Sacred and secular art

Marija Ivankovic



Our 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 teaching.

            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 body.

            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.”