"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).

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Aidan Hart on His Splendid New Book about Icons

I was both delighted and dismayed when I received Aidan Hart's newest book, Icons in the Modern World: Sprint, Matter and Beauty (Gracewing, 2014; 288pp.) in the mail: delighted because it is a fantastic book that immediately deserves a place in every library concerned about iconography; but dismayed because the irritating bureaucracy that now surrounds so much of our life made me order books for my fall course back in January. So I couldn't get my students to read this in my course on iconography, but I will definitely adopt it when I teach the class next--if, that is, the publisher finally gets its act together and gets more copies printed and available here in North America. I contacted Aidan for this interview several months back, and have held off running it here while I cajoled the publisher and others into trying to get some copies available on this side of the Atlantic. So far, Amazon.com is showing only one copy, but if you all flood Amazon and demand copies, perhaps that will finally rouse Gracewing from its torpor to get some shipped over here.

This book's virtues are several: there are, of course, dozens of lovely colour plates of his own icons as well as other artwork; and then the chapters are meaty, substantial theological reflections (e.g., on the renewal of sacred art, on beauty and the gospel, on theological anthropology, beauty and the grotesque, and the relationship between sacred and profane art) that would challenge any undergraduate with at least a basic background in theology.

I contacted Aidan, whom I interviewed here about his last book, about this new work of his and here are his thoughts:

AD: Tell us what led you from your last book, which we spoke about on the blog several years ago, to this one. What were you hoping to accomplish with this latest book? 

Aidan Hart: The last book, Techniques of Icon and Wall Painting, was primarily a technical manual for icon painters. I felt the need to write for a wider readership, and to explore contemporary issues as seen through the theology of the icon. For many years I have been very interested in the  way Orthodox theology unites matter and spirit, creation and Creator, and the implications that this has for our understanding of the human person. With its theological treasures, Orthodox Church is under the obligation of love to do all that it can to address contemporary issues, using the wisdom it has accrued over the centuries. So I set out to write a few words about subjects which deal with the relationship of matter and spirit, such as ecology, the nature of beauty, the nature of the human person, abstract art, the meaning of tradition, and the renewal of liturgical art.

AD: Your introduction mentions that in any initial discussions of icons, the worldview which proclaims matter to be good attracts the viewer's attention as it "resonates with our innermost being" (p.5). Tell us a bit more what you mean by that.

AH: Some of the Church Fathers distinguish between our being in the image and the likeness of God. They say that while likeness to God is acquired to the extent that a person walks in the way of Christ, every person, whether or not they believe it, is in God's image. This latter means that truth will resonate with every person's innermost being. How clearly it will resonate admittedly depends on the person's degree of purity - their likeness to God. But nevertheless, truth and virtue are natural to the human person because thy are made in God's image, while falsehood and vice are unnatural. Each person is a union of matter and spirit, soul and body, and our day to day experience shows us how intimately these are bound together.  

AD: You speak of icons as providing a "radical way of seeing" (p.2). Seeing what, and how, and why? 

I have always been enthralled by the story of Moses seeing the bush burning without being consumed, and of Christ's transfiguration. Although we know that this world is fallen, it is still 'upheld by the word of God's power'. Each thing is not only created by a word of the Word, a logos from the Logos, but is directed and sustained by that living word. To the degree that we are purified, we see and hear and feel this indwelling word within each thing. We see the world burning with God's presence yet not consumed. 'The pure in heart shall see God', not just in heaven but through creation. We have a foretaste of Paradise when we see the world imbued with this light and fire, hear the still small voice within each rock, tree and creature. That is the 'what' of your question. How do icons help us see in this radical way? They cannot of course compel us, but they can help. First, the fact that Orthodox kiss icons as a means of honouring the person depicted creates an attitude of veneration towards the whole material world, because we see it as a revelation of divine love, and not just as dead matter. This attitude of thanksgiving recapitulates the world in Christ; we see the cosmos as a garment, or even body, of Christ. Second, the way that icons are painted have a gradual effect on our vision of the world. They are a sort of infra-red camera, allowing us to see energies that are otherwise invisible to the natural eye. The way light comes from within things in an icon stimulate us to look for this light in real life.  

AD: You note that this book, a collection of essays, is concerned with several things including the "insight that icons offer on the contemporary liturgical renewal of art." Especially for Roman Catholics (and others) concerned about renewing their own liturgical tradition after 50 years of change, what iconographical insights would you offer them and others as especially germane? 

I think that the first thing that my Catholic brethren need to consider in relation to liturgical arts, is that it is not only important what is depicted, but how this theme is depicted. This 'how' often has more impact on our soul than the 'what'. From around the time of Italian the Renaissance western Christendom has tended to leave it to artists to decide how they will depict sacred themes. Consequently, the faithful have been at the mercy of current art trends, many of which have no aim to create an atmosphere and state of soul conducive to prayer and worship. I am not saying that the Byzantine way of painting - whatever that is! - is the only way to paint liturgical art. But I am saying that every formal, stylistic element of  liturgical art, be it visual, musical or architectural, must aim to show the world transfigured and to create the right state of soul conducive to prayer. Otherwise, is it worthy to be called liturgical art? This is to say that iconographer should endlessly copy existing works, but that until the Catholic Church establishes clear theological principles to guide its liturgical artists, then its current interest in icons will be a passing fad. The chapter in the book outlines what I think some of these essential principles are. The second related issue regarding the liturgical renewal of the visual arts is the question: What is reality? Liturgical art should be realistic in that it is truthful, but what is the true and highest state of the human person and the world that we are trying to depict in an icon? For the Orthodox this highest state for a human person is unequivocally to be deified, and the material world to be transfigured. Now, although this teaching is implicit in Roman Catholic teaching, I think it is fair to say that it is not so much in the forefront as it is for the Orthodox. This in turn has meant its liturgical art has tended towards naturalism; realism had been equated with naturalism. Or when there has been a reaction against this naturalism,  abstraction has lurched far in the other direction, away from the natural.  

AD: You argue that icons "challenge us and lay bare our inner state" (p.5). Tell us a bit more what you mean by that.  

The world view, the tradition, that produces well painted icons is the world view of the saints. For the icon tradition is prophetic in that it depicts the world seen from the divine perspective and not merely the human. Hence the variety of strange perspective systems that the icon uses, such as multi-view perspective in which an object is depicted seen simultaneously from many view points, as God 'sees' it. To a secular mind this vision of the world seems weird and unreal, to distort reality. But such a critique of the icon is in fact a critique of the critic. It says as much about their own world view as about the icon. Christ crucified, and icons, are 'a stumbling block to Jews and folly to the Gentiles' (1 Cor. 1: 23).  

AD: You conclude your introduction with a charming story about people in a gallery trying to judge an icon, only to have them told that is in fact the icon which judges us. How is that so?

True judgement is simply reflecting back the truth, not condemning. The icon is like a saint, only in two dimensions. The saint is.  He or she just loves Christ. All his or her words and deeds come out of this inner state of  being, an attitude of adoration and worship. Like the saint, the icon just is. It depicts in its style as well as in its subject matter a world shoot through with the glory of God. It is a world in which both suffering and joy are affirmed, but in which joy has the final word. This paradisiacal life is divine, and as such cannot be comprehended by the rational faculty alone. It is not irrational, but it is certainly more than what the rational brain can comprehend. And so when someone rejects the icon's world as unreal, they are revealing in fact that they are operating merely as 'soulish' person and not a spiritual person. As St Paul writes, 'The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned' (1 Corinthians 2:14). The original Greek usually translated as 'unspiritual man' or 'natural man' is 'psuchikos', which literally translated means 'soulish man'. Paul refers here to people who operate only in the realm of the soul, meaning just the rational faculty, body and emotions, and have not raised these faculties into the realm of the spirit to become what he calls in the next verse a 'spiritual man', a 'pneumatikos'. A natural man is not necessarily an evil or bad person, but one not yet deified, not yet illuminated by the Holy Spirit.

AD: Strikingly, you title your second chapter "The Fresh Air of Tradition," which is not, I daresay, how many people may conceive of it. Tradition, rather, is thought to be stultified, stale, stuffy, stifling. What is fresh here as you understand the role of Christian tradition?  

Without reference to something higher we are slaves to our limited world view. We are free from outside influences, so we think, but are in fact limited to ourselves. A broken branch is free from its mother tree, but it is going to die. Holy tradition, on the other hand, opens the individual to an expansive world, a world of holiness. Also, the human person, being made in the image of the Holy Trinity, is made for relationship. Tradition is merely a word for relationship with the saints who have gone before and who are well and alive in Christ.

Besides, everyone's world view is an extension of some tradition, and we delude ourselves if we think that we can create or act ex nihilo, in a vacuum devoid of any outside influences. The choice therefore is not between having a tradition or not, but which tradition we place ourselves under.  

AD: As a teacher I was especially taken with the aptness of your argument that university students are often "suspicious of tradition in art yet embrace it in science." Why do you think that is? Why do we praise the "cutting edge" artist but think that if you are following, say, Orthodox conventions safeguarding the making of an icon that you are somehow "stifled"?

This is a very important point. I think it is rooted in the fact that loss of faith in God has led to heresy regarding the nature of the human person. Post Modernism has lost faith in absolutes regarding anything but the material world, hence the hegemony of science. And so the artist, who is in a real sense a philosopher expressing his world view in matter rather than writing, is left with no objective truth to seek and reveal. He or she is subsequently only allowed to explore but not to find, experiment but not to conclude, challenge but not to suggest alternatives. If, on the other hand, one has a clear vision of deified man in Christ as the highest end of humankind, then as an artist you know what you are trying to achieve. And so, like a scientist, you experiment but with an objective. And a good iconographer will experiment with new designs, colour combinations and so on. But he or she will measure the results against the objective reality of Christ. Does this or that colour combination accord with life in Christ?  If so, I will use it. If not, I will discard it. The wonderful thing with iconography is that the realities that we are trying to indicate happen to be infinitely glorious and wonderful. They provide endless scope for creative new expression. We are slaves to a magnanimous Master! Every sensible person, be they scientist, craftsperson or artist, wants to learn all they can from their forebears. You then add your bit, like a shoot springing from a big tree.  

AD: I greatly cheered your noting how often East-West discussions of art and iconography degenerate into polemics and caricature, and was very glad your book is free of that. Equally I was glad you did not romanticize the tradition, but instead openly acknowledged that "the icon tradition does in fact change and adapt all the time" (p.71). Give us some examples of healthy change and adaptation you are seeing today in the icon tradition.  

My iconographic muse is Archimandrite Zenon (Teodor). Although we have never met (though we did correspond once), I have been following his work since 1989. He is constantly, even restlessly, searching for new inspiration from different Christian cultures and epochs as well as his indigenous Russian tradition; early Christian, Roman, Romanesque, early Byzantine, Armenian. And he adapts his style and designs to the place for which he paints. Father Gregory Krug is another example of someone entirely within the tradition and yet unique. His unusual personality  (he suffered most of his life from depression) and natural artistic gift, was transfigured by his monastic life to create compassionate, modern iconography which was fearless yet humble. Sadly I have seen few examples of church architecture which have, to my mind, successfully drawn on the best of modem architecture. This is  a field to be developed yet. In general, I think that we Orthodox need to be more intelligent and thinking about how we live out our lives in the 21st century. Having armed ourselves with a deep knowledge of the timeless principles of the faith and the tradition, we need to be more confident. One need only look at the vast range of work within Byzantium and across Russia to see how confident past Orthodox cultures have been in learning from what is around them, then adapting and affirming. As Archimandrite Vasileios of Iviron monastery used to tell me, there are epochs where it is difficult to get this wrong, and there are others where it is difficult to get it right. We are definitely in the latter category, but we need to try our best.  

AD: Tell us a bit about the connections you see, especially in your fourth chapter, between iconography and ecology.  

In Christ 'it is always Yes. For all the promises of God find their Yes in him' (2 Cor 1:19). I think that if a culture the Church is trying to address worships an idol them start with that idol and make it transparent to God. Our materialistic age adores matter, so we need to make matter transparent for it, show that what a materialist loves in the material world is in fact an image of God's love, beauty, wisdom, and expansive creativity. Ecology is a case in point. Because Christianity is based on the incarnation - the creator becoming creature- it cannot but have a tremendous amount to say about ecology. I think ecology is to the 21st century man what the inscription to an unknown God was the Athenians at the time of St Paul. When he was at the Areopagus (Acts 17:16-34), despite his indignation at all the idols he saw, Paul began his preaching by affirming the partial good that the Athenians believed in, the inscription to an Unknown God, and then proceeded from there.  Although secular ecology doesn't acknowledge our dependence on God, it does at least acknowledge the interdependence of everything on earth and of earth with the rest of the cosmos.

The icon is micro-ecology, in that the icon painter takes representatives of the whole of creation and transforms them into a bearer of divine grace. He or she takes pigments form the mineral kingdom, wood from the vegetable kingdom, and egg for the animal. As a priest, king and prophet of the creation, the iconographer then transforms these things, respecting each material's unique character but lifting it also to a higher plane, making it more articulate in the praise of God. As such, this making process is both industrial and affirmative, conservationist but also transformationist. As an icon painter I love to use natural pigments. I need to listen to each pigment, know what it can and cannot do. I have learned to look before I make. This attitude of contemplation is fundamental to our ecological crisis. Because we in our consumerist society have forgotten how to feed our souls through contemplation of nature, we effectively treat the cosmos as dead raw material to be fodder for factories. Consumerism is the inevitable disease of  a non-contemplative society. A soul deprived of spiritual food will seek the temporary titillation of buying something new. Until we make our society more contemplative it will have an aching belly and try to satisfy itself by consuming ever more. The icon can help to nurture this contemplative spirit.  

AD: Your sixth and longest chapter is on "beauty and the gospel." Tell us a bit about the connections you see between those two.  

When I was an evangelical Christian I was very struck by Don Richardson's book Peace Child: An Unforgettable Story of Primitive Jungle Treachery in the 20th Century. He and his wife with their child went to live among the cannibalistic Sawi tribe of  what was then Dutch New Guinea. Having learned the language, Don and his wife Carol discovered how extremely difficult it was to communicate the gospel to the Sawi because betrayal was a virtue for them, so much so that in the Gospel story Judas was the hero and Jesus the dupe to be laughed at. But eventually they discovered one tradition among the otherwise warring tribes that provided a way in. The one trust Sawifs would never betray was the exchange of a child between tribes. As long as this freely offered 'peace child' lived, the two tribes would not fight. On this basis, Don began to teach Christ as the peace child, and eventually many of the Sawi people converted. Richardson came to call this principle of incipient truths in each culture 'redemptive analogies'. 

A missionary needs to find and then speak through such analogies. These are images and realities that the people already believe in and which are types of the gospel. I think beauty is one such redemptive analogy for the modern man. For too long in the West discourse about God, sin and redemption has been expressed in legal terms: God sets laws; mankind transgresses them and so must be punished; Christ is punished in our place, and so on. Besides being a very limited view, this Satisfaction Theory of atonement, as it is called, presents a rather ambiguous picture of God the Father. I believe a more accurate, more Orthodox and more communicative image is provided via beauty: Mankind is made in the beautiful image of God and is called to be transfigured, together with the whole material world of which it is priest; man tries to go it alone and so looses much of this beauty and the opportunity of deification; the Logos unite Himself to our fallen nature and thereby reinvigorates it with His divinity and conquers death; through faith and repentance, mankind can be restored to its ancient beauty and become even more radiant still with the indwelling Holy Spirit.  

AD: I was glad to see your next chapter on "beauty and the grotesque" so that Christians are not mistakenly thought to be "mere aesthetes." Why was this an important chapter to include after the previous one? What message were you trying to convey?  

The grotesque operates on many levels. If beauty has any role in the spiritual life it is to awaken us and thereby open our eyes to see more deeply. The grotesque can awaken us by its shock value.  The sublime and awe value of beauty can be lessened if we know nothing but elegant proportion. But, by its marked contrast, occasional encounter with the grotesque reminds us of beauty’s specialness. The grotesque also reminds us that beauty is achieved and is not easy; one adjustment to proportion and things loose their balance of form. The grotesque also hints at the beauty of content independent of the beauty of outer form. In the film The Elephant Man, and I believe too in real life, the physically deformed Joseph Merrick is grotesque in outward form but beautiful of spirit in his inner man. The beauty of his character shines all the more brilliantly in the face of his grotesque outward deformity. Another aspect of the grotesque in nature, I believe, is that it is an expression of divine humour and playfulness. It is an example of the vast variety within God's scheme. The sloth and the gazelle are brethren, and the slug and the swan are in the same drama. God loves to surprise us by both joy and mirth, the yes and the question, the clear and the perplexing.
AD: Sum up your hopes for Icons in the Modern World: Sprint, Matter and Beauty

I hope that its essays, which are more excursions into territory than detailed mappings, will encourage others more bright and informed than myself to make more in-depth explorations into the fields that it touches on. It is my little attempt to prod the Orthodox Church to engage in a more positive, frank and nuanced way with contemporary issues than it is tending to. We need to avoid uninformed generalisations. We need to seek out all that is good or partially good in our secular society, and on the other to seek deeper causes for the malaise that assail it. If we are to bring the Gospel to more people, we need to find appropriate mediums and images which strike a chord. We can't be lazy and parrot great truths using moribund terminology or metaphors.  So I hope that this book will help in some little way to stimulate  more of this work.  

AD: Any projects you are at work on now--icons, books, articles?  

Chapel of Gonville & Caius, Cantab.
There is always a pile of commissioned work to complete, about two years ahead at present. I now have a full-time assistant and apprentice, and have trained some others to help in other aspects, such as icon panel making and gilding, so this helps a lot. I have recently finished a large Annunciation icon for Caius College, Cambridge, and am working on two large icons to go on a splendid hand wrought iron screen for an Anglican church in London. I am designing and having made furniture for the Catholic chapel in Cambridge University. 

Earlier this year, my assistant and I completed a seven foot high stone carving of the Mother of God for Lincoln Cathedral. The aim was to make this fully modeled three dimensional sculpture work like an icon, rather than be merely a work of art. Judging by the response it seems to be working! It is polychromed, and for the design I drew on both the Byzantine icon tradition (particularly the icon type, 'Our Lady of the Sign') and on the Romanesque carving tradition. 

I am hoping to have confirmed soon two large mosaic commissions for an Orthodox church in Texas. I am toying with ideas for a third book. Any ideas from yourself!? I like the essay tradition, in part because writing essays fits comfortably into the demands of my icon work. But more importantly, the compactness of an essay has affinities with the icon. An essay can evoke an image, a wholeness, without collapsing under the weight of detail. The trick is to have enough substance for the argument to have gravitas, but not zoom into detail so much that the picture is lost in pixels seen too close. One area that interests me a lot is the relationship of science, particularly physics, and religious vision. This may well be one subject explored in the next book. Many of the more 'esoteric' discoveries in science, such as Einstein's theory of relativity and quantum field theory, have been intuited in religion, albeit evident only in hindsight. If, for example, Christians believe that time is created, which we do, then time must be relative. Only God is not relative. We should not therefore be surprised to find that under certain conditions (movement close to the speed of light, and extreme gravitational force) time slows down. And if man, and indeed all creation to some extent, is made in the image of God the Holy Trinity, then relationship must be at the heart of creation, and therefore of all scientific models. It is not therefore surprising that there appears to be no single subatomic particle, but rather a community of them: quarks, leptons, neutrinos, bosons, and the graviton, gluon, and photon. And regarding the relationship of nature and person and the character of theological discourse we see some parallels with quantum field theory. This theory says that all particles arise out of fields, be it the electromagnetic field, gravitational field, the Boson field or whatever other field. Quantum mechanics says that particles are tiny vibrations or waves in these fields. Whether a particle appears as a particle or a wave depends on how, or rather if, we look. As one writer, Aatish Bhatia succinctly put it: 'Don't look: waves. Look: particles.' In other words, the essence of reality is waves, but when we try to observe them they appear as particles. This is the guts of quantum mechanics.

Perhaps there is a parallel between this quantum field theory and the reality of human nature and human personhood? Personhood is specific, 'compressed', particular, like a particle. And yet the particular person can only exist because there is a single human nature (a human 'field'). And, like quantum mechanics, what we need to emphasize in a particular human circumstance depends on what we are trying to achieve - do we  emphasise nature/fields or person/particles. A totalitarian regime denies the value of the individual against the state, and therefore personhood needs to be emphasized. An individualistic society, on the other hand, will need to hear more about the one human nature that unites everyone, that makes the person possible, and inspires compassion. If I am right, that there is a certain reflection of spiritual realities in physical laws, then might it be possible to speed up scientific discoveries if scientists were to look for insights within the teachings of tried and tested spiritual traditions? And, conversely, might not we Christians find fresh ways of articulating spiritual truths by looking within newly discovered theories of physics? Christ often illustrated His teachings using agricultural experiences that were familiar to his listeners. Today, as more lay people become familiar with modern scientific discoveries, might not the Church fruitfully use these to illustrate spiritual truths?

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