The Iconic Style of Painting, conclusion.
Andrei Rublev, the greatest painter of medieval Russia – his teacher was Theophanes the Greek – did not lift, as well as his teacher had not, the barriers that had been set by theology for the aesthetics of icons. Even with him there was no fundamental break with the Byzantine pictorial formula, not a „revolution of seeing,“ as it had seized in the West all forward-pressing spirits. He was interested in neither the „scientific perspective“ nor a theory of proportion that clarified the walking, standing, sitting of „natural“ bodies; he remained faithful to the surface on which he piously and modestly inscribed „sacred signs“ that retained their indicative character. He painted, among others, the icon „Trinity“ (around 1411). Rublev took on the theme and composition of Byzantine prototypes, only that he was even more decisively focused on the essence, on the visualization of a theological idea of difficult subtlety: The representation of the Trinity. His only task was to affirm the „truth“ and the „reality“ of Christian beliefs with all its force through his image. Rublev has humanized the form language of icon painting by not bluntly abandoning an ancient tradition, but by combining it with the enjoyment of the natural manifestations of light and color.
Rublev’s handwriting was too individual to form a school. His art was too much the result and expression of a worldview whose piety was deeply experienced and personally colored. Through him the icon, without abandoning its strict bonds, had received a freedom, a maturity, an inner sweetness that could not be surpassed. Nevertheless, icons and pictures in the style of icons have been and continue to be painted. As late as in the sixteenth and the seventeenth century emerged as exquisite panels as the „Descent into Hell“. In Russia, centuries had regimented, disciplined the artist. He was educated to the objective noetic interiority of the image.
The Iconic Style of Painting, Part II
André Malraux was convinced that in Byzantium – in order to forget man – it required a spiritual effort of the same intensity as was necessary on the Acropolis for his discovery. The artist should now present something that, rationally, cannot be depicted at all: the transcendence, the sacred, the eternal. A sharp reduction of all forms becomes necessary, the concentration on an interior essential. Any rational or aesthetic approach misses the meaning of this Christian imagery. Here there is not the idea of space and time, but of an incontrovertible hierarchy determined by the gradual emanation of the divine pneuma, in which the earthly world is permitted only in signs and forms which do not want to be things but only mean them.
Byzantine artists were called to Kiev after the baptismal act of the Russian ruler of 988, who gave Russia a first object lesson of the new faith in glittering pictures, shimmering glass and stone pens, with the colors of the fresco. The pictures on these church walls obey the laws of icon painting. Their perspective has nothing to do with our mundane viewing habits. It is a „perspective of meaning“ that does not mean the natural spatial reference. All figures appear as seen from the eye of God. Great and overpowering that which is close to him; small, pushed aside, the witnesses of worldly existence. Even the proportions of the human form fit this spiritual optic. Their plastic tangibility is „rewritten“ into a system of angular, sharply broken lines and surfaces. Thus, from the ranks of the apostle and angelic figures on the Kiev walls of the church, by their emphatically emphasized forward stride, by their pleading raised hands, by the slight bending of their backs, an expressive movement emerges which is indifferent to the „body“ – which is nevertheless depicted – at most important as a vessel for something completely different – a vessel of emotional longing for a realm that, despite all certainty of faith, is not yet there. The faces are dominated by the oversized eyes, the foreheads are raised, the whole figure is seemingly seized by an upward pull. Even the light that illuminates these images is a light from within, a light that shines from the background of the picture and does not allow any connection with the „natural light“. Its mysterious glow points to the heavenly transcendence.
The absence of any natural light source from which shadowlessness results forced a coloration that received its values, their relationships to each other, from the depths of the picture, from the surface. According to Konrad Onasch, gold is the ideal color value of an art that receives its impulses from such a strict image theology. Gold is sovereign. It does not require any natural light, but shines out of itself. In addition, it excludes any spatial illusion and denies the duality of light and shadow inherent in the living. Onash calls gold the most powerful incarnation of the beyond in the world of the picture. Its absolute sovereignty, its independence from all conceptions of nature was so compellingly felt by the Byzantines that this independence was also transferred to the coloring of the pictures. Contrary to our sense of natural connection with the depicted persons and objects theirs was rigorously torn. Like the perspective and proportions, the colors within the icon did not receive their value from this world of a possible realistic viewing, but from the beyond of eternal thoughts, which by no means precluded composition and beauty.
The colors appear as powerful potencies in this early Christian art, which, however, is the heritage of ancient artistic experience, each color brilliant in its glory, clearly divorced from each other and yet found together in a concert of high musicality.
The Iconic Style of Painting, Part III
Certainly, the leading masters of this Kiev monumental art were Byzantines, but it is just as certain that they soon trained Russian assistants. Among these, Alimpi seems to have been one of the most gifted. He is the first Russian artist whose name is attested.
One of the oldest, one of the most beautiful and certainly the most famous Russian icon is a mother of God image of Byzantine origin. The picture must have been painted in the capital around 1120 on imperial order and went as a gift to Russia. The icon is known as the „Vladimirskaya“. It must have been the symbol of united Rus. The picture was solemnly summoned by the Ruler of Moscow on August 26, 1395 in Moscow. This Madonna, in her austere sweetness, in her mild melancholy, in the graceful movement of lines that are at the same time divine sovereignty, represents Byzantine painting in one of its most flourishing moments.
In contrast to the western Occident, which at a very early age already shifted the image of the Madonna into the lovable-human, into a sphere of maternal tenderness, and into the sphere of adorned ladylikeness, which permitted the refinement of medieval „heavenly love“ customary among knightly troubadours, the eastern Occident held to the picture shaped by the dogma of the „God-bearer“ who is ONE embodiment of the earthly church and of the intercessor. She belongs to the type of the one who renders mercy, a Mary who hugs her cheek against the cheek of the divine child in painful inner movement, while the sad eyes seem to seek the Son’s future. In addition to this type of the Madonna image, one counts two hundred further variations. Just as famous as that of the merciful one and as widespread as a type was the guide, who faces the viewer with her uplifted head. With her right hand, she points to the child in her arms, which by the way is never a bambino as in the West, but a youthful Christ, the God-Emmanuel, of whom Isaiah speaks: the pre-existent Logos, not the „Infant in the cradle“.
The Iconic Style of Painting, Part IV
In the eighth century, there was a struggle for the understanding of the icon, which came to a conclusion with the decision in favor of image adoration. John of Damascus had developed a theology of the sacred image that applied to the Eastern Christian Church, including the art of painting in Russia – as long as it was understood to be Christian painting. Like the church fathers, he referred to the fact of faith that God created the world, that all things are, so to speak, visible images of his invisible thoughts, and that one could not hereticize matter, substance, nature. Moreover, Christ came into this world, and through his incarnation in the flesh, this world is sanctified. And since Christ is described by Paul in the first letter to the Colossians as the „image of the invisible God,“ his image points back to God, the Father, who remains unimaginable and unrepresentable. So also belongs to each prototype an image, commented Theodoros, the abbot of the studio-monastery in Byzantium. He went on to say that in the image the fullness of God does not live in the equality of existence, but in the essential connection with the archetype.
The Iconic Style of Painting, Part V
Byzantium was the great teacher of the Slavic peoples, as it was also that of the western half of the Christian Occident, although here its influence was broken and reinterpreted by the closer Roman example. Again and again, we read in the Russian chronicles that princes and cities asked „foreign and other icon painters from other countries“ to come and „magnificently decorate the churches with painting on the walls. However, Russian historians are right when they point out and prove by a careful inventory of the entire artistic heritage of this early period that the melody of the lines is slowly changing, that the colors come together in new, different chords. The canonical tradition had not only determined the content and style of the sacred images, but also the technique of their production was subject to a complicated set of rules that was refined from generation to generation, and with which the icon painters complied as long as they were convinced of the sanctity of their task.
If the simplicity of Byzantium had been the highest refinement, the style that the painters of the Russian Novgorod School had formulated is based on real archaism. The Greek artist still knew how the folds of the vestments were alive with living limbs, even when he masked the body. That is why he succeeded in keeping a fine line between abstraction and empathy, expressing the sacred thoughts and at the same time foreshadowing the natural form in which this thought presented itself. But the Russian artist, who is just beginning to learn the alphabet of this highly cultivated painting, decisively takes the side of abstraction, which consistently translates the plastic form into line and surface, which becomes a means for capturing the third dimension in the two-dimensional surface.