Heavenly Beings: Icons of the Christian Orthodox World

“. . . bathed, in a light that casts no shadows”
Fr. Theotokis, monk of Holy Mt. Athos

To reflect appropriately on Heavenly Beings: Icons of the Christian Orthodox World I will apply the disciplines of Eastern Christian Theology, the dual modes of cataphatic (positive) and apophatic (negative) thought, in offering definitions of what we know of an experience but also what it is not, all the better to know the subject. On a positive note, the exhibition is a “tour de force,” something of a first on this scale in this country. Congratulations are due for initiating curator Dr. Sophie Matthiesson and Mona’s curator Jane Clark, together apparently against the tide of pervasive secular materialism, presenting a celebration of praying with your eyes open.

During the Bolshevik Revolution the Great Wonderworking icon of the Most Holy Theotokos Θεοτόκος Vadmirskaya, circa twelfth century, was removed from its revered rest in Moscow’s Kremlin Dormition Cathedral, taking up new residence in the State Tretyakov Gallery. An accompanying sign read “No Veneration.” Yet still they came—throughout the Soviet era—crossing themselves in veneration, bowed heads touching the floor. In 1996 the Holy Icon was repatriated to the Church of St. Nicholas in Tolmachi, adjacent to the Tretyakov. Having been removed from its ecclesial context and institutionalised, the Holy Icon remained holy. Visitors to Mona should not be surprised to encounter an unreserved veneration from Orthodox Christians.

All Orthodox Holy Icons are holy. Holiness is not dissipated through context, whether they are housed institutionally or in secular private collections; all proclaim and share the same single truth, “that God having become man, became representable.” An aspect of being human, we are all representable. Not to represent the Incarnate Lord denotes a flawed theology of this Incarnation, such is the Christology: overturning the prohibitions of Mosaic Law, the Christos fully God and fully Man . . . attested to in the text:

“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life.” First Epistle of John 1:1.

The archetypal image of the Christos the Acheiropoieta Αχειροποίητα (not-made-by-hands), of which the Mandylion circa seventh century from Russia is an abbreviated form, referencing none other than the Holy Shroud, currently kept in Turin, Italy. The Doctrine of the Holy Icons, overturning over one hundred years of iconoclasm, was hammered out in the eighth century by the Arab monk/icon painter St. John of Damascus, hero of the seventh Ecumenical Council. If a watershed can be detected between the understanding of icon in the East and the West, it is with the Emperor Charlemagne’s (reign 800-814) rejection of the edicts of this Council, famously declaring, “. . . the work of an artist’s hands, the product of their imagination, therefore susceptible to delusion.”

This effectively disestablished the authority of the icon in the West. While artistic endeavours were ongoing in the West, the image found itself relegated to a didactic, decorative role, not sharing an equality with scripture as in the East. This low status is acted out in Western liturgy, where the altar, the Gospel, the clergy, the congregation are all censed, however not the “art.” No Orthodox liturgical celebration can take place without the presence of a Holy Icon.

The Holy Icon has been absorbed and appropriated by the West, presented by scholars to a larger audience, sometimes encumbered by inappropriate terminology; “Madonna” and other Italianate terms, consigned to that historic role of the didactic and decorative, attracting perverse apologia: “. . . all the visions of the dream world of the Russian miniature (icon), mingled with Asiatic influences, liberate the imagination, leaving it free to roam in the realms of Orthodox belief.” (John Stuart, Ikons, Faber & Faber, 1975)

This curiosity, and appropriation of “ancient” and contemporary iconographers in proximity to the West, leads to a seeding of uncanonical variants in the “Byzantine style.”

The 144 Holy Icons of Mona’s exhibition, from mostly Australian and New Zealand collections, represent the Pan-Orthodox world of Greece, Crete, Syria, Russia, and in-betweens, and Ethiopia; of varying dates, most realised following the 1453 Fall of Constantinople , the odd one out intensifying for me a deep personal silence, icon of the Theotokos with Angels from Cyprus, the previous century.

Conservative empirical art scholarship arrives with the image as we know it around the year 500. However, the Holy Tradition of the Orthodox Church remembers St Luke the Evangelist of the first century painting/writing the prototypical icon of the Most Holy Theotokos “Hodigetria” Ὁδηγήτρια (the indicator of the Way), the iconography of this subject continues within the living tradition of Orthodoxy. The focused militant severity of the period of iconoclasm can’t be passed over lightly. The material appearance of this prototypical image doubtless in the manner of the Fayum portraits—wax encaustic on a wooden panel—was ubiquitous in the Greco-Roman world of the time. Those of conspicuous veneration, and of the greatest antiquity, were contenders for being smashed. There exists a four-hundred year void in “art scholarship,” “filled in”—unconvincingly for me—for the most part by cryptographic Christian symbols.

The Holy Icon is reverenced as parallel with the Holy Scripture of the New Testament. Both conceived within the idiom of Neo-Platonic philosophic thought, the affirmation of participation, the earthly with the heavenly is known and is lived out. Matter participates with the spirit, the zone of a Holy Sacrament, which is a meeting with “Mysterium” μυστήριον, and any imposition of rationalisation and dissection becomes vulgar, if not heretical.

The writers of the New Testament rejected the absolute forms of Aristotelian expression as inadequate. Similarly, Naturalism was and is rejected within the Byzantine canon, the Holy Icon is no document of proof, no dramatisation of the existence of God, a vehicle whereby doubt is addressed. What is shown is already deeply known, within the platitudinal harmony of the Sacramental life of the Holy Orthodox Church. First, in this “New Creation/The Church,” the Most Holy Theotokos “the New Eve,” in Her birth-giving the first saint of the Church and in Her wake come the Saints; who have also manifested the Incarnate Lord in their lives. As in life, so in Mona’s exhibition, there is no shortage of supply of Saints, they just keep on coming.

Conspicuous amidst this assembly of venerables, the fourth century bishop of Myra in Lycia St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, a sixteenth century Russian Icon, emphatically frontalised while blessing; bearing the Holy Gospel confronting the faithful and unfaithful alike. There exists a saying, “where the bishop is, there is the fullness of the Church,” a sentiment nobly held in this monumental Holy Icon of sublime stillness. Years ago, my spiritual father the Blessed Konstantine (1907-1996), while bishop of Brisbane, travelled accompanied by a single icon of St. Nicholas. Interrogated, “where is your icon of Christ?,” the holy bishop gestured to St. Nicholas. Here resides a truth pertaining to all Holy Icons of the saints, having attained Théōsis θέωσις, that is sharing in the Life or Nature of the All-Holy Trinity; there’s a twist . . . St. Nicholas having “put on Christ” with all the saints having done likewise, they are thus transfigured . . . all are depicted without loss of recognisable and remembered personhood/their likeness, what is being celebrated is no arbitrary visage. Théōsis implies the complete restoration of all people (and of the entire creation). Visitors to the exhibition will be presented with the physical materiality of these canonical Holy Icons: most sharing a commonality of wood, linen, calcium carbonate, rabbit or fish glue, iron enriched red clay, gold or silver, ox gall, the juice of new session garlic, urine, multi-various pigments . . . and painted/written with an emulsion of egg yolk—given fluidity and preservation by vinegar or white wine, as well as with water—on completion finally sealed, varnished with a “baptism of fire” (heated linseed oil) . . . All these, the humble emblems of a physical world, through intention in the hands and by the eyes of transgenerational iconographers—matter is restored to the image of the Divine. Along with the Holy Icon’s plethora of references comes a manifestation: a restoration of Paradise.
If we approach the Holy Icon as a work of “Art,” it will evade us.

This review was originally published in Artist Profile, issue 65

Heavenly Beings: Icons of the Christian Orthodox World
30 September 2023 – 1 April 2024
Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart

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