I love reading about Eastern Orthodoxy, scripture, and nonfiction works that challenge me to expand my view of the world.
Pavel Florensky, Iconostasis, trans. Donald Sheehan and Olga Andrejev (Crestwood: SVS Press, 1996). Pp. 170. Paperback $17.00.
Two weeks ago I participated in an egg tempera icon-painting workshop led by an instructor from the Prosopon School of Iconology in New York. The workshop lasted 6 days, and each day started with a lecture by the instructor. The lectures were outstanding. I learned how the process of writing an icon loosely follows a lectio divina model: meditation, practice, and contemplation. This process, however, is not just a teaching method to instruct students how to paint. That is to say, painting (or writing) an icon is to be a form of prayer. Each layer of paint represents the process of human transfiguration. One ascends from body, to soul, to spirit, drawing closer to God with each step. This process is to be a model for our lives so that we too become an icon of the living God.
This school is very steeped in the mystical tradition of the Orthodox Church. One of the most influential theologians in this tradition happens to be Pavel Florensky and his book, Iconostasis. Though I had read this book several years ago, I thought in light of my recent experience, I should pick it up again and give it a second read.
Florensky starts by describing dreams, and how, when we dream, we are caught between two different worlds: that of reality, and another dream-like world. He goes on to write, “A dream, then, is a sign of movement between two realms – and also a symbol: of what? From the heavenly view, the dream symbolizes earth; from the heavenly perspective, it symbolizes heaven” (pg. 43). He starts with dreams because that’s an experience we all have; it’s an experience to which we can all relate. He then says that icons function in the same way: “Art is thus materialized dream, separated from the ordinary consciousness of waking life” (pg. 44). In other words, the icon acts as the movement of ascent into the spiritual world, which is just as real – if not more – than our own.
This leads him into a discussion of how we, as human beings, are made in the image of God, but we are to ascend into the likeness of God (spiritual perfection). This is a mystical experience when “…the soul is raised up from the visible realm to where visibility itself vanishes and the field of the invisible opens…” (pg. 45). For Florensky the services of the Orthodox Church are the way to this sort of mystical ascent. It is here that Florensky starts to talk about icons.
He begins with a discussion of the iconostasis – the wall of icons that separates the altar from the nave in an Orthodox Church. For him, this wall of icons is not a barrier but an opening up. “But this spiritual prop, this material iconostasis, does not conceal from the believer some sharp mystery; on the contrary, the iconostasis points out to the half-blind the Mysteries of the altar, opens for them an entrance into a world closed to them…But the material iconostasis does not, in itself, take the place of the living witnesses, existing instead of them; rather, it points toward them, concentrating the attention of those who pray upon them – a concentration of attention that is essential to the developing of spiritual sight.” (pg. 62-3). It’s like those dreams he explained: an entrance into a spiritual reality.
He then goes on to discuss the history of the icon and the theology of the icon. Finally, he ends with a discussion of the process of writing and icon, and the meaning behind this process.
Some are very uncomfortable with this mystical explanation of icons. In fact, they believe that Florensky is saying that icons are, in their essence, something other than paint and wood. However, I think this is resolved by what the translator says in the preface, “Through the medium of the believer’s faith, the icon becomes an opening through which God can act directly in the believer as the cause of his or her comprehension of the icon: such is the ground” (pg. 3). In other words, understanding iconography, as Florensky explains it, is like learning to read. If you don’t know your ABCs, then words are just black lines on a page. If, however, you do know how to read, those black lines open up a whole new world.