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opinion_TEO_2022_09_26_ Evdokimov

Paul Evdokimov and The Art of the Icon


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Juan Luis Lorda |

Professor at School of Theology

Evdokimov was a great Russian Orthodox lay theologian. Emigrated and trained in Paris; involved in the work of financial aid to refugees and in the ecumenical movement, and author of a set of theological works of great spiritual breath, of which The Art of the Icon is the best known.

Pavlos or, in Paris, Paul Evdokimov (1900-1970) was born in St. Petersburg. From an ennobled family, his father was a brave and appreciated colonel, who was killed by a terrorist while trying to solve peacefully a mutiny (1907). His mother, a noblewoman, took him to the military high school , and in the vacations to long retreats in monasteries. With the revolution (1917) the family retired to Kiev. And in 1918 Pavlos wanted to study theology, as a Christian reaction in times of test, although it was very rare in his milieu (priests came from the lower strata). He participated for two years in the anti-revolutionary White Army. And, faced with imminent defeat, urged by his mother, he fled to Istanbul. There he survived as a cab driver, waiter and cook, skill which he would keep. 

The Paris years

In 1923, with the clothes on his back, he moved to Paris, like so many Russians. He worked nights at the Citroen and cleaning wagons. But he did a licentiate degree of Philosophy at the Sorbonne. And when the high school of Saint Serge Orthodox Theology was founded in Paris (1924) he enrolled at the licentiate degree in theology, which he finished in 1928. He dealt very closely with Berdiaev, a great Orthodox Christian thinker, and with Boulgakov, founder of Saint Serge and Dean of theology. They are his main sources.

The contact with Western Christianity, its cathedrals, its monasteries, its libraries was for all, and in particular for Evdokimov, an impressive enrichment. And it made them develop their Orthodox theology in dialogue with Catholics and also with Protestants and Jews. Saint Serge was a very relevant phenomenon of mutual theological influence and Evdokimov participated with enthusiasm in this exchange. Later, he would be a great promoter of spiritual and "pneumatic" (entrusted to the Holy Spirit) ecumenism. Since its foundation, he participated in the World Council of Churches committee (1948-1961) and was an observer at the Second Vatican Council. 

War, welfare work and thesis

He married Natacha Brun, an Italian teacher, half French and half Russian (Caucasian), in 1927 and they had two children. They lived near the Italian border until the Second World War. Again the catastrophe led him to go deeper into Christianity. And although his wife fell ill with cancer (and died in 1945), and he had to take care of everything, he undertook a thesis on the problem of evil in Dostoyevsky, which he published in 1942. The profound mystery of evil, as Boulgakov had conveyed to him, is that God is ready to lower himself (kenosis) and to suffer human freedom up to the redemptive cross. At the same time, inspired by the figure of Alyosha from The Brothers Karamazov, he defines a lay spirituality, which brings monastic contemplation into the midst of the world. 

During the German occupation, he helped refugees (and Jews) with a Protestant organization (CIMADE). And when peace came, to displaced persons, in a shelter home. Then, until 1968, he directed the students' home that Cimade founded near Paris. He was a deeply Christian counselor among so many broken lives, and took a special interest in Orthodox youth. In addition, reflecting as a layman, he published a beautiful book on Marriage, sacrament of love (1944).

An intellectual turn and three final essays

His life changed when, in 1953, he began teaching at Saint Serge and when, in 1954, he remarried the daughter of a Japanese diplomat (half English), who was 25 years old. These are very intense years of spiritual and intellectual maturation. Shortly after his marriage, he published Woman and the Salvation of the World. And later a large collection of articles, Orthodoxy (1959), and a essay on Gogol and Dostoyevsky and the descent into hell (1961). He renews his study on marriage, The Sacrament of Love (1962). And he brings together many spiritual writings and his ideal of monasticism in the world in The Ages of the Spiritual Life (1964).

The last three years of his life, with the feeling that his time was running out, are dominated by his courses at the newly founded high school superior de programs of study Ecumenicals at high school Catholic Paris (1967-1970). And by three panoramic essays. First, the most famous, The Art of the Icon. The Theology of Beauty, completed in 1967 and published in 1970; then, Christ in Russian Thought (1969); and The Holy Spirit in the Orthodox Tradition (1970). He died unexpectedly, in the night, on September 16, 1970. He has other minor works. His work is already difficult to find, although it is being republished, and has been quite pirated on the network.

The most B of Evdokimov is to be an author at the same time theological and spiritual, which deepens in the traditional themes of Orthodoxy, the contemplation of the glory of God, the divinization. But he also advances originally in the theology of marriage and priesthood, and in true ecumenism, with a very eucharistic ecclesiology and linked to the action of the Holy Spirit. His colleague at Saint Serge and great friend, Olivier Clément, has given us the best spiritual portrait, which has been summarized here: Orient et Occident, Deux Passeurs, Vladimir Lossky, Paul Evdokimov (1985). "Passeurs" are border crossers (and smugglers). With their Parisian exile and their work, Lossky and Evdokimov, crossed the spiritual borders between the Christian Orient and Occident. 

The context of the theology of beauty

The degree scroll of the book is The Art of the Icon, and the subtitle The Theology of Beauty. And it takes a lot of context to place it in a topic more profound, spiritual and transcendent than it may seem at first glance. From entrance, beauty is one of the names of God. The same divine essence radiates outwardly in the glory of creation, in the theophanies of the Old Testament (especially at Sinai); and fully, in the Transfiguration and Resurrection of Christ. Moreover, it comes as a reflection in the life of the saints, who, from their divinized soul, radiate the glory and the good odor of Christ; hence the halo that surrounds them in iconography.

Eastern theology, following the Byzantine theologian Gregory Palamas (14th century), has always distinguished (and canonized) the essence of God, incommunicable in itself, and the essence insofar as it is communicated to us through two great "uncreated energies" (or acts ad extra, as Westerners would say): the creative action of God, which gives being; and the divinizing action (grace), which elevates the human being to participation in the divine nature. And this is conceived as the eternal light that radiates over everything, which is also the "taboric light" of the Transfiguration, contemplated by the Apostles. This irradiation of the same divine essence is what divinizes us, becoming an object of contemplation and source of elevation and joy for those who love God. Vision of the veiled essence in this life and direct in the next, although always transcendent. It takes a transformation received from God, so that we can contemplate it with our mortal eyes. The contemplation of the Trinitarian essence of God is the most essential and characteristic of holiness, which thus participates in God.

The subject transmuted

God makes himself present in the world because he creates it, maintains it in being and, when he wishes, in history, he acts in it in an extraordinary and spectacular way. On the other hand, in addition to creating it, he makes himself present through grace, in the elevation of the human soul, and eminently in that of Christ.

But the great misfortune is that this world is fallen and broken by human sin. Because God wanted to confront with all its consequences human freedom, capable of sinning and turning away from its Creator. This moral fall produced an impressive cosmic ontological fall, which affects everything and needs divine salvation, which, however, will always respect human freedom. It will save by the attraction and power of redeeming love and not by coercion and violence.

Jesus Christ, made man, is "image of the divine substance" in the flesh, in his body. Subjected in this world to the condition of fallen nature, but announcing in his Transfiguration and anticipating in his Resurrection, the transmutation and salvation of all things to eternal glory, where there will be a "new heaven and a new earth": the universe transformed through the resurrection of Christ. Thus the same subject, which has been made by God and has integrated the Body of Christ, will participate in its glory and beauty. 

The four parts of the book 

The book is divided into four parts, which also draw on previous articles and conferences. The first describes "Beauty" with its theological sense, which we have already mentioned, drawing on the biblical and patristic vision of beauty and extending it to religious experience and cultural and artistic expressions (with some questions about modern art).

The second is dedicated to "The Sacred" as God's transcendent sphere and presence in the world: in all its dimensions, in time, space and, in particular, in the temple.

The third is "The theology of the icon". With its history in the Eastern tradition, the iconoclastic debates and the sanctions of the councils, the II of Nicaea (787) and the IV of Constantinople (860), which declares: "What the Gospel tells us by the Word, the icon announces to us by the colors and makes it present to us".

The fourth is entitled "A Theology of Vision" and reviews and comments on some of the most famous icons and their main motifs or scenes. The chapter is presided over by a commentary on the icon of the Trinity of Roublev. It continues with the icon of Our Lady of Vladimir. And with the scenes of the Birth of the Lord, the Transfiguration, Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension. Then, Pentecost. And closes with the icon of Divine Wisdom (another name of God).

The theology of the icon

The theology of beauty as the name of God and divinizing energy (grace) and the theology of subject transmuted by the incarnation and glory of Christ form the framework of the theology of the icon. But there is more.

From entrance, a history, which has established, with spiritual experience, the forms of representation. To the Westerner uninitiated in the subject, it comes as a surprise that the icons do not seek to be "pretty". There is a stylization and an intentional austerity and seriousness, a distance, because we are dealing with something transcendent: not with an object of ordinary use, which we dominate, it is a way to enter into God. But, for that, it has to be born from above and not from below. This is also expressed in the "reverse perspective" and in the arrangement and sizes of figures and objects. It is about God's way of doing things, not ours.

An icon does not express the ingenuity of the artist, but the spirituality of the Church with its tradition. The artist can only contribute if he is deeply imbued with its spirit, if he prays and possesses the wisdom of faith. One paints by praying, so that one can pray. Then, in addition to respecting the traditional canons of representation (forms, colors, scenes, models), he can be truly creative, not with his own spirit, but with that of the Church, which is the Holy Spirit. For this reason, the icons are not usually signed. It is especially appreciated in the icon of the monk Roublev, at the same time revolutionary in its representation of the Trinity and traditional in its resources.

In section IV(Theology of the Presence) of part III, he explains: "For the East, the icon is one of the sacramentals, that of the presence staff". Icons are a holy and significant presence of the supernatural in the world and, especially, in the temple. A true, though veiled, irradiation of the divine glory and a foretaste of the recapitulation of all things in Christ, through the poor subject of our world, created by God and affected by sin. In the case of a saint: "The icon bears witness to the presence of the person of the saint and his ministry of intercession and communion".

"The icon is a simple wooden board, but it bases all its theophanic value on its participation in divine holiness: it contains nothing in itself, but becomes a reality of irradiation [...]. This theology of presence, affirmed in the rite of consecration, clearly distinguishes the icon from a picture of religious topic and treats the dividing line"

Other references

Much has been written, and happily, about icons. In the Eastern universe, the works of the Russian priest, engineer and thinker (and martyr) Pavel Florensky (1882-1937), on The Inverted Perspective and on The Iconostasis. A theory of aesthetics

It is worth mentioning The Theology of the Icon, by Leonid Uspenski (1902-1987), an icon painter and thinker contemporary of Evdokimov, and like him, based in Paris, although linked to Saint Denis, created by the Moscow Patriarchate, and not to Saint Serge, which had become independent to distance itself from communist domination. 

In our Western and Catholic area , the artistic and theoretical work done by the Slovenian Jesuit framework Ivan Rupník and his center Aletti, and by his mentor, the Czech Cardinal Tomáš Špidlík, should be highlighted.