The Florenskian-Iconic as Lacanian?
Joseph Masheck

Notions of the Russian Orthodox ikon as a proto-suprematist painting, and relatedly, of the possible relevance of Pavel Florensky’s thought to the suprematist project of Kazimir Malevich, may be reinforced after the fact in certain curious points of similarity, even as suprematism underwent critical rediscovery in the 1970s, between the ikon tradition represented by Florensky (1882-1937) and the work of the contemporary revisionist psychoanalyst and cultural philosopher Jacques Lacan. The question deserves to be posed as highlighting a seeming iconic feature of Lacan’s thinking just as we of a new generation were newly comprehending the somehow socially ‘spiritual’ aspect-so different from Kandisnky’s spiritual privacy-of suprematism. Especially entailed are the primacy of the image’s active visual address of the spectator, as if the image harbored a ‘gaze’ of its own even as one gazed upon it, and also what Lacan took as his diagrammatic notion of the three-fold ‘Borromean knot,’ representing his trinity of the integrally interdependent ‘Real, Symbolic and Imaginary’ spheres. Considering Florensky in relation to Lacan may at least suggest how the ikon-like aspect of Malevich’s suprematism concerns a comprehensive sign system from which embodied meaning derives.

Nothing visual in Malevich’s suprematism more tellingly carries over from the Orthodox ikon than that inversion of conventional Western perspective, and apparent reversion to pre-Renaissance conditions, by which the image projects itself forward, as if impinging on the viewer’s space, quite instead of purporting to extend the everyday space of nature ‘backward’ with that pseudo-naturalistic consistency so long propounded in post-Renaissance academic tradition. Despite the fact that the same Eastern Orthodox church people who have long reviled Western Renaissance influence on Russian ikons have been pleased to ignore even the most accomplished modernist confirmations of their own critique of naturalism as ethico-aesthetic deceit, many modernists have been respectful admirers of ikons. One may think, analogously, of religious conservatives as often having uncritically assumed a counterrevolutionary political posture, even against the cause of justice, with the socialist cause inheriting more apocalyptic justification than either side was prepared to acknowledge. Father Pavel Florensky himself would have disagreed, though he himself was perhaps the most significant cultural figure ‘between stools’ in the Russian revolutionary period-harassed, imprisoned and executed by the Stalinists though he came to be, and only to be rehabilitated in the late Soviet period.

While neither a revolutionary nor a modernist, Florensky was an Orthodox priest who worked for the revolutionary government as an official in the field of artistic preservation, including ikons, and as an engineer, and he also taught spatial or perspectival theory in the great post-revolutionary ar workshops of the VKhUTEMAS (Higher State Art-Technical Studios) in Moscow. His ongoing theorization of the ikon is fascinating in light of Malevich’s development of suprematist painting, particularly in regard to inverse or reverse perspective but also for his basic understanding of the dialogic to the prayerfully attuned spectator on the part of the religious ikon; however it may also conceivably have had later impact in a different department of culture, namely, psychoanalytic theory as developed with aesthetic entailments by Lacan. The hypothesis would seem far-fetched but for a similarity to Lacan’s fundamental notion of le petit a as underwriting an analytical sense that what is under scrutiny in a situation may well, to begin with, be already, so to speak, gazing back first, for which grounds can also be found in Florensky, with a more distant but major philosophical source available to both thinkers. Concentrating on what of Florensky was contemporaneously available in the West will also suggest a source for Lacan’s later figure of thought, the ‘Borromean knot.’ Finally, some corroboration for a Florenskian adumbration of the Lacanian thing found gazing at one before one settles one’s gaze upon it, seems quite possible vis-à-vis the most famous Orthodox ikon, whose significance would nevertheless have gained by reading Florensky, specifically in respect to the ikon’s address and appeal from the heavenly realm ‘forward’ to the viewer in his or her earthly time and space.

If Lacan’s “central insight,” as has been claimed, is “that each picture, each image, holds in various blots or stains a trace of the gaze of the Other as the place from which I cannot see myself but know that I am seen from outside,” [1] without contradiction it may also be possible to say that what is most Florenskian, or most conspicuously Florenskian, in Lacan is precisely the sense of an image as but a special case of something already gazing at one when one, in effect, gazes back at it. The latter would encourage us to think that, somewhere near the center of the image’s panoramic membrane is an elusive chink of sorts, through which something we cannot quite face up to somehow glints, provoking us to account all else that we readily see as the extent of the real. In Lacan’s discussion of the tuché, or encounter, ‘The Split Between the Eye and the Gaze’ (dating to 1964), the “stain,” or tâche, first comes to the fore as addressing the viewing subject’s gaze unawares (shall we say ‘a priori’?). It is not needless to say that la tâche originelle is a traditional form of le péché original, or ‘original sin,’ that primary sin which, theology has it, one did not ‘actually’ commit but inherited as a stain that ‘came with’ the fallen human condition, and in virtue of which (or as if for once, in vice of which) one sets out lost but redeemable by opening to gratuitous compensation from without (‘grace’).

Adumbrating Lacan’s ‘past-participular’ philosophical position in which being gazed at, as if being seen, which would mean being perceived, as somehow prior to and a condition of seeing or perceiving as such, was the ontology of George Berkeley (itself influenced by Malebranche though for Protestant political reasons he would have been unable to say so), in which the whole world and all the minds in it are held in existence by being thought purely as signs in the mind of God. That Lenin could consider this the only really honest form of idealism, amusingly enough (in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, 1908), should not distract from the more serious irony by which Florensky could for once have agreed with him, especially in regard to the ikon as entailing a total linguistic system from which it, as it were, ‘down-loads’ self-evident meaning. Also pertinent, no doubt, is the hermeneutical stance of deferring to the text or art object as ‘already’ addressing us, its readers or viewers, when we look receptively to it: the work of art, in other words, as having something to say to us, prior to any inquiry we proceed to make of it, as where Heidegger speaks, in “The Origin of the Work of Art” (1935ff), of how “the thing solicits us by its looks” (eidos) and of how in its equipmental “usefulness” an entity “regards us, that is, flashes out at us and thereby is present and thus is this entity.” [2] In any case, only a week later in Lacan’s next discussion, ‘Anamorphosis,’ the “irreducible method of Bishop Berkeley, about whose subjective position much might be said,” comes up as a limiting case of idealism and/or of philosophy’s tendency to be content with talking to itself, for daring to “deny that nothing of the world appears to me except in my representations.” [3]

Curiously, for one who is so good at pointing up what should have been obvious in the larger picture, like all the empiricists who wish to embrace him on other than his own terms Lacan underplays Berkeley’s grand affirmation that the whole world is really just so much language held in thought-in the mind of God. Modern techno-friendly, anti-metaphysical empiricism has its own way of accommodating his central insight that to be is to be perceived; or as A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710; 2nd ed., 1734) classically has it: “[T]he various sensations or ideas imprinted on the sense, however blended or combined together (that is, whatever objects they compose) cannot exist otherwise than in a mind perceiving them… For as to what is said of the absolute existence of unthinking things without any relation to their being perceived, that seems perfectly unintelligible. Their esse is percipi, nor is it possible they should have any existence, out of the minds or thinking things which perceive them” (I.3). [4] However, Berkeley had already supplied his doctrine with a deeper basis in A New Theory of Vision (1709), a text in which he also already expounds the doctrine of the “arbitrary” nature of “signs,” and which has great interest in light of the modernist artistic sense of the significance of flatness in painting, but which has been ignored by ‘logical empiricists’ presumably wiser than the deluded old man of the cloth. It was because of Berkeley’s prior theory, which one would have thought obviously underpinned what he meant a year later by the condition of percipi, i. e., of being perceived, but which is today so widely ignored, that as a dialectical materialist Lenin could at least point with wit.

It will clear the air and narrow the gap between Florensky and Lacan to consider that to Berkeley the world was already nothing but a system of divinely ‘arbitrary’ signs. Lacan’s seminar discussions that included ‘The Split Between the Eye and the Gaze’ were published as The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, in 1973. It is one thing, there, for Lacan to follow Lenin in taking Berkeley as an idealist, under a careful constraint of “methodological doubt” (80). [5] But speaking of that which is too glaring to be seen: besides the standard Anglo-American ‘analytical’ invocation of Berkeley as a major founder of empiricism as such, justified in effect by censoring just what was most important in his own thinking, that the world really consists of language as thought held in being in the mind of God, Lacan turns eccentric where he is charmed by a thought of Berkeley as gloating solipsistically over the “representations” constituting his world as so many possessions in the sense of his own “property” (81), because in Berkeley’s view everything that one can possesses is itself only as it were on loan from heaven, which is after all much closer to saying that it is the property of all concerned, or even of the people in common, than that it belongs only to oneself.

Lacan invokes anamorphic representation, as so aimed in one thoroughgoing way at a single point of sight as otherwise not to make representational sense, to elucidate how images as much as regard us, facing us down, as it were. Of that we are not ordinarily aware because in reading a representation we effectively everything that we manage knowingly to ‘see’ notwithstanding a sense that something escaping our regard keeps the image unscathed. To extend to him something like his own technique by observing of an instance in his own exposition something important implied quite apart from what is said: he speaks of holding up a “portrait” on a “flat” and presumably rectangular “piece of paper,” and refers to the nearby “blackboard,” also presumably rectangular, as being “in an oblique position I relation to the piece of paper” (85); but instead of acceding to his intent and imagining a projection of the drawing onto the blackboard, across but oblivious to the intervening space, one may instead consider how it should be more Malevichian to ignore the supposed image being transposed and attend instead to the paper and blackboard as two rectangles likely appearing differently trapezoidal in their common and already connective space. It is in a section of the same text subtitled ‘What Is a Picture?’ Lacan actually takes up the theme of the Orthodox ikon, in the form of Byzantine mural-painting. The ikon-painter is imagined as “playing with” the image he was engendering so as to “arouse the desire of God” (113). Given this manifest interest in the ikon, what, if anything, can further be inferred about Florensky?

Pavel Florensky’s name and work have not been unknown in West-European culture outside of Orthodoxy. A major semiotician-iconographer (in the sense of ikons), Boris Uspensky, relays an extended passage from a 1922 Florensky article on ‘Symbolic Description’ in a 1970 study of the semiotics of literary form. This includes the idea that symbolic description “must be double”; for, “the wise artist probably spends his greatest effort to keep his images, which have become symbols, from slipping from their pedestals of esthetic isolation and mixing with life, like elements which are homogeneous with it.” [6] Another excerpt, of some six pages, from Florensly’s other book, Iconostasis (written in 1922 and unpublished, owing to the Stalinists, until 1972), was included as an appendix titled ‘The Ikon as Related to Oil Paintng and Engraving: Metaphysical, Sensual and Rational Art Forms,’ in Stuart’s 1975 study Ikons. The text in question includes a remark on unwarranted, casually interjected detail in ikon-painting that is suggestive of the Lacanian tuché: “… such distortions as superfluous lines or metaphysically unjustified splashes of colour, seen in terms of the spiritual essence of the ikon, are the same as splashes of mud on a glass window, thrown up by a passing vehicle.” And it is not only that from one side of the glass, as it were, these partially block the view, but also, at least as importantly, that they interfere with the light coming in (“However amusing we may find such distortions in an ikon they are no more than marks of dirt”). [7]

What about the Lacanian thought-motif of the Borromean knot? In his 1975 seminar Encore (of 1972-73) Lacan, understanding the “idealism” of writing, necessarily in solitude, as though one could ever expect to circumscribe his or her place from within the contradictions of the sexes, comes to see writing, in Rabaté’s words, as “tak(ing) the form of a simple knot, which ‘has all the characteristics of writing-it could be a letter,'” which “becomes more and more encompassing until it finally allegorizes the trefoil of Trinity.” [8] Now in 1975 there was published a French edition of Florensky’s magnum opus The Pillar and Ground of the Truth (1914), which fortunately, like a contemporaneous English edition, reiterates Florensky’s graphic devices, emblematic vignettes, “the symbolic meaning of the majority” of which, he himself says, “does not require explanation,” these deriving from the rather belatedly first Russian emblem-book (Saint Petersburg, 1788), Nestor Maksimovic-Ambodik’s Symbola et emblemata selecta (589). [9] According to Rabaté, after developing “a theory of literary language caught between the effects of the written ‘knot’ or ‘hole’ and the simply spoken signifier” in the 1960s, Lacan worked in the earlier ’70s “with more and more mathemes,” in a discursive “algebra” and a “topology still lacking,” however, what he would soon establish definitively as “the Borromean knot”; [10] and as it emerged in the mid-1970s the device pointed up a doctrine of meaning as manifest in three and only three planes, namely “the Real, the Symbolic and the Imaginary,” which “should ideally be tied together in a Borromean knot to stress their complete interdependence and lack of hierarchy.” [11] So Lacan was theorizing his three-way Borromean knot at approximately the time when Florensky’s longest and most formidable text appeared in French with Maksimovic’s emblem of three interlocking wreathes as headpiece ornament to ‘Letter Two: Doubt’ (ch. iii), above the legend: His ornari aut mori. “To receive either death or a crown.” (14; Fr. 17) [12]

The motif also has something of a prehistory, however, including the form of the pretzel as emblematizing the eternally interdependent identities of the ‘persons’ of the Trinity, [13] though its practically logotypic Lacanian identity is usually simply referred to an armorial device of the Milanese Borromeo family of Milan. But Florensky’s interlocking wreath-rings also inherit something of a graphic tradition. Dürer opens Conrad Celtes’ Libri Amorum (1502) with an enthroned ‘Philosophia’ framed in an oval wreath divided into quadrants of differing seasonal vegetation; [14] a title page device by William Kent for James Thomson’s long poem The Seasons, from 1730, widely read on the Continent (even set to music by Haydn), is framed with a horizontal elliptical wreath also divided into foliage quadrants. [15] The proto-Enlightenment connotations of the British example point up, in turn, the then provincial Rococo of a wreath ornamenting the title page of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason as first printed at Riga in 1781-and soon dropped in a more up-to-date Neoclassical design for the second edition (1787) by the same provincial printer: Kant’s earlier wreath is circular and floral, with two swags subdividing the enclosed area into approximately equal thirds without interlocking. [16] What is more, a major nineteenth-century case of both wreath and interlocking ring motifs would have both provoked Florensky by its techno-materialist motivation and piqued the curiosity of Lacan: the design theoretician Gottfried Semper, in Style the Technical and Tectonic Arts; or, Practical Aesthetics (1860-63; 2nd ed., 1878-79), taking the wreath as emblematizing the origin of all artistic construction in plaiting, illustrates a twined wreath of natural leaves and a Greek commemorative chaplet of stylized blossoms. [17] At least as akin to the Borromean knot, however, is his discussion of a form of Egyptian ornament with interlocking rings, evoking not only a Gnostic or hermetic understanding of a threefold-plus-one as a filling out the Trinity with an earthly female element but also the ‘Sophia’ figure of such early modern Russian philosophers as Vladimir Solovyov and Nicholas Lossky, as, amazingly enough, Semper the notorious materialist considers “the other heavenly hosts who surround God the Father, God the Son, or the complete (sic) Trinity with Mary in Glory.” [18]

Still other features of The Pillar and Ground of the Truth would likely have appealed to Lacan. [19] At the head of ‘Letter Four: The Light of the Truth’ (ch. v), is also a mirror device, reflecting the light of the dun onto a heart (53; Fr. 52.). In ‘Letter Six: Contradiction’ (ch. vii), dealing with inevitable antinomies in religious knowledge, there is Florensky’s sense that excising a perceived interference, in scrutinizing something, might have the effect of excising just what is sought after, as in effacing a painted mist in a picture or a design (ornement) woven into a fabric: attempting to detach these out of misplaced purism would only destroy the image or fabric along with the extracted qualification. Thus, “Where there is no antinomy, there is no faith. But this will be only when faith and hope vanish away and only love remains (see 1 Cor. 13:8-13)” (120; Fr. 111). Suggestive, too, of Lacanian jouissance is ‘Letter Eight: Gehenna’ (ch. ix), in which everybody is tried as gold and silver are “purified by fire,” this being “a ‘proof’ of the personality… If his selfhood is transformed into the likeness of God, then the man will receive a ‘reward,’ the inner bliss (béattitude) of seeing in himself the likeness (ressemblance) of God, the creative joy (joie créatrice) of an artist contemplating his own creation” (168: Fr. 153).

When Rabaté observes, “In later years Lacan tended to identify more and more with the discourse of female mystics who spoke of God as their ineffable lover”, [20] in the context of Florensky one can only recall the mystical, muse-like aspect of the Russian philosophers’ spirit of ‘Sophia.’ In ‘Letter Ten: Sophia,’ of Pillar and Ground (ch. xi), Florensky writes, “With regard to creation, Sophia is the Guardian Angel of creation, the Ideal person of the world. The shaping reason with regard to creation, Sophia is the shaped content of God-Reason, His ‘psychic’content,’ eternally created by he father through the Son and completed in the Holy Spirit: God thinks by things (en choses). Therefore, to exist is to be thought, to be remembered, or, finally, to be known by God. They whom God ‘knows’ possess reality. They whom God does ‘not know’ do not exist in the spiritual world, in the world of true reality, and their being is illusory” (237; Fr. 214). Of his Sophia, at least, Florensky can say, “She is the knowledge that the Father and the Son have. She is the contemplation of their desire (leur désir), the mirror (miroir) in which Their Glory is reflected. In relation to the Father, she is His daughter, for she constitutes part of His Son. In relation to the Son, according to the law of fatherly love, she is His sister” (241; Fr. 217).

Any Western European who takes an interest in ikons soon is soon aware that by far the most renowned example is the early fifteenth-century Holy Trinity known as the ‘Old Testament Trinity,’ painted by St. Andrei Rublyov for the great Trinity-St. Sergiy Lavra (monastery) near Moscow and now in the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. As a monumentally scaled panel which ironically conforms to the cultus of the Renaissance artist-genius even as it otherwise holds its own against the conventions of Western religious painting, this image of the trio of angels who visited Abraham and Sarah as visual metaphor of the eternal Triune God has long presented itself to the sympathetic gaze of twentieth-century artists of all stylistic persuasions. Certainly it would even have appealed specifically to the notion of the modernist El Lissitzky, Kazimir Malevich’s major disciple, who wrote in 1920 (in ‘Suprematism in World Reconstruction’) that as the Old Covenant was to the New, so shall the New be to communism, and then likewise that that should be to a transcendental new order intimated here and now by suprematism in art. As Ouspensky and Lossky observe in their elucidation of its iconography, this famous painting, and source image for many more, “binds together, as it were, the beginning of the Old Testament Church and the establishment of the New Testament Church.” Indeed, the same scholars proceed to explain how the analogy of dialectical supersession even extends back another stage, since, by occurring at place already sacred to pagans (at the “oak of Mambre”), the original Jewish theophany of Genesis 18 was already a sublation-as already pointed up by Eusebius of Caesarea (Demonstratio Evengelica, early IV century), as quoted by St. John of Damascus (In Defense of the Holy Icons, early VIII century). [21]

While other commentators address the circularity of its composition, Ouspensky and Lossky note that this composition is literally determined by a visibly drawn or inscribed circle, that, “(p)assing through the upper part of the nimbus of the central Angel and partly cutting off the bottom of the pedestals…, embraces all three figures, showing very faintly through their outlines”-this being an adaptation, Ouspensky and Lossky infer, of an even more literally circular composition found on the bottoms of circular-footed liturgical vessels and “dictated” by that limit of the field rather than, as here, “by the dogmatic thought.” [22] Quoting Alpatov-“wherever we look, we see echoes of the main circular melody, correspondences of outline, forms arising from other forms or reflecting them as in a mirror, lines sweeping beyond the outlines of the circle or interwoven in its center…” Ouspensky and Lossky speak of the “inner life uniting the three figures enclosed in the circle and communicating itself to its surroundings… echoes, as it were, the words od St. Dionysius the Areopagite, according to whose iinterpretation, ‘circular movement signifies that God remains identical with Himself, that He envelops in synthesis the intermediate parts and the extremities, which are at the same time containers and contained, and that He recalls to himself all that has gone out from Him.” [23]

John Stuart calls our attention to something small and all too easily overlooked in regard to the Hospitality of Abraham as having provided the metaphoric occasion (human : angelic equals angelic: divine) for a Trinity itself sharing in a sacramental eucharist: “The central point of the composition is provided by the chalice containing a calf’s head – the Old Testament counterpart of a sacrificial lamb – the Eucharist…” And whereas many Russian ikons follow the Greek practice whereby a “saint’s gaze transfixes the worshipper, binding him to the ikon in a reciprocal relationship,” here, as elsewhere, Rublev constructs an “interplay of their glances” among the angels, advancing a “trance-like, spiritual mood” by having their eyes “not focus directly on the observer, but gaze into the beyond.” [24] Needless to say, the diminutive calf’s eye proffers a tiny staring candidate petit a.

But another, peculiarly interesting detail of Rublev’s famous image which is almost never remarked is a horizontal rectangular device, almost emblematically if enigmatically centered on the frontal plane of the table or other structure on which the metaphoric eucharist takes place. Tamara Talbot Rice, who not only beautifully characterizes the interrelation as well circularity of the three angel figures – “Each appears as the counterpart of the others, as laid down by the scriptures, yet each possesses its own individuality,”-explains the rationale of this curious, but even more curiously ignored, rectangular device as a kind of ocular slot. Apparently what is basically Abraham’s table here “may well represent the one believed to have belonged to Abraham which was venerated as a relic in the Cathedral of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, but in medieval times it was thought to represent the Saviour’s coffin,” which, since the Eucharist had been celebrated on it, “became the prototype of the Christian altar.” “Rublev must have regarded it as such,” she continues, “for he has provided it with the small opening often found in the coffins of saints” so that the faithful can “see their remains.” [25] But the slot for ‘looking in’ itself looks logotypically forth, almost suggesting an amuletic sigil. (In the Trinitarian context the ‘L’ form might also possibly suggest a sideways, gamma-like Greek numeral ‘3,’ or even a Slavonic ‘3’ when paralleled by a short line on its normally upper short side.)

Other, related examples differ on this crucial point. A case of Rublev’s device appearing reversed, left to right, with the L-shape space between inner and outer forming a solid, darkened ‘L’ with corner to the lower right, occurs in a Novgorod Old Testament Trinity (already without figures of Abraham and Sarah) of the XIV-XV century in the Korin collection, Moscow (Rice, pl. 188). [26] Here influence on or by Rublev would depend on more precise dating. Otherwise, in a small late fifteenth-century copy of Rublev’s Trinity in the Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg, the Rublevian device acquires a diagonal connecting the corner of the horizontal ‘L’ within with the corner of the containing rectangle, to a perspectival effect not shared by Rublev’s original (Ouspensky and Lossky, pl. on p. 203); and a similar linear-perspectival corner, if not something closer to Rublev’s form (it is hard to tell from the photograph), occurs in a 1586 copy of his great painting for another monastery and now also in the Tretyakov Gallery (Rice, pl. 128): Florensky would say that in these latter a Western naturalistic notion of perspective was seeping in. Other versions of the image have variant devices, front and center on the casket-altar deriving from Abraham’s table, or no device at all, especially later on. A laterally extended rectangle, framed as blank, appears in a XVI century North Russian example including Abraham and Sarah, from the Ostroükov collection now in the Tretyakov (Stuart, pl. 37); and a similar laterally extended rectangle inflected with vertical stripes, without implication of perspective, occurs in a Bulgarian example by Nedyalka of Lovec, c. 1597-98, in the collection of the Holy Synod of Sofia (Rice, pl. 45). A case which might be either a Rublevian sideways ‘L’ or a plain framed rectangle (it is again difficult to tell in reproduction) is a Moscow ikon also including Abraham and Sarah, from the late XVII century in the Tiflis Museum (Stuart, pl. 69b). [27]

Florensky’s Iconostasis, written in 1922 and first published in Russian in 1972, includes a reflection on Rublev’s Trinity from when the painting was still new, by the ascetic monk St. Joseph of Volotsk (1439-1515), who allows the traditional principle of reverence passed on through an ikon to its protoptype an uncommon sense of this as eliciting a return response. According to this Joseph, ikons are to stimulate us to “imagine and describe” how they came into being and how they addresses us here and now. With Rublev’s masterpiece, “we on earth are given the Thrice-Holy Hymn to the One-in-Essence and Life-Giving Trinity whereby our immeasurable desiring and loving ascend in spirit to the icon’s incomprehensible prototype so that, by means of its material appearance, our mind’s thoughts fly to the heavenly Desiring and Loving where we venerate-not the material thing-but the manifestation of that which makes the material thing beautiful; hence, in a transference, we come to venerate not the icon but the prototype; and in so doing the Holy Spirit illumines and enlightens us not only now but in the age that is coming…” [28] Forensky finds that Rublev’s image can strike even those unaccustomed to prayer as “a sharp penetration of a spiritual reality into the soul, a penetration almost like a physical blow or sudden burn that instantly shocks the viewer who is seeing, for the first time, one of the great works of sacred iconpainting. There is not the slightest question in such experiences that what is coming through the icon is merely the spectator’s subjective invention, so indisputably objective is its impact upon the viewer…” No wonder that earthly desire may subside, for “we recognize that we are, in this act of seeing, existing in the icon’s space in eternity. In such acts of seeing… we recognize the vision as something… acting upon us from its own dominion.” [29]

The ikon addresses us, soliciting our spiritual regard: looking at it, we discover it as already regarding us. Its function, far from being to trick us into supposing or even pretending that there, on the other side, as it were, remote from this present, flawed existence, is a preferable virtual reality into which we may choose to escape, is rather to provoke us reflexively to consider ourselves as being, however unworthily, already beloved and appealed to, somehow to assist rather than to delay or thwart, and certainly not to oppose, the advance of the Kingdom of Justice in this real world where we find ourselves together for the time being. All this possibly seems remote, if not altogether from Lacan, at least from Malevich, who however can be considered the painter and theoretician most responsible engendering a meaningfully aspirational ‘iconic,’ in the sense of Orthodox-ikon-like modality of purely ‘non-objective’ painting – not mere ‘pictures’ of the fallen, unredeemed, assumedly ‘natural’ world – in a great period of revolutionary transformation that must, increasingly since 1905, have raised even thoughts of bringing on the Kingdom of Justice.

Like other Western intellectuals interested in modern art, Lacan no doubt had some interest in ikons; and once Florensky became available in French he could have come to know inverse iconic perspective and the projective iconic appeal to the spectator, all the more with images purporting to be conduits of divine, unconditional love. In modern art, no one in East or West did more than Malevich to propound a modernist understanding of reformed, modernist, ‘abstract’ image-structure. But who, later on, beyond Florensky, could after iconic suprematism have been touched and moved to cultivate an effectively iconic approach? No orthodox Stalinist, to be sure, sharing in the sins of those who destroyed suprematism and harrassed and killed Florensky. But neither any ‘orthodox Orthodox,’ they being content to this day simply to shun modernity, including all of Marx and Freud. Who, then, finally, to turn the question around, but an ex-Catholic, unorthodox Freudian leftist who secretly owned a major work of early modern art (Courbet’s Source of the Loire), Lacan.


[1] Jean-Michel Rabaté, Jacques Lacan: Psychoanalysis and the Subject of Literature (Basingstoke, Hants.: Palgrave, 2001), 12.

[2] Martin Heidegger, ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’ (1935ff), in his Poetry, Language, Thought, ed. and trans. Albert Hofstadter (New York: Harper, 1971), 17-87; here, 26, 28.

[3] Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, Book XI), trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1981), 81.

[4] George Berkeley, “A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge”, in his Philosophical Works; Including the Works on Vision, ed. A. R. Ayers (1910), rev. ed. (London: Dent; Totowa, N. J., 1975), 77-78 Thanks to my friends Professor William Lyons and Dr. Paul O’Grady for altogether blameless help with the locus classicus.

[5] Jacques Lacan, op. cit.

[6] Boris Uspensky, A Poetics of Composition: The Structure of the Artistic Text and Typology of a Compositional Form, trans. Valentina Zavarin and Susan Wittig (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), 139-40; here, 139. Uspensky’s The Semiotics of the Russian Icon (1971), trans. P. A. Reed and Stephen Rudy, ed. Rudy (Lisse: De Ridder, 1976), makes repeated references to Florensky and lists four works by him in its bibliography: a manuscript from 1924, articles of 1967 and 1969, and the first Russian edition of Iconostasis (Ikonostas), of 1972.

[7] John Stuart, Ikons (London: Faber, 1975), 147-53, with introductory remarks; here, 152.

[8] Jean-Michel Rabaté, op. cit.

[9] Pavel Florensky, La Colonne et le fondement de la vérité; essai d’une théodicée orthodoxe en douze letters, trans. Constantin Andronikof (Paris: L’&#194ge d’Homme, 1975); cited below, together with the English ed., as ‘Fr.’

[10] Rabaté, op. cit., 17-18.

[11] ibid, 25.

[12] Florensky, The Pillar and Ground of the Truth (1914), trans. and ed. Boris Jakim (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), as cited here and subsequently, with French refs. from Florensky Colonne (note 9).

[13] An earlier example than is usually adduced for the origin of the pretzel, with its obvious Trinitarian aspect, dates as early as 1414-18: an illustration of an itinerant baker’s cart with pretzels hanging from a peg, in a manuscript account of the Council of Constance, in those years: illus. in Karl Küp, Ulrich von Richental’s Chronicle of the Council of Constance (New York: The New York Public Library, 1936), frontispiece; repr. from Bulletin of the New York Public Library, 40 (1936), 303-19.

[14] Illus., Raymond Klibansky, Erwin Panofsky and Fritz Saxl, Saturn and Melancholy (London: 1964), fig. 83.

[15] As I discussed many years ago: in “The First Plates for Thomson’s Seasons,” M. A. thesis, Columbia University, New York, 1965, pp. 3-6, with pls. 1, 2.

[16] Both title pages are reproduced in Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. and ed. Norman Kemp Smith (London: Macmillan; New York: St. Martin’s, 1963), 1, 3.

[17] Gottfried Semper, Style in the Technical and Tectonic Arts; or, Practical Aesthetics, trans. Henry Francis Mallgrave and Michael Robinson, Texts & Documents (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2004), 114, 162.

[18] Loc, cit., 48, with illus. One also thinks of C.G. Jung’s alchemical dynamic of the threefold-plus-one as similar Trinitarian supplementation with an earthly female element; see his discussion of the ‘axiom of Maria Prophetissa’ and divine ‘quaternity’ in his Psychology and Alchemy, Collected Works, 12 (New York: Pantheon, 1953), 23-26, 152-53, 401-02.

[19] Something else that would definitely have interested him in The Pillar and Ground of Truth is Florensky’s detailing of Kant’s several instances of thinking about space in respect to a glove’s reversal of left and right by turning it inside out, and extending to Louis Pasteur’s sense of “stereochemistry” (Florensky, Pillar and Ground, 450 n. 58); but well before the publication of Pillar and Ground in the West, Lacan was writing in the early 1960s, apropos of the Marquis de Sade and in contrast with Kant, about “something… which is in a way the reverse of the subject [l’envers du sujet], which takes on… its justification from… the glove turned inside out.” Lacan, Le séminaire X: L’angoisse (1962-63), unpublished translation by C. Gallagher from unedited French typescripts, p. 147, as quoted in Rabaté, Jacques Lacan, 100.

[20] Rabaté, op. cit., 26.

[21] Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, The Meaning of Icons, trans. G. E. H. Palmer and E. Kadloubovsky (1952), rev. ed. (Crestwood, N. Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Pres, 1982), 200-01.

[22] ibid

[23] ibid, 202, quoting Mikhail Alpatov, Andreij Rublev (Moscow-Leningrad, 1943), and Dionysius, On the Divine Names, in PG 3, col. 916D.

[24] 24. Stuart, Ikons (note 7), 72-73.

[25] David and Tamara Talbot Rice, Icons and Their History (London: Thames and Hudson; Woodstock, New York: Overlook Press, 1974), 104, 135 (Part II, ‘Russia,” by Tamara Talbot Rice).

[26] All icons cited in the present discussion are illustrated for convenience in the following three sources, identified by authors’ names: Ouspensky and Lossky, Meaning of Icons (note 21); Rice, Icons (note 25); Stuart, Ikons (note 7).

[27] The absence of such a device, easily enough rationalized with the frontal plane of the table-coffin-altar apparently covered by an altar frontal or tablecloth, as in Simon Ushakov’s 1671 version from the tsarist Armory school, now in the State Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg (Rice, pl. 142), may perhaps amount, as if on second thought, to a reversion to the pre-Rublevian givens of the Hospitality of Abraham, what with the figures of Abraham and Sarah appearing, or reappearing, in what are supposed unequivocally to be ‘Old Testament Trinities’: such as a XIV-century Byzantine example in the Benaki Museum, Athens (Rice, pl. 187); a mid-to late-XVI-century Rostov-Suzdal example in the Tretyakov Gallery (Rice, pl. 189); and an undated version from the tsar’s court iconographers also in the Tretyakov (Rice, pl. 191). After all, were it not for the immense fame and popularity of Rublev’s image, it might be argued that any such examples including figures of Abraham and Sarah were really a ‘Hospitalities of Abraham’ that merely became interpretable as an ‘Old Testament Trinities’ in light of Rublev, rather than taken as unequivocal examples of the latter.

[28] Florensky, Iconostasis, trans. Donald Sheehan and Olga Andrejev (Crestwood, N. Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1996), 66.

[29] ibid, 26; emphasis in original

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