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Icons And The Art of Communion

Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in S.C. by Kordis
The Sacred Art Institute at Enders Island, within stomping distance of Mystic, Connecticut, has been in business now for nearly 25 years. The Institute, devoted in part to all things Iconographic, opened its doors in 1995 and draws students from all over the United States. And no wonder. The institute offers extremely intimate classes, usually numbering a dozen or more students, in such disciplines as Gregorian Chant, Iconography, Medieval Manuscript, Mosaics, Painting, Photography and Stained Glass.

For those who suspect that art in the Western world did not begin with Picasso, the Iconic experience offers irresistible temptations. Those acquainted with Byzantine or Russian Iconography will be familiar with the lure of Icons. For the rest of us, the excitement of writing an Icon or producing a Byzantine drawing may be compared with a child having two stomachs wandering hungrily through a candy store. Here at Enders Island, surrounded by the peace of the water, one is immersed in the methods and theology of an ancient art that preceded and gave rise to the splendor of the Renaissance. Classes usually last a week, though this one, under the direction of master Iconographer George Kordis, lasted two short weeks and was broken into two parts, Byzantine drawing and Icon painting. All courses at the institute are taught by master artists whose backgrounds in the history of their disciplines run leagues deep.

Over the course of two decades, this writer has taken at Enders Island courses in Icon writing from the Russian Orthodox masters of the Prosopon School, fresco production, and Illuminated Miniatures, taught by one of the few masters of the field from Chicago whose works, in the form of stations of the cross, adorns the small but intimate chapel at Enders Island, a repository of art works produced by – there is no other way to put this – people wrapped up in the mystery and wonder of Iconography.

On a first visit to the island more than two decades ago, I found myself seated beside a woman who, I knew, had taken multiple courses in Icon writing. “So then, what have I let myself in for?” I asked her.

“You are about to pray an image into wood.”

Kordis, and one of his drawings

Dr. Kordis is Assistant professor of Iconography at the University of Athens in Greece. He teaches Icon painting at the Athens School of Art and the Eikonourgia Cultural Center. He is Visiting Professor at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music’s summer program; at the University of Art and design in Cluj Napoca, Romania; at the School of Theology of Bucharest, Romania; at the School of Theology of Bucharest, Romania; and at the Pedagogical University of Odessa, Ukraine. More importantly for our purposes, he set himself to discover early in his career what he calls the “set” elements in Icon painting., those elements that remain the same throughout the various schools of Iconography.

“A good deal of study over several years was needed” Dr. Kordis tells us, “before I was able to perceive the unity within the variety” of the various schools of Icon painting. “Apart from the theory and theology of the Icon, and the meaning of Iconographic conventions” all important considerations, “teaching Icon painting is concerned primarily with fundamental artistic principles.” Those organizing principles are set forth persuasively in Dr. Kordis’ instructive book, Icon As Communion.

The title is by no means accidental. Communion implies a unity of understanding and purpose. Iconography is a medium of understanding, a language similar to that of music. As in music, the artist disappears unobtrusively into his art. The Icon speaks to the viewer by means of color, shape, line and harmony. The unvarying understructure of the Icon ties it to traditional modes of representation. Color and line infuse the Icon with form.  Communion is a joining together of the viewer and the Icon, most impressive in churches such as St. Catherine Greek Orthodox Church in Braintree Massachusetts, where Kortis’ work may best be seen in a setting that speaks to the viewer through the eye of the heart. As in music or any other art form, harmony is created through the interplay of all the forces of energy mentioned above.

“How is it possible to tell when an Icon is successful?” I asked Dr. Kordis.

All the movement and forces in an Icon, he has said, are deployed to engage the spectator. Opposing forces within the Icon flow from the surface of the wall and create an optic cone in front of the Icon that engages and even depends upon the viewer. In Icons, light is not used to render form, as in a painting by, say, Caravaggio. Because there is no depth in an Icon, the image is directed outward by a movement from the surface of the Icon to the viewer though the motion and harmony of color, light and perspective that together produce the rhythm of the Icon and brings it into communion with the spectator. The Icon must always be a presence of the person depicted. The person depicted must be immediately recognizable by the faithful people. The Icon must invade the reality of the spectators and create an aesthetic bond with them. The spectators entering a painted church must feel the presence of the saints and have a taste of the qualities of Paradise. If the communion works, the Icon is good.

In the course of a week, Kordis provided to his students several Byzantine Drawing demonstrations each day, personally advising each student on individual projects and, when necessary, correcting their drawings. “There, you see – easy.” It was not always easy, but it was always good. Life in an icon shop during the slow and beautiful flowering of iconography was much like our shop of a dozen people. We were apprenticing with an amusing and masterful iconographer.

Dr. Kordis generously fielded questions and on occasion returned some surprising answers. The difference between a movie and an Icon is simple. The movie, unlike a play which involves real people, is hyper real and therefore more artificial – actually more unreal. If you rush the stage, you might have a dialogue with an actor of your choice. Of course, you’ll be thrown out of the theater. But just try entering into a conversation with a film presence, however apparently real. The Icon in many ways is more real that the star imprisoned in celluloid. An Icon is what it is. And what is that? It is a portal of eternity – in direct communion with you. There is nothing more real than that, right?

Here is Dr. Kordis on reality and rhythm in an Icon: “Rhythm is the basic instrument the painters during the Byzantine period used in order to achieve communion between the beholder-believer and the person depicted. The main idea was that the Icon is not merely an image, a form on the wall of a church or on a surface of wood. The Icon must be alive, must be a presence of the saint in the church. In this way, the Icon could demonstrate the belief that the Church is the living Body of Christ in time and space, where all members are embodied and live. In this perspective, the Icon should give the spectator the impression that whatever is depicted is alive, is present. More specifically they wanted to show that the person depicted comes to the dimensions of the spectator and is connected with him. So they had to create a system of painting principles that could serve this need. Rhythm was the basic instrument. Rhythm is a way of handling the movements and energies that exist on a painting surface. Any line or color is an energy. The painter could organize these movements or energies in order for the Icon to enter the reality of the spectator and meet him. So they followed the way ancient Greek painters used rhythm. All lines shape an X on the surface and everything in the composition follows this X axis. In this way everything in any Icon is organized properly, is united and creates a state of dynamic balance. There is always movement, indicating life and motion, and at the same time there is also stability that indicates eternity, a state of timeless reality. Through rhythm the Icon is projected to the reality of the spectator. Color, light and perspective, are also used as vehicles to create this projection. We could say that rhythm is a vehicle creating unity in any Orthodox Icon and contributes to fulfill its mission in the Church.

Thelonius Monk and Marc Chagall would have had no difficulty parsing this passage. And Icon painting, if I may put it so, is just such  a passage – from image to reality.

Addressing the dozen people with whom I had spent a week in close communion at breakfast, lunch and dinner each day, most of the time in the studio, my wife Andree and I were bidding goodbye to the group . Through inveterate shyness, I get tongue-tied at such moments. I silently cursed myself on the way home for not having said what was in my heart. So many lives, so many ways through the twisting maze of our modern world, so many bruised hearts, so many words never said, I was lucky to have brought Andree along. To all present she said how grateful we were to have spent these few days with such open and honest soulmates, and she said of Kordis how kind and generously intellectual and good he was. He bowed his head modestly – one of those rare men who wear modesty and humility properly – and there was a faint twinkle in his eye.

For three days, the island, a too little visited jewel, had been storm swept, raked by rain gales and fierce winds. But now, on this last day,and for the remaining week, the clouds had parted, the winds were docile as doves, the sun gleamed brightly on God’s handiwork – also on the icons these good people would paint in the following week. They would gratefully be praying their images into wood.


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