ВЫШЕICON. V.V.Bychkov.

Enciclopedia of Aesthetics, ed. M.Kelly. Vol.2. N.Y.-Oxford, 1998. Pp. 448-450

ICON (from the Greek εικων - image, representation) is one of the main phenomena of the Orthodox, and in particular Russian Orthodox, culture. It plays an important part in the Orthodox religious aesthetic consciousness, being also one of the main categories of Russian religious aesthetics. The icon emerges as a ritual image during the early Byzantine period (4-6th c.) and acquires its classical form in Byzantium in the 9-11th c., after the final victory of iconolatry, and later in the medieval Rus in the 14-15th c. The high significance of the icon for the Orthodox mentality is marked by a special church feast in honour of the victory of iconolatry which is styled the 'Triumph of Orthodoxy' and is celebrated by the Church since 843 on the first Sunday of Lent.

In Byzantium, the main contribution to the theory of the icon (= image, symbol) has been made by pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, John of Damascus, the Fathers of the 7th Ecumenical Council (787), patriarch Nikephoros, and Theodore of Stoudios. In the medieval Rus, their ideas are eagerly received and interpreted (sometimes in quite opposite ways) by Iosif Volotsky, Maxim Grek, Zinovij Otensky, hegumen Artemij, the participants of the Church councils of 1551 (Stoglav) and 1554, deacon Ivan Viskovaty, Evfimij Chudovsky, archpriest (protopop) Avvakum, Simon Ushakov, Iosif Vladimirov, Simeon Polotsky, and other thinkers and icon-painters. The work of many centuries in the area of theology, metaphysics, and aesthetics of the icon in the Orthodox regions is summed up by the Russian religious thinkers of c.1900-1930 E.Trubetskoy, P.Florensky, S. Bulgakov. In the whole, there exists, at the present time, a rather complex, many-faceted theory of the icon which reflects the essence of this indescribable phenomenon of Orthodox aesthetics.

For the Orthodox mentality, the icon is first of all a narrative about the events of the Sacred history, or a life of a Saint in pictures (using the phrase of Basil the Great that has become a theological formula of a kind, a 'book for the illiterate'), i.e., in fact, a realistic representation, or an illustration. Here, the expressive-psychological function of the icon comes to the foreground - not only it tells about the events of old times, but also arouses a whole gamut of emotions in the beholder: compassion, pity, affection, admiration etc., and consequently a desire to imitate the represented personages. Hence the moral function of the icon: the arousal of feelings of love and compassion in the beholder, the softening of human souls which have sunk into daily hassles and hardened. Therefore the icon is the expression and carrier of the main moral principle of Christianity: humanism, the all-embracing love for men, as a consequence of God's love for them and their love for God.

The icon is also a beautiful colourful image which serves, with its bright colours, as an ornament for the church and brings spiritual joy to the beholders. 'The colour of painting', John of Damascus writes about church art, 'draws me towards contemplation and, delighting my sight as a meadow, pours the glory of God into my soul'.

The icon is a story in images: however, it is not a story about the events of daily life, but of events unique, miraculous, and significant - in that or another way - for the whole of the humankind. Therefore it contains nothing contingent, transient or insignificant: it is a generalized, laconic image. Moreover, the icon is the a-temporal eidos of an event that has taken place in history, or of a concrete historical person. It is the everlasting countenance of the latter, or that visual image in which he has been devised by the Creator, and which he has lost as a result of the Fall, but which he must regain again after his resurrection from the dead (or even in this life, as it happened to some renowned ascetics who had transformed their psycho-physical essence in the process of ascetic life).

The icon is an imprint of the Divine seal upon the destiny of humanity. The ultimate example of this Seal, or the main Icon, was God the Word himself who had become flesh. Therefore the icon is his imprint, a materialized copy of his face. Hence follows a particular illusionist, or, as we might say today, photographic character of the icon: for, according to the Church Fathers, it bears witness to the reality and truthfulness of the Incarnation of the divinity. In the canons of the 7th Ecumenical Council it is written that it confirms the ancient tradition of making painted representations of Jesus Christ, for it 'serves as a confirmation of the fact that God the Word has become flesh in truth, and not in appearance'. The icon thus acts as a mirror, or a photographic document, which captures only material objects: if there is a reflection in the mirror, or any other imprint, therefore the material object itself - in this case, the human being in the flesh Jesus Christ - does, or did, really exist.

However, the icon is not a simple representation of the earthly face of historical Jesus which was subject to temporal changes: it is the imprint of the ideal, pre-existent face of the Pantokrator and Saviour. According to Theodore of Stoudios, the icon reveals this face, or the original 'visible image', even more distinctly than the face of historical Jesus Christ himself. The icon, hence, is the symbol. For not only it represents, but also expresses that which hardly yields to representation. In the iconic image of Jesus, who lived and acted almost 2,000 years ago, the spiritual vision of the believer intuits in reality the Person of God become man who possesses two 'joined without conflation' and 'indivisibly divisible' natures - divine and human - which is in principle unattainable for the human intellect, but is manifested to our spirit symbolically through the mediation of the icon.

By pointing to the spiritual phenomena of the celestial world which are beyond representation, the icon uplifts the human mind and spirit to that world, unites it with the latter, allows it to share in the infinite delight of the spiritual creatures that surround the throne of the Lord. The icon, hence, has a contemplative and anagogical function. It is the object of prolonged and deep contemplation that helps to initiate spiritual concentration and leads to meditation and spiritual ascent. The icon depicts the past, present, and future of the Orthodox world. It is by its essence beyond time and space. In the icon, the believer finds eternal spiritual cosmos, the participation in which is the goal of life for a member of the Orthodox community. In the icon, the unity of the heavenly and the earthly, and the communion (sobor) of all creatures before the face of God, is really accomplished. The icon thus is the symbol and embodiment of sobornost (companionship).

The icon is a special kind of symbol. Lifting the spirit of the believer up to the spiritual spheres, the icon not only signifies and expresses the latter, but also quite really presents what it depicts in our transitory world. It is a sacred, or liturgical, symbol which is endowed with power, energy and holiness of the represented personage or event of the Sacred history. The gracious power of the icon rests on the very likeness, or similitude of the image with its archetype (hence, once again, the tendency towards illusionism in icon painting), as well as on the naming, or name, of the icon (hence follows, on the contrary, the conventionality and symbolism of the image). The icon is antinomical in its essence, just as its original divine Archetype: it is the expression of something beyond expression, and the representation of the non-representable. The ancient antithetical archetypes of the mirror, as really presenting its prototype (the Hellenic tradition), and the name, as the carrier of the essence of the named (the Middle East tradition), find in the icon their antinomical unity.

The icon really manifests its prototype. Hence, it must be worshipped and has the ability to work miracles. The believer loves the icon as he would its very archetype, kisses it, worships it as he would the personage that it depicts ('the honour paid to the image extends to the prototype', the Church Fathers believed), and receives spiritual aid from the icon, just as he would from its very archetype. Therefore the icon is an object of prayer. The believer prays before it, just as he would before its archetype, and opens up his soul in trusting confession, supplication, or thanksgiving.

In the icon, the Church Tradition lives in its artistic form. The main carrier of tradition is the iconic canon. It is the canon that preserves, as if in a specific inner norm of artistic process, the main principles, methods and peculiarities of the artistic language of icon painting that have been accumulated as a result of many centuries of spiritual and artistic practice of Orthodoxy. The canon does not impede the creative will of the icon painter, but disciplines it, and facilitates, for the artistic thought, the breakthrough into the spheres of absolute spirituality, as well as the expression of the acquired spiritual experience in the language of icon painting. Hence follows the extreme concentration of artistic and aesthetic means in the icon. The icon is, therefore, an outstanding work of representational art which conveys its deepest spiritual contents by exclusively artistic means: colour, composition, line, and shape. According to Fr. Sergij Bulgakov, the icon embodies, to the ultimate degree of manifested-ness, the 'spiritual, sacred corporeity' (or dukhotelesnost'). The corporeal entelechy, which is the object of intuitive striving for every true art, is realized in the icon most fully and - for the Orthodox mentality - in the best way possible. In the icon, the eternal antinomy of culture between the spiritual and corporeal is eliminated, for it is in the icon (we have in mind the classical examples of the icon from its 'golden age' in Rus around 1400) that spirituality receives its ultimate realization in matter, or in the created world, and reveals to the world its visually perceptible beauty. Finally, all this bears witness to the sophijnost' of the icon. The icon possesses sophijnost' for it contains in itself, in a certain incomprehensible unity, all the things described above, together with many other ineffable essences, which makes clear the involvement of Sophia the Wisdom of God herself in its creation.


Filosofia russkogo religioznogo iskusstva. XVI-XX vv. Antologia (The Philosophy of Russian Religious Art), ed. N.K.Gavryushina, Moscow, 1993; READ

Prince Eugenij Trubetskoy, Tri ocherka o russkoj ikone (Three Essays on the Russian Icon), Moscow, 1991; READ

P.A.Florensky, Ikonostasis, Moscow, 1994;READ

S.N.Bulgakov, Ikona i ikonopochitanie (The Icon and Iconolatry), Paris, 1931; READ

L.A.Ouspensky, Bogoslovie ikony pravoslavnoj Tserkvi (The Theology of the Icon of the Orthodox Church), Paris, 1989; READ

V.V.Bychkov, Malaya istoriya vizantijskoy estetiki (The Concise History of Byzantine Aesthetics), Kiev, 1991;

V.V.Bychkov, Russkaya srednevekovaya estetika. XVI-XVII veka (Medieval Russian Aesthetics), Moscow, 1992;

V.V.Bychkov, Dukhovno-esteticheskiye osnovy russkoj ikony (The Spiritual and Aesthetic Foundations of the Russian Icon), Moscow, 1995;

L.Ouspensky, V.Lossky, The Meaning of Icons, Crestwood, N. Y., 1982.

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