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Icons and the Name of God by Sergius Bulgakov tr. Boris Jakim.

Icons and the Name of God by Sergius Bulgakov tr. Boris Jakim

Grand Rapids, Eerdmans: 2012

ISBN 978 0802866646, 208pp, p/b, 20 [pounds sterling]


Icons in Time, Persons in Eternity by C A Tsakiridou

London, Ashgate: 2013

ISBN 978 1409447672, 378pp, h/b, 65 [pounds sterling]


The quantity of recent writing on the theology of the icon is remarkable; so is the amount of new scholarly discussion of what we might call the social anthropology of icon production and veneration. The two approaches do not always converge as fruitfully as they might, but at least we have decisively moved on in the world of Western theological scholarship from an attitude to icons that is shaped by a few quotations from John Damascene and a slightly mystified respect. The icon is increasingly recognised as a highly sophisticated theological product, and understanding what is 'going on' in iconography increasingly sheds light on a range of significant questions about the body, about knowledge of God, about the nature of truthful representation of the divine and so on. And one important dimension of all this has been the greater availability in English of serious Orthodox studies such as the first of the books reviewed here. The 'Silver Age' of Russian intellectual life at the beginning of the 20th Century saw a renewed interest among visual artists in the iconographic tradition and a more focused theological approach; the heirs of Soloviev's religious philosophy, with its emphasis on the indwelling of creative divine wisdom in the material universe, had a good deal to say about iconography as a primary site of this wisdom, 'Sophia'.

Sergius Bulgakov was one of the foremost exponents of this philosophy, developing it with unique subtlety and originality. Although his long essay on the veneration of icons belongs to a relatively late stage in his career, it reflects long-standing concerns; and the translator very appropriately links it with an earlier essay on the Name of God, which sets out some of the principles of the divine indwelling in the world. God's presence in graceful action, shaping the stuff of the world into a fully communicative act/phenomenon, is what makes sense of the veneration both of the Divine Name (this was the subject of fierce theological controversy in the Russian church in the second decade of the 20th Century) and of the icon. In his reaction to those who regarded the Divine Name as simply a vehicle for the human mind to hold on to an intellectual truth about God, Bulgakov draws on the iconoclast controversy, comparing the critics of the veneration of the name with those who treated holy images as simply aids to reflection, devoid of inner life or agency. The icon in some sense stops being a human artefact when it is blessed for use: every icon is--as far as liturgical use is concerned--acheiropoietos, 'not made with hands', like those legendary images imprinted directly by divine action; every icon is 'wonderworking', a site of divine intervention.

There are many incidental insights that suggest long further thoughts--the landscape of iconography as showing a nature freed from the wrong kind of dependence on human subjectivity (because consistently non-picturesque, non-'psychologised'), human life as an irreducibly sign-making affair, in which the image of the divine sign-maker is revealed in the human capacity to discern and make visible the sign-character of an environment, the impossibility of the 'purely' material (intelligible form is what makes a body itself), and much more. It is a relatively brief book, but it contains a digest of some of the most complex and rich of modern Orthodox thinking --indeed, it could serve as a good introduction to Bulgakov's work as a whole.

But what it does not do is to help us 'read' an icon aesthetically. Tsakiridou summarises Bulgakov-like approaches in her early chapters and, without throwing them over entirely, notes that they do not give one any sense of how a specific icon works to declare or embody in its style and detail what it is about. Her substantial, often difficult, but deeply impressive book attempts to develop both a more adequate aesthetic for the icon and an ambitious theological and metaphysical underpinning for such a response. The argument draws in Hellenistic and Byzantine aesthetics, Russian Modernism, the theological aesthetics of Jacques Maritain, Maximus the Confessor and the theory of classical Chinese and Zen painting, and quite a lot more. In a nutshell, the argument is that simply saying that all icons are for practical purposes acheiropoietoi, irrespective of their artistic merits, risks losing the irreducible specificity of the artistic object. The Christian world is one in which particular identity is irreducible: not only are persons unique and eternally sustained centres of existence because they are in receipt of some specific communication from God (the creative logoi discussed by Maximus the Confessor), but the specificity of every aspect of the world has its ground in this 'focusing' of infinite divine creativity in point after point. Aesthetically, this is what the classical and Byzantine term enargeia means when used to characterise a reality, including an image, which is suffused by a sense of innate life and radiance. Tsakiridou points out that Byzantine descriptions of visual art appeal to 'lifelikeness' and visual energy no less than Hellenistic discussions; it should not be assumed that the more modern theological indifference to aesthetic quality is a traditional view in the Eastern Christian world. But what enargeia ultimately points to is that the artwork is itself, not a reproduction or imitation; something new has come into being. The relational but irreducible identity of the person is the best analogue we have for the irreducibility of the artwork, including the icon.

In the light of this basic position, she criticises Maritain's engagement with artistic Modernism on the grounds that he ends up treating the artwork as merely something that mediates between the artists' subjectivity and the beholder's. By appealing to the artist's ideal state of mind--infused by caritas--he dissolves the materiality and independence of the work. And this, she suggests, is a major theological problem, in that it implies a dangerously cavalier attitude to the ontology of both person and image--finite particulars participating in infinite self-bestowal. In this sense, Maritain stands closer to Pseudo-Dionysius than to Maximus--closer to an ontology in which finite particulars are almost arbitrary signs. A robustly Orthodox theology has to do better than this; but it can do so only by paying more attention than has usually been the case to what it is that embodies the life and agency that informs the image. There are excellent discussions of Feofan Grek and Rublev, and an illuminating comparison between Rublev's famous icon of the Saviour and a near-contemporary Greek example (see especially pp.264-5): Rublev works by diffusing highlights and softening the palette to produce an 'ethereal and irradiated quality'; the Greek icon sculpts the contours more energetically and the light seems to 'swell' from inside the face. But both possess enargeia, a visible containing of force and illumination within the formal structures of the image.

Some of the most interesting pages here deal with the parallels and differences with Buddhist art. The Chinese painting, the Zen brushwork, exemplify enargeia in other ways, but illustrate dramatically what this quality is. What distances them from the icon is not (as Maritain suggests) that Oriental art looks more to nature than history, but that the art of China or Japan witnesses always to transient presence, not hypostatic solidity: the Zen image catches a moment in which the stream of causality briefly freezes (not the right word here) in a perception, existence itself caught in a passing look; the icon in its solid but transparent form draws us into a logos that actively supports and shapes the perceived body and so gives it an energy sustained in time. Yet this contrast does not lead Tsakiridou to dismiss or underrate the spiritual seriousness of the Zen image, or to treat the contrast as a simple ideological zero-sum. There is an invitation to the iconographer or the iconographically educated Christian to experiment in something more like the Zen idiom; and there is more than one style of proper and spiritually fruitful aesthetic humility.

The ambition of this book is enormous and for the most part comes off brilliantly. It ought to spark some completely fresh discussions of aesthetics and ontology. There are some pages where there is rather too much going on, and the whole argument could benefit from some tighter editing; and the chapter on 'Theophany and Modernism', discussing especially Post-Impressionists and Suprematists, is especially hard going, with some very difficult pages on colour that would have benefited from clarification--a rare instance of Tsakiridou retreating into a impenetrable abstractions. I am not sure that she has done complete justice to Maritain, though she identifies clearly some of the problems with Maritain's lectures on Creative Intuition, the most wide-ranging and the most elusive of his writings on art and faith. Generally, the range of scholarship is remarkable, and the sections on Byzantine aesthetics and Maximus's metaphysics are quite admirable, using material that has received little theological attention as well as the more familiar passages of Maximus. The transliteration of the Greek is inconsistent in places, and there are passages where the inclusion of the original Greek in brackets is a little puzzling, as the translation is slightly out of alignment. As Tsakiridou ruefully acknowledges, the expense of a book with even more colour plates has prevented her from making the best use of illustration; there are images important to the argument that are not reproduced or reproduced in black and white only, and this makes for some frustration for the reader.

But overall, this is a real achievement. Without abandoning the sort of theological perspective Bulgakov sketches (indeed, she explains why the acheiropoietos language can indeed be applied to the iconic image once you see that the image is itself something 'emerging' from a logos-charged depth), she extends her exploration to a far wider range of examples and ideas. Formidable as the book is, it should be required reading for anyone seeking to grasp the aesthetics of the icon and their rootedness in a consistent and challenging Christian ontology --and anyone looking for a creative theological interaction with the art of the 20th Century.

Rowan Williams is Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge
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Title Annotation:Icons in Time, Persons in Eternity
Author:Williams, Rowan
Publication:Art and Christianity
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2013
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