- Peter: Vladimir, I thank you for accepting my invitation to share with us the place and meaning that Iconography has in your life, and to talk to us about your project at St. Seraphim's. I love your icons and frescoes!
- Vladimir: Well, thank you, Peter. You have a great website, and it also is very informative. That's not a compliment, it's a fact.
- Peter: Thank you, Vladimir. You know, when trying to size up in what countries Byzantine Iconography is active and living, I often wonder why it is so hard to find contemporary iconographers in present-day Ukraine, your native country. Is there a reason for that?
- Vladimir: In Ukraine, sad to say, interest in Traditional Byzantine Iconography is diminishing. There are several reasons for this, but the real tragedy is in the following Ukrainian icons have been heavily influenced by Western art for the past three hundred years. As a result, they started to loose their Orthodox meaning and appearance. An iconographer in Ukraine often stylizes his work like an 18th century icon, which, unfortunately, has little resemblance with a traditional byzantine icon.
- Vladimir: One interesting thing is that when the St. Seraphim parish started construction of the new Cathedral, back in 1999, there were on average about 90 people receiving Communion on Sundays. It was indeed amazing that such a small number of people could even hope to finish building the Cathedral, but with Gods help, they succeeded. Our parish grew along with the construction. I might add that while there presently are about 200 communicants on Sundays, church membership stands at about 500. Clearly, the parish is quite alive, and both parishioners and the Bishop have truly been integrating icons into their lives for over fifty years now.
I am glad that our parish is part of the Orthodox Church of America. Here in Dallas it means that we are trying to establish Orthodoxy as a way of spiritual life for all American people, without distinction of cultural or historical backgrounds. Our bishop is a native Texan. We have American born people (over 70%), Russians and Serbs, Greeks and Georgians - over 12 nationalities. And everyone is united in the Church around Christ. This is very important for me as an iconographer, I don't want to restrict myself by a set of rules of one particular iconography school. In my search I need to go back to the time, when Orthodoxy was universal. I really have a unique opportunity here to participate in the creation of an American national iconography school.
- Peter: When exactly did you start the project? And how far is the work complete?
- Vladimir: As you may remember, I came to the US in April 2000 for the sole purpose of painting the St. Seraphim Cathedral. Since then, I have finished a large two-row Iconostasis (25 feet wide) and almost 3000 square feet of murals on the North and South walls and in the Altar.
In addition, I have made several large icons for the Iconostasis in Denison, TX and a dozen icons for private commissioners here in the US.
- Peter: Perhaps, in five years from now, St. Seraphim membership will have increased to 1500 and they will need to build yet another church which also needs to be decorated. So they might be knocking on your door again! Can you talk to us about your icon and fresco painting technique?
- Vladimir: In my work I use traditional egg tempera with ground mineral pigments and gold leaf for panel icons and modified acrylic for murals. What does modified mean? For murals I use a clear acrylic emulsion as a binder and ground minerals and color clays as pigment. This is exactly as in an egg tempera, but instead of egg yolk, I am using an acrylic emulsion. Even though my palette is limited to 8-9 colors, this gives me an opportunity to follow the traditional way of building a shape and allows avoiding extremely bright and artificial colors of chemically born contemporary pigments. I want my murals to look soft and even transparent, more like a traditional fresco.
- Vladimir: People often ask me: What is the style of your icons? Is it Russian or Greek? My answer is: I am trying to establish the Contemporary American Iconography in the 21st century. Of course, anyone can see the connection with Greek, Macedonian and Russian iconography, but no critic or scholar can say that it is exactly like the work of Andrey Rublev or Manuel Panselinos. I dont mean to say that my work is better or worse than theirs; I just try not to copy the work of great predecessors but rather to create something new, based on their work and on theological knowledge and the Tradition of our Church.
Something that is very important to me I am working for a parish that is truly capable of appreciating iconography. Murals are part of Liturgical life for example, Archbishop Dmitri often draws attention to the images on the walls during the course of his sermon. Our parish accepts murals not simply as wall decoration but rather as evidence of our Faith. You can say this is normal yes, but Ive seen examples of different understanding in my life. Interestingly also, iconography and architecture became part of the missionary work in Dallas. Many people driving by are attracted to the building and stop to see whats inside.
The Icon reveals the ultimate truth about God and man. To portray the Truth about a subject is the goal of all real art. There is a connection and a difference between painting and iconography. A good painter seeks the truth about the created world; an iconographer shows the truth about the Creator.
Iconography is the art of arts, and an icon is more a work of art than of craftsmanship. Even though every iconographer needs to respect many rules, it is not enough to merely follow the steps from the manual in order to paint an icon. One may get only a copy of an old sample, but it is not yet an icon. I dont mean to say that we should leave aside the iconographers manual, but let us put everything in its proper place. At the same time, we cannot reduce an icon to the level of artifact only.
An icon is much more, that is why an icon cannot live its whole life in a museum or in an art gallery. Only in prayer can an icon fulfill its purpose. Which is why an iconographer must be personally involved in church life. It simply isn't enough to repeat several times Lord, have mercy, a person has to devote his whole life to the Church. Iconography is a church service, and an iconographer is a servant, that is why knowledge of dogmatics, liturgics and church history is required, along with strong artistic skills.
- Vladimir: Our Cathedral has been built with contemporary materials. Drywall and gypsum plaster have been used for the interior. I think acrylic paint is the best choice in these conditions. First, I attach a durable synthetic canvas on the location were I will paint the mural. After that, I put two coats of acrylic gesso paste with a putty knife and begin painting after the gesso dries. The finished mural is then covered with two coats of different varnishes, which makes the mural more permanent and washable. The finished mural has a matte and transparent appearance; the resulting mural has no shine on curved surfaces.
With murals I prefer to work directly on the wall because the surrounding interior has a great impact on the color and composition of the mural. Choice of the materials for iconography is always a compromise between what I want and what I can use. I would be glad to paint my murals with traditional fresco but it is very difficult to do on drywalls. Acrylic works pretty good for big size murals, especially with some tricks. I dont believe in existence of Sacral art technologies which only could be used for the iconography. There are no unclean techniques or materials in this world - everything has been created by God and is good to glorify Him. The drawing and the composition plays a leading role in iconography not a media or binder.
- Vladimir: Insofar as I know, the Manuscript of Theofilus is an old document about iconography. It was written by a monk named Rogir Theofilus in the 10th century in Germany. The book describes the ancient approach to the creation of murals and icons, i.e. in his time and in times before. I am using the book myself. By the way, I never saw it in English.
- Peter: Does the Manuscript of Theophilus also enter into the spiritual aspects of icon painting and the need for a prayerful attitude on the part of the iconographer?
- Peter: Definitely.
- Vladimir: Now that we are talking about books, two works have had a big impact on my way of life as an iconographer: the Manuscript of Theophilus we were discussing, and a short article written in 1976 by Adolph Ovchinnicov. I found both of them many years ago in the library of Archimandrite Zinon (in Pskov, Russia). Essentially, these two works opened up for me a new horizon in icon painting. They also provided the answers to important questions.
Not even iconographers like Archimandrite Zinon or Photios Kontoglou received direct (and complete) instructions from their predecessors. And even now we need to face the fact that iconography must be revived from the inside out. The one and only possible way to succeed is to do the same as the Early Church did hundreds of years ago. For the Church this means that it will need to base itself on the proper theology and on the best ancient samples. For the Iconographer, as an individual, it requires to be submerged in Church life. And for Iconography as an art it means that proper (living) iconography is possible only when and where the Church is alive.
In practical terms, back in the nineties [as a result of the termination of genuine living iconography] almost every iconographer in Russia and in Ukraine used to copy the works of Andrei Rublev. It's all they could do. Nobody remembered the centuries-old icon painting manuscripts. If they did, they were nowhere to be found. The only manual I could find was the Manuscript of Dionisius from Furna, which gave an explanation of only one method, commonly known as the Sankir method.
In short, I was sure that the only one way to paint an icon consisted of using dark green sankir. For example, in the creation of a human face the iconographer starts covering the initial drawing with a dark greenish-brown color named sankir or proplasmos. He will proceed to light ochre tones and whites on raised spots after that. As you see, this way leads you going from the darkest tone to the white. Fr. Florenskiy even assigns theological meaning to this process. The approach is still very popular these days but it is based mostly on recently written sources, such as the Manuscript of Dionisius from Furna, which I mentioned earlier, and others like it. I should add that this common way to build a shape of the human figure in an icon or mural is quite different from the method used eight hundred years ago.
Let me go back now to the Manuscript of Theophilus and the article by Adolph Ovchinnicov. As previously mentioned, for me, these two works opened up a new horizon in icon painting: they showed me techniques used in the 10th-12th century period, and they helped to do away with the notion that religious painting methods had to be different from secular painting methods.
This example shows how the Church accepts things and methods from the secular world by transfiguring them.
- Peter: What do you mean with transfiguring?
- Vladimir: Let me illustrate this concept with an historical example. The Great Cappadocian Church Fathers: St. Basil-the-Great, St. John Chrysostom and St. Gregory the Theologian, used to employ a language of ancient philosophy in order to express Gods revelation in 'limited human words', trying to defend the Church dogma about the Holy Trinity right after the First Ecumenical Council in Nicea in 325. They did not reject philosophy as a language of Paganism but at the same time they did not combine philosophy with Christianity as Gnostics did. On the contrary, they transformed the philosophical terminology, enriching it with new content in order to be able to use it as an instrument in Theology.
- Peter: Thank you, that is an excellent explanation with a very interesting example. Well Vladimir, you have covered a lot of ground, and your account of the iconographic issues has been truly fascinating. I have one last question for you before we conclude this conversation. What do you see yourself do in ten years from now?
- Vladimir: I believe that I will finish my work with St. Seraphim's. Next, the Lord may want to give me an opportunity to design and paint another church. If that is the case then with the experience gained in the St. Seraphim Cathedral, I can even do a better job.
- Peter: Vladimir, thank you very much for having shared this great beauty with us. I have appreciated your openness in answering all questions. You have amazed me with the depth you entered into with regard to all issues surrounding the need for revival of iconography today. I am sure that North America will be thankful for the significant iconographic contribution you are making. Once again, Vladimir, thank you very much! And God bless you and your work!
- Vladimir: Thank you. I enjoyed our conversation. God bless your work!
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