Theology in Colours: The Language of Icons

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THE conversion of the Slavs in 988 AD brought Byzantine culture as well as Christianity to Russian lands. And Byzantium in its turn had been, through Alexandria, the heir to Graeco-Roman civilization. Thus it can be said that medieval icons-the product of early Christian and Byzantine art-appear at the end of an unbroken line rooted in classical traditions.

Because of this it has been said that Byzantine art was in a state of permanent renaissance, always turning towards classical ideals in order to solve its aesthetic problems. We can see aspects of this tradition in icons which depict Christ and the apostles dressed in the robes of philosophers of ancient Greece, and in others which show evangelists in the pose, the architectural setting and even the clothes in which classical authors had been depicted. When we look beyond the dream-like and fantastic architecture in Russian icons, we can distinguish the forms of Greek colonnades, pediments or atriums.

Built as it was on early Christian and Hellenistic foundations, medieval Byzantine and Russian art thus embraced principles of form, proportion, symbolism and colour that go back to the great treasure houses of ancient knowledge. This knowledge was the essential source of energy of Christian culture and provided the wealth of thought and beauty that nourished the living tradition of icon painting for over a thousand years.

This knowledge postulated certain universal principles about God, or the Absolute, about the world and Creation, and about man. It was complemented by a body of philosophical and religious teaching which was at first communicated orally and later expressed in books and in various forms of religious art, including architecture and painting. At the highest level, the art of imagery-iconography-is a vehicle for philosophical and theological ideas. It is in this sense that icons have been defined as "theology in colours".

Beauty in icons has to be seen in this perspective. Medieval artists had no conception of beauty for its own sake, which is a Romantic idea dating from the early nineteenth century. For them, as for the artists of Antiquity, beauty was an attribute of the Good, which was Plato's name for one of the highest realms of the universe.

Christians, who inherited the Platonic view of the cosmos, described the realm of the Good as that of the "Heavenly Powers and Principalities". The teaching behind religion and philosophy, which can be found in the symbolic imagery of sacred literature and also in icons, is aimed at bringing the divine Good down to man on Earth and at the same time raising man to the level of the Good.

For some, the purest expression of these ideas was given by Christ to his immediate followers, without the help of books or images. His message was intended to help humanity pass through the crisis of the collapse of Graeco-Roman civilization and to usher in a new era. Orthodox Christianity takes from Greek philosophy the view of the universe as what the sixth-century monk St. John Climacus called a "ladder of divine ascent". According to this view, the cosmos is a hierarchy with God at the highest point. He is the Pantocrator, the Ruler of the Universe; Earth is far below, in the shadow, threatened by Death, by Satan and darkness. Man stands on Earth. His physical body is held there but, because of the spark of divine fire in his soul, he yearns to ascend towards the angels and archangels, the starry firmament, the powers and principalities of the divine world where he rightly belongs.

A spiritual voyage

According to mystical tradition the idea that man is "made in the image of God" means that we carry the universe within ourselves. The life of the soul can be understood as an inner journey that takes place, not in the three-dimensional world and in time, but in the spiritual universe within us.

In the Middle Ages the imagery of icons served to illustrate some of the key events that man must inevitably encounter in his spiritual life. …