APPRECIATING CHARACTER IN ICON PAINTING

When I first became involved with icons many long years ago, there was still a lot of snobbery about their age.  In general the feeling was that the earlier an icon was, the better it was, so icons of the 18th to early 20th centuries were not as appreciated as they should have been.  The reverse side of that coin is that the later icons were much less expensive and more obtainable by museums and collectors than the rarer images from the “Golden Age” of icon painting.

My view on the appeal of icons, however, was always more objective, less concerned with the monetary and “right period” aspects.  I felt that the appreciation of icons should not rely just on age, but also on the “character” of an icon — its inherent visual appeal.  So I had a great interest in icons that would have caused the “classic” collector to turn up his nose — icons from the 1700s up to about the time of the Russian Revolution.  I even had appreciation for what one might call “folk” icons, finding that some of the originally cheap and mass-quantity icons actually had an appeal all their own, particularly those delightful icons of the 18th and 19th century with cinnabar red predominating and embossed, metal leaf “svyet” (background) and garments tinted by varnish overlay to make a cheap substitute for gold leaf.  So yes, my interest in icons extended even to examples of icons as simple folk art.

In fact one could say that nearly all Russian icons in the old style and its variations are to me a kind of Russian folk art, representative of cultural attitudes and the beliefs of their times.

Suffice it to say that attitudes have changed in the last decades, and today there are many collectors of fine and interesting examples of the later period of  Russian painting that formerly was ignored by the cognoscenti.

Most people interested in icons have seen pictures of the Old Testament Trinity by Andrey Rublov, probably the most famous of Russian icons, the “Mona Lisa” of its type.  But look at this later icon of the same subject:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

This icon carefully preserves earlier elements, such as the Stroganov-style buildings at left, and the “shingled” appearance of the mountain on the right, but wonderful touches are present — such as the “feathery” appearance of the shingled steps of the mountain, and that particularly pleasing stylized tree behind the central angel, with its abstract leaves that shade so obviously and uniformly from dark in the underpainting to the white overlay.  The painter has even placed a striking, star-like cave opening in the mountain, which adds considerable interest to the image.

No one would mistake these angels for Rublyov angels — they are real “folk” angels, but high quality folk angels, with their outstretched, pastel wings that remind one a bit of Giotto.  Icons like this are the reason why I have always preferred the old and stylized “abstract” styles favored by the Old Believers to the almost Italian looking, increasingly saccharine “realistic” images so popular in the State Church from the middle of the 17th century up to the Revolution.  This particular icon is a very pleasing work, a real collector’s item.  The surprising thing is that abstraction continued, among some icon painters, right into the early 20th century — and so one may still look for icons of character as late as the early 1900s.

Now, as to the type itself, we already know that this is the image commonly known as the Old Testament Trinity, to distinguish it from the New Testament Trinity, which shows God the Father as a bearded old man along with Christ, and the Holy Spirit represented as a dove.  But the actual title written on this icon is simply Svyataya Troitsa — “The Holy Trinity.”  It shows the appearance of three angels to the Patriarch (the title in icons is Praotets, meaning “Forefather”) Abraham on the plains of Mamre, as recorded in Genesis, chapter 18.  Abraham is seen with Sarah, his wife, serving the angels seated at the central table.  the tree in the background is the “Oak of Mamre.”  The three angels are the three members of the Christian Trinity, all believed (somehow) to be God in E. Orthodox dogma.

In folk tradition, the central angel is generally considered to be Christ, and sometimes he is even given the three points of the cross in his halo with the Ho On inscription that is characteristic of Christ.  The Stoglav Council opposed the practice, but painters often went their own way, ignoring the decree, which is why in the study of icons one should look not at what theologians said should be done, but rather at what was actually done by icon painters.  Always look at real practice rather than theory.  Another folk belief is that the delightful tree behind Christ in this image represents the wood of his cross.  The angel at left was considered to be God the Father and the building behind him represents the Church; the angel at right was the Holy Spirit, and the mountain behind him is the mountain of spiritual ascent.  Such fanciful interpretations were very popular among ordinary people.

Though they cannot be seen clearly in this photo, the three angels have curling ribbons extending from the area just above their ears.  These are standard in icon depictions of angels, and traditionally they represent divine hearing; angels both hear prayers and are attentive to the will of God.  Of course in this image, the angels are God.

The Greeks called icons of the appearance of the three angels to Abraham at Mamre the “Hospitality of Abraham” (Η ΦΙΛΟΞΕΝΙΑ ΤΟΥ ΑΒΡΑΑΜ — He Philoxenia tou Avraam).

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