I love reading about Eastern Orthodoxy, scripture, and nonfiction works that challenge me to expand my view of the world.
George Kordis, Icon As Communion: The Ideals and Compositional Principles of Icon Painting, translated by Caroline Makropoulos (Brookline: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2010). Pp. 102. Paperback $19.95.
This book doesn’t focus on the theology of the icon itself, but rather it focuses on the theology of the line. By connecting the way the line is drawn to Orthodox theology, he is able to distinguish a Byzantine style that sets it a part from other styles of art. What he does is actually quite remarkable. He develops his argument in such a way that one can easily remember the distinguishing aspects of a Byzantine line, yet, at the same time, he’s teaching the reader about key Orthodox theological points. It’s like getting two birds with one stone – the reader learns about God and art at the same time.
Kordis’s thesis is based upon the doctrine of salvation: theosis (deification – or becoming god by grace). Theosis is the participation of humanity in the energies of God, rather than the nature (essence) of God. This participation is a movement by both God and humanity towards each other, and this movement is communion. However, it’s not human nature as a whole that has to move towards God, but rather each individual, who is a specific existence, also known as a “hypostasis.” Here’s where it gets really exciting.
Each line drawn in an icon distinguishes the various forms (garments, facial features, buildings, etc.), thus giving each form a specific "hypostasis." If lines didn’t do this, you’d just have blobs of color. However, each of these lines, each of these hypostases, have to work harmoniously together to give the whole composition meaning. When drawn well, the lines generate movement and energy, which draws the viewer into a relationship with the icon. Kordis also writes that each hypostasis has to be reconciled with the whole composition. This means that it looses its individual autonomy to acquire a common energy and a common point of reference. He says that in this way each line is purified of its passion. If this didn't happen, you'd have a work of Picasso rather than an icon.
Wow! This describes the Christian life perfectly. We, as individuals, are a part of human nature, but human nature doesn’t exist as a thing by itself. Human nature needs a specific mode of existence, such as an individual, i.e., hypostasis. Yet, the process of salvation is to do the will of God. We learn to do this by conforming our individuality to his will, or, in short, we loose our individual autonomy to acquire a common energy. In short, just like the line in an icon that seeks to reconcile itself to be a part of the larger composition, we too seek to reconcile ourselves to God so that we can be a part of the larger composition, which is participation in the energies, or life, of God. When we loose our independence to exist in harmony with God, then we are not static, but rather we exist in a relationship and have communion with God.
This brings us full circle – the icon as communion. Of course Kordis goes on to talk about what sort of lines fit this profile and what lines do not (and why). He also goes on to talk about the overall composition of an icon and how it must have balance. Because the Prosopon School of Iconology (in New York City) has a large influence in the Orthodox iconology world (especially in the United States), let me compare Kordis’s argument to them. The Prosopon School develops their theology also in terms of deification. However, their theology centers on color and how color is built up in such a way as to transfigure the individual ("In your light, we shall see light"). What the Prosopon School is to color, Kordis is to line. In short, I believe both schools of thought are complimentary and I’d love to see someone bring them together.