Rediscovering Iconography

Vladimir Grygorenko and Post-Soviet Revitalization

By Shanna Wright, Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics, Dallas, TX.

 

 

The roots of Christian iconography are deeply intertwined with the roots of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Visual art within the Orthodox Church is intrinsically linked to prayer, the Incarnation of Christ, and the afterlife. The artform has its origins in Byzantine style and more than a millennium of accumulated tradition, but was threatened nearly to extinction during the twentieth century in the region that had been its cultural center for almost 500 years. Soviet policy throughout Russia and Eastern Europe, formerly bastions of Orthodox tradition, nearly eradicated iconography and destroyed much of its heritage. After the fall of the U.S.S.R., however, a new generation of artists is rediscovering the art and reinventing ancient practices. Vladimir Grygorenko is one of these, and his experiences and methods provide an individual lens through which we can view the revitalization of an art form in the wake of religious oppression.

Grygorenko grew up in Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine, during the late years of the Soviet Union, and came to the U.S. in 2000 to paint the iconostasis for a newly constructed cathedral. He now lives and works in Dallas and has painted several churches around the U.S., as well as creating icon panels and mosaics. This paper is based on a recorded in-depth interview with Grygorenko, a visit to his studio to watch him work and to see his materials and tools, and viewing of a completed cathedral of his work. His process of discovering iconography, the methods and materials which he uses, and his devotional relationship to his work echo experiences of many of the first post-Soviet generation of iconographers.

 

Soviet policy toward icons

After the fall of Constantinople in the 1400s, the heartbeat and center of Byzantine iconography relocated to Russia, where iconographers had been working since the tenth century. It continued to flourish there until the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 and the enforced atheistic ideologies of the Soviet Union (Martin 2006, 19–20). Churches were closed and their property and valuables were nationalized, ostensibly for preservation and accessibility to the general public, along with vast private collections of icons held by the wealthy and elite (Kharlova 2015, 288). Iconography was an officially proscribed trade, punishable by a prison sentence (“Destruction of Icons” 2015). By the 1930s only approximately 150 churches in the whole of Russia were still operating (Martin 2006, 25). Everything was at first collected with the stated purpose of being made available to all through museums, but early distributions to regional museums were never catalogued or displayed. They then began to sell pieces deemed “unsuitable for museums” in order to create more space, but the success of these sales meant that as the regime became increasingly in need of funds the highest-value pieces were sold abroad (Kharlova 2015). Some people worked rapidly to remove and hide as many icons as they could in the early days of the destruction and appropriation, and many icons were lost for decades in various hiding places (“Destruction of Icons” 2015). The result was a lack of iconographic art in the public sphere throughout the Soviet Union, except for a few special pieces kept by museums—despite the fact that it comprised a large portion of the region’s artistic history. Grygorenko remembers seeing very little religious art growing up, and what he did see was mostly copies of Western-style works. In the southern region of Ukraine, even before Soviet policies, older icons are rare both in churches and museums (Yazykova 2010, 132)—due in part to a history of Tatar destruction of them. Official policy could not entirely overwrite centuries of the practice of having icons in the home for personal devotional use, and people continued to seek religious imagery for private devotions when communal gathering became illegal in the early twentieth century, but their images were often poor-quality Latin devotional reproductions (Luka 2011, 128).

 

Grygorenko’s journey to iconography

It was in this environment that Grygorenko grew up, in a well-educated, atheistic family, in a culture that broadly considered believers to be “losers,” and began to practice art as an adult—a change of pace from his studies in rocket engineering. He began in 1982 as part of the art studio at Dnipropetrovskii University, participating in exhibitions throughout the region. Eventually, however, he began to question why he was doing this—why this was the way he was spending his time when there were so many other things he could be doing. The question of “What is beauty? Why is that worth pursuing?” became a focal point of existential exploration for him. He began searching for what it was that makes Rublev, Cezanne, Rembrandt, and other great artists across time, style, and region comparable, thinking that whatever those had in common would be the underlying principles of beauty. He became fascinated by the way these artists conceptualized and represented space in their art, and the exploration of spatial properties led him especially to Byzantine iconography which makes use of space in unique ways. At the same time, he experienced a growing distaste for contemporary art which values novelty above all else. In his words,

One of the problems I had with contemporary art was that contemporary artists must create something unique. If he does not create something unique, he is a loser, he is not an artist, because, ‘Oh that is not interesting, it has been done before.’ So, the major goal is not to depict some truth about anything, but just to be unique. That's not interesting to me. The Byzantine approach to art is totally different. Byzantine art tries to say something about God, or maybe about the universe, like Rembrandt did, because normal artists in the classical [period] tried to research nature, learn from nature, and show the beauty of nature, but nature was independent, a source of imagination and creativity. For contemporary artists it is not so. Contemporary artists must do something totally unique and totally subjective. That was my choice, I decided not to follow that direction (Vladimir Grygorenko in discussion with the author, September 2017).

 

It was iconography which brought Grygorenko to the church, not the church which brought him to iconography. As he began to experiment with copying icons he found in books and museum catalogues and learn to recreate traditional styles, he brought his first few successes to the local Orthodox church, which was only beginning to reestablish itself as Soviet control loosened. The new priest was impressed that he was painting icons in the traditional style, but wanted to know why he wasn’t coming to church. Grygorenko informed him that he had no reason to come to church because he did not believe in God. To him, iconography was simply another style of painting at the time. The priest began a project of converting him, which in a time of social upheaval, coincided with a burgeoning awareness of a need for God in Grygorenko’s life, and a year later resulted in his baptism. The priest, however, had been a jazz musician with no relationship with the church only a year before, and though he had been baptized as a child he had never practiced Orthodoxy until he became a priest. Grygorenko was left to discover Christianity on his own, but he continued discovering and practicing iconography, and gradually gained a sense of who God is.

 

Iconography and spirituality

Though he had been baptized into the church in 1991, Grygorenko received no theological instruction for another five years. When visiting Moscow he met a priest connected with St. Philaret’s Christian Orthodox Institute, a theological institute founded in the last years of the Soviet Union (“About Us | SFI” 2017). It was the founder of this institution, Father Georgy Kochetkov, who taught Vladimir about the Christian faith, completed a formal catechism with him, and taught him to read the Bible. Given the spiritual dynamics involved in iconography this was a significant experience in his development as an iconographer. Even as new iconographers rediscovered the art, many had to rediscover the spiritual foundations of the art among the detritus of 70 years of enforced atheism.

  For Orthodox believers, the subjects of iconography are of utmost importance because they believe icons to be doorways or windows between this world and the next, doorways through which movement can happen in both directions. They stand before them in prayer and believe that the person depicted, whether it is Christ or a saint, is standing before them listening—present in essence through the spiritual and symbolic representation of themselves (Martin 2006, 229-238; Evdokimov 1989, 177–81). Who it is that is depicted is of utmost importance then, and how accurate the image is determines how present the person is in that icon, though accuracy is concerned more with spiritual than physical likeness. The most accurate likenesses can become “wonder-working” icons, known to heal or defend, particularly powerful in answering prayer. These wonders are attributed to the person depicted and not to the iconographer, though they come about because the iconographer could see and depict the spiritual essence of the subject in a particularly clear and insightful way. These often become the most frequently copied icons as others try to access that same power and level of insight (Skrobuche 1963; Yazykova 2010). To the Orthodox, icons are physical manifestations of the “great cloud of witnesses” by which believers are surrounded.

A full discussion of the theology of the icon, its historical development, and its symbolic language is beyond the scope of this paper, and, in fact, countless letters, essays, and full-length books have been written on the subject over the millennia by those much better acquainted with it than I.

Today, more than 20 years later, Grygorenko is a subdeacon in St. Seraphim Cathedral in Dallas, and views iconography as a deeply spiritual practice. What he started experimenting with as a form of painting like any other has become for him a means of prayer and contemplation, a way of knowing his Creator better. He finds each icon—whether an image of Christ, the Theotokos (Mary), or another saint—to be an opportunity for new revelation about Christ and his personality, revelations which draw him closer to Christ.

He is not alone in this understanding of the work of iconography. As Andrejev (2004, 59) asserts, “For the iconographer, art is not a means of self-expression, but a method and practice of the path to the transfiguration of his nature.” An icon is thought to be a manifestation of its creator’s personal experience and knowledge of God, the visible manifestation of the soul’s creative response to God. The painter’s character, moral purity, and lifestyle are considered to be as essential to the creation of an icon as any technical prowess, and in fact this is considered to be the primary distinction between the masterworks of iconography and other pieces. The decline of the genre within Russia in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is attributed by some to the neglect of the moral dimension of iconography due to growing interest in icons as ornamentation rather than objects to facilitate prayer (Yazykova 2010). Archimandrite Zenon—the well-known iconographer who completed Grygorenko’s iconographic education—has said, “Icon is embodied prayer. It is created in prayer and for prayer, which is the driving force of the love of God, the desire for Him as perfect beauty,” (Hart 2014). The icon and prayer are inextricable in Orthodox thought, at every stage of their existence. 

Grygorenko also sees missionary purpose in his work. The decorations of a church are meant to surround an observer with Christ and other important figures from church history and Tradition, immersing them in the Orthodox understanding of the universe. He believes icons and murals should communicate particularly to the communities which will use them as an aid to prayer, addressing their spiritual needs and concerns, while holding to the established truths of the church. He finds it important to meet with the communities whose churches he will be decorating if at all possible for these reasons. These spiritual focuses do not discount the technical skill required to produce icons, but add another dimension to it. As Hart (2014) puts it, “To be a great iconographer requires not piety alone, nor skill alone, but the two wedded.”

 

Rediscovering tradition

In seeking to say something true about God, as Grygorenko puts it, many of the new post-Soviet iconographers are eschewing some of the later innovations in iconography and seeking its ancient roots. This includes a faithful adherence to the use of traditional materials, especially mineral pigments derived from clay and semi-precious stones (Luehrmann 2016). Grygorenko says that for himself the use of these materials was originally motivated by his self-proclaimed “perfectionism” in desiring to accurately recreate the style of the works he was copying. But the breakdown in transmission of these practices caused by Soviet oppression means that Grygorenko, like many post-Soviet iconographers (Yazykova 2010, 127), had to rediscover and redevelop these methods and materials for himself, using whatever written information he could find. His background in science and connections to the scientific community in Dnipropetrovsk served him well in this task. He combed through texts and studied icons held in museums, but he also worked with a chemist to recreate the olifa varnish traditionally used to protect an icon from wear and visited various institutes asking for information and assistance. He sought to learn the forms and structure of iconography by copying images from museum catalogues, often poorly printed, beginning with examples of Rublev’s work. He found records stating that icons were made using egg tempera with mineral pigments over chalk primer, but none of those words meant anything to him. Through research in rare books and trial and error he began to make progress, and eventually visited restorers in Moscow and learned what he could from them, though he found their knowledge to be incomplete.

The process of rediscovering the traditional materials with which icons are painted has been a fruitful one for Grygorenko. His studio is filled with an astonishing array of richly colored clays like terra verde from Italy, semi-precious stones like lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, and minerals like cinnabar from China. He has found them to be durable and lightfast in a way that modern chemically created pigments are not and naturally harmonized in color as creation is naturally harmonized. The methods he uses, egg yolk mixed with white wine, known as egg tempera, combined with these minerals—many of which he grinds himself—are the same as those recorded being used in medieval iconography workshops and likely the same stretching back through the history of iconography (Martin 2006, 43). Western influence in Russia in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had introduced new painting techniques and materials and led to icons painted in oil on canvas, often dismissive of the canon, but in the revitalizations of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century iconographers have largely returned to the older traditions of iconography, either the Moscow school of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries—considered to be the golden age of Russian iconography—or its even earlier Byzantine roots (Yazykova 2010).

Grygorenko’s first professional work as an iconographer came when a local businessman hired him and a friend to recreate the iconostasis for the local cathedral which had been destroyed when the cathedral was converted to a “Museum of Religion and Atheism” under Soviet rule. In one year, with $2,000 and some scraps of unsuitable plywood, they managed to create two icons and one sketch. They were never used, evidently for political reasons. The experience, however, provided a unique phase of focused learning for Grygorenko and resulted in his first large icons.

Eventually Grygorenko found the teacher mentioned earlier—Archimandrite Zenon, a monk living in a remote monastery who could fill in the gaps in his research. Archimandrite Zenon began teaching himself iconography by copying in the 1970s, when it was still considered a dangerous form of anti-Soviet propaganda. He joined a monastic community that had been restored in the post-World War II softening of church persecution, and there he further developed his skills and fulfilled commissions for the church (Yazykova 2010). He is widely considered to be one of the best Russian iconographers working today (Hart 2014). Studying with Archimandrite Zenon for a few weeks, along with his personal research and experimentation and theological education, gave Grygorenko the foundation he needed to thrive as an iconographer.

 

Tradition and innovation

Though the materials are important in determining the visual qualities of an icon, its subject matter and use in the liturgy is what makes it an icon. Icons throughout history which have been accepted as representing the beliefs of the church are incorporated into the canon—a history of visual doctrine. There is no single monolithic collection of canonized images to which artists can refer, but there are many books and even online sources which present images which have been used in the past, especially those which are of great historical or spiritual significance. Most iconographers, like Grygorenko and Archimandrite Zenon, begin by copying noted works from the past. Many iconographers even spend their whole career doing so (Yazykova 2010, 129). “Tradition” is a concept with deep theological significance in the Orthodox church, representing the entirety of the received knowledge of the church (see Lossky and Ouspensky 1999, 9–22, for a more complete discussion of this concept). Iconographers in this new era seem to still be negotiating the appropriate balance between tradition and innovation, while seeking to stay within the bounds of official Tradition. Those who find the creative freedom to push the artform forward while honoring and respecting its foundation are held in high esteem. It is a complicated balance that engenders much discussion among those concerned with iconography.

Without rejecting the personal liberty of creativity, the church proposes to its members a certain art of synergy, the correlation of one's personal opinion with the opinion of the entire Church. Only this interaction of individual and communal experience leads reliably to the birth of a spiritual and, therefore, creative person (hypostasis) (Andrejev 2004, 56).

 

By disciplining their creative process and modeling depictions of saints and scriptural events on the collective visions of previous generations, iconographers seek to minimize their own influence on the experience of the person praying before an icon (Luehrmann 2016).

 

Yet more and more iconographers are currently coming on the scene who do understand that authentic tradition is not about making stylized copies of older works, understanding as well that there is no tradition without creative freedom. These iconographers have grasped, moreover, that authentic freedom consists not in scorning the canon, but in creatively mastering it (Yazykova 2010, 129).

 

As for Byzantine art, it moves with history: not static, but developing as a spoken language develops--in essence constant, but in style, greatly varying (Martin 2006, 20).

 

For himself, Grygorenko find expansive room for creativity in having 1700 years of canonical images to draw upon, having freedom in how to combine those elements to create murals to fill a church, and in all the spaces left open for interpretation by the Bible and Tradition. He likens the creative expression of iconography to the creative expression in traditional portrait painting. The artist must be faithful to the subject that is standing in front of you. If you paint someone else it is no longer a faithful portrait. But at the same time the artist is seeking to convey something about that person, something beyond the physical facts of their appearance, something about their presence and personality. He says it is the same with painting Christ or scenes from his life—you must hold to the known facts or it is unfaithful, but outside of those facts there is room for presenting an event with certain elements emphasized, or certain nonessential elements included or left out. When painting Christ it is possible to display something of his personality revealed to you through the communion which happens while painting.

He also finds creative stimulation in the process of painting murals inside the church they are a part of. The interplay of light and space with color and shape are essential factors he considers while he works. This is so much an aspect of his artistic process that he dislikes the common practice of painting large canvases and afterwards hanging them on the walls of the church like wallpaper, though he does so when it is what the situation of the church requires.

In Grygorenko’s 30 years of icon painting his thoughts about the rules and limitations of tradition and the canon have changed drastically. When beginning his discovery of iconography, he was convinced that all he needed was to learn the rules—do this this way, do that that way—and he would have the formula for creating a good icon every time. He read a few books and thought he was set. Now he feels there are no limits beyond the boundaries set by fact, and has also discovered that he knows far less than he thought he did and has far more left to discover.

 

Career in America

Grygorenko’s career has brought him to unexpected places. After several years of work in Ukraine and throughout Eastern Europe, in 2000 he received a commission to create an iconostasis for the newly built Cathedral of St. Seraphim in Dallas, Texas. He expected to complete the work in six months and return to Ukraine, thinking that there would be no work or spiritual community for him in the U.S., which is not a majority Orthodox country. His work on the iconostasis so impressed the church that they asked him to stay and complete the murals for the building, and gave him creative freedom to develop the scheme for them, and by the end of the nine-year period the completion of the entire building required, he and his family had built a life in the community, and he had realized there was a need for knowledgeable, experienced  iconographers to serve the growing number of Orthodox congregations in the U.S. He has since decorated six other chapels and cathedrals throughout the country, and is consistently cited as being one of the premier master iconographers currently working in the United States (see Yazykova 2010; Hart 2012).

 

Conclusion

Grygorenko’s story and work are one piece of a much broader resurgence movement in Orthodox iconography. His life, process of discovery, and perception of the work of an iconographer give us a glimpse into broader currents moving in the community. The vigor with which post-Soviet societies and individuals have embraced this ancient tradition they had been largely severed from reveals a cultural connection that 70 years of active oppression could not sever. The Soviet experiment did not end all need for religion, as they predicted would happen within five years, and Soviet academics spent the later years of the USSR in trying to determine why this was so. Even in 1975, over 50 years after the revolution, 26 percent of Communist party members still had icons in their homes (Luehrmann 2015). The desire for spiritual connection ran much deeper in people than they imagined, and the traditions and practices of the church that were maintained quietly by scattered individuals have flowered again into full bloom now that they have returned to the public sphere. Many within the movement feel there is much left to recover yet. Archimandrite Zenon said in the 1990s,

It is difficult today to speak about the continuation of the tradition… Not enough time has passed. Twenty or thirty years is not really enough. We had been completely uprooted from tradition, and now it will take much time and effort… True creativity is possible only within the framework of a tradition, and it takes time and effort to get on a first name basis with a tradition. Learning the craft aspect is not enough. One has to become so thoroughly immersed in the ecclesial spirit of authentic Orthodoxy that it becomes possible, while still making use of our vast inheritance from the past, to somehow transform it and pass it through the filter of our contemporary Church self-understanding. Only then can something new appear (Yazykova 2010, 131–32).

 

Today, another two decades into the process of rediscovery, the artform is thriving, but in many ways it continues to grow and develop, seeking to find its place and its most authentic expression within the church in a globalizing modern world. This process is not monolithic, however, but made up of individual artists like Vladimir Grygorenko working with unique communities to create art that serves this time and place while also transcending it to reflect something eternal.

 

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Vladimir Grygorenko, interview with Shanna Wright, September 2017

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