Sunday, April 10, 2011

Hidden and Triumphant: The Underground Struggle to Save Russian Iconography

By Irina Yazykova, Translated by Paul Grenier, 191 pages, Paraclete Press.

Icons offer Christians a vision of God's grace, much like the gospels themselves do. Part theology, part art, they depict the saint in his timeless, grace-filled state. Physically-correct depictions are not important, as icons (again, like the gospels) are not biography.

Throughout Eastern Christian history, icons have offered beauty to a world that seems ugly and intent on creating violence. Grace leads to beauty. Even during the lowest periods of human history, the icon must be present to the world, ready to appeal to a deep part of the human heart that hungers for more than this world.

"Whatever the age, the senselessness and ugliness that so often scars this world encounters a bulwark of resistance to the icon - in the radiant face of divine wisdom," the author notes.

Yazykova's discussion on the theological meaning of beauty, and on the special work of icons in the proclamation of the gospel, fits well with Catholics. Beauty is part of the proclamation of the gospel. Much of today's kitsch-culture rises from the fact that we have lost our way spiritually. God is not the muse of artists that He once was.

Artists have become intent on shocking and destroying, ready to disrespect religion, especially Catholicism.

The practice of painting and using icons in worship is as far removed from this ugliness as is possible. Because of the almost-unchanging nature of icon production and use in prayer and the liturgy, icons lack the childish sentimentality of much of current spirituality.

Icons help us grow spiritually because they point to the unchanging truth. Yazykova writes of the great respect shown the icons by the Russian people. Until this century, the artist did not sign the work, because the icon was more important than the artist. Iconographers were a kind of priest, whose individuality didn't matter. They served the Church and God. Their artistic career and renown were not important.

Iconography was influenced by Russia's turn to the West in the eighteenth-century. In the nineteenth, a kind of fusion of Western and Eastern art occurred, much to the detriment of the practice and understanding of iconography.

Readers get a sense of the violent troubles of the Soviet period, particularly bad up to the Second World War, when Stalin relented on persecution of the Church because of the war effort. The bare essentials, sometimes an individual or group's bare faith, remained.

The Soviet ransacking and neglect of Russia's Orthodox heritage was a boon, ironically, to the iconographers of the post-communist period. Perhaps too much of a boon - the quality of workmanship on icons has decreased because of the shortage of iconographers.

No matter, things will eventually sort themselves out because of the nature of Orthodox spirituality. Rather than a revolutionary movement, the Russian Church advocates a return to tradition, of which it is the guardian. Discouraging innovation, Russian spirituality relies on the truths of the past. This will serve icons well in the future, and offer the true revolution of the heart.

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