The perception of an artistic image is the only phenomenon comparable to a divine revelation, like an overwhelming experience that both deletes previous meanings and creates new ideas. It is the preliminary phase, and sometimes the substitute of an Étant donné – The gift that gives back, a given phenomenon that makes the Numen manifest itself and be intelligible and, perhaps, even communicable. The perception of an aesthetic image can be a phenomenon that takes place both around the spectators and within them, absorbing them in its infinite manifestation. This, though, is not the same as the rational understanding of the image, since it doesn’t allow a distancing from, and a reflection upon it.
To understand means to take a step back from what is shown, but at the same time it perturbs the contemplative state, necessary for the aesthetic experience. And if the image itself sustains that it might have numinous meaning, a religious revelation, then we face an eternal paradox in which if we take a glimpse at the sense, than it can never be rationalized, but if it’s rationalized, then it can never be understood. This is an image that contains the revelation in itself, and it is in the same time an Étant donné, while containing an Other possible phenomenon given in its perception.
This is how things stand, theologically, in the case of byzantine icons, works of art that are equally the path to revelation, an idol hiding the unknown. One of the most famous and popular byzantine icons is Andrei Rublev’s Trinity – an image that I shall try to analyze through a phenomenological prism.
The byzantine icon is a lot different from other religious representations because of its history and style; it is considered that it reveals the gift of God. It is an object that mediates between humanity and divinity, a transcendental entity suspended between sacred and profane. Because of these religious considerations, strict rules of representation were established, that, after all, failed to protect it from controversy. Even though the dispute among iconoclasts was officially settled, the icon continues to attract criticism from those who see it rather an idol than a symbol. The monotheist taboo regarding divine representations doesn’t entrust figurative compositions of icons, leading to what may be considered a clash of symbols. Something that is unknown can only be visualized through an abstract image, a geometric figure instead of a face.
The face on the byzantine icon tries to bring forth divinity, like a completely different Other, yet recognizable and, more importantly, relatable. This is the reason why canonical rules of representation were established for such paintings, imposing a hieratic presentation. To protect “The Other One” from becoming an idol, it needs to be recognizable but unidentifiable, thus creating a delicate distance between god and human. The human image has become a symbol for both the divinity of humanity and the humanity of the corporeal god. This used to be the precarious balance maintained by theology and the church Tradition.
Innovations were scarce and received with distrust – reasons why Andrei Rublev’s work is of such great importance for the Eastern Orthodoxy. He was one of the greatest innovators and reformers of byzantine painting, tracing the way for his successors. He redefined the canonical byzantine icon and created his, by now classical, emblems. His most important and best known work is “Trinity”. Perhaps this painting is one of the most adequate examples on which we can perform a phenomenological analysis, because it attempts to visually present the unknown god.
The divine trinity is represented by three human figures, faces visible, sitting around a table. They all seem to have the same face and expression, with only the color of their garments differing. The father is wearing red and blue, the son – light blue and the holy spirit – green. These colors have become symbolical for the three divine manifestations (and are recognizable in later iconic representations) and they match their defining characteristics: mightiness, peace and life.
Within the picture, we can see how the abstract idea of a tri-state divinity is transformed into three actual figures with recognizable faces that can be observed, thus bringing the Numen closer to humans. And observation is the key word, because it establishes the relationship between human being and divine entity. There are several types of observations, depending on the distance between the subject and the object or, in this case, between the two subjects. In the case of the icon we observe two subjectivities: the Numen as the face of “The Other One”, and the inner human self, which is rediscovered and repossessed. But this repossession is short-lived, because the goal of such contemplation is to give in to the divine union. It isn’t a unique state anymore, it becomes nuanced which breaks its unity and transforms it into a plurality of phenomena.
These phenomena can be successive or simultaneous, and are generated by both subjectivities. According to the theory of an Étant donné, the Numen has an overwhelming manifestation, dragging the observer – the human – into an existentialist experience that surpasses all limits.
This cannot be conveyed or explained to others rationally and in a direct manner, because it would mean to attempt to provoke the same type of experience in someone else – something that exceeds the human power. Expressing such a state has to be wrapped in a metaphor and presented as a mystery, so it can trigger the same reaction in others as well. And this is where the icon as venerated object comes in: it figuratively reveals what cannot be said, embodying the mystery without unraveling it. It suggests a kind of secret and irrational cognition, available and revealed to each observer individually, in a private manner. The Christian god is a personal god that can be perceived both as monotheist and polytheist. The indescribable unity, which remains a simple abstraction in other religions, gains in Christianity not only a face, but also a tri-state manifestation, an individualized existential state that will partly become human. Thus, the human being can empathize on a certain level with divinity, and can maintain a form of consciousness, even in the frame of mystical union.
Human individuality is not dissolved in this union, but continues to exist as a phenomenon, capable to interweave with the subjectivity of “The Other One”. Through this process of observation the human being doesn’t fully become the divine “Other One”, but it gains access to the inner works of a completely different form of existence. Since we deal with two interwoven subjectivities, the origins of this kind of cognition are debateable. Because divinity gains a recognizable face, observed through the icon, it is uncertain whether the existence of humans transformed the phenomenon of the Numen, or if the deity penetrated the horizon of human knowledge, wiping out all its limits.
The icon, especially Rublev’s “Trinity”, aspires to transmit the mystery of divine entity and it mediates this encounter of the subjectivities. Because the phenomenon of observation takes place through a mediator, it maintains the individuality of the human self. This mediator is not simply a dimmed reflection as it aspires to comprise and spread the divine grace. But it doesn’t stop being a human creation that reflects the imagined face of a god. It appears that the Étant donné – The gift that gives back phenomenon is filtered through the inner self of the receiver, who shapes it on its own.
A shape and a face make things identifiable, as if the Numen were at all times manifested around us, but only rarely recognized. Since the direct experience cannot be rationalized, the recognition and general observation need a form of mediation that transforms the so-called idol into a phenomenological necessity.
The aery faces of Rublev’s god are equally strange and familiar, human and divine. They trace the distance necessary for two profoundly different entities to meet and familiarize with each other, and they substitute the antique idol by taking up its role. Through this, though, the icon does not become and idol, it only plays the role of one. An idol is worshiped for itself; an icon is admired for what it can offer. The signification of Rublev’s “Trinity” relies in the connections it establishes. If there is no connection, there is no sense, no recognizable god.
But, if the mediator is a human creation and it reflects an imaginary deity, what makes the established connection be an authentic divine experience? The human language tries to reach to the point where it can explain the Numen, but its basic structure, if it even has one, is beyond human understanding. Using an intermediary language – in this case the painting – may be considered a third system of coding which translates an already ambiguous message.
When the human conscience intervenes in the divine manifestation, it is hard to establish whether the decoded message actually contains a revealed sense, a part of the Étant donné – The gift that gives back, or if the connection itself remains the only revelation. The human search for understanding might not correspond to a similar divine wish. In other words, it is hard to say whether the Numen wants to manifest as a phenomenon or if that’s simply its natural state of existence. In this case, there would be no hidden message to decode, just a connection as form of revelation. An icon that intends to represent the face of divinity will find itself in the middle of such paradox, but it would also be the key to surpass it, precisely because it plays the role of the mediator, of the connection itself.
An icon equally arouses contemplation and reflects the contemplative state that lead to its original creation. It is an aesthetic manifestation and a gathering of what exists beyond aesthetics and reflection, affirming that it is a grace-giver. In a cognitive framework, an icon is the achieved goal; it is the only describable and intelligible result of the phenomenological encounter between the Numen and the human.
The “Trinity” is not an idol, because it is aware of its position between object and subject, a position that reflects the ambiguous sense that it contains. The icon equally reveals and hides, being human and divine, object and subject, a non-entity that affirms the existence of a divine phenomenon. It does not set boundaries but erases discrimination, because the observer is no longer capable to differentiate between what is shown and what is hidden.