A picture like
The tranquillity of Valamo Monastery has a calming effect. A belt of forests and lakes keeps traffic noise well at bay. No radio plays in the background, much less a television. The only sound that breaks the silence comes from the bells that from time to time summon the monks to worship in the monastery chapel.
The first radio that I see on my one-day visit to the monastery is a small portable one in Father Arseni's study. Father Arseni, Valamo Monastery's Archimandrite and icon- painter, is only on a visit to Finland, on his summer holidays. These days he spends most of his time in Greece, writing a doctoral thesis on the subject of icons.
Father Arseni's tiny study is in a row of kellia in the monks' living quarters. The ground slopes gently down from the building to the lakeshore and on the opposite side of the narrow strait is a dense coniferous forest. Many icons depicting Christ and pictures of the Mother of God and the saints look down from the walls. Some of the icons have been given their final coat of paint, others still await completion.
A small, incomplete "Not-Made-by-Human-Hand" (or "Image of Christ of Edessa") icon leans against the window. According to legend, it was Christ who created the first icon: King Abgar of Edessa fell ill and sent the major-domo of his court to fetch Christ to heal him. Christ did not come himself, but pressed His face into a cloth, which was sent to the king. When he touched the cloth, the king was healed.
Father Arseni says that this icon best mediates the principle that an icon must not be an arbitrary creation of its painter.
"An icon is the same thing in pictorial form as the message one finds in liturgical and Biblical texts. In fact, the Greek word ikonografos and the Russian ikonopisets mean 'icon writer' rather than 'icon painter'. In a way, an icon painter writes into a picture what has been expressed in words in a text," Father Arseni explains.
"The task of an icon has been defined as being to inspire a prayerful mood and teach the people. After all, a picture has enormous power: what is read in a service of worship leaves a rather weak impression in the mind, but a picture is a reminder of the word. That was important in the days when most people were illiterate. One could say that in a sense people are still just as illiterate, because they are unable to extract what is essential from the flood of words and images around them!"
Father Arseni: A good icon is a work of art
Icons teach the doctrine of the church and those who paint them must have a profound knowledge of theology. That explains why they have traditionally been painted in monasteries.
"An icon painter must be in touch with the world that he depicts. An icon is made with prayer and for prayer. Icon-painting is only a technical performance unless the painter has completely internalised the theme that he is dealing with. Icon-painting can not be a hobby; instead, it is work in God's honour," Father Arseni emphasises.
"An icon is art to the same degree as any other work of art. A good icon performs the tasks that have been set for it, but if it is really good it is also a degree higher than that, i.e. a good work of art. If one thinks that painting an icon is replicating something that exists, that there is no freedom in it, than what freedom is there in, say, painting a portrait? In fact, painting a portrait is easier than painting an icon, because you have a model from which to do it."
"One encounters the same things here as elsewhere in art: you must be able to draw; it's the basis of everything. With an icon the sketch has to be a solid one. Already when I am doing the preliminary sketch, I am giving the colours very careful thought; in a way, I am already painting the icon when I am doing the sketch. I always do the painting quickly, sketching is the most difficult part. A good icon ought to be indicative; one must be able to stop refining it at a certain stage so that it remains a challenge for the beholder. If one makes an icon too complete, it dies in one's hands."
Father Arseni visits a lot of art exhibitions. One that he went to in summer 1997 was the Andy Warhol exhibition in Helsinki.
"Andy Warhol was the world's best-known Orthodox artist, by the way. It is humbug, there's no escaping that, but the fool is not the one who does the fooling, but the one who is fooled. Somewhere in Warhol's work there is a similarity to icons; for example, his Marilyn with its golden background has a kinship with them. The icon-connection can also be seen in the composition and colour schemes of some of his other works."
Through a picture to the church
For anyone who grows up in an Orthodox home, an icon is something taken for granted; it has a message. But if one is an adult when one sees an icon for the first time, does it speak to one in the same way, or does one have to understand the entire symbolism?
"The appeal of an icon is in its aesthetic beauty and it inspires devotion even in people who do not completely understand its contents. That is where the painter's responsibility lies. I have met quite a few people who had bought an icon in an antiquarian store and become so interested in and attached to it that they decided to become members of the church. It seems incredible."
Icons are anonymous art, because they are not signed. Yet art history is full of the names of masters, whose works art experts can easily recognise. Can it be that in a century from now someone will be able to point to an icon and say: 'That was clearly painted by Father Arseni'?
"Yes, I believe the painter's mark can be recognised," he replies. "And not just that, because the icon painter - like any other artist - reflects the time in which he lives."
"Whether I intend it or not, the time that we are living in now will leave its mark on this icon. No one in a century from now will think this is from the Middle Ages. I am a child of the 20th century; I have seen television and advertising, and that will certainly affect my world of colours and pictures."
Father Arseni has also painted profane art. Indeed, he did quite a lot of it in his youth and while studying at the seminary even considered making a career as a freelance artist.
"It was only an idea," he recalls. "Somehow or other I thought I didn't have so much to say. It's quite a tough job, because one has to create something new all the time, otherwise one begins repeating oneself. Painting icons requires the same alertness, of course, but I have the feeling that this is a more natural thing for me to do."