Philosophical and theological concept of an icon

The analyzing of an aesthetic essence of an icon and its philosophical and theological understanding. An aesthetic act of an artistic perception of an icon is analyzed from the viewpoint of a modern vision, and, in particular, avant-garde positions.

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Kornysheva I.R.

Christian culture in its Byzantine and Orthodox version achieved its perfection and prosperity in medieval Byzantium and Ancient Rus' in the period from the XIV to the XVI century. It was just when its specific character formed and most powerfully revealed, a high level of human spiritual perfection was attained, and some outstanding spiritual and artistic treasures were developed, especially those in the field of a sacral and mystical experience and ascetic practices, as well as in the principal kinds of worship-related arts like architecture, painting, iconography, hymnography, various genres of literature and church music. In Russia, the process of decline and gradual destruction of Christian culture began in the period from the XVII to the XVIII century, so that by the XX century actually only the religion itself and some marginal branches (or rather individuals) in art and philosophy retained their authentic carriers.

What does Russian Orthodoxy represent? It is impossible to imagine it without veneration and specific understanding of the icon as an image carrying deep philosophy and intimate feelings of a human appealing to the image. In this article we discuss philosophical and theological understanding of the icon, and its aesthetic importance, as well as the artistic language through which an icon with its artistic means connects sensual and ideological sides of a believer's religious consciousness manifested in the act of worship.

Icon is a phenomenon of Christian culture, its contemplation being capable to activate a wide range of emotions like empathy, remorse, compassion, affection or admiration in the mind of a viewer, and, respectively, his/her desire of patterning oneself on the characters depicted. Study of this phenomenon is quite popular both in Russian and foreign culture, art, philosophy and history; thus, our task here is to discover some special aspects of the present-day analysis of icons from a philosophical point of view. As a phenomenon, icons are open to perception with quite various schools just as specimens of art which may cause some sensations through contemplation of their purely art forms. A Russian philosopher V. Bychkov describes icon as a sacral or liturgical symbol endowed with power, energy and holiness of a character or a sacred event depicted on the icon [1]. According to Christian tradition, it was Sofia, i.e., the Wisdom of God, that led the iconographer's work, and was considered as a creator of any icon, so often the authorship of medieval iconography specimens remains unknown.

Within the framework of contemporary or, as they call it, actual art, V. Bychkov turns to works of an avant-gardist V. Kandinsky, and notes that for the latter the process of implementation of a Spiritual Entity in Art appears in the following form: a Creative Spirit, or rather an Abstract Spirit affects the soul of an artist and gives rise to a kind of aspiration or inner impulse in it. Consequently, no matter whether it occurs consciously or unconsciously, the artist initiates seeking for material forms to implement the new values living in him in a spiritual form [1]. In the act of creation V. Kandinsky notes three motives or, following his own terminology, three mystical reasons or three mystical pre-requisites:

1. a need to express oneself in art (so-called personal element);

2. a requirement to express his period, for the artist is a child of his epoch (element of style in the internal significance);

3. a requirement to express what is peculiar to art in general regardless of any subjective factors, i.e., a kind of a timeless content of art that the founder of abstract art defines as element of a pure-and-ever-artistic entity [1].

4. Bychkov emphasizes that the attitude of the founder of suprematism K. Malevich was more complex and controversial [1]. Actually, K. Malevich arrived intuitively at a feeling of spiritual transcendence of the Absolute, and tried to express it in colored, black or white geometric abstract forms which have reached their minimalist expression in his Black Circle, Black Cross, Black Square, and White Square using white color as a background. While a face representation is most important for a traditional icon, K. Malevich consciously pays special attention to a lack of any faces or unauthenticity of suprematist images.

As the author of the paper summarizes, artistic symbolism that had an effect on the mentality of a recipient entirely at a comprehensively conscious level, actively promoted creation of a spirit of universal cosmism with respect to both avant-garde works and icons together with medieval art in general [1]. The increased aestheticism of icon was contributed with an iconographic canon while avant-gardists achieved it through an exceptional artistic flair of each individual artist. In both cases the spiritual and aesthetic value comprises a purely pictorial solution. Expressive means of icons are most vividly represented at worship. The closer attention we pay to the synthesis of the temple action, the deeper and brighter the worship is.

When perceiving this synthesis, we fancy a kind of a subjective image of the icon, the fresco or the architectural structure in general, as well as the musical sounds directly affecting the analyzer or the analyzer system. Active perception of an iconographic image suggests a unity of two elements, namely what is inherent in a piece of art as it is, and the interpretations, beliefs and/or associations which are produced in the mind of a viewer in relation to it. Nevertheless, we should not reduce the artistic vision of that kind to religious beliefs only, for here an aesthetic sensibility of a human aimed at the natural world in its visual form is manifested, too. Apparently, the wider the range of those subjective perceptions is, the richer and deeper the understanding becomes. The range of subjective perceptions in the temple synthesis is also supplemented with musical and verbal images. Thus, the rhythm, the timing, the dynamics, the tonation, the harmony and the symmetry are present everywhere, being expressive tools to facilitate the perception of an artistic image that comprises a profound significance of the ideas of peace, goodness, human morality and other spiritual values determined by the religion [2].

Application of the concept of rhythm to painting is inevitably confronted with a two-dimensionality of an image. For example, we can observe an icon from different viewpoints. It is easy to estimate a linear rhythm or alternating of values and accents in one direction. The folds on the clothes of Jesus, Lady Mary, Saints or Apostles are somehow rhythmical.

An icon Trinity by Andrei Rublev is one of the most significant images in Orthodoxy. Approximation of the outline of the group to a circle and to the contour of the bowl has a symbolic and emotional meaning. The circle (the bowl) is emphasized via continuation of the outline of one figure in the lines of another one. The circle performs a compositional function here, and it acts as a carrier of the essence, so the attraction to the center of the image creates harmony.

A tone system in painting implies an intersubordination of all colors to a system of color relations when none of them can be changed in brightness, hue or saturation, nor subtracted or added with respect to the area it covers, or moved to another spatial position without violating its coloristic integrity, i.e. the formula of the picture. The concept of tone system in painting is similar to the concept of tonation in music. A sound being out of the tonation is perceived as strange or false. Likewise, a color falling out the general tone looks random or undue, and destroys the integrity of the composition as a unit. Thus, Christian culture is a culture of the image and the icon, perhaps to a greater extent than the culture of the word in its literal sense.

The aesthetic aspect of studying culture seems to be most productive since it allows most complete revealing of ontological, axiological and panhuman phenomena and characteristics of culture. This aspect implies not only and not so much analytical dissection of culture (though not rejecting it completely), but rather a smooth adaptation to the culture and experiencing it as one's own ontological consciousness though remaining quite definitely and deliberately distant from it.

In the course of worship in which a human acts as one of important components of this synthesis, a spirit of composite consciousness is created. In Orthodox understanding, composite consciousness is a result of a collective spiritual practice of the Church members who believe that they receive a gracious help from above through the sacrament of the worship.

From here the principal anonymity of Russian medieval art and all spiritual creativity in general is. A medieval artist recognized himself as a special personal tool led with the composite consciousness of the Orthodox Church, of which he was just a part, and deeply felt and experienced it. Composite consciousness inspired medieval masters to artistic creativity and aesthetic freedom, and here the image, the symbol and the sign were used to support the Holy Word. Creative activity, especially a mimetic one, i.e. creation in the image and likeness was recognized as an existential rule of humanity, for the heavenly paradigm of creative activity was transmitted to humans through the Holy Scriptures. The essence and the best sides of a human-being were to be manifested and actually exhibited in creative work.

A present-day Christian involuntarily happened to live within some special civilizational environment different from the actual Christian culture, i.e. in a situation close to that one in which Christians within the first centuries of Christianity existed, the only difference is that the latter were the discoverers and developers of Christian culture.

The human race is actively pursuing Nietzsche's maxim on reappraisal of all values, and especially the Christian ones. Apparently, the mankind was unable (or, maybe, was not inclined) to adopt even the basic moral foundations of Christianity, to say nothing of the higher forms of spiritual life. In the spiritual and moral respect, it is almost on the same level nowadays as in late Roman period.

philosophical aesthetic icon theological


1. Bychkov V.V. Ikona i russkiy avangard nach. XX veka [The Icon and Russian Avant-garde at the Beginning of the XX Century] // KoreviShhe 0B. Kniga neklassicheskoy estetiki. - M.: IFRAN, 1998. - P. 58-75. [in Russian].

2. Kornysheva I.R. Filosofskoe osmyslenie muzykalnoy teurgii v kontekste pravoslavnoy kulturi. Monografiya. [Philosophical Comprehension of Musical Theurgy in the Context of Orthodox Culture. Thesis]. - Orehovo-Zuevo: MGOGI, 2013. -112 p. [in Russian].

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