ANGELS — SINGULAR AND PLURAL

Here is a pleasant Russian icon of an angel, most likely once the right panel in a group of at least three related icons:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

Here is a closer look at the title inscription:

We see from the curved horizontal line above each word that they are abbreviated.  Here is the inscription with the missing letters added:

АГ[ГЕ]ЛЬ Г[ОСПО]Д[Е]НЬ
ANGEL’ GOSPODEN’
“Angel of the Lord”

Remember that when you see two Gs together in Church Slavic —  ГГ — they are pronounced like “ng” in “tangle.”  Also remember that Church Slavic has no words corresponding to English “the” or “a.”  So ANGEL’ GOSPODEN’ can be translated as “Angel of the Lord” or “The Angel of the Lord.” АГГЕЛЬ is the singular form of angel — used for only one.

You may recall that the curly ribbons at each side of the angel’s head represent divine hearing.

The angel holds a zertsalo — a stylized mirror — on which is written the word
СВЯТЬ/SVYAT’ — meaning “Holy.”  Sometimes shown as a sphere, sometimes as a disk, the zertsalo represents divine seeing — a kind of heavenly television set or surveillance camera.  Notice the stylized clouds around the edge.

Of course if there is more than one angel, the word changes to make it plural, as we see in this icon of the Old Testament Trinity:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

Here are the inscriptions on the three central angels (representing the Trinity in Eastern Orthodox belief):

Instead of writing “Angel of the Lord” on each halo, the painter has instead used the plural form for each:

АГГ[Е]ЛИ Г[ОСПО]ДНИ
ANGELI GOSPODNI
“ANGELS OF THE LORD.”

If you are curious about the title inscription on the top of the roundel, here it is:

It reads (modern Russian font):

ОБРАЗ ПРЕСВЯТЫЯ ЖИВОНАЧАЛЬНАЯ ТРОИЦА
OBRAZ PRESVYATUIYA ZHIVONACHAL’NAYA TROITSA
“Image of the Most Holy Life-giving Trinity.”

If you are a long-time reader here, there is no Church Slavic word used today that you have not seen before, so this is just a little review.

 

 

Advertisements

UNEXPECTED GUESTS: A DETAILED OLD TESTAMENT TRINITY ICON

Many “Old Testament Trinity” icons are very basic, showing only the three angels who appeared to Abraham at the Oak of Mamre in the Old Testament story.  Rublyov’s famous Old Testament Trinity is a good example:

In later icon painting, things became more elaborate.  Some painters liked to show much more of the story, as in this example:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

First, let’s look at the title:

It reads:

СВЯТАЯ И ЖИВОНАЧАЛНАЯ ТРОИЦА
SVYATYA I ZHIVONACHALNAYA TROITSA
“[The] HOLY AND LIFE-GIVING TRINITY.”

Zhivonachalnaya means “to initiate or begin life — to be the source of life.”  But we can translate it loosely into English as “life-giving.”

At upper left Abraham has met the angels and is bringing them home (here “home” is one of the stylized buildings called “palaces” in Russian iconography, rather than the biblical tent):

In the next image, he washes the dust from the feet of his angel guests:

On the right side, dough is being kneaded to make bread for the visitors:

At left, a calf is being slaughtered to provide meat for the angels (not a very angel-friendly thing to do, one would think now):

At lower center is the main image, with the angels seated at a table, and Abraham and his wife Sarah waiting on them:

 

Finally, at upper right we see Abraham and his wife seeing the departing guests off.

Here is the major portion of the story as related in Chapter 18 of Genesis in the King James Version:

And the LORD appeared unto him in the plains of Mamre: and he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day; And he lifted up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood by him: and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself toward the ground, And said, My Lord, if now I have found favour in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant: Let a little water, I pray you, be fetched, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree: And I will fetch a morsel of bread, and comfort ye your hearts; after that ye shall pass on: for therefore are ye come to your servant. And they said, So do, as thou hast said.

And Abraham hastened into the tent unto Sarah, and said, Make ready quickly three measures of fine meal, knead it, and make cakes upon the hearth. And Abraham ran unto the herd, and fetched a calf tender and good, and gave it unto a young man; and he hasted to dress it.  And he took butter, and milk, and the calf which he had dressed, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree, and they did eat.

There is an interval in which the angels predict that Sarah will have a son, and then the guests arise and begin to leave, but Abraham goes with them a short way, to see them off.  As he does so, he is told about the problems in Sodom, makes a deal, and then the angels leave and Abraham returns home.

In the structure of the story, it is made clear that the three angels are really manifestations of Yahweh, the god of Israel.  That is why in later Christian thought, the three angels came to represent the concept of the Trinity.

Here is the same icon with a silver and gilt riza dated 1881 placed over it:

It bears a porcelain plaque reading simply Svyataya Troitsa — “Holy Trinity.”

 

AN UNREVEALING REVELATION: THE “VISION OF JOHN THE THEOLOGIAN”

Here is a 15th-century four-type icon from Novgorod, in the northwest of Russia:

The types it includes are:

Upper left:  The Resurrection of Lazarus.
Upper right:  The Old Testament Trinity.
Lower left:  The Meeting in the Temple.
Lower right:  Ioann Bogoslov and Prokhor (John the Theologian and his disciple and amanuensis Prokhoros).

Today we will focus on the fellow in the fourth type, Ioann Bogoslov — John the Theologian:

ioanniprokkhor

The obvious vertical crease running through John’s image (he is the one at left) is where two boards were joined in the panel on which the icon was painted.

If you have been reading this site for some time, you will already know that John the Theologian is the Eastern Orthodox name for the apostle and evangelist John. We use the term “evangelist” for convenience, because no one really knows who wrote the Gospel called “of John.”  The oldest manuscripts are anonymous.  Nor does anyone know who wrote the two Epistles of John or the Revelation, also called the Apocalypse.  Even though tradition attributes the Apocalypse to John, its style is so remarkably different from that of the Gospel that most consider it extremely unlikely to have have been written by the same person.

In any case, the type from the Novgorod Icon of John and Prokhoros shows them sitting before a cave on the Island of Patmos.  John is dictating and Prokhoros is writing.  Tradition differs as to whether John wrote both the Gospel and the Apocalypse while on that island.  Prokhoros as the disciple and secretary of John comes from tradition and hagiography.  Traditionally, Prokhoros is supposed to have been one of the seven deacons named in Acts 6:5.

Now keeping in mind the type of John and Prokhor and its association with the Apocalypse, today we will look at an icon type relating to the  book in the New Testament called “The Revelation” or “The Apocalypse.”

Αποκάλυψις — Apokalypsis — in Greek significes an “unveiling” or “revealing.”  Apo- means “away from,” and kalypsis means a “cover”; so an apo-kalypsis is taking the cover away from something, revealing what was beneath it.

Traditionally, as already mentioned, it was believed that the author of the Apocalypse was John the Apostle (though there were doubts about that as early as the 3rd century); but that attribution has generally been abandoned by modern scholars.  So we don’t really know who wrote it.  We do know that its acceptance as a part of the New Testament came late (it was the latest book generally accepted), and in the Syriac-speaking Church of the East it was only added in the 6th century.  It has always been accompanied by controversy, not only about whether it deserves to be part of the Bible, but also over the meaning of its obscure and often bizarre visions and symbols.  Even the German reformer Martin Luther did not think much of it, saying that that he found it “neither apostolic nor prophetic” and to most people of most denominations — lay or clergy — the Apocalypse was (and is) simply dark, obscure and puzzling.

Though many people think of the book as the “Revelation of John,” that is not how the book identifies itself.  Instead, it begins Ἀποκάλυψις Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, ἣν ἔδωκεν αὐτῷ ὁ θεὸς δεῖξαι τοῖς δούλοις αὐτοῦ, ἃ δεῖ γενέσθαι ἐν τάχει….
The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his slaves what must soon happen….

So it identifies itself as a revelation given to Jesus by God.  The revealing by Jesus to John is secondary, as the sentence continues:

…καὶ ἐσήμανεν ἀποστείλας διὰ τοῦ ἀγγέλου αὐτοῦ τῷ δούλῳ αὐτοῦ Ἰωάννῃ….
“…and he made known and sent through his angel/messenger to his servant John….”

Here is a Russian icon from the early 17th century:

The title inscription at the top reads:

ВИДЕНИЕ СВЯТАГО АПОСТОЛА ИОАННА
Богослова

VIDENIE SVYATAGO APOSTOLA IOANNA
Bogoslova

Which means:

“[The] VISION OF [the] HOLY APOSTLE JOHN [the] THEOLOGIAN”

Here is another quite similar example of the type, from the 16th century:

(Tretyakov Gallery)
(Tretyakov Gallery)

The icon consists of four basic scenes.

At upper left, we see the first scene, described in Revelation 1:10 onward:

I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and heard behind me a great voice, as of a trumpet, Saying, I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last: and, What you see, write in a book, and send to the seven churches which are in Asia; to Ephesus, and to Smyrna, and to Pergamos, and to Thyatira, and to Sardis, and to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.  And I turned to see the voice that spoke with me. And being turned, I saw seven golden candlesticks; And in the midst of the seven candlesticks one like  the Son of man, clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt about the breasts with a golden girdle. His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire;And his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters. And he had in his right hand seven stars: and out of his mouth went a sharp two-edged sword: and his countenance was as the sun shines in his strength.

This is how the second icon depicts that scene:

We see Jesus standing, with the eight-pointed slava (“glory”) signifying Eternity behind his head.  From his mouth proceeds a large trumpet.  In his right hand is a starry circle surrounded by angels blowing trumpets.  Seven candlesticks stand at left.  John kneels before Jesus.

The second scene takes up most of the lower half of the icon, excluding the two figures in front of the cave at right.  It is explained by this excerpt from the Apocalypse 1:20 forward:

Write the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter; The mystery of the seven stars which you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden candlesticks. The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches: and the seven candlesticks which you saw are the seven churches.

John is told in Revelation 1:11:

What you see, write in a book, and send it to the seven churches which are in Asia; to Ephesus, and to Smyrna, and to Pergamos, and to Thyatira, and to Sardis, and to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.

So that portion of the icon depicts John presenting his message of revelation to the angels of the seven churches.   Each angel stands in front of a building and holds a scroll bearing the message intended for that particular church.

The third scene, at upper right, is the angel giving the book to John:

The fourth scene, at lower right, is John the Theologian and his disciple Prokhoros.  It is often found as a separate icon.  It depicts John before his cave on the Isle of Patmos, looking upward to receive inspiration, and reciting his message to his disciple Prokhor, seated at right.

If we look very closely at the page Prokhoros/Prokhor holds, we can see what he is writing:

In the calligraphic style of the 16th century, it says:

В начале бе….
In [the] beginning was…

And we know those are the first words of the Gospel of John:  “In the beginning was the word….”

Having seen the “Vision of John the Theologian” type, you should be aware that there are other related but even more complex and detailed icons of the Apocalypse.  But Apocalypse icons, including the “Vision of John”, are not common.

To finish for today, it is interesting to compare the first scene in the Videnie — that showing Jesus amid the seven candlesticks with the stars in his hand — with the much more sophisticated woodcut of the same subject by the German artist Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528 ):

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).

*

REVERSE PERSPECTIVE: ANOTHER ICON MYTH

Look about for a few minutes on Internet icon sites, or read the beginning of most any popular book on icons, and you will find a great deal made of the notion that icons rely on something called “reverse perspective” or “inverse perspective,” which theoretically opens up the space of an icon so that, as various people phrase it, “the viewer is part of the icon,” or “God in the icon looks at the viewer,” or “the icon looks at the viewer rather than the viewer looking at the icon.”  Now if such statements seem to you initially to be nonsense, hold on to that feeling; you are on to something.  The truth is that this whole matter of inverse perspective is just another one of those myths associated with the painting of icons, and a rather confused myth at that, because many writing on the topic do not seem to understand that reverse perspective is by no means a characteristic of all icons, or historically limited to icons, nor do all who write about it grasp what reverse perspective really means.

Further, most of those who write about inverse/reverse perspective do not know that the term comes not from some Medieval Slavic or Greek manuscript, but rather from writings from the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century:

The Frenchman Gabriel Millet (1899) noted the “birds eye view” approach in medieval mosaics, combined there with the incompatible increase, with growing height, of receding lines.  Dmitry V. Ainalov (1900) — in Russia — used the term “reversed perspective” (обратная перспектива/obratnaya perspektiva) for stylized characteristics in icon painting, attributing it to the inability of the artist to make correct foreshortening (see http://kurt.plommon.se/ljuset/a2.htm — summary of “Inverted Perspective in Visual Art and Controversy: A History of a Critical Concept from the Past Century” [In Swedish], Uppsala University, 2001).

The German art historian Oscar Wulff wrote of umgekehrte Perspektive (reversed perspective) in 1907, and In the 1920s the notion was taken up by the Russian writer Pavel Florensky.

To put it simply, natural, linear perspective means that if we look at a straight road, considering both sides of the road to be lines, then the farther away from us that road gets, the closer the lines will be to one another, until finally, at the horizon they will meet, forming a very elongated “V” with its widest point closest to us, and its narrowest point farthest.  We can imagine such a road painted on a flat board.

Inverse or reverse perspective is just the opposite.  In reverse perspective, if we were to look at that road, again painted on a flat board, its lines would be widest farther away from us, and though the nearest end of the road would not be visible on the board itself,  if we were to follow the lines of its sides as they narrow, we know that theoretically they would meet out in the space where the viewer is standing — at least roughly.  So we can see that reverse perspective is just the opposite of normal perspective, thus the name.

Now normal perspective was rediscovered in the Renaissance, though some Roman artists had known and used it over a thousand years earlier.  Nonetheless we can say, in general, that normal perspective was not known to most early artists.  So those artists had to find a method for showing what they wanted to show of, for example, a group of buildings on a flat surface.  They were not as concerned with making it look realistic as they were with just “getting everything in,” with a reasonably harmonious composition.  So we will often find lines in old, pre-Renaissance paintings — including some icons — going in a number of directions, sometimes including reverse perspective, but often with multiple-point perspective in which there is no overall focal point of the perspective either inside or outside the painting.

We often do find — particularly in pre-17th century icons — that flat surfaces such as tables, footstools, and rooftops are “tipped” toward the viewer — the back side raised higher than the front — and sometimes the back side will be wider than the front, contrary to normal perspective.  However, in spite of the “reverse perspective” myth, this generally does not create a single focal point in the viewer’s space.  Nor does it have the supposed effect of making the viewer “part of the icon.”  And in some cases, background buildings will have a left-side roof slanting upward, while on the right another building’s roof slants downward, confusing the perspective completely.  It takes only a few examinations of such icons by a perceptive viewer to realize that what is characteristic of such icons is not “reverse perspective” in the sense in which it is generally promoted in religious art, but rather abstraction as a virtue.  Unfortunately, it is rare for anyone writing about reverse perspective in icons to actually examine its validity; most just repeat it as an assumed fact without the least firsthand critical investigation.

As an example of how this icon “urban myth” is easily spread, we may look to the current Wikipedia article on the topic, which gives a 13th-century painting as an example of reverse perspective.  We are told “The throne and footstool in this icon show reverse perspective, with lines converging towards the viewer.”  Do they?  Let’s look at the image itself:

If we examine the back upright posts of the chair, we see they are both rectangular in shape, and both are oriented toward the left.  If this were an example of reverse perspective they would slant toward each other.  That on the left would slant toward the right, that on the right toward the left.  They do not.

If we look at the front upright posts of the chair, we see that they match the back pair in orientation; both are rectangular in cross section, both slant toward the left, rather than slanting toward one another as would be the case in reverse perspective.

If we look at the chair supports (“feet”), we see that both on the left are oriented toward the right of the painting.  The rear support is higher on the panel than the front support.  If we draw a line through them, it would slant downward from left to right.  We see precisely the same orientation in the chair supports on the right side, which would not be the case in reverse perspective, in which those on the right would form a line slanting downward toward the left.

In addition, both top crosspieces joining the rear uprights to the forward uprights slant uniformly downward to the right, creating theoretical lines that would not meet in the space where a viewer stands.

On the footstool, we see that the platform is wider at the rear than at the front. If we were to draw a line along left and right sides, we see that those lines would theoretically meet on the right side outside the panel.  This would be reverse perspective in a sense, but the focal point in this case would be considerably to the the right of a viewer standing in front of the panel.  And we find on looking at the feet of the footstool that their positions contradict the supposed reverse perspective of the platform.

As in the case of the chair supports, the footstool supports in back are both higher than those in front, and both back footstool supports are to the upper left of the front foot supports, again both creating, if we draw a line through them, lines that slant downward from left to right.   Note particularly that the right rear footstool support is placed to the left of where it would actually be in a “real” footstool — it is not placed at the rear corner, but illogically to the left of it.

What we are seeing here, therefore, is not an image characterized by “reverse perspective,” but rather an image characterized, as are many icons, by stylized abstraction of elements.  They do not “draw the viewer into the painting” nor do we find that the painting  “looks at the viewer rather than the viewer looking at the painting.”  And, quite contrary to being a classic example of reverse perspective, we find this painting is simply an example of stylized abstraction (Incidentally, this image, known as the Kahn Madonna, is of very uncertain origin. Where it was painted is not known, and even whether it was painted by a Byzantine master or by a Byzantine-influenced Italian master is still debated).

What this means is that inverse/reverse perspective is not at all a general characteristic of all icons.  What is characteristic is a lack of concern with normal perspective (except in Westernized icons from the 1600s onward), and an effort to arrange the items on the flat surface as best one can, with little attention paid to visual accuracy.  Some objects are seen from above (the “bird’s eye view”), while others in the same painting are seen as if viewed from the front.  Lines of various objects may converge in several different directions.  Figures behind others may be depicted as higher, while increased size may also indicate “importance.”

Often, as already mentioned, old icon painters liked to show the tops of things, as though flat surfaces were tilted toward the viewer instead of being upright.  That enabled them to show, for example, a person standing on a platform with much of the platform actually seen, instead of a person just standing on a line.  There was sometimes an effort to show more than one side of a square or rectangular object, which resulted in odd geometrical forms rather like early versions of David Hockney’s efforts to show objects from multiple sides.  And also often (but not always) the size of a figure indicated its importance, or indicated to the viewer the most significant part of an image.

What we do know is that even in so classic and oft-quoted an example as Andrei Rublyov’s “Old Testament Trinity,” the odd perspective does not have the effect that the popularizing writers of recent icon books tell us it has.  One does not get the feeling that the focal point of the image is in the viewer’s space.  Instead one merely notes that the painter has arranged the planes of the image so that it may be fitted harmoniously into the rectangular space, with planes near the bottom slanting downward, and planes near the top (the building at rear left) slanting up.  The eye is drawn into the image not because of “reverse perspective,” not because of the two inward-slanting platforms on which the feet of the side angels rest, but simply because the position of the three figures is reminiscent of actual perspective, with the central figure placed higher on the flat surface than the two side figures, creating a kind of visual hollow space  that attracts the eye to the stronger colors of the central angel’s garments.  There is a bit more to it that might be said, but none of it has to do with “reverse perspective.”  If you doubt that, just cover the lower portion of the icon and examine the result.

What is characteristic of traditional icons is stylization and abstraction.  Instead of showing a building or a person as each would appear in reality, icons instead show a simplified, stylized abstraction of a building or a person.  That is something that developed over time, with some of the earliest icons being actually more realistic than later images.  And again it was the result of artists who were not educated in normal perspective and were not concerned about how a person really looked — because, after all, who knew how Jonah or Adam or Moses, or any of the Old Testament people, really looked — but that did not matter.  What mattered was having an abstraction, a figure that could be identified by certain visual characteristics as representing Jonah, or Adam, or Moses; and that, along with an identifying inscription, was considered to be sufficient.  Such an abstraction came to be considered, in iconography, how that person was consistently to be painted.  The abstraction became the person, so that a believer looking at an icon could say, “That is St. Christopher,” or “That is St. Nikita.”

Over time, abstraction in icons hardened into dogma for some believers, such as the Old Ritualists, who refused to accept the more “realistic” Western European styles adopted in the 1600s by the Russian Court and gradually by the State Orthodox Church as well.  They kept the painting of “abstract” icons going through the reign of Tsar Nicholas II and into the 20th century, though not entirely without some Westernizing influence in their art.

It is worth remembering that when portrait icons of secular individuals began to be painted in Russia in the 17th century, they too were painted on wooden panels and in the same stylized manner as icons.  The difference was the absence of a halo.  These parsuna portraits (from Latin persona — “person”) were a transitional phase into more realistic, “Western”-influenced paintings on canvas that soon replaced them.

Here is such a parsuna.  The title at the top reads “Good-believing Prince Feodor Ioannovich” — Feodor 1st:

Now when you read, as you probably will in some icon books, that icons show saints not in their temporal but in their eternal aspect, “as they are in heaven,” that again is just nonsense, an explanation after the fact to account for why the saints do not look like real people.  But it is an effort to explain why most people in icons are just abstractions of people, stylized images (and the mode of stylization varies from period to period and country to country) that represent to the viewer the particular saint or sacred personage whom the viewer wished to petition for this or that favor.  So it came to be “understood” as a convention that when a viewer looked into an icon, he or she was looking “into heaven,” because that of course is where the saints were believed to be.  That is why one comes across the old saw in so many books that icons are “windows to heaven.”

A similar explanation was contrived for why, when one looked at abstracted scenes representing, for example, the birth of Jesus, they did not look at all realistic even though the event took place on earth, not in heaven.  The explanation came to be that one was looking at the event “as it is in eternity,” meaning it no longer is limited to the historical, earthly time and place where it originally happened.  It was now a “timeless” event that is always happening.  Jesus is always being born; Jesus is always being crucified.   So again, the explanation was that in a sense, one was looking at an event in its “heavenly” aspect.  Eventually gold leaf was applied to the backgrounds of icons to create a reflective svyet’ or light, representing the light of the heavenly world, the transfigured world, in which there are no shadows.  But of course gold was not cheap, even in leaf form, so only those with money could afford such icons.  Others had to make do with a “light” consisting simply of paint, or perhaps of tin leaf coated to make it look like gold.

Given the abstraction and distorted perspective of old icons, it is easy to see why, over time, the belief arose that these were characteristic of a heavenly, “transfigured” world in which the normal laws of perspective and form — and even time — no longer applied.  First comes the practice — then comes the belief “explaining” the practice.

We see the unnatural perspective of old Russian iconography even in the model sketches used by painters, such as in the example of the Predstavlenie  — the Presentation — of the body of the monastic saint Feodosiy Pecherskiy.  Look at the lines of the upper portions of the buildings at left and right; look at the impossible viewing angles of the round windows in the central building, all different; look at the two arched windows in the middle of the central building, presented as they would be if simultaneously (and impossibly) viewed from both far left and far right sides; look at the windows in the upper buildings at left and right, again viewed from two completely opposite directions.  Now look at the people standing on both sides of the image.  Those farther from the viewer are not represented as larger, as would strictly be the case in reversed perspective; instead, their heads are simply represented as higher on the flat suface, which is how they would be seen in normal perspective, but as we have seen, neither normal perspective nor reversed perspective are characteristic of the sketch as a whole.  Put simply, nothing makes sense in the mixed, abstract perspective used by the artist.  This is typical of old iconography, and it is not “reverse perspective,” but rather impossible perspective.  This non-realistic approach eventually came to be explained as representing the “heavenly, transfigured world”, in which the normal laws of perspective do not apply, nor do those of light and shadow.

It is instructive to get a book depicting numbers of icons and to examine the perspective used in each.  One will soon find that reverse perspective is by no means a general characteristic of icons, so it is time that notion was dropped, no matter how romantic it may seem from a religious point of view.  And as for the explanations given the odd perspective of icons, it is best to just realize that as Timur Novokov writes, “The inverse perspective which we see in ancient icons is not some kind of metaphorical form or image, as certain scholars write: it is the direct vision of a man of that time, his coding system, his translation of the surrounding space onto a flat surface.”

Now, returning to the subject of abstraction in the depictions of people in icons, we can say that even though icon painters had not the slightest factual idea of what people in the Old or New Testments looked like, they thought they did, because the conventions given their abstractions over time became the codes by which those people were to be depicted.  The same was applied to other saints.  That is why a painter wishing to depict, for example, a saint for the first day of September would look in a manual to find the “code” for the abstraction of that person.  And he would find something like:

And the commemoration of our holy father Simeon the Stylite and archimandrite, grey, beard of Nicholas the Wonderworker, on his head the skhima [monk’s cowl] and curly hair, robe of a venerable, and he stands on a pillar, the hand blessing, and in the other a scroll, and on it is written….”

Not exactly a description one could put on a milk container, but it is all an icon painter needed.  So it is important to realize that icons were a system of abstractions and conventions, and that painters’ manuals were code books for these abstractions and conventions.  When a patron went to an icon painter and said he needed an icon of St Panteleimon, the icon painter knew the code for that saint, and the patron often did too, at least for the more prominent saints, because he had seen them before in churches and on other icons.  Nonetheless, painters made mistakes.  Sometimes a saint is given an incorrect name, or a name is given an incorrect body.  To an illiterate patron that did not make a great deal of difference, as long as he thought he knew who was painted in his icon.

There were other coded conventions in icons.  For example, the cloth hanging between two buildings, as in the illustration at the top of this article,  indicated that an event was to be understood as taking place in an interior, even though it was not shown in an interior.   So if one put, for example, a scene of the birth of Mary before such buildings, the hanging cloth (commonly red) meant the scene was to be interpreted as taking place indoors rather than outdoors.  That cloth is called a velum, originally a Latin word meaning a cloth, curtain, awning, or sail.

What does one learn from all this?  Just remember that traditional icons were an art of codified abstractions, and of course keep in mind that icon painting has always been a system of reproduction of such coded images.  It is not an art of originality.  Given such a system, it is no wonder that when mechanical lithography was invented, the sales of painted icons dropped drastically.

Oh yes — one final note:  Saints in icons generally do look at the viewer, but that is only because (except in narrative icons) they are painted with eyes looking forward.  The reason is that an icon is an object of prayer in which the supplicant addresses the saint.  So while the supplicant looks at the icon, the eyes of the painted icon saint look at the supplicant.  It has nothing to do with reverse perspective; it just means icon painters knew a saint looking at a viewer would seem more like one interested in answering a viewer’s prayers than one with eyes turned away.  And it certainly does not mean that a saint (“the icon”) looks at a viewer rather than the viewer looking at the saint (“the icon”).

*