Secular icons?

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I’ve got two pictures on display as part of an exhibition at Durham University Botanic Gardens, both showing abstract or semi-abstract views of algae.  One is my sextych of the alga Apatococcus(see “Little round green things …”) and the other is a triptych based on Haematococcus, an alga which I wrote about in “An encounter with a green alga that is red” back in 2013.   Both pictures were painted for my final degree show back in 2008 and both addressed questions about the boundaries between abstract and representational art.

The point that I was trying to make with these images is that the boundary between abstract and representational art depends partly on what the viewer knows about the subject matter and, in the case of algae, this is usually not very much.  In cases such as these, the legend becomes very important as a means of bridging the gap between abstraction and reality by providing just enough information to help viewers make sense of the content (see “How to win the Hilda Canter-Lund Prize (2)”).   In the case of microscopic images, this should always include some indication of scale, written in terms that non-biologists can easily understand (I would always write “1/100thof a millimetre”, rather than “10 micrometres”, for example).

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Haematococcus. Triptych.   2008 50 x 130 cm Acrylic, resin and PVA on canvas.

This issue of viewers being able to “unlock” the meaning of images extends beyond the abstract/representational boundary that I encounter when displaying images of the microscopic world.  Exactly the same challenges occur when, for example, secular western Europeans look at eastern Orthodox icons, a subject that occasionally creeps into this blog (see, for example, “Unorthodox icons”.   My own curiosity about this art form led me to spend a week studying icon painting at the Quaker College in Woodbrooke, in the suburbs of Birmingham.  About ten minutes away from Woodbrooke there is the Serbian Orthodox church of St Lazar (built after the second world war by Yugoslav refugees with financial support from the Cadbury family, the Quaker philanthropists who also established Woodbrooke).

I talked a little about the practice of icon painting in “The art of icons …”.  Today, I am more interested in the symbolism.   A secular westerner can look at many of the icons I’ve depicted and broadly catagorise the contents: most would recognise that Fr Nenad, the priest of the Selly Oak Orthodox church, is holding an icon that depicts the crucifixion, for example, or that the icon just to the left of the centre of the doors in the iconostasis in the lower image depicts the Virgin and Child.  However, the symbolism goes much deeper.   I have a spotter’s guide to icons (sad, I know …) and it lists twenty eight different variants on the basic depiction virgin and child, differing in the physical relationship of Mary and Jesus, their facial expressions and the setting.  Each of these have a slightly different meaning for the Orthodox faithful.   The westerner sees “virgin” and “child”, the eastern Orthodox devotee sees so much more.

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The Serbian Orthodox Church of the Holy Prince Lazar in Selly Oak, Birmingham with, right, Father Nenad displaying an icon of the crucifixion. 

What’s all this got to do with painting algae, you may ask.   Scientific illustratation and icon painting are two branches of applied art, where the subject matter serves a higher purpose.  Both, in their own way, try to help viewers understand their place in the world.  If you are not religious, you may not be comfortable with this comparison but, for most of Europe, east and west, until the Enlightenment, this would have been the case.   In both cases, however, the image cannot be viewed in isolation, the viewer needs the appropriate “keys” to unlock meaning.   Even then, the viewer is not a passive observer.   The icon requires a response from the viewer, it is the focus for contemplation and meditation and, I suggest, scientific images, when displayed as “art” should play a similar role, inviting viewers to reflect upon the mysteries of the natural world and demanding a response.

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The iconostasis at the Serbian Orthodox Church in Selly Oak.

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Unorthodox icons …

Towards the end of my most recent trip to Bucharest I came across, almost by chance, the Art Collections Museum, located on Calea Victoriei about 10 minute walk north from the National Museum of Art.  It brings together a number of collections that have been acquired by the state over the years, keeping each intact so that they reflect the taste of the original owners rather than reassembling them into broader thematic groupings.  On the day of my visit it was almost deserted, with attendants outnumbering visitors, despite this being the first Wednesday of the month, meaning that admission was free.   Their eyes followed me as I browsed, and their footsteps tracked mine through the empty rooms.

A museum such as this inevitably has some parts that enthral whilst other parts that fail to enthuse me. Highlights for me were the expressionist art of Alexandru Phoebus and the odalisques of Iosef Iser, both artists I had not previously encountered who had brought emerging ideas back from Paris and Berlin.   Then I walked into a room with a wall closely-hung with some very striking icons.  Two aspects struck me: their luminosity and the almost cartoon-nature of the scenes.  Imagine what Roy Lichtenstein might have produced were he to have brought his Pop Art sensibilities to religious subject matter.   The luminosity, I discovered, was because they had been painted on glass – a practice that arrived in the largely Catholic area of Transylvania from Hungary in the late 18thcentury.  This period coincided with the destruction of Orthodox monasteries and, with this, the loss of traditional icon painting skills.   Glass painting was, initially, a secular art form but, over time, it became a medium for religious imagery, initially drawing on Catholic representations of religious themes but gradually returning to Orthodox themes.

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Three glass icons from the Art Collections Museum in Bucharest.

The Catholic influence is apparent in the narrative content of some of the images that I’ve included here (see the Lamentation over the Dead Christ on the right-hand side of the top row and the centre of the bottom row, and the Last Supper on the left-hand side of the bottom row). Compare these with more traditional icons (see, for example, “The art of icons …”).   The middle image on the upper row is the Mystical Winepress, drawing on the metaphor of Christ as the true vine (Isaiah 27:2-5, John 15:1).  At the bottom right there is a rather strange-looking image of a figure with three faces but just four eyes).  This is a depiction of the Holy Trinity: God being simultaneously three persons and one.  It is also the image, of those I have chosen to depict, closest in style to traditional Orthodox icons.

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More icons on glass from the Art Collections Museum in Bucharest.

It is hard for a modern viewer, steeped in the visual culture of the 20thand 21stcenturies, to appreciate the impact of these images.  These were produced at a time when painters in western Europe were preoccupied with realism and capturing the dynamism of the world around them.   These are pared-back, almost cartoon-like depictions.  On the one hand, they are folk art, produced by artists without formal training; yet, at the same time, they are depicting such familiar subjects (for the audiences) that a suggestion of the subject matter is all that is needed.  Icons on the wall of a gallery are divorced from their context and analysing them in terms of visual representation does not do them justice. Icons in a church or in the home of an Orthodox believer are catalysts to deep spiritual experiences and can achieve this without sophisticated painting techniques.   Jesus, in Matthew’s Gospel, says we have to “become like children” (18:3) and, remembering how cartoons were able to draw me into imaginative worlds when I was young, perhaps it should not be a surprise that such apparently simple images make effective icons.