On seeing and the Theophany

Wishing all of you a very Happy New Year and a joyful Feast of the Theophany in 2018.

I’m re-establishing my working pattern, now that (we hope) my daughter is in a more settled rhythm at school and very soon, the days will start to lengthen. Part of the challenge of working as an iconographer within a home setting is that being a mother must come first. Over the autumn I completed a couple of small icons and began work on a large family icon – that should be progressing this month – and drew then watercoloured a small Christmas image which became both prints and a Christmas card – there are a few in my shop which you can find here.

I have also been working hard on my psychology degree. When God was handing out qualities, the enjoyment of studying and yes, writing essays, was in my pile. Last night I began reading about perception and seeing – how our brains process the visual information around us is fascinating AND could easily be a lifetime’s work. Some of the points made me consider how we view icons, the form of the eye and also the technique and materials of iconography.Often, our eyes are compared to cameras – in a very crude sense, old fashioned cameras with lenses, film etc. are mechanically similar in that the aperture is adjustable and it records information from the light rays around us. We, as humans, can direct our gaze – the camera is an instrument – and our eyes are drawn towards objects which resemble other humans first of all. We are made to be anthropocentric at a neurological level. We also almost instantaneously extract meaning and experience from what we see – seeing is a way of knowing. There are two postulated routes for information to be processed from the eye – let’s call them the high and the low road – and the low road takes thousandths of a second to roughly guess what an object we see is, then the high road categorises it, after passing the information through the cortex. There are also two ‘streams’ of information which roughly correspond to this – the ‘what’ and ‘where’ streams. We are aware of a shape moving in the darkness and our brain releases cortisol to allow us to move or fight (the ‘where’ stream) and then the shape resolves into our cat (the ‘what’ stream) and our heart slowly stops pounding. What we see has a direct impact on our hormonal soup, our biological state. Added to this, our cornea reflect the ability we have to see in great detail what is right in front of us. The middle of this, the ‘fovea’, is the most concentrated area of receptor cells and it has a correspondingly ‘large’ area of “cortical magnification” – that is, it takes up more space on the primary visual cortex. Where we direct our gaze is where we perceive most strongly and clearly – so be aware of what you spend most time looking at?

How does this relate to iconography?

Firstly, it relates to our action of seeing – the icon is visual. I do not acribe to this vocabulary masochism that describes icons as ‘written’ or ‘authored’. I’m a painter, using paint and a brush whose subject is holy saints and Our Lord. The process of seeing an object is – I believe – treated differently at a neurological level, so that seeing an icon is acting on a different part of our brain than reading this sentence or reading the Scriptures. I remember seeing an icon of the Theotokos in Osious Loukas, outside Athens, maybe twenty years ago and being stopped in my tracks. It was very large, it was dark, but I fell to my knees in prayer. It was an unmediated response to a powerful visual stimulus, acting upon (I think) part of me that doesn’t process words.

Secondly, it speaks to me of the essential importance of beauty and visual art in the Church. There is no place in the Bible or the Fathers where visual crudity or the intellectualising of art and beauty into what most modern art describes, is said to be ‘pleasing to the Lord’. I’ve included an image of the mural of the Theophany by Panselinos, my favourite iconographer, at the start of the post. There is a beauty and warmth in his work which is a symbol of his desire to offer what is ‘right and fitting’ or ‘meet and right’ to God. I’m not intellectual enough to change how I paint and just have to hope that it is beautiful to God and those who see it, however poor I feel it may be.

Thirdly, the very structure of our brain is a reflection of how we are designed to live. At this time of year, we all wish to begin afresh – be baptised anew in the Jordan – and there are clues on how to do that in our biology. God designed us to live simple, whole, holistic lives where there was a regularity of rising and retiring, connection with our community and family, regular fasting and eating the food He provided, keeping our eyes on the natural world which has a demonstrable, statistically measurable positive effect on regulating our brain activity (and hence our mood) as well as those things which are beautiful and ‘restore our souls’. The things we do in church: see beauty, sing hymns, receive fresh bread, participate in community and family, all of these are essential for our mental health because our brains are designed to need them. Some could argue that our brains have developed like this because of how we used to live but obviously, that’s not my point of view.

In the coming year, I will be launching a Patreon project – details are being worked on at this very moment! – a monthly podcast to accompany it and I hope that there will be more work for you to share. I would appreciate your ideas on what you’d like me to discuss, any questions you have about work, etc in the podcast. Please keep me and my work in your prayers, as they really do make a difference. With love in XC, Katherine