A few months ago, a friend and I were discussing icons and how to “read” them. I’m no expert in the world of iconography, but I did study them in my required Medieval Art History class and have read a couple books on how to use them in prayer. Coming from a background of art history, I tend to look at icons through the lens of the time period – How did the artists see the saints they were painting? What were the specific rules applied to painting an icon? Why were certain colors used? I am fairly analytical by nature, and looking at art in an historic, questioning way makes sense to me.
We were looking at the Holy Trinity by Andrey Rublev. In his book, Behold the Beauty of the Lord, Henri Nouwen describes this icon as an invitation into hospitality, into the house of love. In his analysis, Nouwen places God (the left figure) as the Father, blessing his Son. Jesus (in the center) looks to God in submission to his mission as sacrificial lamb. The Spirit (on the right) points to the altar as a confirmation of this divine sacrifice (pp 23-24).
My friend is much more intuitive and saw the three figures in less of a hierarchical position and more of a position of mutual submission, each looking to another. While I agree with her in the practice of mutual submission rather than hierarchy, the historian in me flinched, wanting to know the “true” story behind the icon before I agreed with her interpretation.
Since the purpose of icons is leading the viewer into prayer, not into an art historical criticism, I think my friend was on the right path to truly understanding the painting. It was created to bring about a personal experience of prayer with the figures, not for the viewer to nitpick an experience with facts.
In leading guided experiences at the Clyfford Still Museum, kids in my group often want to know the facts. What is this paining of? Why did Still choose these colors? What was he thinking? The facts are that we know what was happening in the world around Clyfford Still; we know some of his influences; we have letters he has written. But, we have very few pieces of text about the why behind his paintings. Still didn’t even title his works, believing that
“As before, the pictures are to be without titles of any kind. I want no allusions to interfere with or assist the spectator. Before them I want him to be on his own, and if he finds in them an imagery unkind or unpleasant or evil, let him look to the state of his own soul.”
He wanted looking to be the experience. What do you see in this moment? What do you feel? What is your own experience telling you about the art? It isn’t for him as the artist to tell the story but for us as the viewers to interpret an experience.
I’ve reflected on our conversation over the past months, not so much in light of reading icons, but in how I process art and stories in general. When someone shares their story or life experience, I tend to look at it through the lens of history. What are the facts that have made this person’s experience? What world events were happening at the time to influence outlooks and decisions? How does every puzzle piece fit together to makes sense of a story?
In reality, our stories are much more free-flowing and intuitive. There aren’t always facts to back up experiences and sometimes a life-changing event happens just because – not because of some outside event, but just because it was the time and place in our own lives for it to happen.
As someone who loves to read and know before making a decision or an opinion, being more intuitive and in-the-moment doesn’t come naturally to me. But, I’m learning to look rather than learn; to feel rather than to analyze. There will always be a place for history and critical thinking, but if I can listen to a story or experience a piece of art in the moment before making any critical links, I wonder how my worldview will shift?
How do you see the world? Are you a thinker or a feeler?