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II

THE RECOGNITION OF DYNAMIC SYMMETRY IN BYZANTINE AND RUSSIAN ICONS

 

Dynamic symmetry helps answer some of the perplexing design and proportioning questions about the composition of icons. At this point it is necessary to again recognize the scholarship of Hambidge, and to further interpret his work as adapted to iconographic compositional analysis. In the introductory paragraphs of this paper, brief mention was made of Jay Hambidge.

Canadian-born Jay Hambidge (1867-1924) was a professional writer and illustrator. He first studied what was considered at the time to be ordinary symmetry in nature (phyllotaxis). He studied this natural symmetry for over twenty-five years before he turned his attention to symmetries found in some of the man-made arts.

In the early years of this century he felt, as other contemporaries did, that the world of art was in chaos as regards to technique and style. He sought an underlying design principle based on the natural dynamism he had found in nature. In nature he had determined two types of symmetry, or proportion. One type was passive - a static symmetry such as to be found in a snowflake. The other type of symmetry was active, dynamic; with continuous movement such as can be seen in the center of a sunflower, or in the chambered coils of the nautilis seashell.

Hambidge was not the first modern artist to investigate this proportional system or to realize from his extensive previous studies, that it had been recognized and copied thousands of years earlier in ancient Egypt, During the nineteenth century and the first quarter of the twentieth century, a number of other men in Germany and France were also investigating the elements of so-far unnamed symmetries along these lines.

Hambidge, influenced by Investigations of Principles of Athenian Architecture by Francis Crammer Penrose (1888), began his studies of man-made art in Greece, studying and analyzing the Greek vases and temples, working there from about 1919 to 1921. As a consequence of his studies, he rediscovered an ancient method of measuring and apportioning an area. This ancient method, having no identifiable name, he termed "dynamic symmetry."

By applying Hambidge's dynamic symmetry to analysis of several fourteenth to sixteenth century Byzantine and Russian icons, beginning with The Entombment, I discovered that a number of the most famous icons were probably designed by the Byzantine icon-writer monks using the Greek proportional system which had been, in turn, taken from the Egyptian proportional system. These systems provide the basis for Hambidge's "dynamic symmetry." I feel that the Byzantine artists were using an antecedent or predecessor system that traditionally had been handed down to them from very early centuries, but that they had no formal name for - it was "just done that way."

Based on the foregoing introductory pages, I now follow with the first icon analysis, that of The Entombment, a late fifteenth century Russian icon now in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.

 

Analysis of The Entombment icon with dynamic symmetry

To analyze icons to discover if they were designed using dynamic symmetry I began with icons having landscapes because my original interest and research was in learning more about the construction of icon-mountains. As stated above, I began with the fifteenth century icon, The Entombment, that was part of the subject of the Russian article that piqued my interest in the first place (See Figure II-l below).

Figure II-l. Icon of The Entombment.

Late fifteenth century Russian, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

 

To analyze an icon I first select the icon: real, a picture, or an illustration in a book, then I trace on tracing paper its main forms, using India ink. Next I measure the width and length of the edges, and then draw these on a sheet of plain paper. The length and breadth provide the possible "root" rectangle. Then I make a square using the side of the icon as one side of the square, forming the lower edge of the square. Next I draw a diagonal in the square and, using the compass, bring it up to intersect and mark the length edge of the icon side (See Figure II-2 below).

 

 

Figure II-2. Establishment of the "root-two" rectangle base for The Entombment icon.

 

This completes a ''root-two" rectangle. I then extend the rectangle upward as many times as it is needed to reach the top of the icon's edge. If there is a slight overage or underage in this measurement, ignore it for the moment because it may not be of importance in the final "root" rectangle if everything else falls into place.

In the case of the icon, The Entombment, it proved immediately to be a "root-two" rectangle in the vertical position. This is not always the case. Sometimes it is obvious that an original square the wdth of the icon is not going to be correct for developing a precise "root" rectangle. If this happens, you then divide the icon into half vertically on your plain paper and make a square on one half of the width of the icon. Starting again from there, you draw your diagonal line and work up the side of the icon as shown earlier to develop your "root" rectangles until these have reached the top edge of the icon.

To illustrate, you can see that the icon, The Baptism of Christ, (Figure V-10) is formed by two "root-eight" rectangles in a vertical position and the icon, St. John the Evangelist with St. Prochorus (Figure V-13) is constructed on two "root-six" rectangles in a vertical position.

After you have ascertained the overall "root" rectangle(s) of your icon, then you look at your icon illustration and visualize its main design lines. Then you experiment, within your plain paper "root" rectangle, with lines drawn from various internal points in the "root" rectangle.

From time-to-time overlay your tracing of the icon over your experimental lines to see if you have found any main design lines. Eventually, if your icon was designed with dynamic symmetry, your "root" rectangle lines will fall on to the design lines in your icon tracing.

 

Figure II-3. The horizontal triad position of the icon, The Entombment, "root-two" rectangle.

Note the diamond formation in which the main figures are placed. Design lines are on the left and dynamic symmetry analysis is on the right.

 

You can see in the illustration above how the design lines of the icon, The Entombment, fall onto the design lines of the outline tracing of the icon.

Looking at the icon (Figure 1I-4 below) it can be seen that the two sides of the icon-mountains are not symmetrical. The right-hand side falls at a steeper angle than the left-hand side. Also the entire icon composition breaks into three distinct horizontal parts.

 

Figure II-4. The vertical asymmetry of the icon-mountains and the placement of the dead Christ in the lower third of the icon, The Entombment.

Design lines are on the left and the dynamic symmetry analysis is on the right.

 

In the analysis, the icon The Entombment can be seen to be within what is termed a "root-two" rectangle in the horizontal triad position, with the dead Christ in the lower third, the main figures in the center third, and the icon-mountains in the upper third.

The rhythmic pulse of the icon is kept from being static by the icon-mountains on the viewer's right having a sharper downward angle than the icon-mountains on the left of the viewer. Their tiers fall within the upper third of the triad division of the icon.

It can be seen that all of the above design and placement areas of the icon fall well into and onto the lines and intersections of a "root-two" rectangle of dynamic symmetry in the horizontal triad position.

Further, the movements and emotions of the icon such as joy and despair, are stressed by the depiction of physical and human nature and background. The lifted arms of the crying woman symbolically are repeated, accentuated and echoed by the silhouette of the two icon-mountain areas.

Of the four additional icons analyzed that are included in this paper, you will begin to see more clearly how this system works. This method of analysis is helpful to the icon-writer in understanding the technical properties of icons as well as ascertaining if the icon has been designed using dynamic symmetry. The icon-writer can also use this method of analysis to make his or her own original designs.

Of the most extreme interest is the simple geometry underlying the composition of some famous icons. Understanding and analyzing this factor opens a whole new world of iconographic lore.

In order to further gain meaningful insights as to the immemorial appeal of the world's most famous icons; and the ones patterned after them, another topic must now be introduced.

This topic, "reverse" perspective, endeavors to explain the seemingly inexplicable difference between an iconographic representation, and what we are mostly used to seeing in conventional art.

Before our other four icon analysis is discussed (in part V) it would be well to review the unusual perspective common to many icons; and especially peculiar to Byzantine icons. This Byzantine icon-perspective is used in conjunction with dynamic symmetry, and is termed "reverse" perspective, mainly because it is coming toward the viewer and not away from the viewer as is our usual perspective in art.

 

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