A word about the Word - Julia Stankova
A word about the Word
by Julia Stankova
You will often encounter the word “iconography” in this text. This term includes the Byzantine church painting heritage and its varieties that have survived to this day. My idea of “iconography” is most strongly connected with the unique iconographic style formed on the Balkans. It is the expression of a specific cultural phenomenon, the result of the mutual penetration of Balkan sensitivity and Byzantine culture, which was forcibly interrupted by the Ottoman invasion in the 15th century. This iconographic language is prematurely considered to be dead. It is far from exhausted and instead of being used for “writing new sentences” it has been relegated to only “copying the old ones”. My hope is to shed new light on the nature of the Byzantine iconography and from there on its Balkan version, thus contributing to the realization of its meaning in European culture today.
In order to explain the nature of the Byzantine iconography, we have to go back to its source – the Holy Scripture. Iconography was born from the biblical text and because of that we cannot examine it separately from it. These two phenomena explicate one another in the process of their juxtaposition.
What is the mechanism of the birth of iconography from the Bible? The biblical text possesses a unique ability to generate its own linguistic versions without being changed itself. In the Bible text everything is presented as a fact and is not interpreted. For example, the biblical story of Abraham’s sacrifice (Gen 22:2-14) is one of the most dramatic in the Old Testament, but the drama remains in the very biblical event and is completely absent from the language used for its description. The drama remains unarticulated. Facts are reported but not commented on. While we read, our feelings arise straight from the factual reality of the story without the mediation of an artistic interpretation. Once awakened the feelings need to be shared, to find their own visible analogue or language. Thus through the lack of something important for us within the biblical text puts into motion the motor of our desire to create its “full” language version. In my opinion this is the reason why the iconographic pictorial language was born. Obviously it is a second language, human in nature, and that is why it should not be thought of as absolute and why it is basically wrong that the icon imagery was canonized and divinized. It is something living and changing, since it reflects the individual life and spontaneous movement of the human spirit. The creativity is the search for a pictorial language through which the artist shares his or her intuition about the truth with other people. In this way, turning Invisible into Visible, we are able to grasp and express our spiritual knowledge and to transmit it to our successors, while on the other hand every next generation needs to discover its own language to express its feelings and enlightenments.
Therefore we have to accept that the language of iconography is an artistic and an interpretative one. In this very quality it is strikingly different from the language of the Holy Scripture, which we are not meant to define, but we can surely claim to be non-artistic. We can compare it to a honeycomb whose cells are empty and in the process of reading we fill them up with the honey of our feelings. If the original biblical honeycomb had been “contaminated” with even a single drop of “honey”, the magical interaction between the text and us would not have occurred. There would not have been a new fruit born – our linguistic version. The mechanism of breathing new life into the empty cells would have been disturbed.
It is most likely because of this that the biblical text is considered a sacred one. Somebody took care to leave a room for our personal participation in it. I recognize God’s intervention in this care. For who could resist the temptation not to add something personal? And who, apart from Christ, the Son of God, could resist the temptation to present his or her own version of truth instead of keeping quiet when Pilate asks, “What is truth?” (John 18 : 37-38). Here I find it very appropriate to quote the insight of J. D. Salinger regarding this. Using everyday American slang he succeeds in describing the difference between the human and the Divine, “Who else, for example, would have kept his mouth shut when Pilate asked for an explanation? Not Solomon. Don't say Solomon. Solomon would have had a few pithy words for the occasion. I’m not sure Socrates wouldn’t have, for that matter. Crito, or somebody, would have managed to pull him aside, just long enough to get a couple of well-chosen words for the record.” (J. D. Salinger, Zooey)
Christ’s silence reveals to every one of us the space we can fill with our own answer. We find support to this in the words of Christ, “And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; or else the new wine bursts the wineskins, the wine is spilled, and the wineskins are ruined. But new wine must be put into new wineskins” (Mark 2:22). If the new wine is our feelings and ideas sprung from reading the Bible, then the new wineskins are the new artistic language these feelings and ideas need in order to be expressed. The process of giving birth to these ideas based on the Holy text is endless. The Creation of Man (Gen 2:7-25; 3) for example shows the difference between Creation and birth. Life becomes immeasurably more meaningful and richer, when we realize we were not only born, but also created.
The providence of our participation, guaranteed in the biblical text, is the reason why out of many writings about the life of Christ only four were chosen: the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. They are the only ones “uncontaminated by honey”. The other writings are accepted by the Church as useful to read but do not constitute part of the Bible.
Probably in order to protect the icon from further iconoclasm after the intense iconoclastic period in the 8th-9th centuries the Fathers of the Orthodox Church agreed to treat the icon as sacred and inviolable on an equal level with the Holy Scripture. At the Synod of 869-870 the Third Canon was accepted, which says "We ordain that the holy icon of our Lord be venerated in the same way as the book of the Gospels. Indeed, just as all receive salvation through the syllables contained in it, so do all, both learned and ignorant, draw profit from what the colors of the icons possess.” (L. Ouspensky, Theology of the Icon)
The determination of the icon as an absolute phenomenon on an equal level to the Holy text is wrong, as the nature of iconography is similar to that of art in general. It is just one of the human languages invented until now. Equalizing the icon to the Holy Scripture leads to the accumulation of delusions, the darkest of which is the so-called iconographic canon, a concept that arose in Russia in the 17th century. The iconographic canon leads to the idea that iconography consists only of copying the old prototypes in order to avoid making theological mistakes. “As a logical consequence this point of view leads to a dead-born art, doomed to be unchangeable and barren,” writes father Stefan Sandzhakoski, a contemporary Macedonian philosopher and priest.
Under the pretense of saving iconography the Christian “Pharisees” have turned it into a colorful shell or surrogate. Outer forms can be copied, but how is it possible to copy the spirit of the byzantine painter? Can freedom be copied?
Along with the transformation of the Hesychastic spiritual attainment into feverish religious excitement, iconographic art was reduced to a mere craft (Russia, 17th c.) Proportionately to the crisis in iconography the myth arose of the iconographic canon. Iconic criteria became more and more complicated and distorted, while at the same time the byzantine aesthetic criterion was almost completely obliterated. Nowadays more and more artists turn to the ways of West-European painting, while only the “tapestry embroiderers” are left in the sphere of iconography.
In the near past an entertaining photographic attraction could be seen at fairs: there is a camera installed in front of a picture of a beautiful female or a muscular male body with holes instead of faces. The photographer invites the passers-by to stand behind the picture showing their face through the hole and takes a photo. Let us imagine that the painted body represents the biblical text and the changing faces are the iconographical images. What would happen if we turn the empty place into a hole for only one face by pronouncing it as the perfect one? How difficult would it be to conserve it during centuries despite constant embalming? Can you imagine how bored God’s photographer would be!
Creative work, including iconography, is one of the ways given to people to get closer to the secret of their existence, to discover the face of God, which resides in every one of us. Through seeking and finding the image the artist sets reference points and treads a path for others to walk on as well. The way of art is one of the ways to the Heavenly Kingdom, to the face of God, which we all begin to recognize once it starts looking through the created images.
Julia Stankova was born in 1954 in Bulgaria. After twelve years of working as a mining engineer she went on as a painter. In 2000 she obtained a second degree in theology (MT). In her artistic work she gradually developed her own technique of painting on wood based on the pictorial techniques of the Byzantine masters. During the last twenty years she had thirty individual exhibitions in Bulgaria, Macedonia, Greece, the Netherlands and France. She publishes regularly (essays, poetry, theological analyses, articles on art) in Bulgarian literary newspapers and magazines.