By Leonid Ouspensky
The number of borrowings from antiquity greatly increased in the 13th and 14th centuries, borrowed ancient motifs entered church art no longer only as additions; they permeate the plot itself and its character. There is a tendency to give volume through depth. A certain mannerism appears, depicting in the back, in profile, foreshortening, drawing in perspective. Stories from the Old Testament became especially popular; among them are the images of the Virgin (for example, the unburnt blackberry, Gideon’s fleece), of Christ (for example, Abraham, Melchizedek), as well as some symbolic images of Christ (in the form of an angel). Church decoration lost the strict unity and monumental laconicism so characteristic of the previous period. It is not a question of retreating from dogmatic principles, but its organic connection with architecture is beginning to be disturbed. “Iconographers and mosaicists no longer obey the inner space of the temple… to reveal its meaning. They juxtapose countless images”. An essentially spatial art, which up to that time had conveyed more relationships than gestures, more a state of mind than a string of emotions, now gets involved in the conveyance of what flows in time: narrative, narration, psychological reactions, etc. n. The relationship between the depicted and the viewer also changes: regardless of whether a single figure or a complex composition is depicted, it is no longer always turned outwards, towards the believer who prays in front of it. Often the image unfolds like a picture living its own life, as if closed in on itself, without relation to the viewer.
At that time, the images on the altar partition also increased, the theme of which must be directly related to the meaning of the main sacrament of the Church, the Eucharist. In its figurative interpretation, two currents appear: on the one hand, a search for a coherent theological system, which, by means of images, reveals the entire housekeeping of our salvation. This trend led to the shaping of the theme of the iconostasis, the classical form of which was formed in the 15th century in Russia. On the other hand, there is a tendency, so characteristic of this period, to clarify the meaning of the sacrament in an image, illustrating individual moments of the liturgy, for example the Great Entrance. It is precisely in this iconographic theme that the boundary between the imageable and the non-imageable is often violated. There is, for example, a scene of the priest’s offering of the Christ Child lying on a discus – a scene reaching extreme naturalism and reminiscent of a ritual murder (14th century church in Matej, Serbia). It is undeniable that the motif with the Child on the discus is a reaction to the liturgical controversies of the twelfth century, or rather their echo in the camp of Western theologians. By the time of the Palaeologians such disputes had evidently grown on the fertile soil of the hijacked wisdom of the humanists about rationalism.
Along with the illustrations of individual moments of the liturgy, a number of iconographic themes appear, apparently intended to reveal the meaning of the sacrament by means of stolen symbolic images: Sophia’s Table (The Banquet of Wisdom), or Sophia Wisdom communions the apostles, etc. These motifs figuratively recreate the text from Solomon’s Proverbs, 9:1-6 – “Wisdom built her house”. The text is presented in two plots. On the one hand, Sophia Wisdom – Angel – personification of divine wisdom according to the type of ancient personifications: on the other hand – Christ – Wisdom in the form of an Angel of the Great Council. It must be borne in mind that the subject of wisdom was quite prevalent during the controversy between the Hesychasts and their opponents; Undoubtedly, it is precisely in this context that the symbolic image of Sophia Wisdom spread during the time of the Palaeologians. In this symbolism, one cannot fail to notice the influence of the humanistic renaissance. Although it does not correspond to Hesychast ideas, this symbolism, as well as borrowings from antiquity, is not always alien to the Hesychasts. The symbolic depiction of Wisdom can be understood not only as an influence of humanism, but also as an attempt on the part of the Hesychasts to oppose God’s Wisdom to the wisdom of the philosophers. This type of symbolism, used consciously or not by artists, undermines the true Orthodox teaching on icons and leads to a violation of the canonical rules, in particular Rule 82 of the Fifth-Sixth Council.
This rule, we recall, removes those symbols that displace the direct image of the incarnate Word of God: “Honoring the ancient images and shadows as signs and types of truth…, we now prefer grace and truth, which are the fulfillment of the law.” Now, in the paleolog time, such “incarnation”, violating the principle of evangelical realism, is especially paradoxical in the case of the eucharistic theme. The fruit of abducted thoughts, this symbolism does not correspond to traditional Orthodox thinking, just as it does not correspond to the mixing of the imageable with the unimageable.
And the symbolic images replacing the direct human image, and the expressive artistic reflections of emotional life, and the aspiration to Hellenistic naturalism, and the extraordinary variety of new iconographic themes, and the multiplication of Old Testament types – all this is the fruit of the age, covered by the raging new ideas, the age of revival of humanism and hesychasm. If the traditional artists were not always protected from the humanist influence, then the sympathizers of humanism, in turn, did not leave the traditional forms of Orthodox art, represented by Hesychasm. The Paleo-Renaissance did not abandon these traditional forms. But under the influence of the ideas of the era, elements penetrated into them that lowered the spirituality of the image, and sometimes undermined even the very concept of the icon, its meaning, and as a consequence – its function in the Church. These ideas, the fruit of an abstract idea of God based on the material knowledge of the world, relate to the Orthodox tradition as the humanistic worldview relates to the traditional Hesychast approach. That is why the role and importance that humanists attach to philosophy and worldly knowledge of spiritual life, on the one hand, and the hesychastic approach to them, on the other hand, can give us indirect signals to understand the views of both sides regarding church art.
In his disputes with the humanists, St. Gregory Palamas wrote: “We do not stop anyone from becoming acquainted with worldly sciences if he wishes, unless he has adopted a monastic life. But we advise not to delve too deeply into them, and strictly forbid the expectation of obtaining an accurate knowledge of divine things, because no one can derive from them a true teaching about God.”
Further we read: “Indeed, there is something useful in worldly philosophers, just as there is pollen from poisonous grasses in honey. But there is a great danger that those who wish to separate the honey from the bitter herbs will unexpectedly swallow the poisonous residue.” Saint Gregory Palamas dwells at length and in great detail on the question of the relationship between secular science and philosophy in general and the knowledge of God. Despite the above-mentioned sharp judgment, he does not deny the importance of worldly knowledge, but even admits that it is relatively useful. Like Barlaam, he sees in it one of the ways to indirect, relative knowledge of God. But he stubbornly rejects religious philosophy and worldly knowledge as a means of communicating with God and knowing God. Not only is science incapable of giving “any true teaching about God,” but when applied to fields not proper to it, it leads to perversions, moreover, it can hinder true communion with God; can be “deadly”. As we see, St. Gregory Palamas only protects the area of communication with God from mixing with religious philosophy and natural, i.e., natural knowledge of God. Proceeding from this attitude of hesychasm to the mixing of secular sciences and religious philosophy with the field of theology, it can be concluded that the tasks and functions of ecclesiastical art were set in such a light.
It must be said that if a certain impartiality towards the image can be noticed in the psychosomatic technique of the hesychasts, their attitude towards icon veneration and the importance of the icon in worship and prayer remains completely true to Orthodox teaching. When St. Gregory speaks of icons, he not only expresses the classical Orthodox view, but also adds some clarifications characteristic of Hesychast teaching and the general direction of Orthodox art. He says: “To Him who became man for our sake, create an icon out of love for Him, through it worship Him, through it raise your thoughts to the Savior, who sits in glory at the right hand of the Father in heaven and whom we worship. In the same way, create icons for the saints … and worship them not as gods – which is forbidden, but as a testimony of your communion with them, love for them, in their honor, raising through their icons your mind towards them”.
As can be seen, St. Gregory expresses traditional Orthodox teaching both in his veneration of the image and in his understanding of its basis and content. But in the context of his theology this content sounds with a note typical of the pneumatological period. For St. Gregory, the Incarnation is the starting point from which the fruits are expected: the divine glory manifested in the human image of God the Word. The deified body of Christ has received and imparts to us the eternal glory of the Godhead. It is this image that is depicted on icons and worshiped to the extent of revealing the Deity of Christ. And inasmuch as God and the saints have the same grace, their images are also made “in likeness.”
In the light of such an attitude towards the image and such an understanding of its content, it is certain that for the hesychasts the only image that can serve as a means of communion with God is that which reflects the experience of this communion in harmony with the teaching of hesychasm. The artistic elements, based on abstract thoughts and empirical perception of the world, just like philosophy and secular sciences, cannot give “any true teaching about God”. The symbolic depiction of Jesus Christ, which replaces the personal image of the Bearer of divine glory, undermines the very foundation of the teaching of the icon as a testimony of the Incarnation of God. Such an icon, therefore, cannot “raise the thought to the Savior standing at the right hand of God the Father.” It is natural that with the victory of hesychasm, the Church puts an end to those elements in the cult art, which in one way or another undermine its teachings. It is due to hesychasm that “the last Byzantines, unlike the Italians, gave place to naturalness without turning it into naturalism; they use depth, but without locking it in the laws of perspective; explore the human, but without isolating it from the divine”. Art preserves its connection with revelation and preserves its synergistic nature of relationship between God and man.
The teaching of St. Gregory Palamas on the essence of communion with divine energies “destroys all the remnants of rationalism and iconoclastic positivism”, revealing also more distant problems that are noticeable in the teaching of icon veneration. Further dogmatic work could proceed only by expressing the very content of the spiritual experience, and thus also the content of ecclesiastical art. In the dogma of icon veneration, it is recognized that it is possible for the artist, by means of forms, colors, lines, to translate the result of divine action into man; and that this result may be shown, made manifest. In the teaching of the Light of Tabor, it is recognized that this divine action transforming man is the uncreated and imperishable light, the energy of the Divine, sensuously felt and contemplated. Thus the doctrine of divine energies merges with the doctrine of icons; and just as in the dispute about the Light of Tabor a dogmatic formulation of the deification of man is given, so also a dogmatic justification is given to the content of the icon. This is the time when those frameworks are defined, behind which ecclesiastical art cannot go without ceasing to be ecclesiastical.
The victory of the teaching of St. Gregory Palamas was decisive for the further history of the Orthodox Church. If the Church had remained passive in the face of the onslaught of humanism, the hurricane of new ideas of the age would undoubtedly have led to crises analogous to those in Western Christianity—the neopaganism of the Renaissance and the Reformation in accordance
with the new philosophies – and therefore also to the confirmation of completely different ways of church art.
And if, thanks to hesychasm, church art did not cross the boundaries beyond which it would have ceased to express Orthodox teaching, nevertheless, in the second half of the 14th century, the living creative tradition that defined the Palaeologian revival began to give way to a kind of conservatism. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and the conquest of the Balkans by the Turks, the leading role in the field of church art passed to Russia. The living impulse of Hesychasm and the dogmas that shaped Orthodox anthropology, the grounded teaching of Palamism, will bear priceless fruits in Russian art and spiritual life. There, the flourishing of the 14th and 15th centuries had a basis different from that created during the Byzantine Palaeologous Renaissance. Conservatism, by its very nature, will prove powerless to resist the push coming from the West. S. Radojcic has the right to say: “Western influences did more damage to Byzantine art than the Turks”.
The Council of Constantinople in 1351 was the most solemn act by which the Church affirmed the teaching of St. Gregory Palamas. The fourteenth century witnessed how the decisions of this council were accepted by the entire Orthodox Church. One year after the council, its decisions were elevated to the canonical succession as the Solemnity of Orthodoxy. In 1368, soon after his death, St. Gregory Palamas was canonized. His memory is celebrated on November 14. The second Sunday of Great Lent is also dedicated to his memory as a “preacher of the divine light” (vespers, third verse). Here he is sung as “luminary of Orthodoxy, teacher and pillar of the Church” (tropar). Thus, after Sunday, the Orthodox Church celebrates the proclamation of the doctrine of the deification of man; and the council of 843, which closed the Christological period of the Church’s history, is liturgically associated with the peak of the pneumatological period.
Source: Ouspensky, Leonid. Theology of the Icon, Vol. I and II, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1992.