Humanity and Nature in Icons

by Fr. Stamatios Skliris

The Orthodox icon is an art form which honors not only humanity but also nature, which it presents in a transfigured state. In Byzantine art nature is suffused with a supranatural light transcending the optical laws of the naturalistic tradition. Mountains, rivers and seas glow in the icon. Even bees may be painted gold in manuscript miniatures.

Besides being shown suffused with light, nature is also represented in the icon as incorruptible — trees neither shed their leaves nor decay and nothing appears to have weight or be subject to decay. The light of the icon comes from outside creation and bestows on creation not only beauty but incorruption.

A landscape is never represented in the icon on its own. There are neither “still lifes” or figure studies in Byzantine art. In landscapes there are always human figures, and these are shown on a larger scale than the trees and mountains. Nature is represented as bound up with humanity.

Light

When I speak of light in the icon, I do not mean intensity of light and shade of the composition. I mean the full illumination of every part which the picture contains. This contrasts with “natural” light and the phenomena which depend upon it. Natural light rises and sets, comes and goes. It illuminates to a greater or lesser degree the beings portrayed in paintings, which exist independently of whether they are in light or in shade. Such light, illuminating the beings on which it is shed, constitutes an addition to beings, making them more beautiful or more ugly. It bestows on them aesthetic characteristics rather than transformations of being.

The light of the icon presents as whole existences those who participate in the light and as fragmented existences those, such as the demons, which do not participate in the light. It distinguishes beings clearly among themselves (with the characteristically strong Byzantine outline) and it identifies each one separately as illuminated with full illumination.

We can divide artistic traditions into three categories:

To the first belong those which use natural light alone, such as ancient Roman sculpture and Renaissance painting. The identities and illumination which this light gives are not stable. Those represented confront the content of absolute shade which is equivalent to representational non-existence, and consequently we can speak of an “ontology of shade” or an “ontology of nothingness.”

To the second category belong traditions characterized by a firm outline and permanent illumination: Chinese, many Persian and Indian paintings, the art of aboriginal peoples, the art of children, and all kinds of painting with primitive elements. The beings represented are not in danger of being lost in darkness. They are not free, however, to choose light or darkness; they are “condemned to be immortal” in a natural manner because they have a permanent and stable existence which is due to stable physical characteristics (size, shape, color, etc.) since changeable light is absent.

The third category is identical to Byzantine painting only because we do not know of another tradition in which the dialectical of light and shade, highlights and shadows, expresses personal beings: illuminated free beings (saints) or free beings which are in shadow (demons). Illumination creates full existences and the shading fragmented existences.

To achieve this, Byzantine art lays down first a dark background for every being represented, then illuminates everything with a centripetal illumination, which by definition illuminates every constituent element and leaves the dark background as a surround which accentuates the outline, thus distinguishing one being from another.

Hierarchy of Scale

In icons light functions in a flexible way and not according to natural optical laws, with the result that it brings about the development of some of those beings represented while others which do not participate in it become fragmented. We have the following hierarchy of scale in the icon:

  • beings such as demons do not participate in light and do not undergo development but are doubtful existences, tending toward nothingness;
  • the landscape, represented as bigger than demons but smaller than human beings;
  • human beings are represented on a larger scale;
  • saints, each identified with a nimbus, are depicted as larger than other human beings;
  • Christ, sometimes shown as being a degree larger than the Apostles and other people; his nimbus carries the cross through which he died and rose again and contains the Greek words meaning “He Who Is.”

Parallel with the hierarchy of scale we also have a differentiation in the nimbuses or halos. Angels and saints bear halos of light. Christ, in His supreme eschatological appearances (Transfiguration, Resurrection and post-Resurrection appearances, Ascension, and Second Coming) bears, in addition to His nimbus, a luminous mandorla which sends rays outward, that is, towards nature.

This signifies that although before the Resurrection Christ was the recipient of light in His human nature like all other beings, after the Resurrection, in which all authority in heaven and on earth was given to Him, Christ has the light of the Father even as a human being and sends it out to creation. Moreover, now the body of Christ itself, that is nature as body of Christ, emits light.

The Role of Humanity in Nature

In icons we see that nature is united so closely with us as to exist or not exist.

As personal beings, created “in the image of Christ,” we have the power either to deny the relationship offered to us, which is expressed representationally as participation in light, or to decide to live in the manner of Christ, whereupon we will grow and develop into full existence. Nature is now not an objective place within which human beings are “dropped” but entailed by humanity’s existence. It exists both as our landscape and as our body, though if we were to suppose that it was the environment and body of demons, it would have tended towards nothingness. Our freedom does not cause nature to improve or to deteriorate but has to do with its existence or non-existence.

This perspective culminates in nature’s incorporation into the body of Christ. Christ is He who is constantly turned towards His Father, and the icon as a whole represents nothing other than existences in relation to the Father. Christ, however, is He who is not only Supreme Existence but He who is offered in a supreme degree in relation to the Father and who simultaneously offers creation as His body. This is what we mean when we refer to Christ in the language of the Liturgy as the “Great High Priest.”

As for ourselves, as long as we choose in the manner of the demons to deny our relationship with God, we will be steering ourselves and nature towards nothingness, but as long as we choose Christ’s mode of existence, which is the offering of Himself and nature to God, that is to say, as long as we choose the role of the priest of creation on the model of Christ, the Great High Priest, we will be steering ourselves and nature towards true existence.

These observations form the elements of a Byzantine Christian attitude toward creation. According to this approach, we are united with our natural environment in a relationship which is not romantic or aesthetic but linked with Being itself. Our freedom and independence make us either nature’s executioner or its savior. Our responsibility extends to holding the fate of nature in our hands. Thus we affirm that sin does not belong to the moral order but signifies a surrender to decay, an acceptance of or cooperation with the mechanisms of corruption. Conversely, our deeper understanding of existence leads us to desire incorruption, the liberation of nature from corruption. Incorruption, according to a Byzantine understanding, is not a neutral eternal existence, but an eternal loving relationship involving God, man, and nature.

The veneration of the icon therefore renders honor not only to man but also honors nature and leads to the creation of an ethos which awakens us to take up our responsibility because, if nature is finally saved, this will not be due to nature itself but to man, who as priest of creation offers up nature to God.

Fr. Skliris is a priest of the Greek Orthodox Church. This is a shortened version of a paper presented to the Inter-Orthodox Conference on Environmental Protection in Crete in 1991. The full text is included in the Orthodoxy and Ecology Resource Book published in 1996 by Syndesmos.