On Brightness, Icon, Veils and Likeness

“And because for us there is no veil over the face, we all reflect as in a mirror the splendor of the Lord; thus we are transfigured into his likeness (eikona)” (2 Cor. 3, 18 The New English Bible).
When we read these amazing and inspired words of the Apostle of the Nations we feel for a moment that we have stood face to face with some extraverbal depth and mystery. Comments seem to be needless or even impossible. After a while - when we come round - we think: brightness, mirror, image, icon...
We can easily notice that the process of being transfigured in the likeness of the image is opposite to the events that happened in Paradise. As we remember, Adam had access to the image of the true God which he lost as a result of the Fall.
In the verse quoted, those who look at the Lord's brightness or splendor, regain likeness to "His image" that was lost in Paradise. Let us remember however that a mirror is the herald of a later icon in the theological sense, and "His image" shall be the Model, the Prototype to which the mirror - the icon refers.

To broaden the scope of our considerations, let me discuss in short the two key concepts that shaped the values still cherished in the West today and that were indispensable in formulating the theology of a sacred picture in Eastern Christianity, and in supporting the efforts (unfortunately thwarted by the Renaissance) of the medieval Masters who had no such theology and who aimed at creating a picture whose appearance would not be concealed but rather revealed through the Word of God made present.
The key words are: Incarnation and Person.

The Incarnation. The very fact that the Son of God put on human flesh caused the human body to become the scene for divine transformation. The human flesh ceased to be decaying matter, a temporary coat, veil or illusion. Before the birth of the Son of God (true God and true man) God had chosen to reveal himself through fire, stones from heaven, dreams, visions, prophets, avatars... Never before, either on earth or in the whole universe, had God incarnated as man.

At that point however each man became a son of God, someone self-separate, a neighbor, a unique being related - through the Incarnation and the Sacrifice - to God the Father and to all men. Hence the principle of absolute value of man in Euro-American culture, and the way of measuring and perceiving time in the whole Christian civilization. The Nicaean creed defines the date of Jesus' death - "crucified under Pontius Pilate, suffered and was buried". Thus it is about a single event that happened at a specific historic, not mythical time. Beginning from the moment of the Incarnation the Christian civilization started to use linear time without cyclic returns. Until the time of Parousia - the second coming of Christ that shall be the end of time. Since time is linear and not circular, reincarnation is not possible; life is unrepeatable, singular, single and man decides according to his will once and forever free from the effects of the ancient astral fatalism.

The Person - with "no veil over the face"
(anakekalummeno prosopo), with a face without a mask.

In ancient Greece prosopon was the name of a mask that guised the face of an actor (hypocrite). In the times of Apostle Paul the term prosopon denoted a face and was translated into Latin as persona, a term which defines the role of man in his relationships with other men. A face with "no veil" is a face of a unique person that reflects the unapproached light of the Lord. The Councils - from that of Nicaea to that of Chalcedon - offered a more precise concept of a human person. Because of dogmatic disputes and accusations of polytheism there was a need to define the dogma of the Trinity and definitely explain the relationship between God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Greeks had two ready concepts: ousia - the substance, and hypostasis - the essence. The concepts were also used interchangeably: ousia - phisis, hypostasis - prosopon. Hence the concept of one nature - ousia, phisis, and three persons - hypostasis, prosopon, persona. One God in three Persons.

Let us now see how the Christian East and Christian West have looked at the brightness, "the splendor of the Lord".

The East. A hermenea of one of the Mount Athos monasteries stresses the need for prayer while painting "with tears for God to pervade the soul" and recommends "fear of God as God himself passes to us the divine art". It also asks: "Oh Thee who inspired so wonderfully Luke the Evangelist, enlighten the soul of Thou servant and guide his hand to perfectly sketch Thou mysterious countenance". In relation to the icon the Fathers of the Second Council of Nicaea stated that "What a word says, a picture shows in silence". The Second Council of Nicaea formulated the Canon concerning the worship of icons.

According to it "The icon bears the name of the Prototype but does not contain its nature". This means that the religious, mystical content does not refer to the hypostatic (personal) presence but to the likeness. The icon has nothing in common with an autonomous existence, it is endlessly immersed in theonomy. As a mirror, it refers to the Prototype and announces its presence by artistic means with the exclusion of the presence in the material out of which the icon is made.

The Prototype does not use an icon as a place of presence but as a place of likeness - a mirror. The likeness implies a membership in Christ. Thus the Christian East has been trying to regain the likeness of God through Beauty. Needless to say that an icon of a living man is not possible in light of such theology. I doubt moreover that any, though most comprehensive, discussion of an icon can replace the deep spiritual emotion that we feel in direct contact with true icons.

How meaningful in this context is the quoted verse from St. Paul's used also in the prayer that accompanies the consecration of an icon: "Lord our God you created man in your image and likeness! Through the disobedience of the first humans that image was obscured, through the Incarnation of Your Christ who took the shape of a servant, it was renewed and brought back to the original dignity of Your saints whose noble images we worship, thus worshiping those whose image and likeness they reflect; and by worshiping them we worship and praise you as the Prototype".

The West. Orthodox theologians claim that Latin theology has from the beginning shown certain indifference to sacral art. This claim is not unfounded. The so called Capitulare de immaginibus, while based on a wrong translation of the text of the Second Council of Nicaea, accuses it of sanctioning the "worship of a picture" i.e. idolatry.

The Synods of Frankfurt (794) and of Paris (824) held that the function of pictures was solely decorative and to have or not to have them was neutral for religious depth. According to George the Great a picture was "a bible for the poor", and Bonaventure stated that pictures were intended for the uneducated crowd.
The Council of Trident, which was a response to the Reformation, stressed only the aspect of anamnesis, a reminiscence of the saints. Yet it was not a reminiscence related to any theology of a sacred picture. To Luther and Calvin pictures had no paramount meaning. Despite the lack of dogmatic support from Rome medieval painters tried to create pictures devoted to the mystery of the Incarnation. The attempts, previously suppresses by the Renaissance, resulted in a concept of a picture-imprint, picture-shroud, picture-veil...

Tow examples of such works that are also considered acheiropoietos, i.e. "not made by men", are Veraikon and the Shroud of Turin. For the Christian world they are epiphanies, icons and relics. The fundamental question for a humble servant in painting was how to, based on the negative theology, arouse in himself a desire for painting which puts aside the search for appearances and seeks the repetition of the events related to the death of the God-man. Here are some hypothetical principles applied by the Masters of the Middle Ages:

  1. Our forefather Adam lost the true image of God as a result of the Fall.
  2. The fact that God had created man "in his image" meant in the Middle Ages that man literally belonged to the picture and was its subject.
  3. The picture - man relationship is about relieving the spectator from the fetters of appearances, from the temptation of any control over the image and about subjecting him to the picture.
  4. To depict a likeness in a picture is almost impossible: to create a picture that will not conceal but reveal by bringing forth and recalling the Word of God.
  5. The highest aim of a Master is to create a picture without paint i.e. dark matter.
  6. All images should be cries and laments after the loss of divinity by an image as a result of the fall and fault of our forefather Adam.

Therefore the Masters of Gothic did not restrain to depict the blood from the side of the Savior with red paint. They actually pierced the gilded surface with a sharp skewer to uncover the red ground of the picture. They did not copy or reproduce the appearance of the wound but literally wounded the picture in the way Longinus pierced Christ's side. Man should not look at a picture as a soothing appearance but as an insight, a look through which there comes some scary and mysterious pulsation that penetrates us.

Let us now see how these issues were dealt with in the Renaissance. While reading Vasari who in his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects praises Giotto for being "obedient to nature" which is puzzling to us, we can quickly find out that nature, imitation, appearances - are the new gods of the people of the Renaissance. The theoreticians of the Renaissance will serve them with their whole heart and soul, burying the efforts and accomplishments of the Middle Ages.

The problem of imitation appeared already in the 13th century which was predominantly affected by Aristotleism. Art, according to Aristotle, was mimesis, an imitation of nature. The likeness that for the Middle Ages was a reminiscence of the loss of the Image as a result of the Fall, for Vasari is just a problem of the likeness to nature - the imitation. The return to nature is for Vasari a "gift of God", and the disegno that "brings back to life" is a miracle. When referring to Giotto he says: "He could imitate nature so well that he discarded the funny Greek manner. He resurrected art from beautiful painting as practiced by modern painters and introduced live portraits...".

What Vasari calls a live portrait had from the dawn of religion been burial techniques that included: the imago technique of a burial image, posthumous mask, the Roman imagines, and the tomb sculpture of the Etruscans.
There is one conclusion: the Renaissance funded to the West a " live portrait " of a man dead in the medieval meaning, a man deprived of an eternal perspective. The "living" portrait of the Renaissance is a casket portrait theoretically justified by Vasari. There was an attempt to create a picture without paint. It was a picture by Ugo da Carpi that depicted St. Veronica showing a scarf. The picture was done ca. 1525 with the aim to put it into the altar of St Veronica in the old St. Peter's Basilica. The scarf shown by St. Veronica is depicted in such a way that you can hardly see anything except for the Byzantine bordure. The holy Countenance is almost invisible. Da Carpi put an inscription on the picture: "By Ugo da Carpi the engraver made without brush".
The picture was produced with pieces of cloth soaked in paint. But it is interesting that such an inconspicuous picture was noticed - as a negative example - by Vasari himself.

Following is an excerpt from Vasari's Life of Marcantonio Raimondi: "We said that Ugo was also a painter: I admit that now he has painted in oil and without brush but with his fingers and strange tools of his idea a picture in Rome on the altar of the holy Countenance. One morning I participated together with Michelangelo in a mass before that altar and I saw a picture with an inscription by Ugo da Carpi that stated that it had been done without brush; I showed the inscription to Michelangelo, laughing, and he replied, laughing too: He would have done better if he had used a brush, and if he had painted in a better style".
It is almost certain that Ugo created the picture by imitating the process of imprinting of the holy countenance on Veraikon. It is also the last substantiated attempt at defending the medieval consciousness against the invasion of the views and appearances of the Renaissance. It is also the last attempt known to me at creating a sacral picture in the Christian West. Later paintings are exclusively paintings with religious subject matter.

* * *

After the Renaissance the earthliness, abundance and splendor of the visible world push to the background the questions related to the sphere of the invisible. The concepts of God and concepts in general become more important that the Invisible and the Unfathomable. In Byzantine Christianity the icon still exists as an image which in a mysterious way reveals the Invisible as visible. The icon reveals, it doesn't copy, imitate or simulate. It does not try to exploit anything. Rather than use appearances as used in still life, landscapes or acts the icon descends upon us to transform our sightedness by sending it to the Invisible.

Usual pictures are characterized by the fact they can be seen (looked at) and possessed. "To see" and "to have" is enough to know them. And this explains the spiritual tragedy of the Renaissance. The result of the tragedy is the contemporary glance troubled by the surplus of pictures that have endlessly multiplying images. Such a glance becomes a confused and superficial sightedness. It requires, it actually demands stronger and stronger stimuli. And once satisfied it sinks again into an even deeper stupefaction and weariness.
Hence the excesses of contemporary simulators, masters of special effects and art specialists. But there is a limit, a verge of the visible that they are not able to transgress. It is a picture-specter a mutation of the picture-mimesis. The picture-specter makes the iconic structure burst within a man and all representations become unpenetrable veils between God and man.

Even the traditional landscape or still life try to impose on God the conditions under which He can meet man. The meeting is in such circumstances highly improbable. An artist of the West should dare to negate this way of thus far practiced representation. He himself experiences art most acutely as a sphere of irremovable sadness, alienation and incapacity.
As to Vasari's favourite saying "life like", his postulate was realized only in the visual techniques of the 20th century. Meanwhile, ironically, the post-Renaissance faith in man fell; they announced God's death, and then man's and painting's... In this way Vasari's "life" became again what it had been: burial techniques, the last documentation of the last people. Redundant for those who shall be after the last man.

It is corroborated by a theoretician of the definitive annihilation of Man, A. Kojeve, in relation to the 20th century: "If Man becomes an animal again, his acts, his loves, and his play must also become purely 'natural' again. Hence it would have to be admitted that after the end of History, men would construct their edifices and works of art as birds build their nests and spiders spin their webs, perform music as frogs and cicadas, play like young animals and love like mature ones." Moreover, "What would disappear, then, is not only Philosophy or the search for discursive Wisdom, but also that Wisdom itself. The posthistorical animals will have no (discursive) idea of the world or of themselves".
A gloomy prophecy. But it is not scary for those who want the face to remain the face - open to the brightness, the splendor of the Lord. And who wish that there is something more between the face and the glamour of the Lord than merely the image of the earthly appearances - the delusive and impenetrable veil-specter that not only conceals but also keeps the artist in the prison of absolute unlikeness.

Cracow 2002

Władysław Podrazik