Icon painting is rightly considered to be the visual expression of the Orthodox tradition. The icon speaks of the Gospel, the liturgy, the hymnography, the saints, the dogmas, and the pedagogy of the church. Icons testify to the reality of God’s Incarnation, the image of God in each of us, and mystically lead us into a transfigured, eschatological state of man and the world—“heaven on earth.”
And yet, icons are created and exist on earth, in particular cultures and societies. If so, do they have a social ethos? The general assumption seems to be that the social ethos of the icon should be “apophatic”: because it presents an ethic not of this world, it should keep away from muddling with society’s concrete challenges. However, given the circumstances of the current war in Ukraine, where Orthodox people fight on both sides, icons cannot escape the conflict. On March 13, 2022, on the feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy, Patriarch Kirill presented the Russian Guard with a WWI icon of the Mother of God and by doing so practically blessed the Russian military aggression against Ukraine. Meanwhile, icons scratched on the walls by Ukrainian prisoners were found in a Russian torture chamber in the formerly occupied Vovchansk, Kharkiv region, after it was liberated by Ukrainians.
Icons that are created in the times of war may say something socially cataphatic, while their social ethos may turn out to be crucial for their iconic quality as such.
To illustrate my statement, let me consider to contemporary Mandylion icons: the Savior Not Made by Hands by the Kyiv iconographer Oleksandr Klymenko (2015) from the Icons on Ammo Boxes project and the main icon of the Resurrection cathedral of the Armed Forces of Russia (2020).
The Face of Christ is the icon of icons; according to the tradition, it miraculously appeared on the cloth with which Christ wiped his face, and which was given to King Abgar of Edessa, healing him of his illness and becoming the prototype for all images of Christ. Represented on a board of a box formerly containing bullets from the warzone in the east of Ukraine, Klymenko’s icon exposes the paradox of combining traditional Byzantine iconography of the Savior with an object associated with violence. The board is not hidden behind neat layers of gesso and varnish; the Face that emerges on the wood bears traces of damage, cracks, remnants of metal. It is painted on a naked background without a hint on the image of the cloth – like in the oldest icons of this type. The halo is not outlined but is suggested by the blue dashes on the three sides of the head made with fingers; on them, instead of the traditional letters ѺѾН (the One Who is), there are black areas that appear to have been purposely damaged by flame. The board is decorated with a simple ornament of red dots, also made with the artist’s fingerprints. This is the Face of God, who reveals Himself not in a magnificent church, but in places of the greatest suffering of people who are images of God themselves in the greatest need for Him—directly, simply, quite tangibly. The wood is reminiscent of the Cross—the instrument of Christ’s murder and at the same time the sign of his victory over death—and is not silent about human vulnerability. The project does not deny the possibility and necessity of military defense from the enemy, but essentially looks for a deeper victory: of life over death. It also makes contemplative icons directly participate in the life of civil society: through the project Buy an Icon – Save a Life, the money from the sale of these icons, which have been exhibited in more than 100 churches and public venues in different parts of the world, is donated to a mobile volunteer hospital, which has helped has helped thousands of injured Ukrainians since 2014. Thus, having miraculously healed King Abgar from his illness, today this Face of Christ may heal someone in quite a human way. (Fundraising with icons on ammo boxes has become a social trend in Ukraine. Recently, the Lviv based Iconart Gallery approached twenty leading Ukrainian contemporary icon painters, mainly from Lviv, to create works for an auction “Icon saves lives – Ukraine”).
The socio-ethical message of the other “Savior” is radically different; it cannot escape the ethos of the military cathedral, which was coined a “temple of war” right after its construction. The Mandylion was chosen because it was depicted on the banners of the 13th century commander Alexander Nevsky, i.e. in the context of military confrontation. It is painted on wooden boards from the carriage of a cannon of the times of the Northern War of the early 18th century, which was raised from the bottom of the Neva River; the boards were fastened with metal parts of the same carriage and wooden parts of a Mosin rifle from WWII. The icon, which looks like a neat generic copy of an older prototype, is surrounded by artistic metal reliefs representing the most famous icons of the Mother of God in Russia overlooking scenes of significant events from the history of the Russian state. Unlike information about military objects, the name of the artist is not indicated anywhere. The viewer’s eye is rather attracted by the grandeur and rich décor of a 100 kg bronze portable shrine whose center this icon occupies. The paradox of combining an icon with objects of violence is completely hidden from the viewer: if we had not read about the carriage and the rifle, we would never have guessed that they are built into the structure at all. The icon itself merges in color with the carefully crafted rich bronze construction, which seems to dissolve the “necessary” suffering that war brings in the narrative of Soviet-Russian military triumphalism. The wounds of war should not be visible, only victory matters, the icon seems to say. It was created entirely at the expense of Vladimir Putin and did not raise any money for any humanitarian initiatives.
According to Leonid Ouspensky, “The icon does not represent divinity. Rather, it indicates the human participation in the divine life.” Although Klymenko’s works are often referred to as cultural artefacts rather than icons, painting an icon on an ammo board is not prohibited by church canons; moreover, it only intensifies its iconic quality of human-divine communion. Meanwhile, what kind of participation does an icon with secretly installed rifles invite? And—although referred to as the “main icon of the cathedral”—does it remain an icon at all? In another famous quote, Ouspenky claims that the icon should not be “touching” or “sensitive”; it should not intensify human feelings while leading us “to the path of transfiguration, purifying us from all exaltation, which can only be unhealthy.” To some, Icons on Ammo Boxes may appear too sensitive a project. But they are created in a global context, in which Orthodox churches either support the war or are “apophatically” silent about it. In this situation, such icons become a prophetic voice. They are like stones that cry out the glory of God from Luke 19:37-40, although with a paradoxically reversed message: they cannot be silent about the humiliation of the image of God at war. Isn’t it in certain cases healthier and even more iconic to create “sensitive” icons than to neatly multiply traditional prototypes?
Leaving this question open, I suggest that the two icons quoted above correspond to the two kinds of social ethos embodied in documents that have appeared in the Orthodox church in the 21st century: the Basis of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church of 2000 (SC) and For the Life of the World: Towards the Social Ethos of the Orthodox Church of 2020 by the Ecumenical Patriarchate (FLOW). SC shows an overall pessimistic attitude towards the sinful human nature and human ability to transform the world; focuses on Christian values and cultivation of the Orthodox society with the help of state; and is formulated as a top-bottom church instruction on dealing with secular threats. In its “War and peace” section, the church is encouraged to cooperate with the Armed forces, and people are called to spare their lives when protecting the fatherland. It approves of just war and cites examples of saints who blessed their flock for war as a way of salvation. Nothing is mentioned of the need of repentance and healing of war traumas for those who took part in hostilities. The ethos of SC is in tune with the Savior from the military cathedral.
On the contrary, FLOW shows a participatory attitude of the church towards the world and its history, does not oppose church and society, strives to be contextual and dialogical, and uses compassionate language. In “War, peace and violence” part it condemns violence as such, admits the right for self-defense and the need to protect the vulnerable by force as a tragic necessity of the world wounded by sin, but denies the “just war theory” in Orthodoxy and strives for future healing of the parties involved, including the military, and focuses on increasing peace efforts. Klymenko’s Savior is created in the spirit of FLOW.
Discussing the two Saviors, I attempted to point to the importance of the socioethical implications of icons in the war through coherent examples. I do not want to claim, however, that all modern Russian iconographers share the ethos of the SC and support the war, while all Ukrainian icons are created in the spirit of FLOW. While SC is the official document of the Russian Orthodox Church, it also serves as the social doctrine of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church still associated with the Moscow Patriarchate. Meanwhile, although FLOW is not an officially accepted document in Ukraine, its 2020 publication has been met with support and enthusiasm, especially in the OCU. But the actual situation with modern icons and their social ethos is more complicated, especially if one considers examples of the new iconography with references to war which have recently appeared in Ukraine—a topic that needs a separate consideration.
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