After centuries of oblivion or misapprehension, Eastern Christian art, especially the art of the icon, was the object of a veritable rediscovery in the West during the twentieth century. This rediscovery unfolded in several stages. The first was the shock felt in Russia upon the cleaning of Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Old Testament Trinity in 1905 and the removal of its riza (metal cover). Then came the diffusion of Prince Eugene Troubetzkoy’s writings and the impact of artists such as Matisse traveling to Moscow (1911). Most influential of all was the constitution, in a number of European capitals, of Orthodox “parishes” around great figures driven from Russia after the Revolution of October 1917. This included, inter alia, the arrival of thinkers like Nikodim Kondakov (1844–1925) and André Grabar (1896–1990) in Sofia, Prague, and Athens, and of Sergei Bulgakov (1871–1944), Vladimir Lossky (1903–58), Nikolai Berdyaev (1874–1948), and iconographers like Fr. Gregory Krug (1908–69) and Leonid Ouspensky (1902–87) in Paris. But their presence had a limited effect at the time; it would not reach a large number of Catholics until the sudden spread of the Charismatic Movement from 1972 onwards—it is, incidentally, symptomatic that the Second Vatican Council (1962–65) hardly speaks of the icon at all. And yet from this date onward the icon spread throughout Catholic churches, and all the more swiftly as “the mysticism of the white wall” that followed the Second World War emptied them to the point that believers no longer knew in which direction to turn when they prayed together. This was the time when reproductions or copies of icons in general and of Rublev’s icon of the Trinity in particular were introduced, within a period of only a handful of years, into an incalculable number of Catholic sanctuaries. The greater availability of books on icons also played a role in this process, beginning in 1952 with Der Sinn der Ikonen (The Meaning of Icons), coauthored by Vladimir Lossky and Leonid Ouspensky. Other works took up the baton, particularly in France. There were the works of Paul Evdokimov, Leonid Ouspensky, and Egon Sendler, to cite just three. Christoph von Schönborn’s book played an important role too. Published in 1976, it treated the theological foundations of the icon of Christ.
But for Western citizens today—whether Christian or not, historian, art historian, sociologist of religion, or simply the cultivated dabbler—knowledge of the world of icons remains fragmentary. Many of these investigators more or less ignore everything that has happened in the study and painting of icons for the past few decades. Some biases continue to reign unchecked. Among those who have an admiring view of the history of European art—of its great strides and successive stylistic mutations—the art of the icon may seem entirely linked to immutable canons about its profound meaning (validated by the Church type after type), a meaning which moves beyond its technical fabrication and beyond the spirit that ought to preside therein. As a result, this art must remain forever fixed. Not only does it seem to such observers impermeable to everything that makes up the development of art and that has driven the avant-gardes in the West, from Impressionism to Cubism to abstract art—and a fortiori since Marcel Duchamp. But indeed the gap between the two worlds, far from lessening, has actually widened. This is because theologian-historians linked to Orthodoxy, both those mentioned above and others more recently, denounce from the rooftops the real or putative derivations of western artists, “Christian artists” included. Among other reproaches we hear of “naturalism,” “sensualism,” “worldliness,” “arbitrariness,” and “subjectivism,” while their more recent epigones unreservedly excoriate as “false icons” every kind of pious image painted “after the manner of icons” but having not a single root in the tradition. Such images take up, for instance, every sort of supposedly traditional subject (for example, the Holy Family) or more recent, non-canonized figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Dom Helder Camara. Here there is no small risk of construing a perfectly dualist idea of the situation of religious art inspired by Christianity: on one side you have Western art, which is supposedly “free” and innovative, and on the other Eastern art, which is perceived as “shackled.”
And yet the art of the icon and the various currents of icon painting rooted in Byzantine and post-Byzantine tradition are far more complex. First of all, the icon’s ability to do justice to regional sensibilities and to tolerate a certain amount of “inculturation” is in clear evidence over many centuries. This is especially evident since the fall of Constantinople in 1453 in many regions—from Armenia to Crete and from Russia to Cyprus. On the one hand, we can observe that, in recent times, there are trends in several Eastern European countries that campaign for a renewal of iconography—in Poland and in the Czech Republic, for example. Artists such as Anton Wollenek in Austria and Jerzy Nowosielski in Poland have acquired a reputation and a certain authority in this realm. In a completely different vein, which some might call illicit, we are witnessing the emergence of “divergent,” “scandalous,” even “desacralized” icons, such as those painted by Stelios Faitakis, an artist from Athens born in 1976. During November and December of 2018, a young Serbian who now lives in Hamburg, Nikola Sarić, displayed in a Paris art gallery a series of icons that were innovative (to put it mildly) from a stylistic point of view, but also in their subject matter—the Gospel parables, for instance. Still elsewhere, especially in Eastern European countries and in the studios of iconographers working in the West under the guidance of Orthodox thinkers (we think of a mosaic artist such as Marie-Noëlle Garrigou in France, and of Bose and Seriate’s studios in Italy), in a far less showy and more tranquil manner certain iconographers have begun to reflect fundamentally upon the danger presented by the very idea of a “canon” in this domain.
Such is the case of the Bulgarian icon painter Julia Stankova (b. 1954). This article seeks to make her better known to readers. It does so first by presenting her person, her trajectory, and her iconographical work. Then I offer an overview of her reflection on the relationships between the Bible and the icon. Finally, in order better to understand her ongoing evolution and her own vantage point, I analyze a dozen icons that she has produced over the past twenty years on the theme of the Hospitality of Abraham as recounted in the eighteenth chapter of the book of Genesis.
Julia Stankova and Her Oeuvre
The artist’s portrait we paint below derives from three principal information sources. The first is her website, along with publications that either she has written or that were written about her and her work. There we find much already; Julia Stankova is one of those artists who can disclose herself without dissimulation. The second source, which has greatly helped clarify the first, is the respectful and warm friendship that has developed between us. The desire to meet her in person led to our encounter at her home in Sofia, where we were able to converse in a leisurely way. The resulting relationship—rooted in mutual knowledge and stimulated by the convergence of our fundamental interests—has proved to be a source of encouragement to realize our respective potential to this very day. The third is the iconographical analysis I undertook of her works, particularly those that focus on subjects I had explored as a theologian and historian of art with several decades of experience. I did this, of course, while presenting my interpretations to her. I was struck straightaway by the originality of her creations; I had to learn more about them by taking a closer look.
Julia Stankova was born in 1954 in an Orthodox environment and grew up in Sofia, Bulgaria. She says on her website that she knew from childhood that she was born to be an artist, and that she remembers as a young girl contemplating the frescoes of the small church in her grandparents’ village. At thirteen years old, she began taking private lessons in design and painting so that she could enter the National Academy of Arts, which she did six years later. But her life took a turn—she is silent about the circumstances and reasons behind this change. She became a mining engineer, graduating from the University of Mining and Geology of Sofia in 1978, and began her professional life by working in this field for twelve years. She says that she did this, though, without ever abandoning the idea of one day becoming a full-time artist.
In 1989, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Bloc with its diverse cultural and socio-political consequences for the erstwhile “Eastern countries,” she decided to quit her engineering profession and to devote the rest of her life to fulfilling her first desire. She was thirty-five at the time and was able to gain employment as an assistant in a studio for icon restoration. This experience was undoubtedly as decisive for her pictorial practice as it was for her theoretical reflections; it allowed her to examine closely, day after day, the specifically Bulgarian style of icons from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which were painted by anonymous iconographers. The finesse of the sensibility that emanated from these icons progressively inspired her with the idea of studying the Bible, and then “the philosophy of the Byzantine pictorial system.” Hence she enrolled in the Faculty of Theology at the Saint Clement University of Ohrid in Sofia, where women, for a long time excluded, were admitted once more. Two years later she left the restoration studio. By that time, she says, she had already mastered the technique of painting icons on wooden panels. This opened for her the possibility of becoming an independent artist. At that point she started to develop a sort of symbolic art. On the one hand, she did this in light of her knowledge of the Byzantine pictorial heritage; on the other, in light of what she calls her “emotional attraction” to the Biblical text. This whetted her appetite for a master’s degree in theology, which she obtained in 2000, before devoting herself to painting icons.
She progressively developed her own technique founded on those of the Byzantine masters. Soon she was painting in a style at once rooted in tradition and very original. She then developed her own subjects, to the point that it is doubtful whether she will for much longer be considered, in Bulgaria and other Orthodox countries, a painter of icons in the usual sense of the term, that is, in every way reliant upon and without deviation from the tradition. This is despite the fact that she gladly claims to be an adherent of the specific form of iconographical painting that emerged in the Balkans, a conjunction of local sensibility and Byzantine culture. She explains that this original current, which was thought to have been extinguished after the Ottoman invasion at the end of the fifteenth century, is in the midst of rising once more from its ashes to write new pages of its history. Indeed, she means to apply herself to that very purpose.
Her art soon aroused interest. Since 2000, she has enjoyed no less than forty personal exhibitions: in Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Greece, but also in the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Norway, Germany, Italy, and France. In Sofia itself there is a permanent presence of her works in several places: in the Astry, Natalie, and Paris art galleries, and in Saint Nedelya Cathedral, to name but a few. She regularly publishes essays, poetry, theological analyses, and articles on art in Bulgarian journals and magazines. Her oeuvre has already been the subject of several publications. There is for instance a catalogue of her paintings (Sofia, 2008), a booklet called Healing (2011) which assembles icons that depict Christ’s miraculous healings, a lovely notebook dedicated to angels (2013), and the catalogue from an Easter exhibition in London (2015). Finally, in 2016 she published a booklet entitled Watercolor Bible, carefully designed and reproduced, assembling those of her works inspired by the first chapters of the book of Genesis. There she presents her interpretation of the creation of the world and of humankind in watercolor designs. Two collections of poems were also published, along with reproductions of her paintings.
In 2018, Julia published a meticulously produced booklet depicting sixteen of her painted icons in color, with both Serbian and English descriptions. These icons are painted on wooden panels, and are inspired primarily by the Gospel of Mark. Julia says she especially appreciates Mark’s Gospel because of its brevity and simplicity, but also because of the characteristic care with which it recounts in detail Christ’s healing gestures. This collection includes one icon of the Baptism of Christ and another devoted to the Stilling of the Storm, but here once more Julia focuses on Christ’s healing miracles (though now in a more systematic manner than in Healing), notably the Gerasene Demoniac, whose healing appears in Mark 5:1–19, the Hemorrhaging Woman (Mark 5:22–34), Jairus’s Daughter (Mark 5:35–43), the Deaf-Mute (Mark 7:31–7), the Blind Man at Bethsaida (Mark 8:22–6), and Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46–52). The booklet closes with certain scenes from the Passion-Resurrection cycle: the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, the Anointing at Bethany, the Last Supper, Christ at the Column, the Myrrhbearers at the Tomb, and the Ascension. Julia’s artistic productivity continues with the same endurance and coherence. She has indicated that in December of 2018 she tendered her application to the Senate for an exhibition in the Galerie du Palais du Luxembourg in Paris, which should open in the summer of 2019 with a dossier on “The Women of the New Testament.” She foresees with good reason that sooner or later she will continue this theme in another pictorial campaign, this time focusing on the women of the Old Testament.
In sum, then, Old Testament theophanies and the cycle of Christ’s life already figure prominently in Julia Stankova’s pictorial creation. It seems that her attention inclines principally toward the encounters and the contact between God’s messengers or Christ and human beings, and does so in a thoughtful and attentive climate that excludes the spectacular in order to privilege a certain sweetness, which we could nonetheless without exaggeration qualify as “miraculous.”
The Bible and the Icon According to Julia Stankova
As Julia’s artistic production is readily accessible on the Internet, one can easily follow its development from year to year. After discovering her work online, and having been touched by its freshness, its density, and its novelty, I had the strong desire to meet her and so went with my wife to Sofia during Easter 2017. I returned with an idea for an article on one of her icons (since published) and above all with the desire to learn more about and help better publicize her work. This encounter allowed me to converse at length on several occasions with her and her husband, as well as to contemplate a number of her works. Then I studied different catalogues of her exhibitions. All of these sources deeply piqued my curiosity and stirred my own reflections in equal measure. Our discussions focused particularly on a point whose significance she herself has never ceased to emphasize, namely the structural link between Byzantine painting and the Bible. In her view, this link’s principal characteristic is to relate a certain number of human-divine facts which are expressive, even paradigmatic, but to do so in such a way that they are never interpreted either verbally or pictorially. The reader is left to do that work and to draw the consequences, while the artist must translate them into visual representation. It is precisely the particular silence of the Biblical texts that births within the reader, whether painter or not, the desire to contribute to the birth of a complete language—hence, according to Julia, the appearance of pictorial, iconographical language. Julia Stankova draws on the consequences of this approach to the Bible, which she perceives as a text that keeps sufficient silence as to create free spaces that call for creative response. Only this inspired text can be considered divine. All the paintings we can make from it, however, will be de facto human. The error, she never shrinks from stressing with vigor, would therefore be (or rather has been) to “canonize,” even to “sacralize” or to “divinize” this pictorial echo, particularly that of the first icons that treat Biblical subjects. This echo too is but human. It must therefore remain living, evolving, changing. Every generation, every country—if we adequately grasp our vocation—is tasked with making the invisible pass into the visible, passing this on to subsequent generations by stirring within them the same reactive and inventive response to God’s call. A given generation’s new wine of perceiving Holy Scripture must be put into new wineskins, that is, poured into an original iconographical language, lest it be spoiled by bursting the old wineskins—the old iconographical styles. This conviction comes quite close to the one expressed for the first time with such clarity in the Roman magisterial tradition. It appears in the seventh chapter of Vatican II’s famous constitution, Sacrosanctum concilium (1965), where we find the substantial declaration that “the Church has never made any style its own.” Each epoch and region is left to invent its own style; here the Church recognizes in persons a non-programmable “right of response” and the fact that every baptized person is called to invent his or her own form of sanctity.
Julia Stankova is not afraid to oppose certain theoretical and practical consequences of the very first theoretical exaltation of the icon. This exaltation was conceptually forged by restoring full legitimacy to the icon after the iconoclastic controversy and the Seventh Ecumenical Council (Nicaea II) in 787. Especially after the council, under the pretext of protecting the icons, there was a tendency to bestow upon them a sanctity equal to that of the Bible itself and therefore an iconographical fixity allegedly intended by the Fathers of the council in question. Julia unambiguously rejects this tendency, and with good reason, insisting that this view leads to all kinds of illusions. Principal among them is the notion of an “iconographical canon,” which is an invention of seventeenth-century Russia. It was indirectly encouraged by the Russian Orthodox Church’s increasingly antagonistic relations with the West and its conception of religious art, and exacerbated even more during the time of Communism, when the Church favored a sort of rigid stiffening regarding icons qua symbols of the believers’ resistance against atheistic Marxism. The logical consequence of such a conception, precipitated by this series of circumstances, is a stillborn art that, in order to avoid theological errors, consists mainly in recopying what was made in former times. However, for Julia Stankova,
Creative work, including iconography, is one of the ways given to people to get closer to the secret of their existence, to discover the face of God, which resides in every one of us. Through seeking and finding the image the artist sets reference points and treads a path for others to walk on as well. The way of art is one of the ways to the Heavenly Kingdom, to the face of God, which we all begin to recognize from the created images.
This bouquet of convictions joins those of other creators of modern icons, with the exception that Julia Stankova does not “canonize” any period or trend. But it is clear that she is not the only artist with Eastern roots to plead in favor of a profound renewal of iconography. She believes in the possibility of renewing iconography from within. It seems to me that she contributes to proving this possibility. And if she wants her icons, which respect the canons but speak to twenty-first-century people, to be the place of an encounter, then I think this wish has every chance of being granted. That is the sense I would now like to convey about the following subject.
Julia Stankova’s Icons of the Hospitality of Abraham
I wanted to see how these ideas were illustrated and borne out in her work on a Biblical passage highly respected in iconography—the Hospitality of Abraham as recounted in chapter 18 of the book of Genesis, which inspired inter alia Andrei Rublev’s much celebrated icon of the Trinity. Why did I choose this subject and Julia Stankova’s treatment of it as a test? For two reasons: first and most important, because the theme of the Trinity accompanies her, as it were, all throughout her artistic production—she has depicted it twelve times since 1993 and in several rather different ways, as we will see; second, because I have become quite familiar with the legacy of this Old Testament passage, a legacy spanning several centuries. This background will help, I think, to grasp the originality of Julia Stankova’s icons depicting this archetypical subject of iconography.
We can divide eleven of these twelve icons into four categories according to the respective places reserved for the couple, Abraham and Sarah, on the one hand, and for the three angels that visit them on the other. A fifth category is represented by a single icon; it links the Hospitality of Abraham to the Annunciation to Mary. To keep things simple, I designate all of these images as “icons,” even though Julia’s website classifies only certain of these as icons proper.
1. When Abraham and Sarah predominate. In the very first Hospitality of Abraham Julia Stankova painted (1993), the patriarch and his spouse occupy the foreground of the scene (fig. 1). They are seated facing each other. The patriarch is old while Sarah seems very young. He places his hand tenderly on hers and they gaze at one another, while in the central opening of a triple window, outlined with a light trace against the backdrop of a blue sky, the closely unified group of three angels—their backs turned, wings folded, their figures depicted on a very small scale—depart after their visit, each of them with a small, plate-like halo (what German art historians call aTellernimbus) suspended above its head. The tender gesture between the two spouses can undoubtedly be interpreted as the effect on them of the announcement of Isaac’s coming birth (Gen. 18:10), which made Sarah laugh, given the advanced age of her husband. The painter, herself a woman, was very likely reticent (like many artists across centuries before her) to depict Sarah as an old woman, “having ceased to have what women have” (Gen. 18:11). Painted in quite different hues and in a much smoother pictorial style, yet noticeably in accordance with the same compositional schema, we have the Hospitality of Abraham from 2012 (fig. 2)—again with an old, baldheaded Abraham to the left and a young, veiled Sarah to the right—but this time the patriarch’s tender gesture consists in placing his forearm on his spouse’s.