Concrete Metaphysics and the Visual Image

By Christoph SchneiderJune 13, 2020

Concrete Metaphysics and the Visual Image

Visual Thought in Russian Religious Philosophy by Clemena Antonova

CLEMENA ANTONOVA’S MONOGRAPH on the maverick Russian thinker and polymath Pavel A. Florensky (1882–1937) introduces the reader to the little-known, but fascinating and often enigmatic world of Russian religious philosophy. Yet the book is of interest not only to the small circle of specialists. Rather, Antonova’s aim is to explore “the value of Florensky’s theory of the icon to our contemporary modernity.” She raises the question whether his thought can “contribute to the analysis of some of the most urgent questions in aesthetics and philosophy that we face now.” This is not to say that she neglects the historical and cultural context within which Florensky lived and worked. Quite the reverse: one of the book’s strengths is the profound background knowledge it provides, which helps the reader to understand Florensky’s key ideas about the icon and visual art. This is important because his intellectual horizon is unusually broad, and the bold cross-fertilization among different disciplines characteristic of his writings can easily confuse a lay audience. While visual art is the main topic discussed in the book, Antonova competently comments on most major influences on Florensky’s work, such as the Russian tradition of “full unity” (vseedinstvo), Byzantine mysticism, mathematics, and Cubism, among other things.

Antonova identifies two overlapping developments in the current intellectual context that constitute a point of contact with Florensky’s reflections on religion and art: the so-called religious turn and the pictorial turn. First, after a long period of skepticism and indifference, discourse about religion has returned to the public sphere. Religious traditions no longer accept the marginalization and privatization of religious belief that came to dominate the Western world in the wake of the Enlightenment. Second, the author highlights the visual character of modern culture. The digitally transmittable and infinitely reproducible image plays an unprecedentedly prominent role in contemporary society. Antonova’s endeavor to interpret Florensky’s theory of the icon within the contemporary intellectual context is to some extent a continuation of Florensky’s own project of relating the medieval tradition of icon painting to modern culture, and to address the crisis of modernity.

The reader unfamiliar with the world of Russian religious philosophy will be astonished by Florensky’s transdisciplinary approach, and even more so by his fusion of explicitly theological (i.e., Eastern Orthodox) ideas with apparently secular concepts and theories. With few exceptions, there is a strong tendency in modern Western thought and culture to divorce the sacred from the secular, philosophy from theology, reason from faith. The revival of religion in the public sphere is a rather recent phenomenon, and it remains to be seen how long this trend will last, and what transformative potential it has. One of the main features of Russian religious philosophy is that there is no clear-cut, impenetrable boundary between theology and other disciplines, including the hard sciences and the arts. Thus, as Antonova emphasizes, it would be misleading to characterize Florensky’s intellectual project simply as “interdisciplinary,” for his aim is to spell out all the theoretical as well as practical ramifications of a specifically Christian Orthodox worldview. In line with his predecessors, Florensky’s theory of art and his reflections on “visual thought” (as Antonova aptly terms it) are largely intended to overcome what the Russian religious thinkers identified as the crisis of modernity. Despite his extraordinary originality and creative engagement with the philosophical and scientific approaches of his time, Florensky’s vision of the world is a reinterpretation of the Christian-Platonic tradition. His thought is rooted in Byzantine theology and philosophy, yet the precise contours of his vision bear the distinct features of Russian religious philosophy.

Accordingly, the structure of Antonova’s book reflects the centrality of theological concepts and ideas in Florensky’s work. The four chapters revolve around different connotations of the religious-philosophical concept of “full unity” — one of the key notions in Russian religious philosophy that Florensky adopted and modified in his own writings. “Full unity,” Antonova explains, stands for the metaphysical unity of being and thus exemplifies Florensky’s metacritique of post-Kantian and post-metaphysical philosophy and its various ontological, epistemological, anthropological, and aesthetic ramifications in modern thought. For instance, it denotes the oneness and unity of the world, the interdependence of the different human faculties in cognition (“integral knowledge”), and the organic synthesis of theology, philosophy, and the empirical sciences.

In chapter one, Antonova sets out Florensky’s critique of modernity by analyzing the notion of the Orthodox icon as “energetic symbol.” She demonstrates how Florensky uses a pre-modern, Byzantine thought-model in order to (re-)establish a realist epistemology and aesthetics. According to Antonova, Florensky considers the visual image as a symbol — that which the image depicts is itself present in the depicted: “The symbol is the symbolized.” She also points to interesting parallels between Florensky’s reflections on the icon and his realist philosophy of language. Both the icon (the visual sign) and the name/word (the linguistic sign) enable us to see the object they depict as it really is, i.e., they are not just representations confined by immanent and mental categories of interpretation. With respect to the icon, this means that the person is actually present, and appears to the viewer (real presence). In the icon, the Kantian abyss between the phenomenon and the unknowable noumenon is bridged. As Antonova explains, the epistemological and metaphysical model on which Florensky relied to make his point was borrowed from a 14th-century mystic and theologian, St. Gregory Palamas, who distinguished between God’s essence and his energies, and argued that God is fully present in his energies, without losing his transcendence (essence).

In chapter two, Antonova analyzes the unity of the icon in space. She demonstrates how Florensky found inspiration in contemporary “secular” movements and artistic trends to express their Christian convictions. She points out that Florensky took an interest in the way Pablo Picasso and other avant-garde painters envisaged the construction of space, in opposition to the logic of the linear perspective brought about by the Renaissance. Florensky was fascinated by what art historians today call “multiple planes”: the notion that the artistic image captures and unifies what can only be perceived in different temporal moments and from different spatial perspectives. This seemingly new and innovative artistic technique resonates with aspects of medieval icon painting. In iconography, too, space is organized in such a way that different parts and surfaces of a given object are depicted — even though they cannot be seen simultaneously from a fixed position.

Yet, as Antonova explains, there are also fundamental differences between the two traditions. Within Florensky’s Christian-Platonic framework, the synthetic vision is intertwined with the notion of spiritual growth and sanctification, which enables a person to perceive the higher, spiritual planes of reality, and to recognize the world as a unified whole. She points out that the achievement of this spiritual vision is the fruit of deification (theosis), the realization of a divine likeness, which plays such an important role in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. The spiritual person acquires the ability, as it were, to see the world through “God’s eyes.” Perhaps Antonova could have made it more explicit that the spiritual vision of the deified person is not simply a vision freed from the constraints of (space and) time, a vision from timelessly eternal perspective. Rather, Florensky emphasizes that Christian iconography takes time much more seriously than paintings that follow the paradigm of linear perspective, which can only produce “snapshots” that abstract from the temporal dimension of the human existence. As Antonova herself points out, Florensky is indeed a thinker of the boundary between immanence and transcendence; what he proposes is a “concrete metaphysics.” For instance, the unity of the person depicted in an icon is not simply an abstraction. Although the visual representation of the “whole” of the person is more than the sum total of all the temporal sequences of this person’s life, the represented “whole” contains all these individual moments. In the icon, time is not left behind, but synthesized, or “fulfilled”; time assumes an eschatological dimension.

In chapter three, Antonova tackles the relationship between faith and reason. Here too the concept of “full unity” plays a central role in the sense that a separation of the two is inconceivable for Florensky. In the Russian Silver Age, not just philosophical models, but even new mathematical and scientific theories were used in non-scientific contexts to expound theological, metaphysical, and artistic ideas. For instance, Florensky saw an analogy between the curved space of the medieval icons and the curved space of Non-Euclidean geometry. The notion of curved space undermined the very foundation on which the construction of linear perspective rested and served as an intellectual tool to challenge the modern Kantian worldview.

It is easy to see that from the point of view of the standard perspective, there are several peculiar deformations in icons (Antonova has helpfully included reproductions of icons and avant-garde paintings to illustrate her points). For instance, the horizon is arched, objects and figures bend, and rectangular forms are depicted as if they were drawn on a concave surface. However, as Antonova argues, the analogy between iconography and Non-Euclidean geometry should not be overstretched; the organization of the iconic space cannot be ultimately explained in Non-Euclidean terms. Yet the example illustrates nicely how ideas from a completely different academic discipline could be transferred to the field of iconography and iconology.

In her final chapter, Antonova discusses the appropriate context of the icon. She shows that for Florensky, the icon, due to its sacral character, can only be properly appreciated if contemplated in organic unity with the other rituals of the church: the flickering light of the candles, the singing of the choir, the smoke of the incense, the liturgical gestures of the priest, et cetera. Florensky’s reflections were written down as a reaction to the anti-religious measures taken by the Bolshevik authorities in the aftermath of the October Revolution. By moving religious works of art from churches and monasteries to museums and art galleries, the government desacralized the meaning of the icon without physically destroying it. Moreover, as Antonova writes, Florensky’s conviction that church ritual serves as a “synthesis of the arts” can be understood as an Orthodox-Christian response to the German romantic notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk, famously popularized by Richard Wagner.

Antonova further explains why Florensky’s understanding of religious art, and particularly the notion of “real presence,” implies a radical critique of modern aesthetic theory, particularly the Kantian view that aesthetic judgment is disinterested. Kant utterly subjectivized the aesthetic experience and detached the object from the representation that evokes aesthetic pleasure. Florensky, by contrast, emphasizes that the contemplating subject encounters the person whose presence the religious image mediates. Furthermore, there is reciprocity between the subject and the visual image: the subject contemplating the sacred work of art is first and foremost being seen by the icon, i.e., by the person who is present in and through the visual representation.

Antonova’s monograph is a tour de force through Florensky’s complex and multifaceted intellectual universe. Not only does she trace virtually all the relevant influences on Florensky, but she places his key ideas within today’s intellectual context. Antonova’s monograph is well researched, lucid, and highly readable. She has managed to strike the right balance between breadth and depth; despite the enormous amount of material covered, the chapters do not feel overloaded. The book makes for an intellectually stimulating reading, and introduces Florensky not just as a thinker of the past, but also as a living intellectual voice, if a controversial one, that we should listen to today. Antonova’s interpretation of the Russian thinker’s theory of the icon makes a succinct and original contribution to a critical understanding of both Russian religious philosophy and modernity. She rightly remarks that the avenue she has followed is “largely, almost completely unexplored,” and expresses hope “that other scholars will continue along the way.”


Christoph Schneider, PhD, is academic director and lecturer in systematic and philosophical theology at the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies in Cambridge, United Kingdom.

LARB Contributor

Christoph Schneider, PhD, is academic director and lecturer in systematic and philosophical theology at the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies in Cambridge, United Kingdom.


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