"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, March 2, 2012

Aidan Hart on Iconography

I drew attention last year to the publication of Aidan Hart's new book Techniques of Icon and Wall Painting, some details of which are available hereAs you will see on his website, this book carries some weighty endorsements from, inter alia, Met. Kallistos Ware, the Prince of Wales, and Sr. Wendy Beckett, whose recent charming book on proto-Coptic and ante-iconoclastic icons I reviewed hereI asked Aidan for his thoughts on iconography and his book, and here they are:

AD: Tell us a bit about your background 

I was born in England in 1957 but raised in Auckland, New Zealand. I did a degree in English literature and mathematics and then trained as a secondary school teacher. But at the age of twenty-one I  followed my inclination to become a professional sculptor. It was not such an unusual thing to follow a career in the arts, since, although my father was a civil engineer by profession, he taught sculpting at night school, and there have been many artists on both his and my mother's side of the family. I was seeking to create sculptures that reflected the image of God in man, that united the material and spiritual aspects of his being. This, and a search for deeper prayer, eventually led me to the Orthodox Church, of which I became a member  in 1983. 

At the same time I decided to explore the monastic vocation. To this end the Orthodox monk in New Zealand who baptized me advised me to travel overseas and explore the wider Orthodox world. So I travelled through the USA and Europe, and then settled in Britain. From 1984 onwards I began carving and then painting icons professionally. Visits to Russia, and a year travelling in Greece while studying modern Greek in Thessalonica, all formed part of my training in iconography.

For twelve years I was a rasophor monk (an intermediate stage at which vows have not yet been taken). At first I was with a Welsh monk in Wales, and then, after eighteen months training at Iviron Monastery on
Iviron Monastery
Mount Athos, lived for over six years as a hermit in Shropshire, England. All through this period I was occupied with the traditional cycle of services and cell prayer, as well as iconography, receiving guests, writing articles, reading the Church Fathers, and tending the land.

In 2000, after much soul searching, I decided to leave the hermitage to concentrate on my work as an iconographer "in the world." While working on commissions for icon panels, frescoes, and carving in wood and stone, I began running two five-day icon courses a year. Soon after I was asked by Prince Charles to be the visiting tutor in iconography for Master's students at his Prince’s School of Traditional Arts (PSTA) in London. The teaching for PSTA involved only one week a year, and so I eventually developed a more in-depth course for students of iconography, the Diploma in Icon and Wall Painting. This is a four-year, part-time course. The book in part came out of this teaching experience. While concentrating on fulfilling icon commissions, I have also enjoyed writing articles and giving talks on iconography, the spiritual life, Orthodoxy and the arts and ecology. In 2002 I got married, and we now have two young children.

Aidan Hart at work
AD: What led you to write this book?

A number of factors. It seemed an efficient way of explaining icon techniques and the theology of icons to my own students and those of other teachers. I also wanted to create a book that would have a lot of new material for the more experienced painter.  Iconography can be an insular experience, and so I wanted the book to offer stimulation and new ideas to professional iconographers as well as learners. I also wanted to show that the icon tradition is living, that there is a variety of ways of achieving the same spiritual aims. Finally, but perhaps most importantly, I wanted to contribute what I could to fostering the gradual development of an authentic western icon tradition. To do this meant identifying what was timeless and what was cultural in the rich history of Orthodox iconography.

AD: For whom did you write the book--did you have a particular audience in mind?

I wanted the book to be both "shallow" enough for beginners to wade in and deep enough for the experienced to dive into. Besides this aim, while the main target audience was the practitioner, I included much material to make the book valuable for those non-practioners interested just in the theology, theory, and history of the icon. Seven of the sixteen chapters fall into this category. 

AD: Were there any surprises as you were writing--unexpected discoveries, developments you were not expecting?

I had always been interested in the methods used in the Pompeii frescoes to see if these could be applied to church wall painting. The book provided a reason to spend time searching for scientific papers on these methods. 

Modern technology has unveiled a lot of new material, and sometimes contradicted unquestioned assumptions. I was particularly interested in the methods revealed by recent research to have been used to paint the famous 13th century frescoes at the Protaton, Mt. Athos. Though begun in fresco, from the beginning lime water and an animal glue (probably egg) were added to the pigment so that a seamless continuity was obtained between the stages of fresco and secco (painting on dry plaster). My research into Orthodox church architecture and wall painting, East and West, confirmed to me just how creative and responsive the designers were to theological and local demands. This is something that is vital to understand when designing contemporary churches.

AD: I have noted on the blog many times that there seems to be today an explosion of interest in icons and iconography,  with publications from academic and religious presses, including not just Orthodox but also Protestant and Roman Catholic publishers. Why do you think there is such widespread interest today?

There are many reasons. One is that Roman Catholicism has tended to give artists who work for churches much freer reign than the Orthodox tradition has. While this has some good points, it has tended to leave RC church art more susceptible to secular trends, or to become sentimentalized. The resurgent interest in Orthodox iconography is in part a recognition of it having retained deeper roots in a spiritual vision. The return to traditional iconography is itself a relatively recent phenomenon in Orthodox countries--beginning in the end of the 19th century in Russia when icons began to be cleaned, and in the latter half of the 20th century in Greece through Photius Kontoglou. It was inevitable that this trend would eventually reach non-Orthodox Christians and western scholarship.

Orthodox worship has retained an intimate connection between its visual liturgical arts and its theology, one interpreting and illuminating the other. This has provided a rich source of knowledge for theologians. The image reveals some things that the word cannot, and vice versa. It has brought back the category of the beautiful to theology, and more profoundly, the centrality of man's deification and of all creation's transfiguration.

The icon speaks the language of the spirit, expressed through matter. This union of matter and spirit is something the modern man yearns for. This search is perhaps all the more desperate as our ecological crisis proves that as a civilization we are not getting right this relationship of spirit and matter.

AD: At the same time today conflicts over images also seem more widespread, especially in Islam. Iconoclasm, far from being an 8th-century problem, seems a perennial challenge. Why do so many people seem conflicted over images--including Christians?

Islam emerged from a confusion of polytheism, and responded with a simpler and, it hoped, a clearer "black and white" way. Because images can be misused, they decided to ban them. Also, on a more theological note, Moslems had to refute Christian icons as heretical because Christians defended icons of Christ as affirmations that Christ is God become visible in the flesh, something which Islamic teaching refutes. 

John the Grammarian whitewashing an icon of Christ
The human person is by nature an image/icon-producing and -using creature. It is not therefore a matter of whether or not he uses images, but of what images he uses and how he uses them. An iconoclast Protestant for example, still treats the Bible-- rightly--as an icon, will be happy to have secular portraits, and probably watches television! 

Any image we create reflects what our ideals are. This is true of individuals and of whole cultures. The conflict, then, is not so much over images as such, but over the ideals  held by those individuals or cultures and incarnate in their images. So to some, an icon is an unreal and fantastical idealisation because it shows people shining with light. But to an Orthodox Christian, it reflects reality and the natural way God intended us to be. To a Muslim who does not believe in the Incarnation, images of Christ are naturally sacrilege; to a Christian who believes in the incarnation, these same images honour God.

AD: Many of my students are Western creative arts students, and for them the idea that painting an icon involves personal askesis and fidelity to a received tradition, in which the personality of the artist is heavily downplayed, is very difficult for them to accept. How do you understand the tension between being faithful to a received tradition of icon-making and your own personal skill, insights, or creative desires?

I think that being a fully alive person ultimately involves knowing God, becoming like Him in whose image we are made. This process of deification expands and fulfils all our faculties, rather than restricting them. This relationship is one of love and relationship, of personalism rather than individualism. Much (though by no means all) of modern art has come from individualism rather than personalism. This means that tradition is viewed as a threat and restriction rather than as nourishment and wisdom.

So to answer your question, I feel that my own "personal skill, insights, and creative desires" are fully used in the service of expressing in icons such a sublime and deep thing as the human person's transfiguration. Using these personal attributes is actually part of the tradition rather than in conflict with it. They only enter into conflict with the tradition when I am using them to seek self-aggrandisement, fame, or novelty for its own sake.

Having said this, liturgical art is not of course the only legitimate form of art. There are those who wish to create works for the gallery or aesthetic delectation or for political ends. Clearly, different parameters apply here, although I still think that humility, truth, authenticity, love, and courage should all have a central place in these these art forms. And I think that art history has proven that lasting newness and freshness in art is always a plant grown in the soil of the past rather than a meteor from outer space. 

AD: What has influenced you as an iconographer in the 21st century? Do you see any general trends in iconography in our time that will set it apart from what has preceded it?

Initially I was influenced by 14th/15th century Russian iconography. But then (perhaps the sculptor in me) I was drawn to the more modelled forms of Byzantine works. In the last 10 years the leading Russian iconographer Father Zenon (Theodor) has been my major inspiration. He has drawn from increasingly earlier and Byzantine models, as well as from early Roman works.

There are also some non-liturgical artists of the last two centuries that have been an inspiration rather than a direct influence on my work. The sculptor Constantine Brancusi is such a one, with his search for the essence of things. 

Regarding general trends, our post-modern epoch exposes us to art of all ages and cultures, through travel, exhibitions, and illustrations. This means that iconographers are exposed to a much greater variety of influences than ever before. This could be used to our advantage to synthesize something new and affirmative of the best things of our times.

However, I consider that the current revival in traditional iconography is still immature--we still tend to copy. We are learning iconography as a second language. We have not yet re-entered the depths of the tradition and the spiritual life to enable us to be "free within paradise." Archimandrite Vasileios, the abbot of Iviron monastery on Mt Athos, said to me that there are epochs where it is difficult to get it wrong, and there are epochs where it is difficult to get it right.

Another  contemporary trend is an attempt to revive elements of early western iconography--most notably Romanesque, Roman, Carolingian, Anglo-Saxon, and Celtic. This is a good way of helping us forge a way forward.

AD: In his book The Spirit of the Liturgy, Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, briefly raised but did not develop his thesis that Western Christianity has never truly received the teaching of Nicaea II in 787 and so there remains a latent stream of a kind of "soft" iconoclasm in much of Western Christianity. What are your thoughts on that?

Probably true, I think. Although the West affirmed Nicaea II, it seems to have done so on a more superficial level than the East. It seemed to restrict the use of images to a didactic role, as books for the illiterate. As long as the subject matter was religious, it was more or less left up to the artist how they depicted the subject matter. In the East, by contrast, there seems to have been an affirmation that the image can help initiate the viewer into a more spiritual way of seeing through the way it depicted things. The "style" had to be theologically informed as well as the subject matter. The soft iconoclasm among Christians in the West, I think, is in part a reaction against the secularisation of liturgical art allowed by this more laissez-faire Western approach.

Iconodule theologians in the East, such as St John of Damascus, also emphasised the matter-affirming nature of the incarnation and icons: "I worship God alone, but I will not cease to venerate the matter by which my salvation was effected." Icons were considered not just a tool to teach, but were themselves a fruit and affirmation of God's assumption of our flesh, and through His flesh, of all the material world. The use of icons, incense, and other material things in worship were therefore not considered optional extras but a natural continuation of the incarnation of God and the transfiguration of matter.

AD: Sum up briefly for us what the main contents and arguments of the book.

- The book provides all the practical instruction needed to make icons and wall paintings, from the design, preparation of pigments, gilding, panel making and egg tempera painting, to wall preparation and fresco. All this technical information is of equal use to the non-liturgical painter as well as for the iconographer.

- Throughout the text, as well as in separate chapters on history and theology, the book sets technical information in the context of the Church's spirituality.

-  Iconography is a tradition that the West possessed up until around the 13th/14th century and can revive, with the help of Eastern Christendom, as an authentic tradition. It can gradually re-develop its own unique but universal form of iconography, in which not only the subject matter but also the way it depicts this subject can reveal a transfigured world. The book lays the philosophical, theological, and technical foundations for this difficult but inspiring task ahead of us.

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed reading this interview! I recently looked through Hart's new book and am hoping to buy it soon. I have been studying iconography for two years and am one of the people you refer to that are interested in all of the new iconography books. Thanks for the hard work that goes into your blog.


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