councils of the fourteenth century, as well as in the disputes surrounding them, had a huge impact on the entire Orthodox world both in the sphere of spiritual life and and in church art. The influence of Hesychasm goes far beyond theology. The cultural flowering of secular sciences, literature, etc. is intimately connected with the flourishing of theological thought, which they either follow unreservedly or oppose.
The theological controversies of the 14th century were the result of the clash of different currents in the bowels of the Byzantine Church. And indeed the higher intellectual circles of Byzantium had been in a state of internal crisis for quite some time. Beneath the external strict fidelity to Orthodoxy from the 10th century onwards, a kind of opposition was manifested. It comes from the side of the strong undercurrent of the advocates of secular Hellenism, of the Neoplatonic philosophical tradition. Without breaking with Christianity, this religious philosophy lives in parallel with the teachings of the Church. Classical Hellenistic thought, overcome and surpassed by theology, rears its head among the representatives of precisely this stream of humanists who, “educated by philosophy, wish to see the Cappadocians through the eyes of Plato, Dionysius through the eyes of Proclus, and Maximus the Confessor and John of Damascus through Aristotle “. When these Hellenizing philosophers go too far in trying to create a synthesis between Hellenism and the Gospel, which they believe should replace patristic Tradition, the Church condemns them. Already in the eleventh century, the philosopher John Italus was condemned for his Platonism; and in the Synod of the Solemnity of Orthodoxy another anathema is entered, both for those “who hold that the ideas of Plato are really true,” and for those “who indulge in the study of worldly sciences not merely as a mental exercise, but as perceiving the vain opinions of philosophers”.
The Byzantine fathers were also educated in Greek philosophy, but they adopted it as a purely intellectual discipline, as a means of exercising the mind, as a prelude to theology, the foundation of which is the Holy Scriptures. Humanists, on the other hand, try to explain the affirmation of faith with the help of natural reason. For them, faith is a matter of intellectual knowledge, gnosis. According to Barlaam, knowledge of God is possible only through the mediation of reason, and such knowledge can only be indirect. St. Gregory Palamas does not deny this kind of knowledge, but maintains that it is insufficient, and that it is impossible by natural, natural means to know what is higher than nature.
One of the main objects of dispute between hesychasts and humanists is the Light of Tabor. Disputes arise from disagreements about the understanding of the nature of this light and its significance for the spiritual life of man. Opponents of Palamas see in the light of Tabor a natural, created phenomenon: “The light that shines on the apostles on Mount Tabor, and the sanctification and grace similar to it, are either a created mirage, visible through the air, or a figment of the imagination, which is lower of thought, and injurious to every rational soul, as proceeding from the imagination of the feelings. In short, it is a symbol which cannot be said to belong to the things existing or contemplated around one, which sometimes ghostly appears, but never actually exists, because it has no real being.’
On the contrary, for St. Gregory Palamas, the Tabor light is “primordial, unchangeable beauty, glory of God, glory of Christ, glory of the Holy Spirit, ray of divinity”, that is, energy with a divine nature inherent in the three Persons of the Holy Trinity, outward manifestation of God. For his opponents, that which is not the essence of God belongs to God, but is not God. That is why the actions of God, different from his essence, are a created result of this essence. But according to the teaching of St. Gregory, essence and energy are two aspects of God’s being, and the very name God refers to both essence and energy. The real God resides unattainable in his essence (his nature), and always appears by grace. The light of Tabor is one of the images of the appearance or revelation of God in the world, the presence of the uncreated in the created order, a presence not allegorical, but truly revealed and contemplated by the saints as the unspoken glory and beauty of God. Unknowable by nature, God thus appears to man through His actions, adoring the whole human being and making him godlike. “And when the saints contemplate this divine light within themselves – says St. Gregory Palamas, they see the robe of their deification.” This divine grace is not merely an object of faith; it is the subject of concrete life experience. For Palamas, as for traditional Orthodox theology in general, deification is inseparable from the contemplation of God, from personal communion, “face-to-face” communion, as one of the aspects of deification.
In contrast to this view, rationalists cannot understand how God is both unknowable and, on the other hand, communicating with man. They take the very idea of deification as a pious metaphor. For them, God is unknowable and impenetrable, and on the other hand, it is characteristic of the autonomous human mind to know everything that is not God. That is why Barlaam and his followers see no bridge between God and man but the symbol; Nicephorus Grigoras wrote: “This dogma is known to the Church and handed down to us by our Savior Jesus Christ and His disciples, that no one can see God except through symbols or bodily images.” For the hesychasts, symbolism is acceptable insofar as it is included in the history of salvation without canceling its Christocentrism. The hesychast attitude to symbols can be illustrated by the words of the hesychast Nicholas Cavasila, a friend of St. Gregory Palamas: “If this (Old Testament) lamb was sufficient, what good would the future Lamb be? For if shadows and images were to bring bliss, then truth and works would be superfluous”. As far as the Light of Tabor is understood by the “humanists” as a symbol, the Transfiguration itself in their eyes has not a real, but a symbolic character. Answering Akindin, St. Gregory asks: “What? Were neither Elijah nor Moses there, because they only serve as symbols? And was not the mountain real, for it is also a symbol of spiritual elevation?” Symbolism, he continues, was also known to the Greek philosophers; How then does Christian knowledge differ from their knowledge?
By rejecting the supersensible, immaterial nature of the Tabor light, humanists cannot understand and accept the spiritual experience of Orthodoxy presented by the hesychasts, who affirm that a person can be enlightened by the divine uncreated light by purifying his thoughts and heart. What was questioned and dogmatically defined in the fourteenth century was the overall manifestation of Christianity as the union of man with God.
This union, cooperation, this synergy of man with God presupposes the preservation of man in his entire spiritual-soul-body composition. Man in the fullness of his nature is indivisible; the human being as a whole participates in sanctification and transformation. For the Hesychasts, the integrity of human nature is self-evident. No part of this whole is separated into a separate and autonomous means of knowing God; no part is excluded from communion. Not only the spirit, but also the soul and the body participate in this union in Him.
“The spiritual joy that comes from the spirit in the body is in no way corrupted by its association with the body, but changes the body and spiritualizes it. Because then it casts off the filthy lusts of the flesh, it no longer drags the soul down, but rises up together with it, so that the whole man becomes spirit, as it is written: “and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” (John 3:6-8).
“Orthodox spiritual experience overcomes the ancient and constant opposition of spirit and matter; both are united in common communion with that which surpasses them. It is a reduction of the sensuous to the mental, not a materialization of the spiritual, but a communion of the whole man as a whole with the Uncreated,” a personal communion that is demonstrable rather than describable. This life experience is naturally antinomian and does not fit into the framework of philosophical thinking. The denial by humanists of the uncreatedness of the Tabor Light is in effect a denial of the possibility of a true bodily perceptible transfiguration. It is the human body that is their stumbling block. The idea of the inclusion of the body in the knowledge of God and transfiguration remains incomprehensible to them. The doctrine of Barlaam and his followers, who see only a created phenomenon in the Light of Tabor (in modern parlance, an “illusory-psychic phenomenon”), rests on the docetic conception of the body, to the rejection of the possibility of its transformation, to the assertion of a division between the divine energy and human energy, to their incompatibility and impossibility for them to be in synergy.
The theology of St. Gregory Palamas raises man to an incredible height. Continuing the theological tradition going back to the anthropology of St. Gregory the Theologian and St. Gregory of Nyssa, it emphasizes the centrality of man in creation. St. Gregory Palamas wrote: “Man, this huge world, contained in the small, is the center of everything that exists and the crown of God’s creations.” This teaching of St. Gregory about man represents a sound theological foundation of true Christian humanism, being a kind of response of the Church to the universal interest of the age in man.
Naturally, in this period there was also a greater interest in the image of man in art. The depiction of feelings and emotions typical of that time gives it a certain warmth. Already in the 13th century, the time of St. Sava, elements of what would later be called the “Paleolog revival” spread in Serbian art. It is above all the vividly expressive presentation of the emotional-spiritual peace of the person, “of the passionate part of the soul”. In the fourteenth century, such features of art are often found, especially in connection with the controversies of prayer practice. Through St. Gregory Palamas, the Church puts these questions into their proper Christian perspective. In his treatise against the hesychasts, Barlaam recommends “putting to death the passionate part of the soul and all activity common to soul and body, because it binds the soul to the body and fills it with darkness.” St. Gregory answers as follows: “The teaching received from us […] says that dispassion does not consist in mortifying the passionate part of the soul, but in bringing it from evil to good. The flesh, he continues, “was not given to us to kill ourselves, mortifying every activity of the body and every power of the soul, but to reject every base desire and action… In passionless people the passionate part of the soul constantly lives and works toward grace and these people do not kill her”. In other words, in communion with the grace of God, the passionate forces of the soul are not mortified, but are transformed and sanctified. These transfigured emotions, expressions of the subtlest movements of the soul, represent one of the characteristic features of church art of this period.
Neither the Hesychasts nor their opponents have left us writings specifically devoted to art, unlike the polemics of the iconoclastic period. The question of art is not raised and not a subject of controversy. But the art of this time shows a blending of the Orthodox tradition with elements of the “humanistic” Renaissance, which reflects the struggle between humanism and hesychasm, between the conversion to the ancient Hellenistic tradition and the revival of spiritual life. This interpenetration can be found both in the very understanding of art and in its character and subject matter.
(to be continued)
Source: Ouspensky, Leonid. Theology of the Icon, Vol. I and II, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1992.