Revista Studii Teologice


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"Simbolul în icoana de tradiţie bizantină – note hermeneutice"

Symbol in the Byzantine-Tradition Icon – Hermeneutical Notes

Autor(i): Pr. Gabriel HEREA

After a long period when the religious humanist painting was deemed an „icon”, we now witness a revival of the Byzantine art tradition. Iconographic programs, composition sketches, as well as artistic elements of the Palaiologan and post-Byzantine period are borrowed and adapted for liturgical use in the newly-built churches. Beside the attempt to recover the religious art peculiar to the Christian Orthodox culture, an intellectual effort is necessary in order to regain the spiritual significace of the symbols employed in Byzantine art, as well as the liturgical connections between hymnography and iconography. The present study is the result of our investigation into the „symbol” given artistic expression, and its use and usefulness in Byzantine-tradition art.
The New Testament revelation equally resorts to Word and image. The Incarnation of Lord Jesus Christ and the wonders that accompanied his preaching and that of the apostles confirmed the revelation of the Word. Thus the icon naturally belonged to the Christian culture. Based on Christ’s Incarnation and supporting the revealed Word, the icon is in itself a means of conveying the revealed Truth and a component of the Holy Tradition, together with the liturgical, exegetical and canonical texts.
The difficulties in understanding the icon arise from the long period while it was culturally inactive. The humanist decadence triggered by the Italian Renaissance swept the entire area of Christian culture, eliminating from religious art many of the composition techniques and symbolic elements employed by the Byzantine art. Fortunately, the literary texts of the Holy Tradition, as well as the biblical text, have been preserved and are the authentic sources that reveal the spiritual signficance of the icon.
Our study starts from the „symbol” and its inherence to Christian culture, as the most important elements of the icon are symbolic. Therefore, the endeavour to rediscover the significance of Byzantine-tradition compositions must start here. Emphasizing the symbolic quality of the icon, Eugene Troubetzkoy stated: „Iconography offers the image of a future humanity, fully reintegrated into the Church. Such representation is necessarily symbolic, not realistic, simply because we have not yet reached full sobornicity”. The chapter entitled „the Symbol and the Christian culture” dwells on the symbolic quality of the mission God has assigned to man. The first Adam failed in his role as an intercessor for the communion of the created world with the Creator; but the New Adam, Jesus Christ – God and man, fulfilled it.
The chapters „The advent of the symbol as artistic image” and „Types of symbolic analogon in the Byzantine icon” undertake a technical approach to the genesis of symbolic elements employed in iconography, based on the theoretical writings of Gabriel Liiceanu. This approach is useful because understanding the differences between the „mimetic analogon” and the „symbolic analogon” determines the capacity to interpret the symbolic icon. In the Byzantine art we identify (1) symbolic elements that appear by emphasizing or distorting the natural traits of the iconic sign; (2) symbolic compositions that appear by the intersection of historical and ideological perspectives; (3) symbolic elements that appear by separating a fragment from a whole and loading it with the significance of the whole; and (4) geometrical symbols. Starting with these chapters, the results of our investigation are illustrated with medieval iconography. Most of these examples belong to the Moldavian cultural space, but the same art elements and symbolic compositions can be found across the entire area of Byzantine and post-Byzantine art.
Historians of culture and religious expession have thoroughly investigated the role played by the symbol in various human communities. The conclusions reached by Mircea Eliade or Jean Chevalier on the function of symbol also apply to the Byzantine-tradition icons. We present and illustrate the conclusions of our research in the chapter entitled „Functions of the symbol and of the icon”.
To begin with, we mention that the symbol’s range of functions operates in the context of the cultural milieu from which the significance of the symbol originates. This is why we speak of „living symbols” and „dead symbols”. As far as the icon is concerned, clearly it is a living symbol as long as it finds itself within a Christian environment that acknowledges it as a worship item.
As the symbol delves into various levels of reality, the icon explores transcendence, from indicating it to confessing human impossibility to go beyond the sight of the light of uncreated energy. The gold background of icons on wooden panels, as well as the halos on the frescoes, signify the ultimate encounter between immanence and transcendence, the highest degree in the contemplation of God.
Exploring transcendence is not a mere intellectual exercise, but the premise for spiritual fulfillment. Thus, the icon mediates between the sensible and the intelligible, in order to achieve the spiritual unification of these two existential levels. The archetype of this mediation is the Incarnation of Lord Jesus Christ. The icon’s role as a mediator between the intelligible and the sensible is rooted in the Incarnation. The proof of an intentional use of the mediating symbol in medieval iconography is the insertion of elements signifying monarchy in the composition of the Descent of the Holy Spirit and other iconographic themes illustrating our study.
Endowing the characters in the elite of Christian society (emperor, patriarch, bishop, etc) with the symbolic traits of mediators, and using these symbols in court ceremonial, church ceremonial and iconogaphy, became a means of structuring society around God. The composition of The siege of Constantinople at Moldoviţa is an iconographical epitome of the symbol’s role as a structuring element of the Christian community. Church order and the Christian’s position within this order are premises for the spiritual order. The Byzantine icon supports a rigorous endeavour of spiritual ordering. The ontological role of the symbol is to achieve unity and maintain communion. Liturgical hymnography and iconography heavily exploit this function of the symbol, using literary metaphors and art elements that signify the ordering of the sensible and the intelligible kosmos around Jesus Christ Pantocrator. The liturgical unification thus achieved is supported by the configuration of the artistic composition according to the rules of „relation perspective” technique, which is peculiar to the Byzantine-tradition icon.
Symbolic expression, in all its aspects, is an essential component of human culture. It is a natural consequence of verbal language and rational thought, and is employed in all realms of human activity. Like all the other „powers”, or gifts, given by God to man, symbolic expression has a spiritual role. We may say it is man’s ability to see God in his creation; it is man’s chance to grasp „God’s intention”, even in the fallen matter. It is the only way for nature to become a ladder to the gateway to heaven, a material tool for spiritual edification. We ackowledge the symbol as a useful and necessary means, contributing to the liturgical unity between the sensible and the intelligible, underlying and supporting this communion in the expectation of full eschatological unity.

Pagini: 177-224