Conversation from the book Sailors of the Sky

In these well-timed conversations, led by Fr. Radovan Bigovic, many issues were brought up so that a contemporary reader could deepen and expand his or her understanding of the role of art in the life of the Church today, both Eastern and Western. So here we find answers to questions on the crisis of contemporary ecclesiastical art in West and East; for possibilities of having an impact of Impressionism, Expressionism, Cubism, Surrealism and Abstract painting on contemporary ecclesiastical painting; on the main distinction between secular painting and icon painting.

Some doubts about the difference between iconography and religious painting and painting in general are also resolved; but the question of how can the freedom of artistic creativity be reconciled with the requirement to obey the iconographic canons is also touched frankly and extensively (is obedience to the canons a threat to the vitality of iconography?). Stamatis sheds the light on the role of prayer and asceticism in the art of icon painting. The crucial differences betweenicon painting in Roman Catholicism and the Orthodox Church are not neglected. And how important are his responds to the question on the relation between contemporary theology and art! In a time where postmodern “metaphysics” relativizes every concept, this author still believe that to some extend the spirit of Post-Modernism add to the revitalization of Christian art. Questions like the kind of “artistic inspiration”or what are the essential aesthetic categories of Christian painting. His exceptionally wide and nonetheless deep expertise assists him in making the not-so-everyday connection between theology, art and modern social, but in a broader sense of the word, civilizational issues. Finally, the entire artistic project of Stamatis Sklirish as important ecumenical implications and significantly help a genuine longing for unity in the Christian world.

1: What is the role of art in the life of the Church today?

Fr. Stamatis: The role of art is very important in the life of Church. We could say that the role of ecclesiastical art is to establish the clear and living presence of Christ and the Saints within the Holy Eucharist. Here, we should make note of the following: we are not talking about simply an aesthetic and decorative role. In the theology of the Fathers of the Church, ecclesiastical art took on ontological meaning. This means, first, that we do not paint the walls of the church simply to adorn them; instead, this painting has an actual goal – to reveal that in the moment when the faithful are gathering together, assembling for the service of the Holy Eucharist, Christ, the Most Holy Theotokos, the Angels, and all the Saints are present with them. Second, this means that the Church, when serving the Holy Eucharist, iconizes the Kingdom of Heaven, meaning Paradise, that is, a garden. It iconizes Eden with the image of a garden. That is why all around the saints there are decorative motifs that are taken from the plant kingdom, from plants, from flowers. There are petals, buds, leaves, and blooms, although they are painted in a way only schematically and geometrically. Third, this painting does not remind us of something that happened in the past, but rather of the event that is going on in the past; the Passion of Christ, for example, or the martyrdoms of the saints, and is transferred to the future, to a different space and time, different from this unredeemed space-time in which we live now in history. So it is all about depicting the future, and not about depicting the past. That kind of painting transforms our life and represents it the way it is going to be in Heaven – that is, freed from the fear of dying and loosed from the bonds of corruptibility. Fourth, considering that all other forms of painting are within the boundaries of the corruptible mode of human existence, it follows that ecclesiastical painting has in it a certain ontological originality. It refers to something completely new, just like Christ is the only new thing under the sun, as St. John Damascene said. In the same way, an icon represents everything, man and nature, in a completely new, original, and authentic manner. Fifth, to indicate the new and original in a painterly way, the icon painter takes his inspiration from the Resurrection of Christ, Christ’s appearances after the Resurrection, and the miracles that happened in the lives of saints. Sixth, in accordance with this, ecclesiastical painting is the painting of a vision that should therefore be, so to say, peculiar and surreal, because otherwise, it would not render the world to come, but the world of corruptibility, the world within history. And finally, seventh, since this is the case, it follows that an icon painter is a painter who, while painting, is constantly innovating, having freedom in painting methods and manners. In this way, the uniqueness and the distinctiveness of Byzantine painting in relation to other painting traditions is explained. Sadly, in our time, or, more precisely, in the last two centuries, Orthodox ecclesiastical painting has not been characterized by this authenticity and originality. Church painters adopt readymade solutions from the past and they do not paint Christ and His Kingdom with the painterly freedom that the Byzantine painters had.

2: Is contemporary ecclesiastical art in crisis in West and East?

Fr. Stamatis: Certainly. The crisis is, we could say, ontological, not just aesthetic and stylistic. The problem in contemporary ecclesiastical art is not primarily painterly, but theological. Keeping with what we said in response to the first question, the icon painter is called to represent the Eschaton in a painterly way. That gives him an ontological freedom. I believe that often the modern icon painter errs; while he is in search of originality, he is looking for an aesthetical freedom rather than an ontological one. What do I mean by this? A painter may be talented, and it may be that he wants to find some new colors or new contours, something, some detail that did not exist in the painting of Studenica or Sopochani, but that he does not feel the need to present, in a painterly way, Christ as a completely new Man, that is, like a Man no one has ever seen before. We should keep in mind that icon painting is an art of vision, hence an art that depicts visions, and not the mundane everyday life and routine; the vision is what brings freedom into the painting of icons and it stems from how authentically the icon painter experiences the Holy Mystery of the Eucharist and the Church in general. Hence, the crisis of contemporary icon painting is, above all, a crisis of a theological nature. And to define that even more precisely, it is a crisis of the way in which we perceive freedom. Today’s understanding of freedom is “how can I be free from something?” while the ontological understanding is “how can I free myself from corruptibility and from the mentality of corruptibility and from the passions that keep me tied to corruptibility, and to live the only new thing under the Sun, i.e. to live in a Resurrectional way that overcomes the misery of death and corruptibility?” Everything we have said in this response refers to the ecclesiastical art of the Orthodox East (and by East we mean a spiritual and not geographical space). The crisis is even more significant in Orthodoxy, because Orthodoxy, through its manner of icon painting, iconizes, presents, and announces the Eschaton, the Kingdom of God, the Resurrection, and overcoming of corruptibility. For Western painting, the problem is not so significant, because as it is, in Western painting, light, which plays the main role in painting, is a natural and aesthetic light. Thus Western painting can experience a renewal from a purely aesthetic perspective, because, by the nature of things, it does not approach the icon ontologically.

3. To what extent did Impressionism, Expressionism, Cubism, Surrealism and Abstract painting influence contemporary ecclesiastical painting (if they did at all)?

Fr. Stamatis: First of all, we should note that all these movements that belong to what we refer to as Modern art are things that developed much later than the ecclesiastical painting tradition. We could even say that the first modernism in world history was founded not in the 19th century by Western art movements, but in Byzantium. If the essence of modernism lies in the liberation from classical conceptions of painting and the deliberate change of the canons and introduction of new ones, then that happened for the first time in Byzantium, when a change occurred in relation to the Classical, Hellenistic, and Greco-Roman artistic tradition. In the West, Modernism appeared as a reaction to the Renaissance. When El Greco was changing forms and colors and when his followers, Cezanne and later Picasso, continued toward an even more radical shift from the canons of classical Renaissance thought, they created western Modernism – a new way of perceiving things. However, art historians have failed to notice that something analogous happened many centuries before. When the first Christians started painting catacombs, they adopted the existing artistic ideas from Greco-Roman art, which were a continuation of Classical Greek art. Very soon however, inspired by the Resurrection and the victory over death, Christians discovered a new kind of painting with new stylistic and methodological tenets and principles that present a new understanding of the way we perceive the world. Traditional analogy, symmetry, and harmony gave way to facial expression and the expression of eyes (the gaze). In traditional sculpture particularly, the eyes were treated as one of the anatomic elements of the face and therefore had to be incorporated using the existing rules of analogy. In Byzantine painting, on the other hand, the expression of the eyes is considered so important that the aforementioned rules are transcended, and the eyes are painted bigger and more expressive in icons. Byzantine painting hence does not follow the laws of analogy, but focuses on facial expression and the liberation of depiction from the rules of perspective and color, and from the rules of natural shading. This bold and daring step that Christians took in ecclesiastical art was a modernism before Modernism. Orthodoxy’s ecclesiastical art thus essentially brought a kind of Impressionism, Expressionism, Cubism, Surrealism, and Abstract Art into the classic art of that time.

Therefore, it does not have any reason to envy Western Modernism, since it already had it. For example, we could say that the decorative leaves in the mosaics in Ravenna, which color shades with blue, accomplish, contrary to Classical Antiquity, something similar and corresponding to the colors of Van Gogh, which depict shadows as illuminated and colored, more precisely, often as blue and purple. Another example: when Christian icon painters, instead of reducing depth of field, actually open it up and create reverse perspective, they are doing something similar to Picasso, Delauney, Braque, expressionists, and cubists. When, in a Byzantine fresco, the Samaritan woman at the well carries a vessel that is bigger than the mouth of the well itself, that, in fact, represents a surreal pictorial. We are talking about something that cannot take place in the natural world, but happens only under supernatural circumstances. In brief, all the peculiarities of Byzantine painting, which is inspired by the Resurrection and overcoming of corruptibility, contain within them a sense of challenge to the natural state of things, and, therefore, represent the first modernism in the history of world art. In spite of the fact that, as we mentioned, ecclesiastical painting contained within itself a certain kind of modernism before the appearance of Western Modernism, the dynamic relationship that develops between civilizations, particularly between East and West in our time, causes an icon painter to reexamine the issue of shading and the treatment of color and to be inspired, to some extent, by the achievements of Western Modernism. As for the possible influence of Modernism on Orthodox icon painting, I personally cannot conceive a living Christian painter of the 21st century who would live in such a way as to ignore and disregard the great achievements of Western art history, like Impressionism for example, and who would be able to live isolated from the problems that surround modern man. On account of this, I assume that every Christian, or at least one who is moved by love, cares and shows interest in the problems that preoccupy his fellow man, regardless of where he lives, in the West or in the East. Unfortunately, this way of thinking does not concern modern icon painting as much as one might expect.

4. Is there such a thing as original Christian icon painting today or does replicating dominate?

Fr. Stamatis: Authenticity is foremost a spiritual problem, and only secondarily a painterly problem.

First, when authenticity in the way in which the Holy Eucharist, Christ, and love for fellow man are lived and experienced is lost, this is then reflected in ecclesiastic painting through the phenomenon of replication. We should accept and acknowledge the fact that there are, for example, many Christians who copy, in the spiritual life, the demeanor of their spiritual father outwardly, as if spiritual life is a matter of demeanor and not of inner experience. We would like to say something that concerns those who claim that Tradition is a continuous process of replication, in which new icon painters replicate old ones and in which everything new is considered to be less worthy than everything old. This concept is, foremost, radically Platonistic, hence Hellenistic and un-Christian. In Plato’s system of ideas it is understood that ideas present perfect prototypes and that any subsequent realization of an idea is deemed less valuable than the prototype. We have a big problem if the same holds true for Christianity. According to St. Maximus the Confessor, truth will be manifested in the Eschaton, while now we are living in an icon of the truth — that is, something less than perfect. This reversal of matters in relation to Platonism gives the icon the freedom we talked about and opens our horizons, our minds, and our lives to another kind of existence that is completely new. Herein lies the authenticity of Orthodox icon painting and thus there are no reasons for replicating in the strict sense of the word.

5. What is the main distinction between secular painting and icon painting?

Fr. Stamatis: The most common reply is that ecclesiastical painting and icon painting obey the canons of ecclesiastical tradition, while secular painting is free to depict things however it wants. As we said before, an icon’s freedom is an ontological freedom, that is, freedom from the laws of nature, which are the laws that lead to corruptibility. Thus, according to this, a reply like the previous one is not complete because it does not make a distinction between different understandings of the concept of freedom. We could distinguish these two arts the following way: icon painting is a painting that iconizes beings the way they are going to be in the future, while secular paintings depicts them the way they were in the past. Even though this definition is very brief, it is still quite comprehensive, because it describes in few words the main features of two pictorial concepts. Secular painting is confined to the limits of time, thus, to the laws of time and place, and accordingly, to corruptibility, inasmuch as it paints something already belongs to the past. Conversely, the icon is headed toward the Resurrection of all of nature and it iconizes beings in the way they are going to be after the Resurrection, in the eternal life; accordingly, it represents an art of the future. We owe a definition like this one, based on a distinction between past and future, to a great theologian, the metropolitan bishop of Pergamon, John Zizioulas. Without his teaching on ontology, we might have not been able to formulate such a concise and effective definition. Even though this definition seems theological, philosophical, and theoretical, and therefore as if it has nothing to do with the method of painting, it does contain all of the characteristic qualities that distinguish one art from the other. Icon painting, as an art of future, depicts time and place saved from corruptibility. On account of that, shadings cannot be painted, because they remind us of death. Design in an icon should not delineate remoteness, distance between beings; therefore, it cannot have the usual geometric perspective that distances and minimizes beings.

Thus beings cannot be painted in a way as to give off an impression of weight, thickness and overall features; they cannot be painted in a way that would indicate they are dominated, inevitably, by the laws of nature.

If we are to make this kind of distinction between secular and ecclesiastical art, then we should admit there are works of art that are painted as secular, but incline toward the icon and are in fact very close to an icon. A still life by Van Gogh, in which the depicted garlic shines with a light that seems incorruptible, functions within the logic system of the icon. Some Orthodox Christians want to emphasize that iconography is not painting, and consequently claim that there is painting, which we refer to as secular painting, and then there is the icon, which is not painting. We have to respond to this. I would say that iconography most certainly is painting. It consists of shapes, colors, and to some extent, it has volume and plasticity, because between the basic color of the body, which designates darkened parts, and the light, which designates facial and body parts that are more prominent, there is a certain space that is formed and defined. Accordingly, iconography is painting. It is painting that shows beings that exist in a different mode of existence, different from the mode of corruptibility. It is a painting which we might call “Paschal,” even though the word Paschal does not refer to pictorial qualities. It is a theological expression. We might, however, say that the pictorial qualities are so influenced by faith in the Resurrection that they represent a transfigured world in an icon. If icon in fact is a painting of resurrection, a painting that saves beings from corruptibility and represents them as if they were monumental (μνημειακά: the real meaning of the term refers not to size and grandeur, but to the fact that a being remains remembered forever and is never forgotten), then we can claim that the most significant form of painting is indeed iconography. We are rephrasing the previous dilemma – the claim of some that iconography is not painting – and saying not only that it is painting, but that it is, in fact, the most significant painting. It is actually the fulfillment of the purpose of painting in an absolute sense, because, since the earliest times of cave painting, painting has, by depicting a being, rescued it from oblivion, giving him a sort of immortality, because a work of art cannot be lost and forgotten. If this is one of the main purposes of art, then iconography is an art above all others, painting par excellence. With an approach to matters like this one, we are preserving iconography as painting, and we are also preserving iconography’s relationship with secular painting, because we are viewing it as something that exists in a dialectic relation. Perhaps iconography is something other than painting, but it is also painting. It is exactly what the Church is to the world: the Church is in this world, it is the world, but it is also something different from the world, a foretaste of the Kingdom of God, and by being something else, something different, it saves the world. Instead of claiming that iconography has no relationship to painting, it is better to say that it is a form of painting that saves painting, because it succeeds in achieving the great aims of painting throughout time.

6. What is an icon to you? What is the difference between iconography and religious painting and painting in general?

Fr. Stamatis: I pointed out in the previous response that iconography is a painting that depicts human beings in the way they are going to be, in a different mode of existence, in the Eschaton, that is, in the Kingdom of Heaven. I could give a different definition that the icon is a portrait of Christ, but a special kind of portrait that shows Him as an entirely new Man, a Man that has never been seen before. This kind of definition implies that Christ is the God-Man and consequently that He has a kind of charisma that is impossible to find in any other man. That is the reality we refer to as “something other,” something which is beyond nature. It is human and divine, combined in one hypostasis — in the divinity of Christ, which both Western and Eastern Church believe. But technically, stylistically, it is expressed only in the Eastern icon, not in Western painting, which is always more focused on the human nature of Christ. Thus, religious painting shows the personality of Christ with a portrait of the historical Christ. It demonstrates Christ as a man, the way men of His time saw Him, without showing on His face and expression that He is true God and true Man. We could say that it paints the world the way it is in the world of corruptibility and unsaved time and place. Religious painting depicts Christ and the saints who lead the world toward overcoming corruptibility, but it paints them in a pictorial manner as the historical Christ and the historical saints, the way they were when they lived here on earth — thus with all the characteristics of human nature. The icon, on the other hand, possesses that crucial difference in that it does not depict the historical Christ, but rather the eschatological Christ and the saints as they are going to be in their eschatological state. Thus, painting and religious painting depict the past, and iconography reveals the future.

7. How is iconography perceived in the Western Christian tradition, and how is it perceived in the Eastern?

Fr. Stamatis: In the West, religious painting points our attention to the past, reminding us of the works of Christ and His words, and inspires our feelings of devoutness. It carries an ethical message as well. Because of that, it is a useful painting in a religious sense. In the East, an icon, inasmuch as it reveals the Eschaton, possesses a dimension that is purely liturgical, and not psychological or ethical. Thus, the eschatological Christ does not make us a little bit better as people, but leads us to the conclusion of history when what remains will be judged, as well as what has an eternal value from all that we have created in terms of our deeds in the time of our earthly life. In the East, the icon is included in an iconological vocabulary that is used by Church, in a more general sense. The entire Holy Liturgy is a language that speaks through icons; it is a great icon of the Eschaton. The bishop, surrounded by presbyters and deacons, leads us to the Kingdom of Heaven during the Holy Eucharist like an icon that is set before us. The Gospel does this too, because it is gold or silver, and because it looks like a book that is different from all the other books we read. Besides that, every liturgical detail points toward the Kingdom of Heaven that is to come. Accordingly, the icon is not just a useful religious painting, but a manifestation and revelation of the reality that transcends our daily routine. It does not improve us somehow in an ethical sense, but reminds us that we are created for a completely different mode of existence than the one we are living in now.

8. There is a notion that there is an increased interest in icon in the East and West. How do you interpret that?

Fr. Stamatis: Historically, emigrants that came from Russia to Europe after the Revolution made icons recognizable in the West. The development of historical studies too helped us perceive the icon with a new scientific interest. From the spiritual viewpoint, on the other hand, the interest in icons is mostly indebted to the fact that everyday life became so mundane and evil has multiplied to such an extent that we are now living in an apocalyptic era, that deep down, existentially, yearns for a revelation, a manifestation of a mode of existence that overcomes corruptibility. We could say that the more sin is multiplied, the more the longing within man increases, the longing for a thorough, ontological change. Lust for life, which is a lust for pleasure, contains in itself the lust for death. Then appear fear and an unquenchable desire for the Resurrection. At that moment the Orthodox icon encounters modern man.

9. For a long time icon painters have been compared to priests. Why is that?

Fr. Stamatis: I would say that the icon painter is more like an evangelist and a preacher of the Church than a priest. He preaches the Resurrection of Christ and the Kingdom of Heaven with colors. He preaches also that the holy men of God are those who have reached a level where already in this life they experienced a foretaste of the Kingdom of Heaven. A priest does something else. He brings the Kingdom of Heaven here and now by serving the Holy Eucharist.

10. How can the freedom of artistic creativity bereconciled with the requirement to obeythe iconographic canons? Is obedience tothe canons a threat to the vitality of iconography?

Fr. Stamatis: If we look at the historical development of iconography, we will see that, up to the 17th century, it was constantly evolving. Hence, the canons do not restrain creativity. Even everyday life follows and obeys rules and, in fact, it is impossible to live if there is no obedience to rules. However, every creature of God lives for itself in an authentic way. Hence, the canons of life do not restrain authentic living. The question is then why, in the last centuries, we do not have real creativity? Instead, we see slavishness, as if we were slaves, so that copying prevails, dominating modern icon painting. It may be that we Orthodox Christians have not understood the true Orthodox canon of iconography, of icon painting. The rapid evolution of technology created a new understanding of copying. Now machines can make an absolute copy of something; before that, there was nothing that was absolutely identical to something else. Panselinos could not photograph the frescoes of some other icon painter and copy them. Also, he could not use a projector beam to project a design of some other painting in order to copy it exactly. We can set aside the essential problem that, in nature, there are no two identical things anyway. 

So let’s raise the question of what is “canon” in Orthodox icon painting? Moreover, did the first hagiographers have an intention to set up some canons that the next hagiographers in the centuries to come would be obliged to follow with an absolute obedience? In Christ, the apostles, and the first Christians we find an authentic way of living in the community of love. That is the Church – a community of love that is identified with the Eschaton and the Holy Trinity, which is the community of love par excellence. In a similar way, the first icons possess the same spirit of yearning for the Kingdom of Heaven that is to come. The entire style and manner of Orthodox icon painting is inspired by the Resurrection, which brought about a completely new way of existence. Light plays the major role in this. We could even say that we could take an ancient Greek drawing, which represents a perfect drawing in any time period, and, by illuminating that ancient Greek and hence pre-Christian drawing, and composing the light in an iconographic manner, we could make it into an icon. If we understand what kind of transfiguration the divine grace, which is coming from the outside, brings into our life and into the world, then we can comprehend the secret of the canons in iconography. The canons and typikon of Orthodox icon painting are those constant features of painting that came from the inspiration that Christian painters received by living a different life, the foretaste of a different life. We can see that Byzantine painting is a painting with very strong, highlighted outlines, bold lines for the eyes, nose, etc., and that is a stylized painting. But it escapes our attention that the outline is thicker the moment the light hits the relatively darker primary color; that, in a way, represents a being, represents a state before creation, hence the state before God created beings out of nothing. This dialectic between light and dark is what created the “austerity” of Byzantine painting. It was not as if some Christian painters said: “paint only with thick lines,” but they participated and lived in that light and experienced that other kind of light that enlightens our dark existence. On the one hand, it gives us eternal hypostasis, and on the other, it distinguishes and evaluates things and then the difference between light and dark is revealed. Besides, modern art has shown that it is possible to paint with dark outlines or with thick lines, as Picasso did, and that artistic (painterly) strokes can still be free and not stylistic.

11. What is the relation between contemporary theology and art?

Fr. Stamatis: First, we should say something about the relationship between Orthodox and Western theology. As we said before, Western theology is historical and ethical, and Eastern is more mystical and spiritual. For this mystical dimension, Russian theologians are mostly responsible. With the Western historical approach, when there is too much historicism, there is a danger of coming to the point of talking about matters that concern only the past and not contemporary man. In the Russian approach, there is a danger of falling into too much sentimentality and subjectivity. The Eucharist and its icon are safeguards against these dangers. Contemporary icon painters, however, are confronted with both of these temptations – either to copy the past, or, fortunately less common, to introduce sentimental elements into the icon. Here I would like to express a personal impression. My view is that in Athens, a theology of ontology has developed in recent time, the great representative of which is Metropolitan John Zizioulas, along with Christos Yannaras and the theologian-philosopher SteliosRamphos. Incidentally, at that very same, there appeared in Athens a small group of icon painters whose work manifests an authentic tendency (leaning) to express Orthodox liturgy in art. I believe that, when we are gone, they will talk about the theological school of Athens and the icon painting school of Athens, and that it occurred without any particular plan that would have consciously and intentionally created such a movement. Allow me to present another personal impression. Contemporary Serbian theologians are more aware of the crucial theological problems today than the theologians of other Orthodox nations are and today’s Serbian icon painters are competent and well-equipped to deal with contemporary subjects in icon painting.

Unfortunately, our era is lacking something that is more crucial than anything else—holiness. If we did not believe in God’s grace and God’s providence, we would be in danger of falling into despair, considering how feebly we modern Christians, modern theologians, and modern icon painters live. Only holiness can attract the divine grace that is necessary for a genuinely authentic theology and authentic art. The other thing modern theologians lack (notable exceptions aside) is a genuinely and thoroughly philosophical way of thinking and facing matters, like the great theologians of the past, like the Cappadocians. Father AtanasijeJevtic told me many years ago that, as he studied the Cappadocian Fathers, he became convinced that their theological positions were inspired by the Holy Spirit, but were also aided by a great deal of education and study. We might add that the basic assumption was that they wanted to philosophize in a Greek way. On the other hand, contemporary icon painters do not work in a way that is fundamentally painterly. When you ask a question, you should know to philosophize, and the grace of God will help you find the answer. However, it is important what kind of question you ask. To ask painterly questions, you should, first of all, paint and then you will find painterly ways to express the truth of Orthodoxy.

12. Is the icon the best and most authentic painterly expression of the Christian faith?

Fr. Stamatis: I can frankly say that I still have not fully understood what an icon actually is. Maybe it is not possible to either fully understand or express it. It is a great spiritual and pictorial mystery. However, I truly believe that the Byzantine icon is the most superb theological language expressed through colors, a language capable of truly expressing salvific dogmas. The icon is so profound because it conveys everything; even its tiniest detail conveys the entire theological truth. Nevertheless, we could not say that, besides the Byzantine icon, there are no other valuable pictorial expressions of the Christian faith, or that we could demand that absolutely everyone should paint in the manner of Byzantine icon painting. The Byzantine icon is certainly the most superb pictorial expression of the Christian faith, but we should be open minded and open to the idea that in the future other Christian people, if they lived the Orthodox faith in an authentic way, will be able to find equally valuable pictorial and iconographic expressions and solutions.

13. What is the role of prayer in the art of icon painting?

Fr. Stamatis: Prayer unites us in an existential bond with the Triune God. We should be careful not to perceive prayer in a pan-religious way, but in an authentically Orthodox way. That means liturgically and eucharistically. Prayer is not seclusion, which would allow me to remember psychologically those whom I love and for whom I pray, but it is, if we see it in a eucharistic way, foremost a practice, an act, which includes corporality and the material human side even though it has a spiritual dimension. Liturgy is, above all, an act of the people and not of individual self-consciousness. Prayer in liturgy indicates that and leads into many becoming One. In relation to icon painting, the very act of painting Christ or a saint is an act of prayer. The icon painter forms a bridge between God and man by painting; he unites the created with the Uncreated, and he does so by offering his piece of work, his theological expression through colors, as a gift to the liturgical community of the Church.

14. What is “artistic inspiration” in your opinion?

Fr. Stamatis: What inspires me are the great masters of the 14th century, anonymous ones; Serbian medieval painting, Sopocani foremost, then Giacometti and Picasso. Among modern Greek painters, Tsarouchis. However, most often, unpredictable things arouse my sensitivity, a flower or a beautiful color that I use to paint the robe of St. Marina. Artistic inspiration is not found and sought in everyday life. Except in those rare moments, in moments of creativity. And they do not express an artist’s skillfulness, but his sensitivity.

15. Who are your artistic role models?

Fr. Stamatis: I have one model that I use in painting. It is a gaze of a man who has fallen deeply into sin, and, while he is looking at me, an existential earthquake is taking place inside him. He yearns for forgiveness, for holiness, for union with the community of the Holy Ones and with God. There is not a better source for icon painting than this desire of a fallen man for redemption, for perfection, for the divine and holy.

16. In your opinion, what are the essential aesthetic categories of Christian painting? Which one dominates your painting?

Fr. Stamatis: As for my painting, I would not say that I wish to follow one specific tenet or one particular school. What typifies my painting is an attempt to exhibit man and the nature that surrounds him in a new light, in the new dimension that the God-Man and Savior introduced into our existence. That is, it is an attempt to describe with colors, lines, and everything else that is used in pictorial expression something in the created’s existence that is ontologically new and that reflects the Incarnation of the Son of God and His Resurrection from the dead. It is an attempt to display all these events as events that took place in history for us, for each one of us individually, and that we are called upon to participate in these events. Further, the specific space in which our participation is realized is the space of our Church and her Eucharistic service, which constitutes us as a community, not just a community of religious people, but as the Body of Christ Himself. And what is very important for icon painting is that it testifies that the process of the transformation of man and the entire creation has already begun, here in real time, and the heralds and best witnesses of this are our saints. For this reason it is important for icon painting not to perceive history in its factuality, not to view it in a way that binds it to the limits of its historicity, because it already carries within itself a token of the transformation to come. This token, of course, is the existence of the Church in the world in the form of its liturgical gathering.

17. What do you consider to be the crucial differences between icon painting in Roman Catholicism and the Orthodox Church?

Fr. Stamatis: Western painting is, in my opinion, placed more within history, while Eastern painting focuses more on a vision of the future. Western painting strives for depicting natural space and time, while Eastern painting has developed a rhythm that creates a sense of the transfiguration of these realities, overcoming the natural impression of the world. As for its function, Western art, in perceiving the relationship between God and man, emphasizes the didactic and ethical dimensions of this relationship.

Eastern painting is centered more on the liturgical, sacramental experience and tries to reveal and convey a vision of the world that is to come. As for the ethos, Western painting practices, to a certain extent, theatrical expression. In presenting events from the past, it insists on dramatizing. It should be acknowledged that both painting traditions are in many elements indebted to old Greek drama. An icon painter, regardless of the tradition, must know how to direct a scene with multiple participants in an actual event. Also, he must be aware that he is directing a space that is immediately concerned with realities that touch on our existential leanings in a most profound way. In Western painting, a desire to highlight a notion of fullness and richness, which is achieved by emphasizing certain architectural or costume details, can often be discerned. Eastern painting, on the other hand, like a sort of pantomime and with very few words, tries to send a message with eschatological content. Briefly put, in the theological sense, Eastern painting is more inspired by the Resurrection, and Western, it seems, more by the Cross and Passion of our Lord.

18. Does the spirit of Post-Modernism add to the revitalization of Christian art?

Fr. Stamatis: Postmodernism has a positive aspect for us Orthodox Christians. It re-examines oldcultural models. In this context, it allows us toreappraise even Byzantine painting, that is the icon,whose meaning we Christians and people outsideChurch, too, may have forgotten in some sense. Inthis light, the appearance of a theology of the icon,which did not exist in the era in which the icon wasmade in Byzantium, is understandable. The theologyof the icon is a modern phenomenon that testifies tothe fact that there are uncertainties regarding to thistopic. Postmodernism has, on the other hand, anegative element because in some parts it connectsexternal forms and elements of various cultures ofthe past, creating a new form of art that loses itsintrinsic functionality. All the elements that made itinto this new artistic form primarily hadfunctionality because they emanated from theexperience of people living in specific cultures. In thecase of postmodernism, we have a new form madeout of different cultural elements as a creation thatemanated only from the mind of artist. It did notemanate from real life. For example, in a painting, anartist can take eyes from a Byzantine Virgin Maryand unite them with a Chinese element. Inarchitecture, he can take a dome and connect it to apagoda. But those who are going to enter thatbuilding or live in it are neither going to beByzantine Christians who piously enter a domedshrine, nor Eastern mystics entering a pagoda. Thisbuilding does not belong to life organically, but onlyaesthetically. Therefore, this is about an aestheticseparated from life.

Hence, an icon—viewed as an artistic creation that transcends time, which draws its life from thefaithful entering the church to venerate it, viewed asa very unique form of painting that the faithful kissand respect as if it were a living and present person—cannot be turned into a postmodern type of art. Thefunction of the icon is that when it is placed inside asanctuary it represents the living presence of thetransfigured world within the space of the HolyEucharist. However, apart from all that, I think thatto me, personally, postmodernism contributedsomething very important. What is that? It taughtme a very fruitful practice: to combine things that atfirst glance seem impossible to connect, in such away that a synthesis is made between them. Anapproach like that in the moment when an icon isbeing painted assumes that Tradition is notperceived as a self-explanatory reality. Therefore,what we have here is a somewhat problematicpractice that can endanger Tradition. However, inmy case, it elicited the realization that even Traditioncan be dangerous if it teaches me only to acceptreadymade solutions, if it teaches me only, forexample, to imitate my elder in a superficial way orto imitate, let’s say, Panselinos and formal features ofhis painting. In that case, it would lead me tospiritual and iconographic decline. While I waspainting the Virgin Platytera (More Spacious thanthe Heavens) with Athanasius Koutzipetzidis in thechurch of St. Nectarius in Voula, we painted theenthroned Virgin in a very conservative andtraditional way and Christ in a postmodern, so tospeak. He has the expression of a very strong childand his dress is painted in an impressionist manner.

The synthesis of a Byzantine Virgin and impressionist elements is, we could say, in a broader sense, apostmodern practice. And this is its significance:that within the arms of a solemn mother, theTheotokos, appears a divine child who keeps insideof him all the strength of divinity, and, what is ofparticular importance, expresses divine action inhuman history. I believe that the Theotokos is avessel that serves to incorporate the God-Man Christinto the community of men.

19. How do you see the role of the icon in a “cyber universe”?

Fr. Stamatis: To properly evaluate the problems thatarise from this question, Metropolitan John ofPergamon suggests that the criterion must be thebody and the participation of the body in the contextof human activity. We should, therefore, first of allsee how an ecclesiastical icon perceives corporealityand how a cyber icon or image sees it. The correctanswer to the question comes from how accurately we understand the concept of corporeality in both cases. Following that, we should connect personality with corporeality. Finally, we move to the question of comparing the comic strips and the icon. Icons on which we paint saints with a body that has no fullness, as in the case of, let’s say, Coptic icons, lead us to the impersonal characters that we see in comic strips. Icons on which the saint is an actual person with an actual body, thus corporal, express most fully the Orthodox conception of the icon in general sense, hence in the sense of Tradition. By trying to answer this question, we come to the subject of why it is imperative that icons have plasticity, to express space, three dimensions with some reversed perspective, but always to express body with dimension, and not just some abstract vision. Icons are, in fact, visions; that is, they express visions, but,at the same time, they are representations with concrete historical content that always includes corporeality. In the context of corporeality, an unavoidable factor is also the materiality of the icon.An icon which is correctly painted and which can rightly participate in the Divine Liturgy is only an icon that is made of matter, wood, or anything else,and with material colors and which is done by an icon painter.

Thus we come to the question of printed icons, ones that were done by machines and not by men. In cyber space, however, we do not even have machines which, we could say, represent material elements, but instead, we have an absence of the corporal in general. It has become possible for all human actions to be made without using the body – for instance, to go somewhere, to reach something, to connect with other people, to buy something, and so on. The further problem is that those actions, those products of cyberspace, are reproductions, they could be reproduced innumerable times and remain identical.Such a phenomenon—for there to be two completely identical things – never before existed in human life;even two leaves from a single tree, for instance, are different. All that is obliterated now, because digitally it is possible to make things exactly the same.According to Metropolitan John of Pergamon, this is something monstrous from the perspective of the sense of the uniqueness of the person, because this phenomenon introduces a new mentality of generalization and an attitude to life that consents to the loss of uniqueness and the fact that the person does not use his corporeality. That is why we could say, in response to your question, that the Orthodox stance is very reserved toward icons in cyberspace.Even though we are forced to use means that come from the so-called cyberspace, because life has reached a stage where it is impossible to avoid it,where it is impossible to work without using these means, we are still concerned about it, to say the least. However, the topic raised by this question is so big that it requires not just one, but many studies,and therefore what we have said is only a kind of first reaction based on an experience of the Orthodox understanding of reality in general.

20. Ecumenical dialogue is more intensive. Great efforts are being made to establish once again unity in the Christian world. To what extent can ecclesiastical art contribute to that?

Fr. Stamatis: The unity of the Church is the most significant question. For every problem that is concerned with the question of unity, we should care about it deeply and fight fiercely to overcome it with God’s help, and of course, through dialogue.Certainly, in the present circumstances, the realization of unity seems very difficult, requiring lots of time, above all, because of human weakness and passion. Concerning the icon, I am under the impression that there has been a rapprochement between the Catholics, the Anglicans, and the Orthodox in understanding the gravity, sanctity, and theology that is expressed by a Byzantine icon. We call the Byzantine icon an Orthodox icon, but we would not mind if the non-Orthodox perceived it as their own, and therefore, we will not call it an Orthodox icon, but with a broader name, that is more common anyway – a Byzantine icon. Friends of mine, clerics of the Roman Catholic Church in Bologna, told me that when they are praying they abandoned Raphael’s Madonna and they pray only before icons painted according to the Eastern tradition. They keep Raphael’s Madonna only as paintings in their homes, but not in areas for praying.Many shrines, both Catholic and Anglican, keep Byzantine icons now. I do not have information concerning the rest of the Protestant world, but probably things are moving toward rapprochement,toward concordance on this topic. This may meanthat the icon, because it represents highly complex,subtle theological language, from which every detail of the dogmatic teaching of the Church can be read,which naturally expresses love for Christ and love among men, speaks to every person, regardless of their confession. We should accept, without fear, that the art of painting does not possess the clarity and precision of theological language. Therefore, it is possible to find in an icon the elements that we described, but when we try to develop it through language  dogmatic language especially, we find differences. In any case, when it comes to an icon, we can all agree that we have a representation of Christ, iconized, presented in such a way that it shows that He has one hypostasis and two natures. On an icon,Personality is iconized; one and undivided Personality of the Word of God, Word Incarnated.

This interview was published in the book Sailors of the Sky (Sebastian Press 2010). We would like to thank Fr. Radovan Bigovic for the questions, which were really timely and stimulating, and which brought up so many issues that a whole book, at least, could have been devoted to them.

  • ISBN: 978-0-9719505-8-0
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