Using Colors According to Tradition

Using Colors According to Tradition

While it has become more and more commonplace in other Christian traditions to allow ecclesiastical artwork (whether statuary or iconography, or even clerical vestments) to be done by the hands of the non-Christian, this has been largely avoided in the Orthodox tradition. I’m sure that there are a few examples out there to the contrary, but the predominate perspective on this within Orthodoxy is that only those who are within the Church should — and perhaps are even only able to — produce such artwork and craft.

Orthodox tradition guides us to reproduce icons “as they were painted by the ancient and holy iconographers” (Leonid Ouspensky, Theology of the Icon, Vol. 1, p. 11; cf. the Hundred Chapters Council of AD 1551). This imitation, so to speak, goes beyond an imitation of mere form or “style,” as the purpose of iconography is one-and-the-same with the purpose of the holy scriptures, a sacred hymn, or a work of dogmatic theology.

A non-Orthodox artist might be able to replicate perfectly any number of Orthodox and canonical icons, but this does not mean that what they have produced is an icon itself, which are sacred objects of devotion, apocalyptic windows into the heavenly, and a taste of the Transfiguration itself. Just as no one would presume that an unbeliever could compose bits of holy scripture, nor should we presume the same could be done when it comes to iconography. Saint Symeon of Thessalonica once wrote (of icons) to “use colors according to tradition.” In the same context, Ouspensky notes (ibid., p. 11):

St Paul did not imitate Christ by copying His gestures and His words, but by integrating himself into His life, by letting Him live in him. Similarly, to paint icons as they were painted by the ancient iconographers does not mean to copy the ancient forms, since each historical period has its own forms. It means to follow the sacred Tradition, to live in the Tradition.

And what does it mean to “live in” this sacred tradition? Ouspensky continues:

But the power of Tradition is the power of the Holy Spirit and of the continuity in the spiritual experience of the Church, the power of communion with the spiritual life of all the preceding generations back to the time of the apostles. In Tradition, our experience and our understanding are the experience and understanding of the Apostle Paul, of the holy iconographers and of the entire Church; We no longer live separately, individually, but in the Body of Christ, in the same total body as all of our brothers in Christ. This is in fact the case in all areas of spiritual life, but it is particularly true in that of sacred art. The contemporary iconographer must rediscover the internal outlook of the iconographers of old and be guided by the same living inspiration. He will then find true faithfulness to Tradition, which is not repetition but a new, contemporary revelation of the internal life of the Church. Indeed, an Orthodox iconographer faithful to Tradition always speaks the language of his time, expressing himself in his own manner, following his own way.

The tradition of the Orthodox Church is eternal, transcendent, and (miraculously) immune to the passing fads or trends of culture, being grounded in the Person of Jesus Christ, who is himself without change and “the same yesterday, today, and unto ages of ages.” Therefore, when it comes to iconography, the “criteria” for canonical or “proper” iconography is that which is embodied in the life of the Church, which is itself of the Holy Spirit.

One can speak of style in scientific analyses, in historical or archaeological studies, but to use this idea in the Church to characterize its art is as absurd as discussing the “style” in which the Creed or the Great Canon of St Andrew of Crete is written. It is clearly a meaningless statement. In the Church there is only one criterion: Orthodoxy. Is an image Orthodox or not? Does it correspond to the teaching of the Church or not? Style as such is never an issue in worship.

Icons are not necessarily subject to the scrutiny of “aesthetics” or being “outdated” any more than the liturgy or the scriptures could (or should) be. The same Spirit speaks through them all, and he is a Spirit of unity, peace, and Pentecost, not one of chaos, division, and Babel. We should not subject the images of our churches to “personal taste,” either. Certainly, one can have opinions when it comes to artwork (even with icons), but such opinions have no bearing on the icon’s value “as a liturgical image” (Ibid., p. 14).

A champion of both iconography and the Orthodox tradition, Saint John of Damascus, warns: “If each person could act according to his desire, little by little, the entire body of the Church would be destroyed” (Third Treatise in the Defense of Holy Icons, Ch. 41). Of course, St John wrote this during the iconoclastic period of the 8th century, while under Ottoman rule in Palestine. I think that we should heed both his words and carefully examine all of our beliefs and actions as being lived in accordance and as part of the holy tradition of our Church, and icons are certainly no exception.

If one has a desire to “be Orthodox” and to sing, write, read, and preach “according to tradition,” we must be just as desirous to “use colors according to tradition,” as well.

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