God really is in the details in an exhibition of icons currently on view at the Erdman Center Gallery in Princeton.
The icons are by master iconographers and advanced apprentices of the Prosopon School of Iconology, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.
The exhibition, “Locating Prosopon: On the Path Towards the Divine Countenance” features 20 sacred images including several by the school’s founder Vladislav Andrejev.
Born in 1938 in St. Petersburg, Mr. Andrejev studied illustration and fine art at a time when sacred art was forbidden in the Soviet Union. Iconography had flourished in Russia, reaching its apex during the post-Byzantine era. Mr. Andrejev’s interest in the centuries old tradition of icon and fresco painting led him to independent study with a monk who was an iconographer in his native land. He came to the United States in 1980.
In 1988, he founded the Prosopon School of Iconology. Icon is a Greek word meaning “image” and prosopon, also Greek, can be translated as “face,” but was adopted by early Christian theologians to denote the “Countenance of God.”
Mr. Andrejev’s sons, Dmitri Andrejev and Nikita Andrejev, also teach at the school which boasts an estimated 4,000 students since its inception.
Prosopon iconographers work in the traditional medium of egg tempera and gold leaf on gessoed wood panels. The work is distinctive for sparkling, painterly highlights and luminous, textured surfaces achieved through careful layering of multiple transparent glazes of paint.
Exhibition curator and iconographer Maureen McCormick describes the technique as challenging. “It takes years just to become adept at using these materials,” she says. Egg tempera is an emulsion made from raw egg yolks and water mixed with white wine as a stabilizer (vinegar was used until it was discovered that wine works equally well and smells sweeter). Natural dyes like indigo and carmine, and pigments such as lapis lazuli, malachite, and azurite are used. “My favorite is one we don’t use any more,” comments Ms. McCormick of a pigment called Indian Yellow, the dried urine of oxen fed with mango leaves. Many are expensive. A tablespoon of the best lapis from Afghanistan, for example, can cost around $200. “It’s hard to make something ugly when working with such beautiful materials,” says Ms. McCormick who became intrigued by the medium when she attended a Prosopon workshop 17 years ago. At first, she intended it as a hobby, but soon volunteered as workshop coordinator. Some thirty students from across the U.S. and abroad are expected to sign up for the six-day, $700-workshop at Trinity Church, in Princeton, this July 7 to July 12.
Besides teaching at the school since 2005 and organizing exhibitions since 2007, Ms. McCormick is Iconographer in Residence at Trinity Church, where she produces commissioned icons and offers classes and lectures to parishioners and church and community groups in central New Jersey. Until recently, she was the chief registrar and manager of collections at Princeton University Art Museum.
The centerpiece of the exhibition is a recent icon by Mr. Andrejev and never before exhibited. Also on display are depictions of the Archangel Barachiel, 2013, by the hands of Vladislav Andrejev and Dmitri Andreyev; and Christ Emmanuel, 2011, by the hand of Vladislav Andrejev.
Subjects include: Saints Maximos the Confessor, Gregory Palamas and Symeon the New Theologian; Jacob Wrestling the Angel of God; Archangel Raphael with Tobias; Angel Hesychia; as well as depictions of Christ and Christ as a child with his mother. Several icons of the same subject by different iconographer are grouped together for comparison.
Other iconographers with work in the exhibition include: Dmitri Berestova; Lynette Hull, Nikita Andrejev, Susan von Medicus; Dmitri Andreyev; Mary Kay LaPlante; Kristina Sadley; Tatiana Berestova.
You won’t find names of the artists writ large by these works of art. That’s not the tradition with sacred art. The preferred terminology is “by the hand of.” Ms. McCormick explains: “This is because we don’t feel that we are the author of these images but rather the means through which they are made incarnate.”
In orthodox Christianity, icons convey “the Gospel in light and color.” They are described as being “written” rather than “painted.” As letters of the alphabet combine to form meaning, so the colors, compositional elements, and conventions of depiction are thought to create “a symbolic language capable of compressing complex Biblical narratives and theological truths into images that can be comprehended in an instant,” explains the exhibition curator.
Most viewers will be able to recognize familiar saints, angels and, sometimes, stories. And if you are puzzled, there is usually a name written on the icon. For anyone who may feel uneasy about the “graven image’ aspect of icons, Ms. McCormick explains her own rule of thumb for distinguishing icons from idolatry. “The difference, as I see it, is that if it points you toward God, it is not an idol, but if it points toward yourself or something else, then it is an idol,” she says. “As human beings we relate to faces but how to represent the godhead is still a disputed issue.”
In 726, the Byzantine Emperor Leo III declared icons to be idolatrous on the basis of the Second Commandment, which prohibits the making of “graven images.” “People lived and died over this issue,” said Ms. McCormick. The Second Council of Nicea in 787, also known as the Seventh Ecumenical Council, was convened specifically to address the problem.
With degrees in fine art and printmaking, Ms. McCormick thinks of herself as a creative artist. In response to those who would describe her as a “copyist,” she says: “Would you call Glenn Gould a copyist?”
Although icons are created according to a strict canon, unlike the art of the west, which places a high value on artistic originality and innovation, there are, says Ms. McCormick, opportunities for the artist to be creative within the canon and Prosopon School icons are as unique as they are similar. “As an artist working in sacred art, one is bound by many constraints, and yet in that there is infinite freedom,” she says.
Like a poet working within the form of a sonnet, one has to observe rules of prosody. Poetry is a great analogy, she believes, because like a poem, an icon compresses. “An icon can teach you volumes like that! she says with a snap of the fingers. “It bypasses the rational mind.”
As in any atelier, the school has developed new conventions for depicting garments, in wool and silk, and even, as was a recent challenge to students, painting a garment made of light.
“The act of writing, an icon for me, is an act of gratitude. We live in the world surrounded by beauty and there is a transfiguring of these raw materials in offering them back to God. This is an act of devotion,” says Ms. McCormick, “something for me to do with my hands while I pray.”
“Locating Prosopon: On the Path Towards the Divine Countenance” continues through June 30 in the Erdman Gallery at the Princeton Theological Seminary, 20 Library Place. Admission is free and the event open to the public, Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Saturday, 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.; Sunday, 1:30 to 9 p.m. For more information, call (609) 462-0975, or visit: www.prosoponschool.org.