The Theological and Spiritual Foundations of the Return to the Icon.

The return to the purity of the Icon

Leonid UspenskyLeonid Uspensky was born in 1902 in the Zadonsk region to a family of landowners. He had enjoyed painting since childhood. Having joined the communists as a very young man, he was a soldier in the Red Army and at that moment, Providence manifested her protection for the first time. Having been taken prisoner by the White Army, Leonid Alexandrovich was to be shot. When the time of execution came, a White Army officer who was passing by « by chance », seeing that the man was really very young - he was eighteen - cried: « No! Not him! » and he was assigned to the artillery. Until the end of his life, Uspensky prayed for that man who had saved his life. Later, when he was working in a mine in Bulgaria, his right hand was badly injured and he could have remained disabled. He was operated under makeshift conditions - yet again, by a pure miracle, his hand would later function normaly.

       He came to France in 1926 and worked for some time in high furnaces, then in a plant. In 1930, when he had a little money saved, he entered the painting Academy funded in the previous year by Tatiana Lvovna Tolstoy, where different lecturers, including Milioti (62), taught, and he dedicated himself entirely to painting. The Academy had to close down after one year of activity because of a lack of resources. Yet the students continued to rent premises where they would meet to paint. There Leonid Alexandrovich met George Ivanovich Krug, the future monk Gregory, and immediately became friend with him. Very soon the latter began to talk to him about icons. However, at that time Uspensky was not a believer. He would often go the Louvre and first discovered Egyptian art, then Romanesque Art. At that time, they met an antique dealer, Léon Adolphovitch Grinberg, who had a whole collection of very beautiful and very old icons. Looking at them, Uspensky understood that icon was something that had no equivalent whatsoever. A Russian painter, Federov, who knew the technique, spent some time in Paris and the two friends took a few lessons from him. Uspensky, who had acquired this technique, made a bet with Krug that he could easily paint an icon even though he was a non-believer. He painted an icon of the Mother of God in a fortnight. But while he was working on it, he understood that it was holy and could not be the object of a bet and burned it. From that moment, he would regularly settle down at Grinberg's place to contemplate the icons at length, trying to penetrate the mystery and understand how they were made. This is how little by little he became a Christian and an iconographer. We can rightly say that the icons themselves led him to faith. So later, he would often say: "Let the icons work!" He soon joined the Saint-Photius Brotherhood and took an active part in their work.

       As to Father Gregory, he had found faith long before, in Estonia, thanks to his friend Zuroff. He had dedicated himself to painting and music for a long time. Undoubtedly he had also begun to paint icons at that time (63)... Yet it was his entry into the parish of the Three Holy Hierarchs and the Brotherhood that completed his conversion. In Reval he had learned of the opening of Tatiana Tolstoy's Academy and had come to Paris to enrol. He passionately loved Russian art and seemed to possess icons in himself, as an inner world, half-memory, half-dreamed. Thus it was that his spiritual Father Archimandrite Sergius would later say that he had never copied an icon but had always found them in himself (64)... In 1933, recounts Lydia Uspensky, Father Athanasius asked the two young men, who had begun to paint icons together, to decorate the church. He told them: « I do not know what an icon is. What I do know, it is that it is absolutely different from any other kind of painting, as much as the Gospel is different from any other kind of literature! So sort it out yourself. » They shared the work between them. Krug painted the two iconostases and Uspensky painted several portable icons, like the large icon of the Three Holy Doctors and the icons of the feasts (65)... At that point there was no question of making a fresco. And yet it involved an intense effort, the torment of which is clearly seen in these first icons, whether they were later retouched or not, as was the case with those painted by Father Gregory.

       Given the very nature of the approach that brought him to Orthodoxy, Uspensky could not limit himself to superficially reproducing icons, however beautiful they were. It was necessary to penetrate that process, which was both plastic and spiritual, to find the same vision, not in any ecstatic or imaginary sense but in the sense of a living, ecclesial participation, a communion in the same way of being; creation had to be a direct expression of life. It demanded a combat on a spiritual, theological and a plastic level, and consequently, historical research as well, because traditional conscience had largely been lost since the XVII century. So he took an active part in the work of the Brotherhood.

       In discovering icons, Uspensky saw holiness in them, and in that holiness, he saw the manifestation of the living God. This implied a transformation of the human being as a whole. The crucial point of the combat, apart from the first hold granted to the fighter, was and certainly, still is the combat against oneself. Therefore, these icons express with a high degree of intensity - which is the basic work indispensable to icon painting - something that the Desert Fathers call self-denial, the Evangelical commandment: « Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. »

       In addition to that, to be the expression of life, that holiness of the icon could be manifest only in a wholly personal creation. The theology of the Brotherhood, and its ecclesiology in particular (66), which had already been substantially developed, gave him the theoretical and spiritual means of creative re-appropriation which implied an original local incarnation of universal iconicity - something owing to which an icon is always an icon, whatever the time and place - that is to say, within the « iconographic canon » and Tradition. Thus it was only those who perceived and understood the universal character of Orthodoxy, that is to say, those for whom the Truth of faith was a living experience, who were capable of giving it a fully local incarnation in this particular way and, by creating icons, bringing into the light the uniqueness of the land they lived in.

       We have seen that the manifesto of the Brotherhood uses an opposition between the universal Church and the local Church. In more recent works, including those written by members of the Brotherhood themselves, that opposition between the universal and the local is resolved in the idea of « catholicity » which does not exactly express the idea of « universality » (67), but rather the way in which the two not only complete each other but also unite. « The Church is the body of Christ. (…) The local Church is the Church as a whole, for the sole reason that the integral historical Christ is incarnate in her through the Divine Eucharist. As a result of this, she can be considered as God's Church. (…) To the same extent as she is the entire Church, the local Church is catholic because she possesses the integral Christ in the Divine Eucharist.(68)» At the same time, the notion of universality used by the Brotherhood and, during the same period (69), by Father George Florovsky, was surely not unrelated to the criterion of true faith according to Saint Vincent of Lerins: « What has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.(70)»

       In that sense, the opposition between the universal and the local is necessary if we are to recognize the independence of what is essentially Orthodox with regard to specifically national or culturally determined forms. « The Saint-Photius Brotherhood, says Catherine Aslanoff, has educated a generation of young Russian emigrants, taught them seek the essential things in Christianity, to purify it from its local tribal forms, to free it from a traditionalism made of unchanging habits, in order to find the true Tradition of the Church, that of the Saints, the Apostles and the defenders of the faith (71)».

       This opposition was necessary in order to manifest catholicity in a specific way in the study of local forms in which it incarnates, such as in different iconographic styles or different types of sainthood: « that « unity in diversity » and that « richness in unity », which is a manifestation (…) of the principle of catholicity of the Orthodox Church (72)». The interplay of the two gives rise to catholicity, the presence of the universal in, by and through the local - and thanks to the local... In the same way that it is impossible to grasp the true likeness of a Saint without studying all the icons representing him, it is difficult to grasp the catholicity of the icon without comparing the many different iconographic styles. Of course, the comparison can be never-ending and one might not come to grasp the catholicity in any way, as is the case for those who study icons with no « faith and love ». The perception of iconographic catholicity is linked to the gift of the Holy Spirit, received at baptism in confessing the Orthodox faith. Yet the comparison allows those who have received this gift to better realise the universal - or trans-cultural - nature of the catholicity of the icon, that is to say to grasp little by little what the « iconographic canon » is, which is not in itself linked to any defined local form, but is « the way of representing the Son of man » so that it « reflects His Divine glory, the human image of God the Word (73)». In the icon (as in the Church in general), « canonical » is thus a synonym of « catholic », that by which every icon is the icon of Christ.

       That is how Krug and Uspensky, each in his own way, by solely seeking this iconographic catholicity in its plenitude, i.e. not satisfying themselves with the undemanding solution of making more or less pale copies of old icons - without understanding them, unintentionally created a quite original style, unseen elsewhere, and that fully expresses the catholicity of the icon here and today. Everything is founded on spiritual life. « The unity of the pictorial language of Orthodoxy is a consequence and a manifestation of the « unity of the doctrine and spiritual life », and the decadence of spiritual life caused the loss of the spirit of Tradition in Russia (74). « The original character of the art of Orthodox countries results from the fact that in the Orthodox Church, unity of faith and sacraments not only does not exclude the variety of the forms of worship, art and other manifestations of church life shaped by national and cultural characteristics but, on the contrary, gives rises to this variety, because it involves a real-life and ever-renewed experience of Tradition, which is necessarily original and creative (75)». What should be understood by "spiritual life" in this case? It should be understood as Christian life in conformity with Christ's commandments, in everything that it reaches. Archimandrite Sophrony says that life can be spiritually just only if it is inseparably ascetic, theological and ecclesial (76), « direct, real-life experience of Truth », which alone allows « each nation to develop its own sacred pictorial language ». « Holiness and image [then] get a national shape and character because they result from real-life experience. (77) ».

       In accordance with the thought of the Brotherhood, the two iconographers, sent by Providence and converted on French soil, would fulfil a kind of mission there, just as Saint Photius had sent a mission to Slavic countries in the past. « The central point of the mission was preaching Orthodoxy. It was a mission of the Church and Patriarch Photius was not driven by the desire to preach the Kingdom of Caesar, but by what was, according to him, the essential nature of Orthodoxy - its universal character. The sacred art, thus « exported », was precisely a preaching of Orthodoxy, not a « civilisation » understood as an expansion of Christian culture or that of the empire. (78)». In the same way, although they were Russian, Krug and Uspensky did not bring Russian culture to the Orthodox Church in France, but the preaching of universal Orthodoxy. Although they were Russians, they were nonetheless those who created the first French icons, just like the Byzantine iconographers who had established themselves in Russia created the first Russian icons and like the first Russian painters, had been educated by Byzantine iconography. Even if the Vladimir icon of the Mother of God is of Byzantine workmanship, how is it possible not to see in it the Russian icon par excellence, which is eloquently proven by the countless later icons, this time of Russian workmanship? It is even more obvious in the case of Uspensky and Krug , because their icons were not imported but created on the spot.

       On a human level, this both voluntary and involuntary creative work of a new style immediately followed to vectors, two inseparable aspects of the same asceticism: on one hand, from a spiritual point of view, it was conversion and the ascetic combat within oneself, and, on the other, from a plastic and theological point of view, the search for genuine iconicity that could be embodied in a Western form, that is to say, a form (that was) to be created (79). Not that the iconicity exists outside this incarnation. In fact, it would have been easier - if it had been possible - to create in the realm of the abstract and then give a specific shape - for instance, to construct in the imagination a Romanesque painting of a new kind, then realise it more or less felicitously, something which others actually attempted to do... However, it would not have involved the same transformation of self, the same struggle, and the work would not have been a co-operation between God and man as was the case! No, it had to be found in the realm of the specific - even if it also required finding help in some local creation such as, Romanesque painting, in the struggle with shape, matter, colour, sense, with oneself, with tastes, passions, habits, suffering, memories, knowledge, ignorance - that iconicity which alone was capable of transfiguring clay to transform it into the resembling Image of God and « show in it the glory of God the Word » This is why those two struggles were and remain practically inseparable even if it is legitimate to draw a distinction between them (since not every Christian is an icon-painter).

       Any struggle to make a plastic element "iconographic" is a struggle in Christ to raise fallen nature. Thus the iconographer paints his own resemblance to his Creator wiyh every icon : « through asceticism, the supreme resemblance, writes Father Gregory, the image of God is inscribed deep within man and this constructive, uninterrupted and inalienable effort is the fundamental condition of man's life, a kind of imprint of the image of Christ on the foundations of the soul (80)».  

62) On the subject of this academy, see Valentine Marcadé, " Hommage au Père Grégoire Krug", in "Carnet d'un peintre d'icônes", p.11-12.

63) Valentine Marcadé says that, op.cit. p.13.

64) For the biography of Father Gregory Krug, one can refer to the omnibus: Le Père Grégoire, 1999, Korsun Monastery Publishing, as well as to the article by Leonid Zuroff reproduced p.57-66 for a very expressive description of his personality. Father Sergius's words do not mean that Father Gregory never had been inspired by one or another more ancient icon, but that generally, they would take shape in his soul under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. On the subject of the connection between his painting and contemplation, see Catherine Aslanoff, « Le Père Grégoire Krug », in Carnets d'un peintre d'icônes, p 25-28.

65) However, it seems that Uspensky took part in the paintings of certain parts of the iconostases. Since he had to support himself and his wife financially, contrary to Father Gregory, he was paid for his work, at least for the portable icons. Because there was no money, a subscription was organised every time a person died, the persons concerned would pay their contributions and present the icon to the memory of the diceased. Thus, on the back of each feast, there is no mention of a name with the words 'For the rest of the soul of…' and a date.

66) See above the formulation of the ideas of the Brotherhood, p.1 to 4.

67) See Father George Florovsky, " The historical problem of a definition of the Church ", The collected works, XIV, p. 33 and sq, which refers to Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, Catéchèses, XVIII, 23..

68) Metropolitan John of Pergam, 'L'Eucharistie, l'évêque et l'Eglise', Paris, DDB, 1997, p.127-129.

69) See quoted article, footnote 23, p.4.

70) Saint Vincent of Lérins, 'Commonitorium, 2.

71) C.Aslanoff, quoted article, p.28.

72) Uspensky, 'L'Icône, vision du monde spirituel', Paris, Setor, 1948, p.11 ; an article taken up in the volume 'L'Iconographie de l'Eglise des Trois saints Hiérarques et l'œuvre de Léonide A.Ouspensky et Père Grégoire (Krug), Paris, 2001, under the tittle " Quelques propos sur le sens dogmatique de l'icône ", p.115-128.

73) "If the historical traits of Jesus, His portrait, are a testimony to the advent in the flesh, his coming down, of the humiliation of the Divinity, the way of representing 'the Son of man' must reflect God's glory. In other words, the humility of God the Word must be shown in such a way that when looking at him, we would contemplate His divine glory, the human image of God the Word, and that we would conceive through this the salutary nature of his death and 'the redemption which was wrought for the whole world.' Uspensky, La théologie de l'icône, p.76, as a comment to rule 82 of Concilium Quinisextum.

74) Cf. in the same works the chapter :'Les conciles moscovites du 16ème siècle', p.261.

75) See 'La Théologie de l'icône', p.196-197.

76) Archimandrite Sophrony, "Lettre à un ami", in Buisson ardent, n°5, p.5, 2nd column.

77) See 'La Théologie de l'icône', p.197.

78) Ibid., p195-196.

79) Taking up Romanesque art again as it has been, rooted in Carolingian theology and spirituality, the living tradition of which had been lost anyway, did not prove possible. Working on the basis of that art would have meant searching for the truth on the basis of the false. After several attempts, Uspensky gave it up.

80) Monk Gregory, Carnets d'un peintre d'icônes, Lausanne 1983, p.35. Saint Macarios the Great says the same: Homily 30, §3 (p. 281-282 in the French translation).

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