Fr.  Anatoly Volgin is an iconographer and an Orthodox priest of a parish in the Moscow vicinity. He started writing icons in the late 1960s, many years before he was ordained.  Xenia Pokrovsky considers Fr. Anatoly as one of her teachers because he started learning iconography a short time before she did. Together they were among the initiators and founders of The Russian Iconography Society Izograph in Moscow and organizers of the first exhibition of contemporary icons in Moscow in 1989.

An exhibition of contemporary icons in an art museum would seem to assert that an icon is unquestionably a work of art.  This has been the attitude of our art historians for a very long time, and viewers have consequently also sought primarily aesthetic revelation, emotional impressions, and formal innovation in the icon–in other words, everything they are accustomed to finding in the works of artists.

Here, too, there is much that will disappoint us right away–repetitious subject matter and composition, familiar devices, and stylizations in the manner of the Byzantine, Muscovite, or Novgorod schools of icon painting.  Isn’t this copying? Not to mention the bright clarity of a fresh “product” instead of the familiar “noble patina” of ancient icons.  The practiced eye of art connoisseurs will undoubtedly find much else that challenges taste and disconcerts the mind.

But the aesthetic sphere is one of changing tastes and incongruent concepts of the good and the bad.  Therefore, some will take ecstatic note of the renaissance of national consciousness and true Orthodox art, others will appreciate and praise the artistic achievements of iconographers, still others will assume a fatherly, reproving tone, expressing indulgent hopes for the future, and some, perhaps, will consider all this unacceptable.

But is such an approach to the icon justified overall? The icon is above all theology.  Its function consists not in aesthetic contemplation but in participation in the act of worship, in bearing witness to sobornost (communitarian-ness) not through subjective but rather sobornyi (communitarian) experience, through the experience of saints about the highest religious truths.  And so, the significance of the icon for us can be correctly and rightfully appreciated only in these terms.

The language of the religious image and its content–that is, how and what it says–is determined by strict canons that are not subject to change and that are carefully preserved by the Church; and faithfulness to this canon is considered to be not despicable slavishness but virtue.

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