A Reflection on the
St Silouan Athonite Icon
An Icon Written by Sister Cecilia of the Nuns of New Skete, Cambridge, New York.
A Reflection by Proto-Companion
Rev. Ch. Harold W. Vadney B.A., [M.A.], M.Div.
It can be no coincidence that the first church constructed by the Monks of New Skete in Cambridge, NY, was called Transfiguration.
The icon is transfiguration. It does not receive its light from the outside, because the Light is its essence. Just as it’s impossible for anyone to illumine the stars, one cannot simply endow the icon with the Light, the iconographer’s inner vision has to become “theology” through deep, practiced spiritual contemplation. The circumincession, the perichoresis, if you will, of the artistic element with mystic contemplation matures to become the germ of a visionary theology, expressed through the iconographer’s authentic faith and living, the fertile ground from which the icon will emerge.
Compare the naturalistic photograph of St Silouan Athonite (left) with the iconographer’s depiction of the saint (right). While the saint is easily recognizable in the iconic depiction, the iconographer has incorporated a wealth of symbolic elements without lapsing into what we could term decadent iconography, an excess of stylistic detail.
Sister Cecilia’s icon is a beautiful rendition of the Orthodox saint, Silouan of Mount Athos, which I commissioned in 2017, and received on September 19, 2017, at New Skete Monastery (OCA), Cambridge, New York.
Generally, the icon shows the full torso view of the saint in his monastic attire, one hand in the gesture of deisis and the other holding a scroll showing one of his quotes in Church Slavonic. His name, the Venerable Silouan, appears on the left side in Church Slavonic, and “Athonite” on the right side in Church Slavonic. The Saint is depicted on an effulgent background of gold, symbolizing the Divine Light, and is gazing upward, to the vision of the Christ in the left upper corner, who from the heavenly realm is issuing rays of the uncreated light, which appear to be embracing the saint.
The icon in its style and execution is a masterwork of iconography.
The traditional execution of a holy icon is by intent and purpose not naturalistic, as I shall discuss below in terms of its stylized features, its flatness, two dimensionality (absence of depth or 3D perspective), and its points of convergence, traditional elements of style, color symbolism, etc.
Most remarkable is how Sister Cecelia was able to capture the naturalistic features of St Silouan’s face and render them faithfully but symbolically expressive in the holy icon of the saint.
When viewing an icon I find it especially important that the iconographer does not overemphasize the strictly personal and unique natural features of the subject but that the sacred artist renders them symbolically, which opens them up rather than focus the viewer’s gaze on a uniquely individual face. The face, though superficially true to the embodied saint, appears to transcend the physical, it is beyond the here and now but is yet present here and now. The depiction shows the saint not bound in chronos but liberated into kairos, divine time, right time. Correctly contemplating and engaging the saint’s countenance does not draw us into the icon itself but draws the iconic countenance — and all of its content — into the observer. Quite the opposite approach and effect that many might have or experience when observing a secular work of art or even some of the more naturalistic religious art.
Upon seeing the icon for the first time on September 19, 2017, at the Monastery of New Skete, my very first impression was focused on the eyes and the cheeks of the saint; it was as if a sob was swelling in my chest, as if I would at any moment feel the warmth of tears rolling down my own cheeks. The icon had entered me, filled me, and almost overwhelmed me. The softness of the overall expression is one of deep love, compassion, a hint of mourning but not the mourning of grief or loss, it’s an expression of the mourning of “not yet but soon,” a focus upon an unfathomable, ineffable point in infinity but attainable, a certain twinkle, if you will, in the eyes and just the hint of a hidden smile. Did the iconographer actually capture the essence of holy nepsis (νῆψις) in this depiction? Do all of these elements I perceived in the saint’s countenance distill down to holy clarity, nepsis? If ever I attain the gift of silence, I hope I can continue to receive the icon with at least a scintilla of such clarity.
We note the saint’s drawn face, the strong lines and the modeling around the saint’s cheekbones symbolizing the life of fasting and sobriety. The iconographer avoids the impression of harshness, though, by balancing these features with an expression of gentleness and dignity.
I find the expression on Silouan’s face to be one of enlightenment; it is opened by, to, for and through his love for God and, in consequence, his love for all of creation, for the “other.” The Light in the saint’s face is the light of Love and comes from contemplation of the infinite transcendence of the Divine. Another one of my favorite Greek words is χαρμολύπη (harmolipi). It’s a compound word based on the words for joy (think: “harmony”) and sorrow, “joyful sorrow” or a harmony of joy and sorrow. This is an emotion elicited by the facial elements of the Sr Cecilia’s icon, and is elicited by the inspired rendition of the saint’s facial elements.
Facial elements: While symbols, gestures, colors, objects all provide clues to the nature and the role of the saint being portrayed — the face is eminently important — particularly the eyes, lips, the brow and the forehead. These elements of the portrayal express salient characterological qualities to which our attention is being directed. St Silouan is depicted with the modeled sharp lines of the ascetic in high cheek bones and shallow cheeks. His wisdom is represented by a high forehead. Silouan’s gentleness an dspiritual power and compassion are clearly discernable in the iconographer’s rendition of the eyes — there is nevertheless a calm stillness in the facial expression. The one eyebrow is raised in a high arch, while the right brow is lower — the contrast of great understanding with great gentleness. The shadowing between the brows makes the impression of a puckering, an indication of sadness or compassion which, together with a hint of a smile on the lips created by the shadow along the saint’s beard flowing around the lips, compatible with the concept of harmolipia.
Eyes: Compare and contrast Deep set eyes, but not hollow, and with the effects of the brows — note that one (right) is higher than the other (left) — this emphasizes two contrasting aspects as represented by the effects on the eyes of the saint.
Mouth: tightlipped silence with a slight nuance of smile. The mouth in icon figures is never open; silence is a virtue perfected and embodied in those transfigured.
Cheekbones: high bone structure deep cheeks, the indicators of an ascetic life of fasting and moderation.
The beard is not disordered or in disarray, it is smooth, flowing, grey. The flow of the beard suggests a calmness, a peacefulness, a softness. The grey of the beard might symbolize a long life of commitment, engagement, experience, wisdom.
The saint’s attire is highly symbolic and in keeping with the holy tradition of the use of symbolic color in writing holy icons. For example, we note the color of the outer robe, the riassa; it’s a dark shade of grey with nuances of green. Earthy colors, the colors of humility. Likewise the rose-colored podryasnik or podrjaznik(подрясник), (under)cassock is a traditional earth color, the color of clay, the substance of humankind, a symbol of mortality and humility.
In iconic symbolism the robes of the great ascetics and monastics are depicted in black, symbolizing a life of renunciation of the world and ascetic discipline. In this depiction the ascetic’s or monastic’s undergarment are frequently rendered in earth tones, symbolizing poverty. In the St Silouan icon the saint’s undercassock is depicted in an earthtone, an Indian red hue or caput mortuum shade.
Noteworthy in this icon is the blue of the saint’s kalimavkion (καλυμμαύχιον), kalymmavchi (καλυμαύχι), or in the Russian tradition, the kamilavka (камилавка) and veil. In holy iconographic tradition, blue may signify heavenly or imperial characteristics, depending on the hue. Here, we can discern a certain divine spirit in the bluish component of the saint’s kamilavka. The nuances of blue in the kamilavka offset the harshness of the black of the vestment and serves to add a spiritual element to the harshness of ascetic life suggested by the black; if the kamilavka were rendered in total black, it would suggest a darkness or a shadow element alien to the holy icon but especially alien to this saint. It would be an inconsistent contrast with the divine, uncreated light that forms the background of the saint.
I found that the hands of this peasant saint to be uniquely expressive. The right hand is raised in a gesture of deisis (δέησις, “prayer” or “supplication”), the liturgical gesture of intercession and supplication. The deisis gesture is accompanied by the saint’s eyes directed towards the heavenly realm, towards the Word, suggestive of Silouan’s vision of the Christ, and towards the emanation of the Divine Uncreated Light (upper left corner).
The saint holds in his left hand a scroll, the symbol of the teacher, and on that scroll, in Church Slavonic, are the words of his teaching.
If one were to compare St Silouan’s hands as depicted in the icon by Sr Cecilia, it would be clear that they differ from the typical stylized hands seen in many icons. Unlike the delicate, slender fingered hands in many icons, Silouan’s hands are heavy with thick fingers, the hands of the hard-working peasant. This is a brilliant touch that I believe is intended to remind us that this saint, as blessed and as transfigured as he is, was still a creature who lived close to the earth. These are the hands of a human being who knew the travails of the flesh and yet attained remarkable spiritual maturity.