Orthodox America


Liturgical Renewal


Archimandrite Victor is rector of St. Euphrosyne of Polotsk Church in Karsava, Latvia; Archimandrite Zinon is a talented iconographer of the Pskov-Caves Monastery.

(Continued from OA 111)

Fr. Victor: What place should the icon have in liturgical renewal? Fr. Zinon: In speaking about the icon, one could say that today it does not occupy its rightful place in the divine service, nor is there a proper attitude towards iconography. It has long ceased to be regarded as "theology in color"; people don't even suspect that it is capable of conveying the teaching of the Church just like the word, and that it can likewise give false witness instead of witnessing to the Truth. The icon has become a mere illustration of the celebrated event, and for this reason it doesn't matter what form it takes, because nowadays even photographs are venerated as icons.

Properly, however, an icon does not depict; it reveals. It is the revelation of the Kingdom of Christ, a revelation of the transfigured, renewed, deified creation. An icon is born from the living experience of Heaven, from the Liturgy, and therefore iconography was always regarded as church service, as Liturgy. High moral demands were placed on iconographers, the same as clergy. Iconographers were highly regarded; in ancient Rus' iconography was a matter of state importance.

The influence of Western theology, and various irregularities in Eucharistic life led to the fact that the icon often became a picture of a religious subject, and veneration of the icon ceased being Orthodox, in the full sense.

Here it would be fitting to say a few words about those depictions which the Church forbids, but which one can find in almost any church. Iconography is a conciliar art, i.e., the art of the Church. The real creators of the icon are the Holy Fathers. The canon of iconography was formulated over the course of centuries and arrived at the form we have now somewhere in the twelfth century. The Church always paid a great deal of attention to her art, taking care that it should accurately reflect her teaching. All deviations were removed by a conciliar process. At the Stoglav Council, for example, the question of iconography occupied a very important place. In particular, the icon of the Holy Trinity was discussed, since at that time icons of the "Paternity" and the "New Testament Trinity" had become widespread.

The Old Testament prohibition against depicting God is not removed in New Testament times. It became possible for us to depict God only after the Word became flesh, became visible and sensible. In His Diviniey, however, Christ is not depictable, but inasmuch as in Jesus Christ the divine and human essences were joined seamlessly and indivisibly into one Person, we depict the God-Man Christ, Who for our salvation came into the world and is present in it to the end of the ages.

Now, let us take the icon of the New Testament Trinity. The Church teaches us about the birth of the Son from the Father "before all ages." But in the icon we see the Son, incarnate in time, sitting beside the Father, Who did not become incarnate and Who is "Ineffable, Invisible, Inconceivable" (prayer at the anaphora during the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom). The Holy Spirit appeared in the form of a dove only at the Jordan (on Pentecost He appeared as tongues of fire, on Mount Tabor-as a cloud); therefore, one cannot say that the dove is the particular image of the Holy Spirit; He can be depicted as such only in icons of the Lord's Baptism. I think that this suffices to show the impossibility of such an icon. The image of the Holy Trinity is an altogether arbitrary joining of various elements, torn out of the context of the economy of our salvation.

And despite the fact that both the Stoglav and the Great Moscow Councils forbade such depictions, one can find them in every church, everywhere icons are sold. Even in St. Daniel's monastery [in Moscow]-where nearly everyone has a higher theological education-an icon of the "Paternity" was painted for the iconostasis of the Church of the Fathers of the Seven Ecumenical Councils! One can only be amazed how the personal and human can prevail over the mind of the Church, which alone is the guardian and expounder of Truth.

There exist four icons of the Holy Trinity. They are indicated in the rite of the blessing of these icons in our Book of Needs (Trebnik). These are: the Old Testament appearance to Abraham (in the form of three Angles), the Descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles, Theophany and Transfiguration. All other depictions must be discarded as distorting the teaching of the Church.

Last year a wonderful book was published in Paris, L. A. Ouspensky's The Theology of Icons of the Orthodox Church. In it is a chapter, "On the path to unity," which examines the icon of Pentecost as the icon of the Church. Why is it that the Mother of God cannot be present in such an icon? And why does the Pentecost icon cease to be an icon of the Church if the Mother of God is depicted? Why does it become simply an icon of the Theotokos surrounded by the apostles?

In this icon we see sitting on Mount Sion the Apostles, representing the first Church community, the beginning of the Christian Church. (Here it should be noted that an icon is not a depiction of a concrete historical event, but rather the theological exegesis of the event. In the Pentecost icon St. Paul-who was not present-is depicted, and likewise St. Luke, who was not of the twelve.) The Head of the Church is Christ. He left no successor or locum tenens on earth, and for this reason the center of the icon remains empty. This place belongs to Christ as the Head of the Church. Clearly, no one else can be depicted here.

Here we will add a few words about the blessing of icons. Very often, seeing a newly-painted icon and desiring to venerate it, people ask: Is it sanctified (osviachshennaya)? This is not an ancient custom. (In the Book of Needs, the rite is called "blessing" not "sanctification" and should be regarded as an adornment by the Church of the given icon, not as a sacramental act. In buying a new Bible, no one thinks of having it blessed according to some rite before reading it.) This rite first appears only in the Great Book of Needs of Peter Mogila (no such rite is found in any Book of Needs of the pre-Nikonian period). The icon was identified and after this it was considered sanctified. It is not the material object which is venerated but the prototype of the depicted image. The inscription is necessary, as we said earlier, in order that the spirit of the person praying would be confirmed, i.e., in order that the one praying knows precisely whom he is invoking, since the iconography for many saints is similar. For example, if there were no inscription on the icon of St. Cyril of White-Lake, one could mistake him for St. Sergius of Radonezh or another early monk-ascetic.

An icon must be painted only on durable material, not on paper or glass or other fragile material. Usually it is on wood.

In the Moscow Patriarchate Journal, 1989, No. 10, there is an article by L. A. Ouspensky about colors in icons. It explains very simply and convincingly why a colored photograph is unacceptable for use in church: it only imitates color; it has no color of its own. For this reason it cannot serve as a substitute for a painted icon. An icon must witness to the Truth, and here we introduce something false, artificial; this cannot be. Fr. Victor: This is the same as having artificial flowers in church. Patriarch Alexis I asked that they not be brought into church, because there is no truth in them.

Fr. Zinon: Even earlier, Metropolitan Philaret (Drozdov) of Moscow said that imitation gems and imitation metals should not be used in church not because they are not costly but because they contain falsehood. Gold was always costly; where it was unattainable, ordinary but natural materials were used. For example, the traditional background for icons has always been gold leaf (or silver). In poor churches, especially in northern Russia, all backgrounds were painted with light colors. To be more precise, "background" is not a Russian word; iconographers call it "light".

Fr. Victor: Because God is light.

Fr. Zinon: And lives in unapproachable light.

Fr. Victor: One can say that nowadays we see a decline in religious understanding; the dogma of icon veneration has been forgotten, supplanted with the veneration of artificiality. And this is not simply forgetfulness, but rather a rupture with the living Tradition of the Church, a scornful attitude towards the Holy Fathers and to the decrees of the Ecumenical and Local Councils. One must restore the veneration of icons in its genuine significance.

Fr. Zinon: This problem must be resolved at the Synod level; it should be a matter for the whole Church. Today churches are being returned to us, monasteries. They all require iconographers, but so far there isn't a proper school for iconographers. I know many young people, talented and eager to study, but the means for this are lacking. Some are tied to families and can't travel far, others are free but have nowhere to study. Our hierarchs have made efforts to increase the number of clergy: diocesan schools are opening, there are courses for readers, seminaries. But I have yet to hear of any school-even a small one-for iconographers. And this despite the fact that almost every week someone comes to me with a request to paint an iconostasis or fresco a church. Here is further evidence that the icon has been eliminated from the divine services; it is no longer given due attention. What is sold in church kiosks, the mass reproductions produced in the shops of the Moscow Patriarchate, do not comply with the requirements applied to church art.

In the Synodal period there appeared many depictions which can plainly be called mockeries, parodies of icons. Last time I gave you to read some letters by Bishop Ignaty Brianchaninov. In one of them he writes that he saw not icons, but caricatures of icons. At best these could be called well-executed paintings, but by no means icons. This was written in the last century, when churches were filled with this sort of art and the Orthodox icon was branded as "Old-Believer" or barbaric art. (The well-known historian, Karamzin, seeing the ancient frescoes in Novgorod's St. Sophia Cathedral, called them "barbarian".)

Fr. Victor: L. A. Ouspensky, in his book, The Theology of the Orthodox Icon, accurately observes that in the iconoclast period the Church fought on behalf of the icon, while in our time of troubles the icon is battling for the Church.

Fr. Zinon: In our contemporary society, man has become literally swamped by all kinds of information. This has resulted in an attitude of indifference and lack of seriousness towards the word. People have little faith in words, whether written or spoken. For this reason, the voice of the icon has become very powerful, very persuasive. Today many educated people, not finding Truth and Beauty in the byways of this world, come to Church and seek there that Beauty which the world could not offer them. They are very sensitive to any falsity, any ugliness or deformity-especially artists and musicians; if they come to church and see there tasteless paintings or hear outrageous concert-style singing, no one will convince them that Christians are witnesses of Heavenly Beauty. Many can be turned off by the unseemly behavior of a priest during Divine Services, his slovenly attire, even his dirty shoes. We're used to thinking in terms of the old women: how will they react. I'm certain that a lack of beauty won't turn any "babushka" away from Church, but someone who is wavering, someone more fragile can leave the Church forever on account of our carelessness. A person who is already "churched", who has already humbled himself and grown accustomed to things, can pray without being distracted. But everyone ought to pray thanks to the icons, thanks to the singing, and not in spite of them. Many icons, and even entire iconostases are painted in such a way as to interfere with prayer rather than to assist it.

Nowadays, in speaking of the renaissance of the Church, we must first of all take care that the Church constantly reveal to the world that Beauty, which she possesses in its fulness. This is the Church's mission to the world. I repeat: few people trust the word, and today the voiceless sermon is capable of bringing forth more fruit. The way of life of the clergy, of each Christian, the image of the church, church singing, church architecture-all must carry the stamp of Heavenly Beauty. Fr. Victor: Today's worldly ecclesiastical consciousness is striving to "unchurch" the icon. It is said that the people don't understand ancient icons, and for this reason they should be replaced by more "artistic" renderings. But are such artistic renderings capable of conforming to the Church's teachings, of edifying? They sooner lead to error, as you said already, giving the example of the New Testament Trinity. The Church has always struggled for authentic expression in her art, for truth, and today she must continue this struggle.

Fr. Zinon: Outside the Church the icon has no real existence. It is an integral element in the Divine Service, one of the forms of preaching the Gospel, a witness of the Incarnation; just as church singing, architecture, ritual. One can readily understand people who say honestly that they don't understand icons painted according to the canons, but one can in no wise agree with those who reject icons which they find incomprehensible. Many priests are convinced that it is difficult for simple people to understand canonically executed icons and therefore it is better to replace them with more realistic renderings. But I am sure that for the majority the stichera, irmosi and the very language of the services are no less incomprehensible, let alone the structure of the Divine Services, and yet no one would think of simplify everything in order to make it easily intelligible. It is the Church's task to lead people to the heights of divine vision, not to condescend to human ignorance...

Fr. Victor: One observes with anxiety the growing attempt to do away with Church-Slavonic in church services and replace it with Russian. Proponents of such a reform consider that laypeople are deprived when they don't understand the Slavonic church services. Church Slavonic is organic to authentic spiritual life, to Orthodox Divine Services, for in it is incarnate the spirit of the fulness of divine life; it doesn't allow one to become mixed up with the life of this world. When worldly elements began overtaking church life in Russia, this fulness began to disintegrate and man desired to come to a knowledge of the truths of faith not through prayer, as Ivan Kireyevsky said, but through "memory". But in order for the mind and heart of man to be simultaneously enlightened he must learn Church-Slavonic. To change to Russian in the church services would only lead to increasing worldliness in the Church; it would not deepen our Orthodox faith or our church consciousness.

Fr. Zinon: It seems to me that replacing Slavonic with Russian in the services would not make them more intelligible; on the contrary, much would be lost because, although particular words might become understandable, the spirit would remain as unintelligible as before. One can readily convince oneself of this by taking the Russian translation of the Psalms: individual words are understandable, but their prophetic meaning has not become any clearer. Modern Russian is the same Slavic language but greatly changed and much less refined. It is easier to teach the faithful their native language than to change the service books into the modern idiom. Such a task offers enormous difficulties, not to mention the deleterious effect upon the Divine Services.

As a student, I often noticed that when I entered a church from a noisy street, even before I had time to catch what was being read or sung, the very rhythm, the intonation, the very melody of the Church-Slavonic language already attuned one to prayer. Contemporary conversational language is very halting; it's much more suited to mundane communications than to prayer...

When I consciously came to the Church, it was the beginning of Great Lent. I had no knowledge whatever of Church-Slavonic. The church calendar that year contained the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, with explanations of difficult words and phrases. Before the service I carefully looked over each part of the canon, and in church I was already able to understand what was being read. The Orthodox Christian, if he senses to even a small degree the elevated poetry of the services, will carefully heed every word, every letter. The West has taken the path of modernism, with grievous results.

Every people, besides their ordinary conversational language, has a religious language in which they communicate only with God. This liturgical language is always more elevated. For example, why did Greek and Latin become "dead" languages? These languages were suited only to writing poetry and to philosophizing; it is impossible to use them to communicate on a mundane level.

Fr. Victor: There used to be a teaching about three styles: high, middle and low.

Fr. Zinon: Church-Slavonic belonged precisely to the high style. The Optina elders read the Philokalia only in Paisius Velichkovsky's Church-Slavonic translation, and even criticized Bishop Theophan the Recluse for having translated it into Russian. They saw in the Russian a great many imprecisions.

The translation into Russian of the Old Testament elicited sharp reactions from Bishop Porphyry Uspensky. That particular translation was made from a Hebrew Bible which certain rabbis had distorted. He voiced his indignation to the highest-ranking member of the Synod, Metropolitan Isidore of St. Petersburg, but unfortunately he was not heard.

As an example one can take the familiar verse from Psalm 17: And with the excellent man thou wilt be excellent; and with the perverse thou wilt shew frowardness (v. 26). The Holy Fathers understand this as counsel to avoid contact with men who are perverse. In the Russian translation these words refer to God and sound almost blasphemous: "With the excellent You will act excellently..., and with the evil man You will act according to his evil." One can find many such examples.

Fr. Victor: And finally. In speaking about the renewal of church life, about liturgical renewal, one must say something about the renewal of community. It's one thing to become spiritually enlightened, but one must also learn to live as a Christian, to become a fully-integrated member of the Church, to know by experience the nature of the Church, unity in Christ, unity in faith, in love.

If these communities, these brotherhoods-about which so much is being said and written nowadays-are spiritually strong, they form spiritual families where people can be nurtured together and spiritually mature for eternal life. Today, however, there are few of them in the Orthodox Church. Fr. Zinon: One mustn't confuse community with parish; they are not identical. One can learn a great deal about this subject in Fr. Nicholas Afanasiev's book, The Church of the Holy Spirit. Properly speaking the Church is a community, i.e., the local Church, in which resides the fullness of the Universal Church. Troubles arose when the community turned into the parish. Only through a rebirth of the community can we properly resolve the problem of morality and many other social ills. We now have the opportunity of restoring the Patristic tradition in the theology of the Mysteries, of returning to the authentic foundations of church life, but from the examples of the newly-opened monasteries and churches, one is convinced of the opposite: one sees the reestablishment of the same synodal forms of church life which did not justify themselves historically and led to the catastrophe of 1917.

Again one sees attempts to engage the Church in social activity, Christians are demanding freedom, rights, forgetting that they are sent by Christ like sheep among wolves, that they are the most defenseless people in this world. The way of the Christian is the way of sorrow, and only those who sow with tears shall reap with joy (Ps. 125). July 1990

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