March 8, 2010
By Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos
We will consider the difference between the Orthodox-Byzantine icon and the Western icon according to two specific models found in the West and in the East.
The western style of the icon, such as prevailed in the West during the Middle Ages and early Renaissance, is best expressed in the paintings of the Vatican's Sistine Chapel, which was painted in the 15th century by great artists, the most important of whom was Michelangelo.
Recently there was published a book which gives a new interpretation of the whole iconography of this church. This book is written by Professor Heinrich Pfeiffer, who tried to arrive at a theological interpretation of the iconography of the Sistine Chapel, the basis of which were the doctrines of Catholicism. It argues that in this work the choice of subjects, the details of the murals, the unity and harmony seen in the iconographic program, were not designed by the artists themselves, but by papal theologians at the time. On the subject of the Triune God, the iconography was based on the teachings of divine Augustine on the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son.
It is remarkable that Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel as a sculptor and painted biblical personages as statues, founding "spontaneously anthropocentrism and the rule of classical antiquity."
Characteristic is the appearance of Judgement, which was painted by Michelangelo. Christ is presented with his right hand raised in a movement of rage and the entire performance is affected by the movement of the right hand of the Judge. And as a researcher has noted, "for the first time an artist appointed by the Pope of the Roman Church gives an image of Christ that departs from the standard iconographic type and refers to a pagan deity." Perhaps here he wanted to express the absolute power of the pope throughout the world, being the vicar of Christ on earth.
Elder Sophronios, an Orthodox iconographer himself, when he visited the Sistine Chapel, wrote: "The soul is not available at all for prayer, but only for various artistic and philosophical reflections." Regarding the representation of Christ as Judge, he specifically wrote: "It's as if he is a 'champion athlete' hurling into the abyss of hell all those who dared to resist him. The gesture is 'vindictive', raw ... And I'm certain that it is not the authentic evangelical Christ."
How different things are in Orthodox iconography, as shown in the icon of the Second Coming of Christ, but also in the image of the Transfiguration of Christ and the Resurrection. Inside the Sistine Chapel they could not fit in the images of the Transfiguration and the Resurrection, and this is characteristic.
Let us reflect on the hagiography of another Michael, Michael Panselinos, in the Protaton of Mount Athos. These paintings have caught the attention of all scholars of art, but also of ordinary people. The Holy Community of Mount Athos has said that "the frescoes of the 'Great Church of Protaton' is the fruit and essence of the internal monastic and liturgical life of the Holy Mountain. In this visual treasure of our holy land, theological profundity, spiritual depth and a classical aesthetic, are a fruitful harmony of the compositions, the beauty of the forms and the brilliance of the colors." According to an expert opinion on art: "The murals of Protaton reflect a conscious shift and renewed interest in the Byzantine world in the classic ideal of the harmonious, however, it is coupled with the spirituality of the Christian society it represents."
Archimandrite Sophronios writes that Orthodox icon painters act on the basis of their personal experience. Some of them eliminate analogies and disfigure the human form in order to distract the praying mind from the earthly and lead it to heaven, and others with the icon want to express the union of created and uncreated. This latest case presupposes a theoptic experience.
The differences between Byzantine and Western icons are clear. The Byzantine icons show Christ in glory, but with a deep peace, approaching man with philanthropic and kenotic love. They are images of love, affection, tenderness. At the same time, Orthodox icons reflect the inwardness of man, the union of uncreated and created, the transfiguration of man from the uncreated Light which entered into human existence and issues out of the body into all creation. It surrounds the man who sees this with tenderness, affection and love. At the same time the cheerful Light issues out of Christ and sanctifies the whole creation.
Antithetically, there can be observed in the religious icons of the Western Renaissance the anthropocentric worldview of ancient Greek civilization, the confidence of man in himself, the rule of logic, power and pleasure, and the challenge of traditional values in that the art has an anti-metaphysical realistic character. In the West there is created a plastic icon based on humanistic experience and knowledge, which translates into a form that signals a renewal of faith in human powers and his mundane destiny. Western religious art which is naturalistic and humanistic is the humanization of dogma and has human passions in its sacred scenes.
Source: Excerpt translated by John Sanidopoulos