A week off from algae, as I travel around Bulgaria on holiday. In between exploring mountains (and, I admit, pulling a toothbrush from my knapsack on a couple of occasions for a sneaky diatom sample), I have been learning about the intricacies of Eastern Orthodox icon painting, as a break from my normal scientific and artistic routines. My interest was piqued by a visit to the superb icon gallery at the National Museum of Art of Romania in Bucharest last year, though this mostly served to demonstrate how little I knew, either about icons or their context in Orthodox worship.
Context is important because, in our secular age, we are most likely to encounter religious art in a gallery rather than a church. My initial response to an icon, such as that in the image below, is to place it into a Western art historical context. I note the relatively simple modelling of the features, depicting archetypes of religious figures and the flat background. There is no attempt to place the figure in three-dimensional space, as most religious painters from the Renaissance onwards would have tried to do. They were trying to draw the viewers in, creating space inside the picture that encouraged them to engage with the subject matter. Painters of the Counter-Reformation, such as Rubens, went further, painting the protagonists in their religious paintings life size and dressing them in contemporary clothes to encourage viewers sense of participation.
An icon of Christ Pantocrator from the Bankso school of icon painters (late 18th / early 19th century) in southern Bulgaria. The image at the top of the post shows the iconostasis at Mānāstirea Stavropoleos, Bucharest, Romania.
By contrast, by flattening everything but the subject’s physiognomy, the Orthodox icon painter projects his subjects into our space, encouraging a different type of engagement. Orthodox Christianity has a strong tradition of contemplative prayer, in which knowledge of God is attained through meditative practices such as repetition of a meaningful word or short phrase. In this context, icons can serve as objects that help viewers to concentrate their minds while they step away from the everyday world and towards the divine realm. One manifestation of this is that there is typically more activity in an Orthodox Church, compared to a Catholic or Protestant church, outside of organised services, as worshippers make their own private devotions in front of icons.
This use of repeated phrases suggests parallels with eastern religions – the Hindu incantation “Om mani padme hum” being the best-known example. Look, too, at the right hand of Christ in the icon below. That, too, resembles the symbolic hand gestures – mudras – found in Hindu and Buddhist contemplative practices. Whether there is more than a superficial resemblance, in this particular instance, is a moot point. Christ’s hand is raised to confer a blessing on the viewer and the position of the fingers is related to this. They spell out “ICXC” – IhcoyC XpictoC, or “Jesus Christ”. The confusion with eastern practices arises, I suspect, from the way that the fourth finger is bent over to touch the thumb, similar to the Chin Mudrā.
On the other hand, there would have been ample opportunity for exchange of ideas along the Silk Road. Early Christianity extended much further east, and Buddhism further to the west before the rise of Islam. Diarmaid MacCulloch has suggested that the principle of monasticism, for example, may have been brought into the church by early missionaries returning from the east and, if this is the case, then it is possible that practices associated with monasticism would also have flowed east. And, equally, there is no reason to assume that the movement was entirely one-way or solely between Christianity and Buddhism. Our first reaction on walking into Rila monastery in southern Bulgaria was to notice the physical similarities with the huge Madrassas that we saw in Uzbekistan earlier this year (see “Reaching for the stars …“).
What we can see an Orthodox icon, in other words, is a product of time and place, only if we also recognise that time and place are continua, that ideas can flow and that there is a ‘natural selection’, of sorts, that selects and shapes these to fit local circumstances. Traveling broadens the mind, without a doubt, but sometimes you need to unload your preconceptions in order to free up the mind to see the world through fresh eyes.
The courtyard of Rila monastery in southern Bulgaria with the Church of the Nativity on the right.