The Icon and Art

Speech by Aidan Hart

Many thanks to Aidan Hart for granting permission to repost his talk to the School of Economic Science in Waterperry, Oxford in March, 2000. Click the download link below to read the pdf of his talk. A bullet point summary follows the download link.


Summary of Key Points in Aidan Hart’s Talk at the School of Economic Science, Waterperry, Oxford, March 2000

The Icon and Art

Today’s profane view of art is:

  • That art is here to entertain us
  • Defined by the artist as his/her creativity or innovation
  • Something you hang on a wall

[Profane vs. Sacred in this context simply means secular vs. sacred]

Aidan Hart’s philosophy focuses on the Eastern view because it was the East that had to define its experience with sacred images and defend them under iconoclasm, which the West did not.

Honor paid the image passes through to the Prototype, according to St. Basil, a 4th century saint.

Style of an Icon

  • Flatness – an icon does not represent or replace reality, and therefore is represented in two-dimensional flatness.
  • Inverse Perspective – In contrast to art of the Renaissance when perspective was developed using a vanishing point to create distance between the viewer and the subject, requiring the eye to travel, Icons use inverse perspective where the vanishing point may actually be behind the viewer to draw the viewer into the icon, capturing the viewer’s eye to establish a relationship between the person and saint. 
  • Multi-Point Perspective – Icons present subjects from multiple views simultaneously, because God sees all from every angle at once.
  • Isometry – lines that parallel in nature are also parallel in the icon.
  • Radiance – The uncreated light of Christ causes shadows to flee, hence there is no external light source in an icon.
  • Divine & Profane – Kronos (clock time), Kairos (Divine time) – the same person can be depicted in multiple scenes in an icon simultaneously because the eternal significance of an event is not dependent on the human construct of clock time.  The icon portrays Kairos – Divine time.
  • Scale – size is dependent upon spiritual importance.  The higher the spiritual significance, the larger the subject.
  • Garments – are both harmonious and abstract; curved drapery lines are broken into a series of straighter lines.

Modern Art’s Foundation

“Modern Art” means art from the Renaissance, Age of Enlightenment forward.  The Age of Enlightenment shifted the philosophy of art from God-centered, to man-centered, developed from the artist’s own imagination or creativity, depicting subjects from the inner state of the artist’s feelings or consciousness, with its primary objective to provide aesthetic pleasure, whether it was pleasant, unpleasant, stimulating, soothing, confronting, shocking, etc.

The idea that the artist created something out of nothing (like God) originated in the Renaissance under humanist philosophy.

Key Elements of Sacred Art

  1. Humility – “Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of Lights.” James 1:17
  2. Holy – Sacred Art does not merely represent intellectual expression of rational ideas, but a description and embodiment of experiences.
  3. Perception of Logos – Sacred Art’s purpose is to help the viewer apprehend the Logos.
  4. Depicts Transfigured World – not the material world. (Eschatological man)
  5. Not Utopian – may show sadness and the reality of suffering.
  6. Bright Sadness – shows the bright fruit of paradise but requires repentance for the viewer to enter it.
  7. Universal Principles – based on beauty, goodness and truth and not novelty in expression.
  8. Communal – Sacred Art is part of a tradition, not the result of isolated genius.
  9. Participates in sacred process – has liturgical function.
  10. Connects us to the Cosmos – Sacred Art weaves the cosmos into the garment of the church.
  11. Liturgical – Sacred Art is man’s expression of worship expressed in color, form and music.
  12. Inspires Inquiry – explores dominions of truth and genuine beauty and through its communal nature, does not allow the artist to fall into solipsism.
  13. Peaceful & Vigorous – peaceful because the artist is cast off (no egotism/individualism) and vigorous because he seeks the truth, which sets us free.
  14. Deep – does not offer platitudes.  What makes it sacred is not what is depicted, but how.
  15. Imperfection & Incompleteness – that which is mathematically perfect and complete offers no room for the viewer.  Perfect imperfection beckons the viewer to seek more information.  It is dynamic and alive.
  16. Transports us – Sacred Art leads us to the threshold of another world and affirms the primacy of love over aesthetic.
  17. Harmonious – utilizes principles of divine harmony.
  18. Quality not Quantity – Sacred Art is communal in nature.  Profane art this is developed from secular individualism boasts self-sufficiency and therefore cannot expand beyond itself.
  19. Hierarchical Importance – Sacred Art does not exist in isolation, it is part of a hierarchy, existing in a relationship with something greater than itself. The Icon participates in the Divine Liturgy.
  20. Channels Service – Sacred Art does not strive to create something never created before.  As the artist dies in his own self-interest, the more he channels expressiveness and freshness.  “Dying to himself he finds himself in the other.”
  21. Screen from the Spiritual World – Sacred Art is a screen onto which messages from the spiritual world are projected.
  22. Abstract – meaning it abstracts the invisible essence of its subject.  Sacred Art is the union of the inner world with the outer world, invisible with visible eternity in the present.