In the present an icon is ever so often thought of as something in connection with pop-culture, educational culture, advertisement, something on our computer or mobile screens or even something abstract such as beauty or terror. We also find icons in the car industry or architecture. Icons, or rather secular icons, play a key role in our age of mass media and consumerism. Especially insofar as they have an enormous impact on taste, (buying) behaviour and, they have an impact on what a person believes (in).
Up until the 1960s the word icon was still understood as an icon in the religious context. Thus, a Christian icon, and especially its function within the Orthodox Church. Despite the shift in meaning, in both contexts there is a special relationship between the viewer, the visual medium, and its communicated message. That said, there is always more to an icon. It depicts something that we conceive with our senses – visually and then emotionally.
It was perhaps the Kiev-born artist Kazimir Malewisch who first tried to fully abandon the depiction of reality in his art in 1913. His art work “Black Square”, and also the “colour field paintings” from the 1940s onwards, by artists such as Mark Rothko or Barett Newman, are basically inviting the viewer to meditatively contemplate the geometric form, and not the (former) depiction of the real world. As Malewich wrote in his book “The Non-Objective-World” in 1927, it was a desperate attempt on his side to free art “from the dead weight of the real world”.
As a consequence, this “freed art” demands total devotion from the viewer while looking at the painting. And this, coincidentally, bears a risk of getting lost while contemplating. Which brought up the thought that through this process of emptying, not only an invitation to reflect individually is being issued but, furthermore, some sort of vacuum created, which can subsequently be filled with a great variety of new worlds. And this through new types of icons which are, in most ways, completely lacking the full weight of our real world.
But let’s head back to the origins. Although symbols had already existed in pagan times, the word icon derives from Ancient Greek and primarily means image, likeness or depiction. Looking back in time to the early church, icons had been rather strictly prohibited as long as they weren’t created for the purpose of worship. And yet, an icon’s primary purpose is to support the viewer in his or her act of worship, which, following the arguments, makes it a tool used in religious devotion. Religious icons most commonly depict the Mother of God, Jesus, saints, and concrete events of sacred history. Being produced in a variety of media and sizes – from wooden panel to mosaic – for almost two thousand years, the presence and usage of icons is, especially in the Orthodox Church, a reflection of tradition. The icons are not intended to reflect the problems of life but rather to answer them.
Perhaps ever since humanity arose, it moved simultaneously into two directions: self-destruction and salvation. In this regard, the spiritual meaning of an icon lies within the depicted beings who are reflections of Jesus Christ and they are such by having been restored to God’s likeness.
Religious icons are deeply symbolic by which they transmit a spiritual reality. Most commonly the symbols used in icons are halos, wings, and objects. Beyond that, there are specific hand-gestures to be found. Those were already in use in ancient Rome and Greece, thus before Christianity was established, and they encompassed a complex system that was used by orators and rhetoricians, and understood by the public – contrary to modern people.
Fingers spelling “IC XC” for instance is a symbol of the blessing. It is a four letter abbreviation of the ancient Greek words for Jesus Christ, using the first and last letter in each word (IHCOYC XPICTOC). Hands with open palms, as another example, held at the height of the chest have two meanings: a prayer to God and the acceptance of grace.
Next to the material layer (including letters) there is also the layer of colour, which can be divided into two distinct categories. The first category includes gold (divine nature, the “Uncreated Light of God”), white (eternal life, purity, divine light, holiness), red (activity, divine life but also martyr’s clothes, fire, and the last judgement), green (eternal renovation, hope, growth, fertility) and blue (heaven/Kingdom of God, infiniteness of the sky). The second category includes black (absence of life, a void, death, evil), brown (density, lack of radiance, poverty), and yellow (sadness, misfortune).
In recent years the phrase “fake news” has become a constant companion of our daily lives. Its definition is “false or misleading information presented as news”. Its aim is the creation of confusion in order to damage a person’s or entity’s reputation or to make money. In other words: deliberate deceit. Although “fake news” has been spread throughout history, it was provided with a new dynamic in the past 130 years. One major turning point regarding the speed in which fake news was spreaded can be first found in sensational newspaper reports that came up around the turn of the further last century. Another turning point, yet far more destructive, came with the rise of social media and web-enabled mobile phones. “Fake news” has already found its big brother within “deepfake”. A technology that creates synthetic media by using machine learning and artificial intelligence. It is being used in order to manipulate or generate convincing but completely fictional visual AND audio content. Other tools for deliberate deceit are “false flags” or “false flag operations”. The phrase “false flag” is looking back on a history of about 500 years and means “a deliberate misrepresentation of someone’s affiliation or motives; something used deliberately to misrepresent in this way”. A “false flag operation” is understood as “an act committed with the intent of disguising the actual source of responsibility and pinning blame on another party”. False flag operations are being used in warfare, as pretexts for war, as tactics to undermine political opponents etc. It was a false flag operation, namely the “Gleiwitz Incident” staged by Nazi-Germany in 1939, that led to the military assault of Poland by Germany and, hardly two weeks later, the Soviet Union joined in.
It was the beginning of World War II, and also the beginning of the Holocaust.
This happened 83 years ago. Ever since the end of WW II in 1945 the generations that followed here in Central Europe didn’t have to face war. Especially not a war with the battle technology used in contemporary warfare.
And while the global community is still heavily struggling to deal with the COVID-19 Pandemic, the crisis of Capitalism, not to mention what lies ahead due to climate change, the thought, that really tough times on multiple levels are coming towards us, slowly sinks in.
What has all that to do with icons?
First of all, and even though I am not religious, I hold a certain fascination for religious icons. Secondly, I recently purchased a small icon painted on wood for its aesthetic value (to me), because it seemed that there is more to learn and understand about it, and because I was afraid it might end up God knows where. It is now residing in my home and looking at me every day with a quite serious expression. 🙂 My knowledge about religious icons is still limited but, being a rather intuitive person, the point in time to deal with the topic seemed to be quite right. And it led to the creation of three icons painted with watercolour (as well as ink in one case) on paper in the past two months. In chronological order:
The first icon depicts a saint holding a book with the title “A Brief History of Humankind” in its left arm. The fingers on the right hand are spelling “IC XC”. Instead of a human head it shows a “roemer” (a type of wine glass) coming out of its torso.
The second icon depicts a hooded saint with the head of a rat. Both hands are being held at the height of the chest with open palms. An old-fashioned bomb with burning fuse is positioned in the heart area.
The third icon depicts a saint with a head that refers to the “Moscow Kremlin Egg”. The fingers on the right hand are spelling “IC XC”. The right arm is holding an anti-tank missile.
The development from icon one to three shows a process of compression and concretisation. I might be able (time-wise) to add more information regarding the history behind icon No. 3 in another article at a later date.
In the meantime three questions:
What are our modern icons intend to reflect?
What answers do they provide us with?
What is left of the depiction of the real world?