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THE ICONOLOGICAL SCHOOL PROSOPON. TRADITIONS IN NEW INTERPRETATIONS.

By Irina Yazykova

Editor’s note: We receive a range of different questions at our website. A few of these are about the iconographic school Prosopon which has become quite popular recently. Its HQ is located in the US with branches in some Russian cities. These questions concern the canonical status of the icons made at this school, their training methods and the theological base of the ideology of its founder, Vladislav Andreev. We asked two experts, an art historian and a priest, to address these queries. We quote their opinion and publish some of the works of the Prosopon iconographers to be seen and evaluated.

What are the boundaries for contemplation-in-colors?

In the last ten years we have witnessed a growing interest in iconography in Russia as well as across the world. It is related to the rebirth of Orthodoxy and its spiritual and cultural traditions. Only ten years ago there were only dozens of iconographic workshops, while today there are hundreds of these. Most iconographic workshops and studios look up to the canonical icon and are trying to follow the tradition in their artistic endeavours. By and large iconographers confine themselves to the creation of more or less exact copies or sound replicas of the well-known subjects. The creation of new iconographies or an attempt to tread new paths in icon painting is by no means an easy task, as to do this one has to be not merely a skilled artisan, but a theologian as well, because the Church always saw an icon as ‘theology in colours’. This poses a major challenge for an iconographer. According to Archimandrite Zeanon, one of the most prominent iconographer of today, ‘the truth can be distorted not only with a word but also with a brush’. The significance of this judgement can be seen in the activity of the iconographic, or as it is called by its founders, of the iconological Prosopon School.

The iconological Prosopon School was established in the US by a Russian artist Vladislav Andreev in 2000 and has a number of branches in such Russian cities as Moscow, Kostroma and others. This school teaches not only iconography as an artistic skill, but also theology. While its technological and technical methods are fairly traditional, its theology raises a lot of serious questions.

We would like to quote here from the text outlining the school’s ideological concept that can be accessed at the school’s website (www.prosopon.ru). On the very first pages of the website the word that gave the school its name is explained in the following way:

"Prosopon" is the essential Energies of the Trinity, standing in front of and around God; it’s God’s Deity in the entire plurality of its faculties, ideas and paradigms which constitutes the Life of God; it’s the Place and the essential Modus Operandi of God. Prosopon is one of the four theological terms that have been used by the Byzantine Church Fathers during the whole course of its history. The blessed uncreated rays (energemes) of the Prosopon, directed at the world are the iconic Revelations of Theophany through which a believer learns about the Only God and partakes of the Deity. The Prosopon as the World or God’s Kingdom is the everlasting God’s Icon, directly beheld by the first angelic rank of the Cherubim, Ophanim and Seraphim and is subsequently reflected in the angelic, human and cosmic world proportionally to their capacity to perceive His Energies. Based on the reflection of such perception, a material icon is painted and iconography becomes a sacred action and the art of liturgy. The Only Logos of the Trinity is the Name of the essential and creative Energy of the Trinity.

As all the meanings of the Icon have their archetypes in the Prosopon, through which Tripersonal God acts, an iconographer has to pay a special attention to the delicate differences in theological (Hypostasis  as God’s Modus Operandi) and iconological terminology  (Prosopon as God’s Modus Operandi): God is the Same but existing in two forms or tropoi of being. From this follows the distinction between the theological notion of God and the iconological idea of the Deity (Godhead). This distinction is important to signify that God is undescribable by name and is unimaginable visually, while the Deity has a lot of names-energies and can be depicted through iconographic symbols. The task of an iconographer is therefore to expand the symbol of the artistic capacities of iconography according to the Fathers’ maxim: ‘to see God (or to be more precise, the Deity) as He is’. Such an antinomy of God-seeing is the true perspective of the future development of iconography not only in relation to the symbology of its colours and style but also to the depiction of the ideas of God’s Revelation. Then the icon becomes a true, literal “theology in colours”.’ We have provided such a long quotation to clarify the theological context of this school. What is immediately evident from the text is the interpretation of the term ‘prosopon’ which is way off the Church Fathers’ definition, a completely un-Orthodox distinction made between ‘God’ as a theological and ‘the Deity’ as an iconological concept and, finally, confusion of such ideas as ‘image’, ‘energies’, ‘actions’ and ‘essence’.

This theology could have easily been left at Vladislav Andreev’s discretion who sees the world in this way, has such an understanding and offers his own interpretation, not content with the traditional theology of the Orthodox Church. However, the Prosopon School widely advertises itself, actively recruits students willing to master iconography and trains dozens if not hundreds of people. In some dioceses, like in Kostroma, this school enjoys the protection of the Church, promoting itself as Orthodox.

It is quite possible that those who come to the Prosopon School are driven by the most genuine intention to receive the best artistic training and to work for the Orthodox Church in the future. Yet most of them do not even begin to think about the complex theological matters, which make the foundation for iconography in general and of this specific school in particular.  As a rule, an artist is interested in the technical side of iconography, in artistic technique and aesthetic. However, iconography is not just a specific artistic technique, it is theology in colours. Not only does an iconographer express their own personal vision, but first and foremost, the faith of the Church and what is verbally expressed in its dogmata, must be visually represented in icons. That is why a lot of issues of iconography were debated at Ecumenical Councils.

In his doctrine Vladislav Andreev maintains that it is impossible to become an iconographer without going through all the stages of theoretical coaching. However, his system is a far cry from the teachings of the Church Fathers, from what is being taught today at Orthodox educational institutions. For instance, Andreev interprets the term ‘theory’ in its original Greek meaning, ‘contemplation of God’. At the same time he directs his students’ contemplation not towards the Christian (Biblical) God, but to some cerebral abstractions. It can be seen in his discourse as well as in the images created under the auspieces of his school.

Let us have a closer look at the iconography which is a visual manifestation of spiritual experience. Apart from the images of Christ, the Theotokos, saints and angels established by the Church, a range of new images appear in the iconography of the Prosopon School, expressing the contemplation of some higher forms of the Deity. One of these is the image referred to as “Hesychia.”

What does this image express? According to the teachings of the Church Fathers, hesychia (Greek: silence) is the state of tranquility in front of God, the practice of an incessant prayer and the contemplation of the eternal light. In this tradition, hesychia is not a person but a state, the state of tranquil veneration of God. Traditionally, icon depicts a person, be it Jesus the Theanthropos (the God-Man), the Mother of God, or a saint. An icon can also depict an event, evangelical, historical or hagiographic. However, an icon cannot depict a state or an idea. The icon is painted for a prayer; it puts us face-to-face with who we address in our prayers. How can we possibly offer our prayers to an idea of a state? We see a kind of face on the icon of Hesychia – angelic or female – depicted en face. Looking at this image, we are facing face-to-face, but who? Who or what are we facing? Is this God’s image? Or a kind of Deity? An angel?

As we know, the only face of God that we can see is Jesus Christ’s face. ‘The one who saw Me, saw the Father’, ‘I and the Father are One’, said the Saviour. The Church Fathers never taught us to paint any other depiction of God. The dogmat of veneration of icons, adopted at the Seventh Ecumenical Council, exclusively pertains to the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, i.e. God the Son, the Incarnated Word, Who we call Jesus Christ. The icon is based on the dogma of God’ incarnation and visually testifies to ‘Jesus being truly and not imaginary incarnated in a human being’, according to the verdict of the 7th Ecumenical Council. Even the image of God the Father as an old person, which could be seen in iconographic practice, was banned by such Councils as ‘the Stoglav,’ the Great Moscow Council, and at others as non-canonical. Simarly, images of Christ as the Lamb, the Fish and others were decreed non-canonical and banned by councils. The Prosopon School offers us an image which does not merely comply with the Dogmata of veneration of icons, but which depicts an entirely new entity, unknown to the conciliar consciousness of the Church, which lies beyond the mystical experience of Orthodoxy.

It is quite clear that Andreev borrowed the idea of hesychia from the theology and mysticism of the Hesychasm, as the very name of this movement is rooted in the Greek word hesychia, and those who practice the unceasing prayer and the contemplation of the Tabor Light were known as the Hesychasts, ‘the holy silent’. Yet none of the practicioners or followers of Hesychasm ever thought of giving the notion of hesychia a personality, a face to present it as a new entity. Neither St. Makarios the Great, St. Evagarius the Pontian, St. Simeon the New Theologian, St. Gregory Sinait, nor the defender of the Hesychast tradition St. Gregory Palamas could possibly comprehend what they were supposed to contemplate in the picture called Hesychia.

In other words, such images cannot be justified from the viewpoint of the Orthodox theology and should be seen just as free fantasies of an artist who assumed the role of a spiritual leader. This would not be that scary had not the artist claimed that his thoughts should be regarded as theology, in particular, the Orthodox theology rooted in the tradition of the Church Fathers. Most likely, this is an entirely new doctrine that has nothing in common with Orthodoxy.   In any case, Andreev states that his deviation from the traditional veneration of icons stems from the teachings of the Church Fathers – and so does the deviations in his iconography.  In a section of the website describing ‘The objectives of iconography and iconographic canon’ we can read the following:

‘A bias in an icon towards the human or material makes it ‘humane’, picturesque and sentimental, which in the language of dogmatics, leads towards Arianism. There is no opposite danger. In the dogmatics of prayer, Christ is always referred to as ‘the Son of God’ and not ‘the Son of Man’, although Christ Himself often called Himself the latter, probably to underline the humbling and humanification of His Divinity. We, who have already accepted the incarnated and humanified God, need to express His Divinity to the maximum, and that is the most important objective of iconography. To show Christ not as a “kind” or “good” human being on icons, but as God’s Hypostasis, the Image of God the Father. This is the foundation of the Orthodox iconology.’

The explanation of strange pictures like Hesychia lies in the intention of the Prosopon School to produce the images that cannot be regarded as icons in the Orthodox terms, but that are meant to facilitate the contemplation of the Deity. Tellingly, the term prosopon which gave the shool its name is declared the principal term in iconology which is simply not true within the Orthodox tradition.

The word prosopon (Greek: πρ?σωπον) denotes an individual, and is similar to the Latin word ‘persona.’ These two terms have been borrowed from drama where they for centuries were used to signify the mask actors covered their face with onstage. The connotation of these words in the tradition of the Church Fathers is often negative, as they did not simply mean a person, but a persona, hiding something behind the mask, or even a hypocritical role, a simulacrum if to use the contemporary philosophical terminology. I am afraid that these terms can be applied to the images painted by Vladislav Andreev and his students, and the whole activity of this school can be seen as a simulacrum, at least by those who cannot clearly distinguish between the canon and a free-flowing fantasy, between an icon and a piece of art imitating an icon. The school quotes the following words by St Grigory of Nissa: ‘You shall take upon yourself the image of what you are looking at.’ These words of one of the most authoritative Fathers of the Church are precisely up to the point: the contemplation of abstract ideas is the final objective of the artists studying iconography in the school who become the adepts of the new doctrine. The ideological base of the Prosopon School is way off the Orthodox traditions and can be probably identified as Gnostic.

Does such school have any right to exist? Definitely, yes, with only one reservation: it cannot claim to be called Orthodox and even, in a wider sense, Christian, because it carries out its activity based on its own theology different to the Orthodox doctrine.

I.. Yazykova, art historian, culturologist, Head of Department of Christian Culture, St Andrew Biblical Theological Institute, Lecturer at the Kolomna Theological Seminary

Source :Irina Yazykova's article on the school of iconology "Prosopon"

Originally published in russian at "Art-Sobor": (http://www.art-sobor.ru/archives/7048)