Who made up these canons? Wouldn't one think that since God has chosen to work wonders through these Icons that He has shown his approval of them? That being the case, these "canons" seem to be more of a guideline rather than a hard fast law.
I have previously spoken on this forum on the almost complete takeover of traditional iconography by naturalistic religious art over several centuries, across all the Orthodox world. Much of this was due to official patronage of this “new” religious art, be it by nobles, kings, or emperors of countries where Orthodoxy was the dominant faith. There was no separation of Church and State – indeed, the king/emperor/tsar was a kind of earthly representative of the Church. To this day, the affectionate titles for a Russian priest and his wife are Batiushka
(Little Father, Little Mother). The same titles were used for the Tsars and Tsarinas of imperial Russia. History shows that many rulers of Orthodox countries, for better and worse, adopted (willingly or otherwise) western customs and mores, and imposed them on their nations or empires. In Russia, this led to the founding of state-sponsored iconographic workshops, which promoted the highly naturalistic “Synodal” or “Academic” styles, as well as imagery commonly found in western religious art. The “iconography” of the Moscow Cathedral of Christ the Savior, commissioned in the 1820s, reflects the almost complete dominance of western imagery over traditional iconography.
The Kursk-Root icon of the Mother of God dates from the last decade of the 13th century, and consisted of simply an icon of the Mother of God of the Sign. As the repeatedly miraculous nature of this little icon became known more widely, it was decided at the turn of the seventeenth century, three hundred years after the discovery of the icon, to enlarge and "beautify" it by adding a broad border on which were painted icons of Old Testament prophets, and, in the upper border, an image of God the Father. The inclusion of the latter was hardly surprising, as such imagery had already begun infiltrating iconography.
Greece, the other center of Orthodoxy, was not immune from extraneous influences. The Venetians colonized large areas of the Greek mainland, and many of its islands, prior to, or during, the Ottoman period. The Cretan School produced some of the most sublime and reverent iconography anywhere, but, unfortunately, eventually descended into an imitation of renaissance art, losing its liturgical and theological integrity. The progressive westernizing of the works of the iconographers Tzannes and Damaskinos is a good example of this.
Keeping this in mind, and that of traveled iconographers themselves incorporating elements of western art in their works, is it any wonder that western forms of religious art soon became the norm? We have the examples of Sts Seraphim of Sarov and Nektarios of Aegina and their veneration of images we know to be suspect. But, are we to condemn these holy men? Are we to say that their sanctity is in question? Of course not. The fact is, that they had little choice but
to venerate such images, as these images were everywhere.
The hallowed ground of Mt Athos was not immune from these influences – indeed, there is, to this day, a profusion of suspect and uncanonical images on the walls of many of its monasteries. These include NT Trinities, eyes in triangles, and St Joseph the Betrothed holding the young Christ, which are clearly contrary to Orthodox doctrine and theology. The people of Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Romania, and other nations in eastern Europe on the border of Orthodox East and Roman Catholic West similarly were surrounded by heterodox images, in all innocence. Can we blame them for holding their beloved Ostrobramskaya
, and Diveyevo
icons to their hearts?
So where does this leave us? God can, if He so chooses, to work His grace through imperfect vessels, be they human beings, or an imperfectly-mounted printed icon (the recent myrrh-streaming icon of St Nicholas), or an image that falls short of canonical guidelines. As He accepts and loves us, despite our multitude of sins and faults, so He has accepted these imperfect images. However, we are also expected to do what we can to “get right” with God.
In terms of iconography, we can no longer claim ignorance of canon, scripture or liturgical deposit. It is increasingly difficult to claim illiteracy, geographic and cultural isolation for the perpetuation of images deficient or contrary to Orthodox doctrine and theology. It grieves me that certain people who conduct well-patronised classes in icon painting continue to promote uncanonical and deficient images. I am not convinced that this is being done in honest ignorance.
On the other hand, I am heartened that some iconographers are painting “corrective” motifs on their copies of historic but deficient images, such as ensuring the Mother of God bears the three stars of perpetual virginity, that a motif of Christ or the OT Holy Trinity, instead of God the Father, is in the upper border of a Kursk-Root
icon of the Mother of God. I have also seen the removal of NT Trinities and eyes in triangles from prominent positions in some Orthodox churches in the city where I live. Small, but very welcome steps in the right direction.