Sacred and secular art
every action, everything that we do, either brings us closer to God or
takes us further from Him. The same applies to any artistic undertaking.
The sacred art of iconography in the Orthodox Church consecrates and
nourishes us, bringing God’s grace upon us, and uplifting our spirit
toward God. Secular art cultivates in us a feeling for harmony and
beauty. Although it ennobles our senses, if it is not imbued with
spirituality, it only gives rise to our passions, lust for pleasure and
wealth, pride and egoism.
An artistic painting and an icon both use the same creative
language, materials and technical means. The end results, however, lead
the spirit of the observer in two opposite directions.
A secular painter turns to the world which he sees before him - a
creation that is in constant motion and transformation. He competes with
nature in his effort to imitate, beautify, or even surpass it.
The icon painter pays no attention to the diversity of created
things and their natural transformation. Rather, he prayerfully turns
inward, where, in another plain of existence, his spiritual eyes gaze
towards the Creator.
This approach, to the world without and the world within,
conditioned the expressive form that art has taken over the centuries.
In the Latin West, we see a development and change of artistic styles,
tastes and trends in both secular and sacred art, and the only
difference between them is the subject matter they deal with.
In the Orthodox East, the essence of the form that all icon
painters have been using has remained unchanged from the time of St.
Luke the Evangelist and the first icons of Christ and the Theotokos
(Mother of God) that he painted. (According
to legend, the miracle-working icon of Trojerucica - Mother of God with
three hands - was made by St. Luke). The form of icons corresponds to
the literary form of the Holy Gospel. It is pure, clear, without
excessive descriptions and details, without idle talk. Everything is
simple and serene and at the same time profoundly symbolic and
revealing. It educates and enlightens both the reader and the beholder.
This is the most important difference between secular and sacred
art. The first stimulates the senses, excites the imagination, and
agitates the spirit. The latter soothes and enlightens. It heals the
very essence of our being, redirects it, and elevates our spirit from
its state of indolence and despondency.
Our attitude towards an artistic painting and an icon is also
vastly different. We stand in front of a painting with an expectation of
experiencing something wonderful and exciting. Our eyes follow the
details with curiosity, we think highly of a painter’s distinctiveness
and craftsmanship. If a painting is appealing, we wish to find ourselves
in its space, to become a part of its realm.
We approach the icon in quite a different way. The icon is a part
of the Church’s teachings and we find it primarily in the Church. We
come close to it with a contrite heart, with our eyes lowered, aware
that we do not make obeisance to wood or paint, but to the imaged saint.
We expose ourselves to the look of the saint, that is, of the prototype,
who is a living person of the spiritual world, imaged on the icon as a
reminder of the heavenly reality. We venerate the icon by praying in
front of it, kissing it with affection, asking for the intercession of
the saint before Christ, our Lord. We do not even dare to wish to find
ourselves within its space, although it incessantly invites us to do so
- to become worthy of being summoned to the saint’s image, by our own
purification and deification.
The sense of grace and tranquility that radiates from icons is
achieved by depicting saints who calmly stand in prayer, their uplifted
hand blessing us, their eyes upon us. The vestments are painted in
subdued colors without calling attention to the fabric they were made of
or to the embellishments on them. The nature and architecture in the
background are rendered in a symbolic manner and always in the inverse,
Byzantine perspective. Everything on the icon is light, translucent,
immaterial. All speaks of transfigured and redeemed matter, as it will
become upon the resurrection of the dead.
Inverse perspective (in which the lines move toward, rather than
away from the person at prayer before the icon) is used to convey the
truth of Christian theology: the Kingdom of Heaven is not somewhere in
infinite heights and distances (as suggested by the architectural
perspective in Western art), but here, in a person’s heart and soul
which is the center and the point of meeting of all worlds - heavenly
and earthly, spiritual and physical, eternal and transitory, macrocosm
and microcosm. When approaching the icon, a beholder is embraced by its
spiritual energies and, with trepidation, feels that where he stands is
a holy place. Such was the impression of the envoys of Vladimir, the
Prince of Kiev, as they attended the Divine Liturgy in the great church
of the Holy Wisdom in Constantinople in the 10th century. “We knew not
whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such
splendor or beauty anywhere upon the earth.” This was sufficient for
Prince Vladimir to make a decision and lead the people of early Russia
to baptism into the Orthodox faith.
Only the images of those who are holy are depicted on the icons:
those who, by their ascetic struggle, purified their fallen nature and
became worthy of acquiring the Holy Spirit. As St. John of Damascus
wrote in his Apologia Against Those Who Decry Holy Images: “The saints
in their lifetime were filled with the Holy Spirit, and when they are no
more, His grace abides with their spirits and with their bodies in their
tombs, and also with their likeness and holy images, not by nature, but
by grace and Divine power.” By its essence, therefore, every icon is
holy and miracle working.
An Orthodox temple, with its central dome, its cross-in-square
type of floor plan, its frescoes set on the wall in proper order,
represents at the same time both the heavenly kingdom and a man’s
soul, the deepest pat of our being that still retains some knowledge of
God and which, even after the Fall, has not completely damaged the image
and lost the likeness of God. It is still capable of restoring itself,
purifying itself, and bringing out its divine image by the virtue of
ascetic efforts and by God’s grace.
Being a part of Liturgical art (like a Bible painted in images
and colors), the essence of the Orthodox icon has remained unchanged
throughout the centuries. Like a river from a spring, all of our icons
originate from prototypes. The first icon is known as The Image Not made
By Hands. (It is said that our Lord took a strip of cloth and, pressing
it to His face, to have left His likeness upon the cloth to be sent to
Avgar, King of Edessa, to cure him of his leprosy). Shortly after, we
have the icons painted by the hand of St. Luke the Evangelist.
Painting of icons is not merely the slavish copying of works done
by others, as is often incorrectly thought. Rather, it is a continuous
projection of the same prototype upon the painted image over time. The
rules of iconography, though very strict, have never been considered a
limitation to the creativity of the iconographer. The scenes depicted on
icons varied over the course of the centuries. They reflect the spirit
of the time and space in which they were made, but they all retained the
common trait that makes them an integral part of the Church’s
After breaking communion with the Orthodox East, the western
world went its separate way. From the time of the Renaissance, the West
has produced an array of often humorous and sometimes grotesque
depictions of biblical themes. It is not possible to pray or have devout
feelings while standing in front of paintings of plump, rosy-cheeked
saints, painted from contemporary costumed models. Such paintings of
saints never attain their liturgical, kerygmatic and wonder-working
functions. Gradually, the Latin West lost yet another wonderful way of
representing what our Incarnate God made possible by taking a material
God’s mercy did not allow the “West” (or the “East”
which lived in atheistic societies) to remain devoid of the grace that
radiates from icons. Scattered all over the world’s museums, icons
remain among the people. Although many are estranged from the Church, or
became Her enemies, it was the will of the Life-Giving Trinity to share
with them, through the icon, a taste of that which leads a soul to the
spring of eternal life. Nevertheless, we should bear in mind
that the transfiguring function of the icon is possible only
under the wing of the Holy Church where the created world mysteriously
touches the uncreted Trinity ... until the Lord’s glory is fully
revealed in the age to come.
Father Tadej from the Vitovnica monastery said once that the act of icon painting is the most sublime prayer. And St. John of Damascus wrote in his treatise On Holy Images: “I have looked upon the human form of God, and my soul has been saved.”